Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess
Guy Burgess was a brilliant young Englishman who rose through the ranks of MI5 and MI6 during the Cold War. But as a member of ‘The Cambridge Spies’, he betrayed his country by regularly passing on highly sensitive secret documents to his Soviet handlers.
Historian Andrew Lownie, author of ‘Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess’ – a Guardian Book of the Year and The Times Best Biography of the Year – will talk about how Burgess was able to avoid exposure as a traitor to his country through his trademark charisma and a network of powerful political connections.
‘Stalin’s Englishman’. People say why did you choose to do a book on Guy Burgess? I can understand why you would do a book on John Buchan – you are so near to him in character, he’s a very boring Scotsman – but what have you got in common with Guy Burgess? He was gay, a communist, intelligent, charming… but I always point them to this picture on the cover and say we shared the same hairstyle.
Some of the background to that picture is quite interesting. This is a book that I started writing in 1985 – I did other things in between, several other books, and only really came back to it about two years ago. But in the course of those thirty years I interviewed a lot of people. One of the first people I interviewed was a man called Steven Runciman, who would have been Burgess’s tutor at Cambridge. Runciman claimed to have hardly known Burgess at all, so I went away thinking that that was that. Then about two years ago I was (through my publishing job) at the Runciman’s home because I’d become an agent to the estate. His niece, hearing that I was doing a book on Burgess, said ‘you must come up to look at the photo album upstairs. We’ve got lots of pictures of Guy Burgess…’ This is one of the pictures from that album.
This is where the story starts in April 1911. Burgess was born in Devonport, the son of a naval officer, and he was very much brought up by an absent father – this is one of the characteristics of many of the Cambridge spies. Kim Philby’s father was of course in Arabia. Blunt and Maclean’s fathers died when they were very young, and Burgess was brought up in a very strong female environment. He was indeed very close to his mother – almost an oedipal relationship with his mother. He had a younger brother called Nigel who was two years younger, but really the only person who seemed to matter in the house was Guy Burgess to his mother.
This is the father, Malcolm. Malcolm had been at Dartmouth, and then spent most of his life serving abroad, mainly on the Mediterranean station. He spent the First World War, as his oldest son claimed, ‘hunting U-boats in the North Sea’, but maintaining so a craft in Tyneside, which is rather less exalted – already an indication of how Burgess was already creating fantasises at a very early age.
This is his mother Eve, who came from very prosperous background. Her father was a banker – Lloyds Bank actually bought the family bank – and they lived in great wealth, really all the way through her life. Burgess was to survive really off trust funds – he even had trust funds sent to him in Moscow, much to the indignation of various MPs.
After Devonport they moved to West Meon, which is a village on the Portsmouth Road, and he lived here at this house called West Lodge and was brought up by a governess. His father at this stage was a commander in the Navy but had decided to take early retirement – his health wasn’t very good and he realised he wasn’t going to achieve flag rank. So this is him here as a commander. They actually had a portrait like this in the home.
As was traditional, Burgess was sent off to prep school at the age of nine. This school was called Lockers Park; it was probably the most fashionable and expensive prep school in Britain at the time. Lord L Mountbatten had just been there as a pupil – his contemporaries included people like Tom Mitford, the brother of the Mitford sisters, James Lees-Milne. What I rather like about Lockers Park is that they divided all the houses into colours. Can you guess which colour house Burgess was in? See, even then he was a red. He was a very successful schoolboy – top of his class in everything – and actually what lots of people don’t realise is that he was extremely good at sports – particularly football. He only gave up sports when he was told at school that it is very bad for your health, and henceforth the only sport he did was swimming. He was too young to go onto Dartmouth when his time came up at Lockers Park, so he was sent to Eton for a few terms. It was here that a tragedy befell the family. According to Burgess, he was woken up – this was at the beginning of September 1924 – by anguished cries from his parents’ bedroom. He ran next door to find that his father had died in the course of making love to his mother and the young boy of thirteen was forced to separate the two inert bodies. He said that that was to shape both his attitude to his mother and indeed his own sexuality. It’s a story his brother didn’t know when I told it to him and so one does wonder how true it actually is. It’s certainly a story that Burgess told often as an adult.
