Stalin’s Englishman

Title:                      Stalin’s Englishman

Author:                 Andrew Lownie

Lownie, Andrew (2016). Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, The Cold War, And The Cambridge Spy Ring. New York: St. Martin’s Press

LCCN:    2016028503

UB271.R92 B87 2015

Scope and content

  • “Guy Burgess was the most important, complex, and fascinating of The Cambridge Spies–Maclean, Philby, Blunt–brilliant young men recruited in the 1930s to betray their country to the Soviet Union. An engaging and charming companion to many, an unappealing, utterly ruthless manipulator to others, Burgess rose through academia, the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6, gaining access to thousands of highly sensitive secret documents which he passed to his Russian handlers. In this first full biography, Andrew Lownie shows us how even Burgess’s chaotic personal life of drunken philandering did nothing to stop his penetration and betrayal of the British Intelligence Service. Even when he was under suspicion, the fabled charm which had enabled many close personal relationships with influential establishment figures (including Winston Churchill) prevented his exposure as a spy for many years. Through interviews with more than a hundred people who knew Burgess personally, many of whom have never spoken about him before, and the discovery of hitherto secret files, Stalin’s Englishman brilliantly unravels the many lives of Guy Burgess in all their intriguing, chilling, colorful, tragi-comic wonder”– Provided by publisher.


  • Prologue: Full Circle : Saturday, 5 October 1963 — Beginnings — Schooldays — Eton Again — Cambridge Undergraduate — Cambridge Postgraduate — The Third Man — London — The BBC — Russian Recruiter — Jack and Peter — British Agent — Meeting Churchill — Section D — “Rather Confidential Work” — Bentinck Street — Back at the BBC — MI5 Agent Handler — Propagandist — The News Department — Relationships — Back at the Centre of Power — Russian Controls — Settling Down — The Information Research Department — The Far East Department — Disciplinary Action — Washington — Disgrace — Sent Home — Back in Britain — The Final Week — The Bird Has Flown — The Story Breaks — Repercussions — Petrov — The Missing Diplomats Reappear — First Steps — “I’m Very Glad I Came” — An Englishman Abroad — Visitors — “I’m a communist, of course, but I’m a British communist, and I hate Russia!” — Summing Up — Appendix.


Date Updated:  September 6, 2017

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Review from Intelligencer[2]

Guy Burgess was a slovenly, drunk, complex and, to some, fascinating member of “The Cambridge Spies” —the British men who passed intelligence to the Soviets during WWII and the Cold War. We follow him from his student days in 1930s Cambridge, where he was first approached by Soviet scouts, through his infiltration of the BBC and the British government, to his final escape to Russia and exile. Lownie examines Burgess’s friendship with Churchill and family.

Reviewed by David Kenney[3]

Guy Burgess was a slovenly, repellent, complex, and sometimes fascinating Soviet clandestine asset who was a member of “The Cambridge Spies”–the group of British men recruited to pass intelligence to the Soviets during WWII and the Cold War. From his student days in 1930s Cambridge through his daring infiltration of the BBC and the British government, to his final escape to Russia and lonely, alcoholic and dissipated exile there, Lownie provides a sweeping look at the unexpected successes and downward spiral of this traitor, including the depths of Burgess’ penetration and betrayal of the British Intelligence Service. His close, personal relationships with several high-profile men and women are examined–including his friendship with Winston Churchill and family. Based on interviews with over 100 people who knew Burgess personally, many of whom have never spoken about him before, and newly released secret files.

“The reader gets two for one because the narrative portrays a crumbling society whose ruling class was unsure of itself, indifferent to the gross wrents in its fundamental assumptions and vulnerable to any sort of insult from within. Burgess’ drunkenness and gross manners posed no obstacle to his shining presence at senior levels of the British foreign affairs and intelligence communities. Burgess’ tradecraft was deft, he had soft and spongy targets ever open to intrusion if the attacker had the right education and the right pedigree. During WWII virtually anyone with Burgess’ academic credentials could ooze from one governmental department to another, pick the low hanging fruit and move on to the next. In large measure Burgess succeeded in his betrayals because his nominal bosses shunned the possibility o large measure Burgess succeeded in his betrayals because his nominal bosses shunned the possibility of a clever new enemy from the East who was bred and educated as themselves. Every one-on-one dialectic between Burgess and his enemy, the British establishment, was won by this brilliant, corrupt child of Eton and Cambridge. Burgess vs the BBC, Hector Macneil, MI6 and MI5 and the Foreign Office all fell victim to his charm, rarely even louche, almost always disgusting. Even a Rothschild lady put Burgess on her payroll for advice on the stock market. Lownie’s research is complete and impeccable. He has unearthed more facts on this case than anyone else writing in the field. Brilliant!!”

