Noah Kumin

Spies, Damned Spies, and Status Seekers: The Lonely Life of a Soviet Socialite

ISSUE 7 | LIES | AUG 2011

Ukrainian KGB communiqué, 1965

On January 19, 1951, Kim Philby, then chief British intelligence agent in the United States, was hosting a dinner party for his colleagues. Among his guests was a couple new to their set: former FBI man William King Harvey and his wife Libby. Both of them were drunk, as were most of the other guests, many of whom bore secret information, and many of whom were emotionally unstable (for some, this condition was brought on by the secrets they had borne, while for others it was apparently congenital). The general mood then was that of dread before some disaster. Causing particular unease was Guy Burgess, second secretary of the British embassy, whom Harvey loathed at first sight and who seemed almost invented to typify everything Harvey was not. Burgess, notorious for his conquests of younger men, for his social climbing, and for his great wit, won his degree at Cambridge where he had been a member of its secret debate society, the Apostles. Harvey, notorious for his taciturnity, for his in-office collections of guns and knives, and for twiddling these guns and sharpening these knives while his colleagues attempted to talk to him, won his degree at Indiana University and had been a member of the Robert King Construction Company.

Finally a row broke out. Libby had volunteered to have her likeness done by Burgess, who was well known for his skill as a caricaturist. Burgess then dashed off a sketch of a dowdy woman with her skirt hiked up and her legs spread wide. Harvey took a swing at Burgess but missed and was restrained. The party was soon over.

Bill Harvey’s career was marked by many great failures, but there could have been none more regrettable than his inability to land a punch on Burgess. Among all the things Burgess possessed that Harvey did not was a commission from Stalin. Three months after Philby's dinner party Burgess boarded a cruiser to Brittany and fled from there to the USSR. The Soviet spy ring of which he was a member came to be known as the Cambridge Five. Kim Philby, the party's host, was its most successful agent.

Like any good group of heroes or villains, each Cambridge Five member comes with his own immediately recognizable attributes. Kim Philby was the perfect spy: brilliant, conscientious, unflappable, and charming. He ran MI6 before they discovered he was on the wrong team, and his many feats included that of finding his own code name listed on an intercepted cable and personally delaying investigation of the matter until he could have his Soviet informer murdered. Don Maclean, angry, alcoholic, Scottish and sexually confused, became about as successful a spy as Philby before he suffered a prolonged nervous breakdown in Cairo. Anthony Blunt, a priggish academic, sustained a long career as an art historian and was Surveyor of the King's Pictures for nearly 30 years before Margaret Thatcher finally exposed him (his knighthood was then revoked). The participation of John Cairncross, the ring’s fifth member, was revealed only in the ’90s and remains mysterious.

But none of these characters enchants like Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess. Son of a Navy man, he would later explain his homosexuality by saying that he had watched his father die while having sex with his mother. He drove a Bugatti around Cambridge and would try to pick up young men with quips like “I’d love to beat you, I'm sure you’d enjoy it.” He was a controversialist and playboy and a pain in the ass before he was a communist, but his greatest success was that he continued to be all three of these things even as a spy—for above all else, Burgess was always a brilliant liar.

Burgess’s entrance into the world of Soviet intelligence might be taken as symbolic of his career in general. According to Miranda Carter’s biography of Blunt, Soviet agent Aleksandr Orlov, who led the recruitment process at Cambridge, “thought Burgess should be sounded out, particularly because he believed his homosexual contacts might be useful—he was convinced that all upper-class Englishmen were homosexual. He reported to Moscow that ‘the majority of this country's most polished sons are pederasts.’” In late 1934, Kim Philby, already accepted by the KGB, did not think Burgess could be a good spy but according to his memoirs realized Burgess “had convinced himself…that he was being excluded from something esoteric and exciting. So he started to badger us, and nobody could badger more effectively than Burgess…. [Philby’s Soviet contacts] became increasingly worried that, if he got nowhere, he might try some trick—perhaps talk about us to people outside our circle. He might be more dangerous outside than inside. So the decision was made to recruit him.” Burgess found his way to the Soviets as a social climber and, as it turned out, was valuable to them primarily as a socialite.