You would think that in most households where the father has just died and you’ve got two children under 13 you would leave them in the school they are in, but this is a slightly unusual household and Burgess is sent on, as he’s supposed to do, and he goes on to Dartmouth a few weeks later. So here he trades in his Eton uniform for naval kit: instead of learning Latin or Greek, he’s learning how to tie knots and how to sail – it’s a very, very different environment. It’s a very harsh and disciplined environment… everywhere they have to run, they have parades, and it’s really not his scene but he’s extremely good at assimilating. It’s a characteristic of his, all the way through his life – he adapts to his surroundings. Indeed so good as he is as adapting that this is his term – he’s regarded as the leading light – he’s the one who will go on and achieve the flag rank. But Burgess doesn’t stay to the end; he leaves very quickly and mysteriously in the summer of 1927. There are rumours of homosexuality or stealing, but in fact I think the reason that was given is the right reason: that his eyesight wasn’t good enough to have a naval career. I think people also realise that he wasn’t really suited to a naval career and the fact that Eton was so happy to take him back I think probably means that that is the correct story.
So here he is, back in Eton in 1927. You can see him pictured there. He becomes very friendly with his house master, a man called Frank Dobbs, who you’ll see just to the right of the cups there. Frank Dobbs was to continue writing to him even when he was in Moscow. I think I have to stress again just how conventional Burgess was as a schoolboy. Here he is as a corporal in the OTC, which is not something you would expect of him, and here he is again playing in the first 11 at school. The only change really in his circumstances now is that his mother gets remarried. Burgess learns about this not from her, but actually from his housemaster, which again says something about the slightly dysfunctional nature of the household. The man that she marries is a rather interesting man called Jack Bassett, a retired Army officer who’d serve with Lawrence of Arabia in the Arab bureau. He was an intelligence officer – indeed he had one of the first copies of Seven Pillars of Wisdom – but he and Burgess did not get on very well. You can imagine Burgess feels that this man has come between him and his mum, and he calls him The Colonel. He does everything he can to irritate The Colonel – there’s nothing you can do that irritates The Colonel more than passing the port the wrong way.
Burgess begins to specialise in history at Eton. He gets involved in the debating society and the political society. He moves, I would say, slightly to the left – under the influence of a very inspirational teacher there who is later headmaster called Robert Birley, known as Red Robert. You get a stronger sense of him identifying with the working class, which is by no means suggests he is a communist at this stage, but the one thing that he really wants at Eton is to be a member of Pop. Pop is the group of self-elected prefects at Eton who have special privileges, and he tries eight times in three terms to be elected and fails. I think it’s this that is one of the trigger points in his life where we begin to trace him becoming less the conventional schoolboy and more the outsider. And those of you who have seen Julie Mitchell’s play ‘Another Country’ may remember the character of Guy Bennett, which is based on Burgess, about how he begins to turn against the establishment because of various factors. So I think the interesting thing is that here you can begin to show the making of a spy. There are a whole series of these points throughout his life where he begins to, I suppose, pick up petty resentments and to turn against authority; this is one of those moments.
Having said that, he’s a house prefect and he’s also one of the star leavers. Here he is on the 4th June in what’s called the Monarch, which is a boat on which all the most successful leavers ride. From Eton he wins a major history scholarship to Trinity College Cambridge. For those of you who don’t know Cambridge, Trinity is the largest of the Cambridge colleges. It’s the largest, certainly the richest, and it likes to think it’s the grandest – they always claimed that God had been a Trinity man.
Burgess pretty much has the conventional life of an Eton schoolboy at Cambridge – he actually lives in Great Court here. He gets involved in acting – this is where he meets Michael Redgrave, who becomes a friend – and does a lot of punting. This is a boyfriend of his at the time, another communist who later became a Conservative MP, as a lot of them did, and then these are some pictures of Burgess just in his first year at Cambridge taken by quite a well-known photographer at the time called Lettice Ramsay.
So you can see he was rather good looking. He was seen as probably the most glamorous and brilliant of the undergraduates of his generation. This I think sums him up beautifully: there he is, letting others do the work. I should say that at this particular time he was fermenting strike on behalf of the waiters at Trinity, but when I asked his brother what he was like with the servants at home he said that no one could be ruder to the servants at home. That is one of the paradoxes of Burgess.
Anyway, he ends his first year with a first in his prelims. He then goes on holiday – this is the Isle of Eigg, on a reading party with his tutor – a man called Outram Evennett. Egg is owned by Steven Runciman, his boyfriend, who is of course several years older. This is him on a punting expedition in June 1932 (he’s just got a first in part ones) and this is a boyfriend at the time called Jack Hunter who was later quite a well-known scriptwriter in Hollywood (he was the illegitimate son of Douglas Fairbanks, the actor).
