Tag Archives: Stalin

Stalin’s Englishman: the lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie

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The story of the Cambridge Spy Ring, or the Magnifivent Five as they were dubbed by the media, continues to be of interest, long after the Cold War ended. How did this group of young, wealthy, Cambridge University students fall into the clutches of the Soviet Union during the 1930s? The reality is that Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross, all brilliant young men, were very willing recruits because, in the polarised politics of the time, they saw it as a simple choice between Fascism or Communism, and they chose the latter.

Guy Burgess was the most important, complex and fascinating of the Cambridge Spies. 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 secret documents which he passed to his Russian handlers. And he did all of this in plain sight while drawing attention to himself via a disolute and promiscuous lifestyle. There was no security vetting in those days. The only entry requirements were that you went to Eton and Oxbridge and came from a ‘good family’. It was all about the connections which tied the ruling class together.

Burgess lost his father at an early age and some have speculated that this may have influenced his later direction in life. He was devoted to his mother and was an outstanding Cambridge undergraduate. He joined the Cambridge University Socialist Society and came into contact with other rich young men who were attracted to Marxism and how it was being implemented in the Soviet Union. His comrades included John Cornford, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War, and James Klugmann, who went on to become a skilled organiser within the Communist Party of Britain.

This is Andrew Lownie’s first full biography and he draws a rich picture of Guy Burgess’s lives, both personal and political. He shows how Burgess’s chaotic personal life of drunken philandering did nothing to stop his penetration of the British Intelligence Service. Even when he was under suspicion, the fabled charm which enabled close personal relationships with numerous influential figures prevented his exposure as a spy for many years. But it was the exposure of Donald Maclean which led to Burgess’s exile in Russia. Maclean was tipped off by Kim Philby and had to be smuggled out of the country. Burgess was instructed to escort Maclean to Europe, where we would be taken care of by his Soviet handlers. Burgess did not realise that he had been given a one way ticket and that he would become a fellow defector with Maclean in Moscow.

Burgess and Maclean left England in 1951 and disappeared for the next five years. Their mystery was solved when Tom Driberg visited them in Moscow and published Guy Burgess: a portrait with background in 1956. Burgess was not happy in Moscow and missed his mother, friends and London life. When he died in 1963 his ashes were sent back to England and placed in the family plot besides those of his father. Guy Burgess had finally had his wish and returned home.

Through interviews with over 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, colourful, tragic-comic reality.

Review by John Pateman -Chief Librarian/CEO Thunder Bay Public Library

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

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child 44

How to you investigate a crime, when even the possibility of crime does not exist? In Stalin’s Soviet Union in the years following the Second World War, the illusion of the state was that of a worker’s Utopia. Criminals were a part of the horrors of a Capitalist society, so to even suggest that something as serious as murder could occur, might sentence you and your family to a gulag or to execution. Defending this paradise was the MGB, the State Security Force, and one of its best and most dedicated members is Leo Demidov. Demidov, a former war hero has prospered under Stalin, with a lovely wife, Raisa, and a luxury apartment in Moscow, yet he risks everything to discover the truth behind a series of child killings.

In his debut novel, author Tom Rob Smith has crafted a literary thriller, delicately balancing the crime elements with the socio-political themes of the era. The oppressive atmosphere in Soviet Russia adds a great deal of tension to the novel, as Leo struggles to discover the killer before there is another victim or Leo is arrested to prevent further inquiries. The reader can feel Leo’s fear and frustration as the authorities and ideals he worked so hard to protect are now turned against him.  Much of the novel is very dark and gritty, both in its depiction of life under Stalin and in the actions of the serial killer. I was both surprised and horrified to discover the novel had been inspired by the real life murderer Andrei Chikatilo, who killed over 50 women and children in Russia during the 1980’s.

The novel works as a spine tingling thriller, a tract against inhumanity of  absolute political power and perhaps most importantly, a morality tale about the courage it takes to challenge authority in order to do what is right.