Complied and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[4]

On Friday, 25 May 1951, two British diplomats boarded the ferry Falaise at Southampton, England, and headed for France. One, Donald Maclean, was on a watchlist and, when an immigration official recognized him, he was reported immediately to MI5—but MI5 failed to act in time. The car the two left behind had been rented by Guy Burgess of the Foreign Office; French and British intelligence offices were notified, but the French port police were not, and the diplomats disappeared.

In September 1952, at the suggestion of lan Fleming, then executive editor at the Queen Anne Press, suggested to his former “old Estonian” colleague, journalist Cyril Connolly, that he publish a book about the still mysterious disappearance of Burgess, who had also attended Eton. In The Missing Diplomats[5], Connolly, discounting the possibility they were spies, speculated the two might have gone on a secret mission or been kidnapped.” Then in 1954, KGB defector Vladimir Petrov in his book, Empire of Fear[6], named Burgess and Maclean as Soviet agents and some of what the British and American intelligence services already knew became public.

Gradually, over the next 45 years, more of the “missing diplomats” story emerged. They had not acted alone and several Cambridge compatriots who had also spied for the Soviets—Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, and Michael Straight—were publicly identified and dubbed “the Cambridge Spies.” Their stories quickly became the subject of numerous scholarly and journalistic articles. Philby, Cairncross, and Straight also contributed with memoirs and, except for Cairncross, each was the subject of a biography.

Stalin’s Englishman, the most recent contribution, is by far the most comprehensive biography of Guy Burgess. In many ways the most perplexing and controversial of the Cambridge spies, Burgess was also a complex, often conflicted human being. Author Andrew Lownie presents a life portrait of an attractive upperclass man from a good family, educated at Royal Naval College (Dartmouth), Eton, and Cambridge University. He was also an engaging conversationalist and an astute political analyst who relished dealing with people in high places. At the same time, Lownie reveals, he was a loyal communist; an alcoholic; a philandering homosexual; possessed of bad breath, dirty fingernails, an often untidy appearance. And yet, many friends tolerated his eccentricities while enjoying his company. Despite these qualities, Burgess was successively a BBC producer, an MI5 agent, an MI6 officer, a diplomat in London and Washington, and a productive Soviet agent whom no one in the government suspected until he defected.

Drawing on documentary material recently released by the British National Archives, which included Burgess’s correspondence, memoirs by former colleagues, and interviews with past associates and family, Stalin’s Englishman provides a chronological account of the highlights and challenges of Burgess’s career. An example of the former is the day he spent with Churchill, a man he genuinely admired. (pp. 91ff) In the latter category, Lownie shows how Burgess succeeded in his double life in part because of class tradition (no one with his background could possibly be a traitor) and in part because of a bureaucratic willingness to overlook his eccentricities and his homosexuality, which was illegal at the time.

Lownie also provides some new material in Stalin’s Englishman. Although a confirmed homosexual—a theme that pervades Lownie’s book—Burgess “had several heterosexual affairs” and once introduced Clarissa Churchill—Churchill’s niece and later Anthony Eden’s wife—to his mother as his fiancé. (p. 171) In another example, Lownie adds evidence that Burgess did in fact have a “roaring affair” with Donald Maclean, a topic often disputed in other accounts. (p. 83) He also adds evidence that Burgess never met Philby in Moscow. And Lownie reports, for the first time, that an MI5 report noted that, at his death, Burgess was writing a memoir. (p. 318)

A few chapters of Stalin’s Englishman deal with Burgess’ despairing life in Moscow after his defection. Perhaps Burgess summed it up best: “I’m a communist, of course. But I am a British communist, and I hate Russia!” (p. 309) Guy Burgess died on 30 August 1963 from sclerosis of the liver, among other ailments. Donald Maclean spoke at the funeral. Burgess’s remains were returned to England.

In his final chapter, Lownie considers the significance of Burgess’ life. He includes the views of some KGB officers who worked with him in Moscow. His onetime London controller, Col. Yuri Modin, thought Burgess was the “moral leader” of the Cambridge spies. KGB general Sergei Kondrashev said Burgess was “the most important of the Cambridge spies” (p. 323), a view Lownie, but not all former intelligence officers, share. This is a fine biography about an effective spy and a disgraceful traitor who lived to enjoy communist reality first hand. It fills a major gap in intelligence history.

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[7]

Nonfiction writers on two continents have dined out for decades with books on the gaggle of British officials who served Stalin, collectively known as the “Cambridge Spy Ring.” The names of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Mclean live in history with well-earned infamy, and the story of how they stole secret information of enormous value to the USSR is a familiar one.