And this is where, again, the story begins to change. Some of you may recognise some of these people: Anthony Blunt in the bottom left. This is probably the most famous secret society in the world, the Apostles. The Apostles really was one of the societies in Cambridge that the communists tried to penetrate and they did that for a very good reason. The Apostles were the intellectual elite of the University: they were self-elected, they tended to be the brightest and the best, and they also had a different sense of loyalty. One of their members was E.M. Forster, who you may remember had that famous phrase, ‘he hoped he had the courage to betray his friends before his country’ – sorry, ‘his country before his friends’. Ironically, what Burgess manages to do is betray both – both country and friends. But they had a strong sense of loyalty; they didn’t really have a strong sense of allegiance to society in general. One of the reasons for that was that many of them were gay, at a time when homosexuality was criminalised. They didn’t feel that society was able to recognise them as individuals because of their sexuality; they didn’t feel any sense of allegiance to society. So I think that the Apostles, if you had another little trigger point in life, is very important in shaping Burgess’s attitude.
It’s also very important because it gives him an extremely useful network of contacts. He becomes very friendly, throughout his life, with people like Forster, Maynard Keynes, George Trevelyan, Jim Trevelyan. A professor of history at Cambridge writes his referee when he leaves Cambridge… people like that. It also gives us very strong links to Bloomsbury: the man standing on the top left here is Julian Bell, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War, and who is of course part of the Bloomsbury Group. So Cambridge in the ‘30s has become much more politicised: there was a sense that the only way to combat fascism was to unite in a popular front and that was to include the communists. The communists were the only ones who were standing up Hitler.
Kim Philby, Don Maclean and Guy Burgess become very active in the Cambridge University social society, which is the communist group – you can see a picture here of Don Maclean on the march (he’s the tall one under the R of war). This is another famous moment in Cambridge history where students began to rise up and felt they need to do something. Burgess was on this march, but he didn’t actually walk like everyone else; he went by car with Julian Bell. That really sums up Burgess’s attitude to things – he was always hedging his bets a bit. When the hunger marchers came to Cambridge, and as a mark of solidarity the undergraduates walked with them to London, Burgess caught the train and joined them in Hyde Park. He also took the precaution of wearing his old Etonian tie just in case he was stopped by the police.
Kim Philby had left Cambridge the year before in 1929 – sorry, 1934 – and he’d gone to work with the communists underground in Vienna. There he met and fell in love with a woman called Litzi Friedmann, and Litzi Friedmann was a soviet agent. The Russians had decided on a new strategy of recruiting bright undergraduates or graduates in British universities and sending them as sleepers into the Civil Service, the Foreign Office, the BBC, The Times and activating them many years later. Of course then there is the first of the Cambridge ring. They go back to Cambridge with friends and a list of seven names: at the top of the list is Donald Maclean, bottom of the list is Guy Burgess. They have their reservations about Burgess, because they feel he’s a bit too indiscrete to be a spy. Anyway, Maclean is very happy to sign up to work for the Russians (or to work for world peace – there was always some euphemism) and Burgess actually gets to hear about this and work out what’s going on, so before Philby can even approach him he badgers him to let him join up. So you can’t really say he was recruited, you can say that he thrust himself upon the Russians.
Here he is at the time he was recruited – at the beginning of 1935 – and again one of the important factors here was that he was caught at a very vulnerable time. Up ‘til then his career had really been divided between his political activities and his academic interests. He got a first at the end of his part ones, but he actually had a nervous breakdown at part twos; he was carried out of the exam and didn’t receive a degree. Despite that, Trinity kept him on as a supervisor and allowed him to study for a PhD but he quite quickly discovered that someone else was doing the same subject, and in disgust he abandoned the PhD. He rather lost any sense of purpose in work and life, and it was at this very vulnerable point that the Russians caught him and gave him some sort of purpose. So you can see he was a rebel without a cause who suddenly was given some sort of purpose at a time when he was rather lost.
Here is Don Maclean at the time he was recruited – he goes immediately into the Foreign Office (he’s got a First in Modern Languages) – and this is the fourth recruit, a tutor at Trinity called Anthony Blunt. Burgess’s role was to be a talent spotter, and the first of the people he recruits is Blunt. This is Blunt on a trip to Russia, in about 1935-36. The second person that Burgess recruits is a man called John Cairncross, often thought of as the fifth man, who just passed first into the Foreign Office and was to become a very important spy – particularly at Bletchley.
Now this is the Oxford part of the ring, a man called Goranwy Rees, who was a fellow at All Souls. Burgess was very friendly with him. He proved to be a ticking time bomb: although he was recruited in 1937, he decided it wasn’t for him and got out in 1939. He kept threatening to Burgess and to Blunt that he would expose them – that he would go to the authorities – to the point that at one point Burgess said to the Russians, ‘shall I kill him?’ The fact that Goranwy Rees was the father of his god child didn’t seem to worry him one little bit. It was Goranwy Rees, of course, who in 1979 was the person who talked to Andrew Boyle, which led to the exposure of Anthony Blunt eventually some forty years later. There are two theories about the Oxford ring: one is that they were never caught; the other that they were so bad, so useless, that they never went anywhere, so I’ll let you choose which theory you want to believe.