It is difficult to say precisely how much Burgess was able to aid Stalin, but it is agreed that his contributions to Soviet counterintelligence were a tier below those of Maclean and Philby. Still, only a few years out of Cambridge he became an assistant to Conservative MP and member of the Nazi-sympathizing Anglo-German fellowship Jack MacNamara, whom he was soon escorting on sex-themed trips through Germany (MacNamara was also gay). Then in 1938 he infiltrated British intelligence and entered MI6. He became a trusted friend of Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hector McNeil, who was effectively the cabinet's liaison to British intelligence. The two went on drinking binges together and enjoyed the London nightlife. According to Russian intelligence archives, he supplied 4,593 documents to the NKVD between 1941 and 1945 and was able to provide invaluable secret cables about Anglo-American plans for partitioning post-Nazi Germany. All the while he continued to play the hellion. According to Verne Newton, an American scholar of the Cambridge Five, “[h]e was drinking whisky throughout the day from a flask in his desk, ate cloves of raw garlic as if they were slices of an apple, was perpetually disheveled, freely passed around pictures of his various youthful conquests, and boasted of urinating on a statue in front of the Buckingham palace.”

Burgess was finally censured for his behavior in London. Afterwards, instead of being fired, he was dispatched to Washington, DC, a decision which makes no sense whatever to anyone and remains basically unexplained. He had always hated America from afar and liked it no better after experiencing it directly. Burgess seldom remained in the nation's capital and spent about as much time socializing in New York as he did working. His exact function at the Embassy in DC is unknown, though he probably did not do as much damage in the States as he had done in London. In fact, he may have impaired the Soviets more than the Americans. When he escaped with fellow spy Don Maclean, it became inevitable that Kim Philby, the Cambridge Five's linchpin, would be discovered. Although it cannot be said for sure whether Burgess's egress was a flight of fancy or Soviet-ordered, Philby never forgave Burgess and did not visit him in Moscow.

Reading through the available source material, one can find many conflicting accounts of Burgess's general capacities as a spy and even more conflicting accounts about the events he was involved in. In recent publications, discrepancies between sources still tend to bear vestiges of US versus USSR propaganda, which is curious given that the Cold War has ended. The story of a business trip Burgess took to the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, SC, about a month after the dinner party at Philby’s, serves as a particularly good example. On his way from DC, Burgess’s Lincoln was pulled over three times for speeding; the third time the man behind the wheel was a drifter named James Turck, who was either a vagabond Burgess found hitchhiking or a lover Burgess had taken for a Southern romp—depending on whom you believe. The first two times the car was stopped Burgess had been driving and had made use of his diplomatic immunity. But this excuse did not hold with a strange man behind the wheel, though Burgess did try to assert that, as a diplomat's “chauffeur,” Turck was also immune. Burgess's traveling partner was put in jail, and while Burgess left to get bail money (the local police force would not take a check) Turck was pressured into giving an affidavit. Word of the incident soon got back to DC. It was a great embarrassment for the agency and Burgess was let go and sent back to London.

According to ex-Soviet sources, including Philby and Cambridge Five attaché Yuri Modin, the incident was a clever Soviet plot to have Burgess sent back to London, where he could personally warn fellow spy Don Maclean of imminent danger. Newton, on the other hand, maintains that this is impossible, because it was Turck’s affidavit, which Burgess could not have foreseen, that brought his misdeeds to light. Many other mysteries of this kind are chalked up to American ingenuity, Soviet ingenuity, American stupidity, or Soviet stupidity—depending on the camp of the event's interpreter.

An especially puzzling question of this sort is why Burgess went with Maclean to Moscow at all. By all accounts he loved living in London and never meant to move. Many assume he was tricked by the Soviets he had aided for so many years, and was told he could return to Britain only to be denied the option later. When Burgess fled England for the USSR in 1951, W. H. Auden, who knew the man well, wrote: “I know exactly why Burgess went to Moscow. It wasn't enough to be a queer and a drunk. He had to revolt still more, to break away from it all.”

