Anthony Burgess, Cambridge graduate, talks producer at the BBC, MI-6 agent, and a Soviet mole code-named Madchen, has always been considered the prat-falling member of the Cambridge 5 (composed of Diplomat Donald McLean, Head of the anti-Soviet division of British Intelligence Kim Philby, art advisor to the Queen Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross). Unlike the others, Burgess’ drunken behavior, and relentless homosexual cruising for rough trade, made it possible for the British Left to treat his tenure as a Soviet spy, from his recruitment at Cambridge in 1934 to his flight behind the Iron Curtain in 1951, as more comical than harmful. This spin was perfectly encapsulated by anti-anti-communist playwright Alan Bennett:
“No one has ever shown that Burgess did much harm, except to make fools of people in high places. Because he made jokes, scenes and most of all passes…he was rather silly.”
At first glance, this could seem to be so. Such was his collegiate reputation as an undependable, public drunk who suffered from “slips of the tongue,” that when Kim Philby was asked by his Soviet handler to draw up a list of college students who would be good assets for Moscow, he put Burgess at the bottom. On sober second thought, he advised his handler not to recruit him. But it would be his very “slips of the tongue” that convinced Moscow to take him. They feared that Burgess would broadcast his knowledge of Philby’s intelligence work, so they recruited him as a means of keeping him silent.
In this excellent biography, Andrew Lownie dispenses with perceptions that Burgess was the weak link in the Five. He cites his intelligence handlers who saw him as the leader of the group. Yuri Modin, who ran Burgess in the late 40s, stated that it was Burgess alone “who took the initiatives and risks..held the group together…and was the most outstanding and educated among all the five.” Lownie backs this up by noting that Burgess penetrated the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI-6, and fooled even such anti-Bolsheviks as Winston Churchill. Of the five, he was the most energetic recruiter, turning Micheal Straight and Anthony Blunt. For 15 years, he literally delivered suitcases full of documents to the Soviets. And these documents severely compromised British security. Inside were “telegraphic communications between the Foreign Office and its posts abroad, position papers and minutes of the Cabinet and Chiefs of the General Staff.” These transmissions even harmed US security, according to a damage assessment made by British Intelligence days after his defection. They ruefully concluded that “very nearly all US/UK high level planning information prior” to Burgess’ defection “must be considered compromised.” Rifling through secret safes, he gave the Soviets “the negotiating positions” of high level US/UK conferences, such as those concerning the Marshall Plans. As such, the defected American intelligence stopped sharing secrets with what they saw as a compromised British intelligence for years. He even damaged his cell members who remained behind. His defection and friendship with Kim Phibly got him drummed out of MI-6 and was kept under surveillance until his own defection to Moscow in 1963.
But Burgess’ need for some type of “cover” went with him to Moscow. In a news conference broadcast from Moscow, he amazingly denied he was ever a communist agent; instead he cast himself as a peace-monger there to aid the most pacifistic nation on earth.
Lownie is brief on the already well-plowed field concerning the recruiting power of the 1930s, where the only way to fight fascism seemed to be allegiance to Moscow even in elitist Cambridge. Nor does he dilate on how the secret world of homosexuals with their high signs and bathroom stall cruising prepared them for espionage. In Burgess’ case, this was not so, as he was public about his homosexuality. And, to the embarrassment of his cell, he was at times equally public about his communist sentiments. Lownie explains this overlap through Burgess’ family background. The absence of a father (a discredited explanation for homosexuality that Lownie thankfully does not entertain) allowed his mother to spoil him and not give him any sense of boundaries. Cold, even treacherous to his lovers, he found “a moral purpose” lacking in his private life by serving Stalin.
But it was not only this higher morality that bound him to a lifelong attachment to communism. Like a good Marxist, he took the “long view” of history; hence purges and assasinations were “ends”—the establishment of an equitable social system–that justified such means. Lownie, however, doesn’t discount a power hunger on Burgess’ part. As a Soviet mole he was able to influence events in a way he would not have been able to had he fulfilled his earlier ambition to be a Cambridge don.
For those wishing for cosmic justice for his treachery, there was his lonely last years in Moscow. Upon arrival he expected some type of celebration in his honor. Instead, the Soviets never completely trusted him, suspecting that he and MacLean were embedded Western agents. Although they parked him at a sonotoria by the Black Sea, they wiretapped the house and surrounded it with KGB guards, less for protection and more to prevent any escapes back to his beloved England.
When Laventia Beria sought popularity after Stalin’s death, by releasing 80 percent of Russian criminals, one of them knocked Burgess’ tooth out. A stainless steel replacement made the pain worse. Within months, he was stating he was a British Communist, not a Russian one and that he hated the Soviet Union. British food parcels, the Times, and Saville Row suits sent by his beloved mother did little to alleviate his loneliness and homesickness for England. Only when he died was he allowed to return to England for burial—a country he betrayed but whose culture he could not live without.