This is the American side of the ring, a man called Michael Straight who was very close to the Roosevelt family, and who went back to work in the state department.
And this is the man that they all knew as Otto: he was the principal recruiter, a man called Arnold Deutsch, central European, he spoke about six languages, he had a doctorate in chemistry from Vienna University, and was at Lund University doing post-graduate work, and he was helped by this man called Theodore Mally, a Hungarian, who managed to be both a priest and a cavalry officer almost at the same time – again, a very good linguist, a sophisticated man. And they were the two principal instance handlers in these early years of the Cambridge ring. The other important handler was this man called Yuri Modin, who worked with them after the war, and he’s only just died.
Burgess came down from Cambridge and he was asked by the Russians to find out what was going on with the far right, with peace over chores between the government and Germany. And he went to work for this man called Jack Macnamara who was a boyfriend of his, a Conservative MP for Chelmsford, who was very active in various things like the Anglo-German club and the Anglo-German fellowship.
He also became very close – when he became the boyfriend of this man Harold Nicolson, a man old enough to be his father – who I believe you will know as the husband of Vita Sackville-West. And Nicolson proved to be a very important mentor to him really throughout his career, to steer him and protect him when things got a little bit hot for him. Burgess eventually got into the BBC in the autumn of 1936, which is one of the targets for the Russians, they saw the role as being rather important in terms of being an agent of influence and also in terms of networking, and that’s exactly what happened to Burgess. He managed to meet a man called David Footman who was working for MI6 and was recruited to work for MI6 as a contract agent in 1937. The reason he was recruited was because of this very attractive gentleman called Edouard Pfeiffer. Edouard Pfeiffer was a leading light in the French Scouting movement and well-known sadomasochist, but his real claim to fame was that he was a secretary to Édouard Daladier, the French Prime Minister and Minister for War, and so therefore a very useful conduit in terms of looking at what was going on in discussions with the French cabinet.
Burgess then went to work for these two men: Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, and Neville’s private spy chief, a man called Joseph Ball. Joseph Ball had been the man behind the Zinoviev letter, and when I talked to the Russians about Burgess’s importance, one of the crucial moments they say in his career was this time – just before the war – when he was helping to shape policy – well, helping to pass back information about what was happening in terms of the peace with Germany.
Burgess continued to work for MI6, he had a whole variety of jobs and one of them was as a sort of ‘ideas man’. He came up with the idea of a training college for agents to send them in to do sabotage. And this, of course, is the precursor to SOE. In the summer of 1940 he was actually sent to be the training officer at this ‘Guy Fawkes college’, actually called Brickendonbury, outside Hertford and he brought his old pal Kim Philby who had been a foreign correspondent for The Times. It’s extraordinary just how the spies were able to penetrate intelligence very, very easy just on the strength of the old boy network. Well Burgess only lasted a few weeks at Brickendonbury before he was thrown out – the terms were for ‘mucking about with a corporal’. So that was the end of him. Philby, of course as you know, went to the top of MI6. But Burgess was a great survivor and he managed to get himself within weeks into MI5 working for his Trinity contemporary called Campbell Johnson. Campbell Johnson reported to Anthony Blunt, who had also just joined MI5. Blunt had applied and on the same day he got two letters: one saying ‘we know you were a communist at Cambridge and therefore we don’t want you’ and the other saying ‘when can you join?’ Of course he just threw one of them in the bin.
Burgess operated as Agent Vauxhall. He ran two agents for MI5: one was this man called Eric Kessler, one of his lovers, also a Russian spy who reported on the neutrals and things like peace negotiations… the Rudolf Hess visit, all those sorts of thing. And the other was this man called Andrei Ravey, a Hungarian journalist who reported on the exile movements in London. And Ravey, after the war, was to become quite a well-known gallery owner and a great champion of Graham Sutherland.
Now we come onto the good guys: this is a chap called Guy Liddell, one of the victims in this story. Guy Liddell was the deputy director of MI5 and became very close to Burgess in these war years because his wife had left him for someone else at the beginning of the war, taking his family with them, he was extremely lonely and he would spend every Monday night with Burgess going to the music hall where they would gossip and talk about things. A lot of very useful information which really shouldn’t be passed on was indeed passed on; Burgess was extremely charming and very adept at getting information out of people.