The more one becomes acquainted with Burgess’s character, the less fanciful this idea seems. Maybe he never did want to live in the USSR, but it does not seem improbable that the desire to shock might have pushed him toward Moscow. If this were in fact the case, it would be a fitting end to his story—a betrayal by a country for the sake of which he had betrayed his own.

But this does not explain what had made this pleasure-seeker desire to revolt in the first place. Tom Driberg, an MP and fellow socialist with admiration for Burgess, sums up his character thus (he is trying to justify Burgess's lifelong devotion to the apparel of his aristocratic alma mater): “As a socialist, Guy Burgess disapproves of the educational system of which Eton is a part. As an old Etonian, he has an enduring love for Eton as a place, and an admiration for its liberal education methods... He is one of the few Old Etonians who wear an Old Etonian bow-tie.”

Burgess was never able to reconcile his prejudices “as a socialist” with his predilections as a person. And indeed even the most strongly held abstract beliefs are seldom a match for such concrete matters as bow ties. Any ideology comes equipped with a means to help its acolytes square their personal desires with the mandates of the group. Organized religion has given us the confessional and self-flagellation, among other techniques, while Soviet Marxism relied overwhelmingly on censorship of ideas and secret murder. In the case of the Soviets, these tactics succeeded for a good while in producing a nation free of public dissent. This is to say that for the Soviets, and for the purveyors of other state-mandated ideologies, the production of adept liars and self-deceivers is as valuable as any other labor.

The situation becomes all the more precarious for a man like Burgess, whose personal deviances from the Soviet line could be rationalized as “getting to know the enemy” and dissimulation. And it was indeed difficult for American and British intelligence forces to believe that this drunk Cambridge lecher in his “Old Etonian” get-up was a friend of the Soviet cause.

Sadly, Burgess never wrote his memoirs, and for some years it seemed the Western world might never hear another word from him. On February 11, 1956, however, he and Don Maclean summoned a press conference in the National Hotel in Moscow to break their silence. Here is the beginning of their co-written statement, in its own astonishing argot:

“It seems to us that doubts as to our whereabouts and speculation about our past actions may be a small but contributory factor that has been and may again be exploited by the opponents of Anglo-Soviet understanding . . . We both of us came to the Soviet Union to work for the aim of better understanding between the Soviet Union and the West, having both of us become convinced from official knowledge in our possession that neither the British nor, still more, the American Government was at that time seriously working for this aim.”

Afterward, they permitted no questions. However the aforementioned Tom Driberg soon wrote Burgess to ask for an interview. He responded almost immediately and with great enthusiasm: “I look forward to hearing from you. Let me know if you get this letter... I should like to go round Moscow with an English socialist... Make any use of this letter you like...” But his enthusiasm did not go unchecked: “My reason for not pressing the matter too hard, however, is that as I said in my ‘Statement’ the only thing I am interested in is (not my personal case but) Anglo-Soviet relations and their possible improvement.” After this charming parenthetical Burgess repeats himself: “as I say I am supporting but not insisting. Since there is doubt about the utility of personal controversy…”—then only a few paragraphs later adds a postscript asking Driberg to clear up a rumor about his having been once expelled from an academy as a schoolboy for theft.

Driberg's records of Burgess in Moscow are among the most fascinating Cambridge Five documents I've come across. It has been alternately suggested that Driberg was working for the KGB or for British intelligence when he met Burgess in the USSR, though a recent biography of the man has done much to dispel both claims. Driberg is obviously sympathetic to Burgess and resembles him more than a little. Like Burgess, he lived several lives at a time: he was a long-time member of the Communist party who eventually become a controversial MP. And he too was open about sexual matters: as Christopher Hitchens has put it, with characteristic delicacy, Driberg “would go anywhere and do anything for the chance to suck somebody off”—a habit deemed illegal by the branch of government for which he worked until 1967. In fact Driberg felt such a pull toward Burgess that, after his visit, he wrote a short biography of him called Guy Burgess: A Portrait, published in 1956, which he describes as a sort of apologia. The next-to-last chapter of the book concerns Burgess's time in Russia, and it is written in the form of a chummy dialogue. Toward the end of the piece, after Burgess has said that he speaks only “kitchen Russian, enough to talk to my housekeeper at the dacha,” Driberg asks him, “But on the whole you're happy here? I suppose you get a bit lonely sometimes?” Burgess’s answer to this question is the climax of a minor literary masterpiece, which vies with the best in Dostoevsky or Nabokov in terms of the unreliable narrator's linguistic sleights. It is reproduced here in full:

“Of course I miss London and my friends there, and New York too. But I have become used to the ways of solitude, and on the whole I like it. I read an enormous lot—I've read most of the Everyman library.

I lead a very quiet life: I try to get to my dacha most evenings—it's less than 40 minutes' drive from the office.

In London my main expenditure was on drink and cigarettes. They're both cheap here. I always smoke these very cheap cigarettes—Prima, they're called. The people at the office say I oughtn't to.

I drink only wine—this Caucasian white wine, whenever I can get it. Hardly ever vodka, unless I'm sick. It's the best cure for an upset stomach.

I always refuse vodka at parties—it's not easy. Somehow I don't usually need it.

You know, Tom, living in a Socialist country does have a therapeutic effect on one.

I know people at home will find this difficult to believe, but this is a tolerant country. As you know, I’m an old-fashioned 19th-century dogmatic atheist, not an agnostic.

Oddly enough, it's only since living in Russia that I’ve learned to respect those who believe in religion . . . or some of them.

Don't think I'm ‘starry-eyed’ about this place. I can't stand that attitude. Nor can they—the Russians, I mean. I criticise things here, and they take criticism seriously.

As a matter of fact, they tell me I’m lucky to be alive. At the time of that disgraceful business of the ‘doctor's plot’ I wrote a sharp note to Beria telling him he was wrong, and telling him why I knew he was wrong—because I’d had a lot of dealing in Washington with “JOINT” [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] and I knew they could not possibly have done what they were said to have done.

Fortunately, the friend whom I gave the letter to, asking him to see that Beria got it, was so terrified that he never passed it on. If he had I'd probably have been shot.

Nor am I a Russophil as such. Like Harold Nicolson, ‘I have never been a victim of Slav charm.’ Sometimes they are maddening, though I get on very well with my own colleagues.

But, despite all the things that are wrong—honestly, I'm not trying to do propaganda—it is a Socialist country, and there is a real kind of democracy developing, different from ours, but real. . . . And living in it is the feather-bed after the chaise-longue, you know.

Sometimes, yes, I am lonely. I'd like to have a good gossip with some old friends. But here I'm lonely for the unimportant things.

In London I was lonely for the important things—I was lonely for Socialism.”

Burgess’s answer is smooth and charming, and at first glance little about it seems obviously duplicitous. But then, examined closely, a number of his claims appear convoluted, disingenuous, or outright false, beginning with the first sentence. It is almost too nice a touch that the series of great books Burgess chose to read in the U.S.S.R. was one printed for Everyman, that ubiquitous Soviet hero. Nor does Burgess mention just how few of these books would have been permitted to the Soviet Everyman in 1956. On the other hand Burgess's claim that his sole use of vodka is medicinal seems, if strange, plausible enough—until Driberg casually mentions him “ordering a carafe of vodka” with dinner in the next chapter. In any case, the soothing power of Russia's famous liquor allows Burgess the strange and crafty transition to one of the monologue’s more striking sentences: “You know, Tom, living in a Socialist country really does have a therapeutic effect on one.”

Were one to intentionally phrase a proposition to make it sound false, he could hardly do better than this. Bookended by the chummy and phony “You know, Tom” and the impersonal “effect on one,”—with a “really does” placed in the middle for good measure—the sentence might incline even the heartiest Soviet-empathizer toward skepticism. And it is at this point that Burgess's narration loses some of its coherence. The following few sentences have little to do with those that come before or after them, though colloquialisms like “oddly enough” help them come off naturally.