Now Andrew Lownie adds a valuable contribution to the literature: Just how did Guy Burgess hold sensitive positions in MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) and the Foreign Office for several decades, despite repeated Klaxon-horn warnings that he should not be trusted?

On the surface, Burgess had an attractive background. His grandfather, father and stepfather enjoyed respectable careers in the Royal Navy. Hopeful of a navy career himself, Burgess entered Dartmouth Naval Academy at age 13 but was soon dropped on grounds of “poor eyesight,” which Mr. Lownie writes “was often a euphemism for dishonesty or homosexuality.”

No matter. Burgess continued his education at two of the more prestigious institutions in England, Eton and Trinity College of Cambridge, “the Establishment school par excellence.” A brilliant scholar, blessed with personal charm, Burgess ranked high in his class at both institutions. Alarmed by the fascist rise to power in Germany, and excited by leftist politics, Burgess joined the Cambridge University Socialist Society (CUSS) which was an affiliate of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Thus was the young Burgess drawn into Soviet espionage, recruited by a KGB spotter along with classmates Philby and Mclean. His homosexuality was an open secret among friends, especially members of an honorary society The Apostles.

After a stint with the BBC, when war began Burgess joined a black propaganda arm ofMI6, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Britain has long boasted of the efficacy of its intelligence agencies. Yet there was always a striking flaw: the absence of any meaningful background checks as to whether recruits could be trusted.

On the surface, Burgess had two vulnerabilities. Under British sodomy laws, homosexual relations, even among consenting adults, carried a jail term. Thus, Burgess risked being blackmailed by a foreign intelligence service. (The law was repealed in 1967.)

As Mr. Lownie writes, “The Soviet intelligence service had discovered that the penalties for homosexuality in Britain meant that homosexuals had to live part of their lives in secret and formed a tight and loyal network, which if penetrated, could be very fruitful.” Burgess was signed on and given the cover name “MADCHEN[8],” meaning “girl.”

Then there was booze. An early colleague remembered Burgess going to lunch at 12:30 “and staggering back quite drunk and reeking of brandy around 3:30 or 4 p.m.” Such conduct continued on a regular basis when he switched to the Foreign Office after the war. In later years, Burgess himself would wonder, rhetorically, how he was cleared to work in government. “Why? Class blinkers [sic]—Eton, my family, an intellectual…Only people like me are beyond suspicion.”[9]

Burgess proved invaluable. As a Soviet assessment stated, “In the course of only several months, MADCHEN has become the most productive source…now he gives most valuable documentary material.” The first six months of1945, he turned over 389 documents classified “top secret.”

Burgess’s spying—and heavy drinking—continued when he was posted to the British embassy in Washington in 1950. A colleague there remembered him appearing for work at 11 A. M. “in a suit with a waistcoat which was covered with droppings of food.” He would return from lunch “absolutely drunk” and retire to his office, “where he sat, sprawled out and snoring loudly…. No one trusted him a yard.”

Burgess also managed to offend some powerful Americans. James J. Angleton, a founding baron of CIA, saw him at lunch in a Georgetown café, wearing “a white British naval jacket which was dirty and stained. He was intoxicated, unshaven, and had, from the appearance of his eyes, not washed since he last slept.”

At a drunken party, he drew an insulting sketch of the wife of William Harvey, a former FBI agent then working for CIA counterintelligence. A near-brawl ensued.

In due course, sensing they were about to be exposed, Burgess and Maclean fled to Moscow, soon joined by Philby. Only then did the government require positive vetting of civil servants who had “regular and constant access to the most highly classified defense information.” (The words “regular and constant” cut the heart from the provision.) And even the new rules did not, dictate background checks—which are considered an essential feature of US security clearances.

Mr. Lownie makes a convincing case that Burgess was the most important of the Cambridge spies. A must-read for intelligence buffs—and especially those charged with protecting our nation’s secrets.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance—at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, p. 138).

[3] Kenney, David, in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, p. 136).

[4] Hayden Peake in The Intelligencer (22, 2, Fall 2016, pp.  126=-127).  Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. Other reviews and articles may be found online at

[5] Connolly, Cyril (1952). The Missing Diplomats. London, Queen Anne Press

[6] Petrov, Vladimir (1956) and Evdokia Petrov. Empire of Fear. New York: Praeger

[7] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp. 106-107). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted in the Intelligencer by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[8] In German, it should be das Mädchen, meaning “girl”.

[9] Although the qualifier, “sic” is used, the sentence is correct. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, wearing blinkers is “to nbe able only to see things one way and unwilling or unable to consider other possibilities.”



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