The only person he worked closely with was a man called Dick White, who has the distinction of being the only person to be both head of MI5 and MI6. And it was Dick White some 15 years later – in fact, less than that… a dozen years later – who would be investigating him after he fled. And the other member of MI5 that he saw a lot of this time was Victor Rothschild. Victor Rothschild had been in the Apostles with him at Trinity, and Burgess and Blunt had actually rented a flat off him during the war. What wasn’t known is that Burgess had something on Rothschild: Rothschild, at Cambridge, had killed a man in a car accident driving too fast from Cambridge to London. He’d been put on trial, the whole thing was hushed up – he actually got off the case – and married the daughter of the man who got him off. I think there are some big questions about Rothschild’s role in in the whole Cambridge spy ring. There is some suggestion that his wife, Tess, was involved, and that he was covering for her. It’s certainly true that when the files were released last year that the interview with Victor Rothschild was conspicuously missing from the releases… and of course it was Rothschild who was the man who paid Peter Wright to write Spycatcher, a book which has hardly any reference to Rothschild in it.
We now come on to Burgess’s rather extravagant love life: this was the man he was living with at the beginning of the war, a man called James Pope-Hennessy, and James Pope-Hennessy was very close to this woman called Clarissa Churchill, who is still alive at age 95. She was the niece of Winston Churchill and Burgess had been told by the Russians to get close to her: they thought that she must know some state secrets. She later married Anthony Eden and when I interviewed Clarissa Churchill she claimed that she hardly met Burgess and that he didn’t like her. I knew that wasn’t the case because I had about a dozen people saying that they were engaged, though Burgess did have a habit of getting engaged to people without telling them. This was not one of those cases, so I was very pleased to get to see from the archive releases last year that they confirmed that Burgess and she were engaged.
This was another of his female friends at that time: a woman called Rosamond Lehmann, quite a well-known novelist in her day. She was the girlfriend of Goronwy Rees and Burgess used to go visit her at her house outside Oxford until he tried to seduce her gardener. That was the end of a beautiful friendship because she argued ‘it was a lot harder to get gardeners than to keep friends’.
Burgess continued working for MI5 throughout the war and also ran something called ‘The Week in Westminster’ which is a political program which gave him incredible contacts with both politicians and journalists. One of the people he met was a journalist called Hector McNeil, who at the end of the war, was made Minister of State in the Foreign Office, so number 2 to Bevan – here you have Hector McNeil sitting just to the left and signing a document there. Hector McNeil decided he didn’t really want to support of course a new Labour government – he didn’t want to have a stuffy old Foreign Office private secretary, he wanted his old mucker Guy Burgess, so Burgess suddenly found himself at the beginning of the post-war period in the inner sanctums of the Foreign Office. He would see everything: the CS telegrams from MI6; Chief Defence staff minutes; cabinet minutes… everything that crossed his desk. The Russians really couldn’t believe their luck.
Burgess been very conscientious – said that he was very happy to work late, very happy to work weekends and to take documents home, which is what he did, about five thousand of them. One of the ironies we discovered when the files were opened in the 1980s in Moscow is that the Russians couldn’t believe that he was genuine; that someone could have access to this material, and actually they ignored the material – much of it wasn’t even translated. So he’d been wasting his time. But what’s certainly true is that the Russians often knew the positioning – or rather – the British position on something in negotiations before the British team themselves did. Burgess would tip off his controller, he would bring out documents that night, and the negotiating team would be briefed by the following morning.
This is a cartoon that Burgess drew – he was an extremely good artist. This is actually Cabinet minutes, I don’t know if you can read it, it says, ‘Hector needs me’, and this is during the Berlin Air Crisis where Burgess is sent down to the Solent to summon Hector McNeil back for a cabinet meeting. But you can see that even if in these very important crises, like the Berlin Air Lift, Burgess is right at the centre of power.
This is a slight digression, just to get a sense of the wealth of the family: this is Burgess’s mother’s home near Newbury during the war. It had 17 acres, an ornamental lake, a cottage, numerous staff… so you can see that Burgess came from a very, very privileged background. Burgess’s career now was in the Foreign Office, first of all being seconded to the new department called the Information Research Department with the job to combat propaganda from the Soviet Union. He immediately betrayed it to the Russians within weeks of it being set up.
He then moved to the Far East Department where he was very influential in shaping British policy towards recognising Red China, at a time of course when America didn’t. He became really the Foreign Office expert on communism: indeed, one of his star turns was to lecture on the evils of communism at the Foreign Office summer school each year. As part of his, I suppose, broadening of his experience, it was decided he should be sent abroad, and he was sent to the Far East desk in the embassy in Washington. And here is reunited with his old friend Kim Philby, who by this stage was the head of the MI6 station in Washington and the CIA liaison officer. And Burgess goes to live with Philby in this house. Philby has the middle part of the house: he installs his mistress and his secretary Hester Whitfield in the attic; he puts Guy Burgess in the basement; here he is, at the back. And the reason he has Burgess in the house is partly to keep an eye on him, but also because they are now run – not from Washington – but by the Russians from New York and they need a courier. Burgess, as a more low-level diplomat, is able to travel more easily – he becomes, in a sense, the point man for Philby.