Burgess is certainly right that the Russians take criticism seriously; they take criticism so seriously, in fact, that they would have had Burgess murdered if they had actually received it. Perhaps this is one of the factors that makes Soviet Russia “the feather-bed after the chaise-longue”—a metaphor which sounds good until you realize it does not make sense. Was the problem with England the fact that one could only recline but not sleep for long periods of time? Is the USSR avian in some important way? Whatever the chaise longue represents, Burgess does admit he yearns for it now and then: “Sometimes, yes, I am lonely. I’d like to have a good gossip with some old friends” comes off as one of the monologue’s more straightforward statements. But it cannot go unmodified by a final, climactic outburst of poetry. The sentence “In London I was lonely for the important things—I was lonely for Socialism” is an unforgettable one. But was it true?

Driberg, for one, could not doubt Burgess’s credibility. In his book's final chapter he explains that though he personally would not advocate flight to Russia, Burgess's actions were beyond reproach. “As a Socialist,” he writes, “I take the view that, on the whole, one should go on working for Socialism by such means as are available in one's own country —in Britain, specifically, through the Labour Party. But this is a matter on which opinions may differ; and having talked at length with Guy Burgess, and satisfied myself of the passionate sincerity of his convictions, I respect him for his courage in doing what he thought right.” This all sounds fine until we get to the following sentence: “Nor do I believe that he was ever a Soviet agent.” Driberg, for all his care and sympathy, has been duped along with the rest of them.

This is unless Driberg’s book was an elaborate propaganda campaign, in which case Driberg would himself have had to have been a Soviet spy. This makes Guy Burgess: A Portrait a special sort of literary work: it is either entirely fallacious or an intimate portrait of a man about whom the author actually knew nothing.

Not only do lies tend to impress and please other people, they provide a private, special pleasure for the liar. This is a lame enough generality, but Guy Burgess lends it a memorable face (handsome, squarish, with waves of carefully coiffed hair atop it and insolent lips toward the bottom). No one could sustain a life as consistently duplicitous as Burgess’s without deriving some pleasure from the very act of self-contradiction. Certain critics of the Cambridge Five have not been able to help drawing a line from homosexuality to espionage—as though there were no heterosexual liars or livers of double lives, not to mention master spy Kim Philby. However, another aspect of Burgess' sexual life might not be irrelevant.

Hitchens, in his London Review of Books piece on Tom Driberg which I quoted earlier, mentions that the men Driberg pursued were invariably “heterosexual, proletarian, and…unknown to Tom before the encounter,” which Hitchens notes “can be a form of slumming…” Burgess's sexual habits were exactly similar, which is something that, for once, all sources agree on. To pick only one quotation, his Soviet ally Yuri Modin writes, apparently without any intended irony, that Burgess “found lovers in every social category. He had a strong preference for lorry drivers and working men, whom he habitually paid for sex. He liked their company and would cross-examine them mercilessly about how they were coping with the depression.” One begins at this point to wonder whether Burgess's career with the NKVD/KGB wasn't one long, exhilarating spell of “slumming it.” He could enjoy the refined pleasures of his high-class peers, but he could also know that he had rebelled against them. As with the adventurer who yearns to bed common people, the role of the playboy was in his case simultaneously the role of the rebel and proletariat.

And that, in the end, is how we might guess at his unhappiness in Moscow, even if we did not have the desperate letters to friends or his suicide by alcohol. There were no more double lives for Burgess to live. And, though there exists a picture of him wearing his “Old Etonian” bow tie beneath an astrakhan cap, one doubts the Soviets would have flinched much at this particular irony even had they recognized it. Transplanted to a country where a matter so outrageous as expressing one's opinion could summon the death penalty, Burgess had no one he could safely shock either. The idea is so dreary and sad one almost wishes Burgess had never fled, that he had died in flagrante—pleasing a crowd of Old Boys with his wit, enthralled with his own deceit, rabid over his fast cars and conquests, but at the same time ever so lonely for socialism.

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