Here’s a picture of Hester Whitfield – until now, a totally unknown character in the story and I think a rather intriguing one because not only did she have an affair with Kim Philby, she also had an affair with Guy Burgess. He’d actually proposed marriage to her in May 1951… he didn’t actually stick around to get her answer but they remained very friendly, and even from Moscow he wrote to her. Indeed it was to her that he sent his last will and testament and she was one of the four beneficiaries of his will – the others being Philby, Blunt and his boyfriend in Moscow. Hester was completely innocent of any charges of espionage but she was suspected of having tipped off the Cambridge spies and was sacked in the summer of 1951. She never really recovered – never really had a proper job after that nor any sort of relationship, as far as I can gather.
This is a man I name in the book as a spy, one of the few Russian spies not to have gone to Cambridge, a man called Wilfred Mann. He was originally named in Andrew Boyle’s book that, of course, exposed Blunt, and at the time no one actually took that very seriously. He threatened to sue Andrew Boyle, though he didn’t, and the whole thing went very quiet. It was only by chance that I saw in the private, unpublished memoir of a senior diplomat the whole story of Wilfred Mann. He’d actually been a spy recruited by the Russians in the 1930s, he then turned and was played back against the Russians in return for American citizenship – so that’s our atomic energy spy Wilfred Mann.
And this is where it all begins to go pear-shaped for poor Burgess: he’s beginning to drink quite heavily by the stage, defectors are appearing saying that there’s a spy in the Foreign Office that went to Eton – since most of the people in the Foreign Office had gone to Eton that didn’t really limit things much, but he knew that he was slightly limited. Also he knew, through Philby, the deciphering of the Venona codes, that it was only a matter of time really before they identified the Cambridge ring. He was drinking heavily, he was taking drugs – drugs prescribed by a friend of his who was a vet, who specialised in horses so he didn’t always get the dosage right. Burgess in fact had a couple of near misses: he was reprimanded and disciplined by the Foreign Office in 1949 for being indiscreet, as he was drunk and giving away the names of spies when he was on holiday in Tangier.
The disciplinary committee came down 5/4 in his favour but it could have gone easily the other way. There were lots of people making complaints about him in the Foreign Office – not for his spying, but just for his general untidiness and sloppiness. Anyway, he’s not very popular in the embassy in Washington; he gets moved across to the Middle Eastern Department and eventually finds a very convivial birth as his job ostensibly is reporting the American public opinion, which requires him to sit in bars all day talking to people. One of his jobs is to go and talk to groups outside Washington and he’s asked to speak at a military academy in South Carolina. He decides to drive there in his Lincoln convertible – this is it here – he loved cars, it was a great ambition of his to be the motoring correspondent for Country Life (history would be very different if he’d pursued that particular aim).
He has been given three pieces of advice for when he goes to Washington: not to get involved in the colour question; not to get involved with homosexuals; and not to get involved with communists – of course this is the time of McCarthy – and so he rather flippantly said ‘well I shouldn’t make a pass at Paul Robeson then’. Well, what he does on this day in Feb 1950, when he drives down to Virginia, is he picks up a hitchhiker – a black, gay, hitchhiker – and they get caught speeding three times in the same day in the same state. The first time he tries to proposition the burly patrolman; the second time – caught at forty miles per hour at a twenty mile limit – he says ‘that’s ridiculous, I was doing at least 65’; and the third time he says he’s going to report the patrolman to the governor. But the patrolman gets there first, and when the ambassador gets to hear about it he is furious and Burgess is recalled. But the timing on this is extremely fortuitous because in April 1951, the Venona decrypt finally reveals the existence of a spy in the British Embassy in 1944 called Homer, and Homer is quickly identified as Donald Maclean. Donald Maclean, by this stage is head of the American Department, Burgess’s boss, and the first person to be told of all this is Kim Philby as the CIA liaison officer. So Philby tells Burgess that when he goes back he should report to his old mate Maclean and they should set into plan the exaltation – the escape.
So that’s what exactly what they do. Burgess returns, Maclean, at this stage, is of course under surveillance – it’s very difficult for the Russians to get close to him – Russians are not allowed to leave London again themselves under surveillance so Maclean needs someone to escort him out, and the person they think is most suitable is Burgess. Whether Burgess was meant to go all the way to Moscow is a debate, whether he was tricked into going the whole way, or whether he knew he was going is a moot point and something I discuss in the book.
There’s some suggestion that the spies had another spy reporting to them because they were aware that Maclean will be brought in for questioning probably on Monday 28th May. So on Friday 25th May 1951 – almost 65 years ago – Burgess drives down to this house outside Westerham, Kent, where Maclean is living, he picks him up, they have dinner – it’s Maclean’s 38th birthday – his wife is about to give birth to their third child, he’s a bit of a wreck, he doesn’t want to go and Burgess then drives him to Southampton in and they catch a boat across to Saint Malo – a boat that was generally used by adulterous businessman because you weren’t required to use your passport. And they then disappear really into the crowds at Saint Malo, they catch a train to Paris and then vanish for the next five years.
This is the man left behind, Jack Hewit, Burgess’s boyfriend at the time, who almost simultaneously conducted affairs with this Christopher Isherwood and Anthony Blunt… you can see it’s a very close-knit little group of people.
This is just an indication of Burgess’s décor in his flat in New Bond Street: he was very patriotic, he loved decorating his flats in red, white and blue.
And this is the notice for the missing diplomats – I love the description of Burgess as being slightly pigeon-toed. One of the intriguing things about this game is that we know – as I say in the book – that the authorities knew on the Friday night that they’d gone. A man called Russell Lee, who worked for MI5 took the call at Leconfield House, a call just from a from duty officer in Southampton, saying that Maclean had gone. And Dick White, who you have seen a picture of, decided that he would go after them, and then found that his passport was out of date and that he couldn’t travel. Such things, as you know, how history hinges on these moments, but for some reason British authorities didn’t alert the French authorities – I think they thought that they would try to keep this under wraps.
There’s some suggestion that maybe they let them escape, which I think is what they did with people like Philby. Because the extraordinary thing is that, although they knew on the Friday and they certainly knew on the Saturday – because I talked to a woman called Jane Williams, the mother of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said she was working for Churchill one afternoon at Chartwell and she said she took a call from the Foreign Office saying that the man had gone. So, the sensible story is that the authorities learned on the following Monday when Maclean didn’t come into work that they’d gone, but they still didn’t do anything – this notice was only sent out on the 7th June when the story broke the press.
So this is the poor, bemused German guard – he’s been sent out to look for them, two weeks after they reach Moscow. This is the water diviner brought in to work out where they’d gone – he said they were south of Paris. There’s a lovely file here at The National Archives that’s been put out for you of people reporting sightings of Burgess and McLean: they’ve been seen at Gunnersbury, stuck on a train for half an hour or whatever it is. My favourite is the woman who writes in to say I know exactly where they are: they’re underneath my floorboards and they’re beginning to smell.
This Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5, who’s been sent out to explain to the Americans quite why so many secrets are haemorrhaging from the British, and indeed I think one of the real consequences of the defection was this jeopardizing of Anglo-American co-operation, particularly on nuclear secrets.
The other was it really shook faith in the British establishment. There had been a sense that the establishment protected their own, and indeed were not even telling the truth after they fled – I would argue that they are still not telling the truth. Indeed the white paper that came out on the disappearance was called the’ whitewash paper’, and in The Times’ editorial and indeed in The Spectator article, they coined the phrase ‘the establishment’: ‘the establishment covering up for itself’.
And the story really goes quiet for about five years until in February 1956. Khrushchev is due to come to Britain on a state visit, they’ve decided they’re going to clear the air, and the two missing diplomats are paraded at a press conference. And gradually the picture begins to emerge of what happened.
After arriving in Moscow, they’d been sent to a closed city called Gorbachev, where they’d been debriefed and kept really – they were frightened that people might come after them. It was only really in 1955 that they came to Moscow. Burgess was given a job working for a publishing house, introducing writers, but his main job was advising the Russian Foreign Ministry on personalities and politics of the British Foreign Office. When the whole thing became public in 1956, an old friend of Burgess called Tom Driberg came out to see him and asked if he might be able to write his biography: that was the first biography of Burgess.
Burgess was given a lurcher, this is his dog called Joe – after Stalin. He was given a block of flats here overlooking the Novodevichy monastery, and he used to spend a lot of time in the monastery. I had initially thought that, having been agnostic all his life, he’d found some form of religion in later life. It was only when the files were released last year that I discovered that the reason he went to the monastery was to fall in love with a six foot Russian priest.
Burgess knew that the British had no evidence in which to put him on trial and this is something that he loved bating the British authorities with. He was always threatening to come home, and they were absolutely petrified that he would do so: there was nothing they could do if he did come back. Eventually they persuaded Anthony Blunt, not realising his full role in the whole story, to write to his old friend and to dissuade him from coming back, which rather suited Anthony Blunt’s purposes as well.
Burgess had his books and furniture sent out to him. Those of you who know the Alan Bennett play ‘An Englishman Abroad’ will know the story of Coral Browne, which is very, very accurate- indeed all sorts of people people set about to buy clothes for him. There’s one Daily Record journalist who was sent to buy all the Etonian ties in Jermyn street and who felt rather embarrassed by this, so he said to the shop assistant ‘these are not for me’ and the shop assistant said ‘that’s what they all say’.
He played music, he hung around the lobby of western hotels – very, very lonely, very keen to meet Westerners. His old mam came out to see him – this is them on holiday in Sochi – and others like Graham Greene, Stephen Spender, John Morris… this is one called Mary Fedden who just came out to see him. He spent quite a lot of time on holiday in the Black Sea; he was given a boyfriend called Tolya whose main role was to report on him – he was a KGB plant – and he really basically drank himself to death.
This is him here in his early ‘50s and this is his funeral. He died at the age of 52 in August 1963. This is his brother Nigel in the middle, with the glasses, who came out to the funeral. Nigel had followed his older brother through Lockers Park/Eton/Trinity but he got into advertising. Those of you who remember the PG Tips ads with all those chimps – that is Nigel Burgess’s contribution to British culture… so slightly different to his brother. Nigel told me a good story that when he went to the funeral, he went to Thomas Cook to buy his ticket, and the woman clearly recognised the name – because it was made front page news around the world – as she paused for a moment and said to him ‘Burgess… will that be a single, Sir, or a return?’
This is the funeral: this is Nigel with Melinda Maclean, and Natalia, Burgess’s housekeeper, and Don Maclean. Burgess had very little to do with Maclean in Moscow and that’s a great irony as they’re always linked together. They had a so-called roaring affair at Cambridge, they then had nothing really to do each other until 1951. They were then thrown together in Gorbachev a few years later – Melinda had come out to join her husband in 1953 – but when Burgess died he left nothing to Maclean. Most of his stuff went to Philby, who by this stage was in Moscow – you may remember he’d come across in January 1963 – and so Philby got that swing back armchair; he got a lot of Burgess’s clothes, because they were the same size, and he got a lot of Burgess’s books… though he was to discover that not a lot of them were Burgess’s books but belonged to those libraries. Nigel returned to Britain with his brother’s ashes and in October 1963 they were buried under the cover of darkness in the family plot at West Meon. And then two months later, Burgess’s mother also died – she was buried in this plot as well.
So that’s the story of ‘Stalin’s Englishman’. I suppose the two questions are: how much damage did he do, and why did he do it? And they’re both very difficult questions to answer. I think certainly talking to the Russians – and I started off writing this book pretty much as the first proper biography of Burgess, and because I was interested by his hinterland: the fact that he mixed with all these actors and writers, people like George Orwell and Frederick Ashton, and Lucian Freud and others. But, talking to the Russians, they told me was he was the most important in their eyes of the Cambridge spies; he was the moral leader; he was the one who kept it together; he was the point man ready for it all; and he was the first of course to penetrate British Intelligence – the only one to be in MI5 and 6; he was crucial in these moments before the Second World War but also clearly just after the war and at the Foreign Office; and then he worked as a very important agent of influence both in the Far East department and when he’s back in Moscow. So though people like Maclean had atomic secrets, those secrets were not actually very important to scientists. And though Philby might betray intelligence operations, and you could quite obviously see the agents who died as a result of that, Burgess worked on a much bigger scale, a strategic scale – for example the information that he gave on the Korean War, that led to the deaths of thousands of American troops.
And so, that was the surprise of the book. And why did he do it? Well I think you can’t just dismiss the political element: he was a communist; he always claimed that he preferred British communists to Russian communists, he had his own version of communism; but he did feel that if the future lay between two power blocks, America and Russia, and that he would put his money on Russia. But I think my own instinct is that it was the personal element which was the most important, because there were clearly plenty of people who supported Stalin, either covertly or overtly, who then dropped out as the years passed. The Cambridge gang had no illusions really about the totalitarian regime that they were supporting, and I think it is a sense of being the outsider: you stop and say ‘if you don’t belong, you will betray’. He felt resentment against the establishment, but he enjoyed the petite bourgeoisie, he enjoyed riding with the hares and the hounds, and I think it was this sense of a thrill, this kick he got, from being the sort-of naughty boy, still as an adult, that drove him on.
So that’s probably a good place to stop and take some questions. Thank you for coming.