I really enjoyed this book. Growing up I had heard of Burgess and the others but did know much detail. Lownie goes into quite a lot of detail about Burgess's early life, the fact that his father was often absent and then died when Burgess was young, his school life etc. These events had a lasting effect on Burgess and influenced his later life and the motives for his actions. He also sets out in as much detail as I suppose is possible given that some things will never be known fully, exactly how Burgess managed to betray his country so thoroughly and effectively for so long. Burgess himself is not a particularly engaging character or I didn't find him so. In his lifetime there were many who reacted to him as I did but there were also many prominent well known people who were devoted to him almost to the end. Some of them were kept diaries and Lownie has made use of these quite effectively. If you are interested in how and why the Cambridge spies acted as they did this book as a well written and detailed starting point.
In May, 1951 (almost 65 years ago), two men fled England, disappearing for a time, before ending up seeking asylum in the Soviet Union. The men were Guy Burgess and Douglas Maclean, two members of "The Cambridge Five", a spy ring which gave information in the 1930's and 1940's to Soviet agents. Burgess is the subject of British author Andrew Lownie's biography, "Stalin's Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess". Lownie looks at the life and times of Guy Burgess and tries to figure out what drew this most English (Eton and Cambridge) gentleman to the active betrayal of his country.
Why was Cambridge University the source of one of the most potent spy rings in UK history? Why didn't Oxford produce these men who gave up their country's (and, in many cases, the US's) secrets to their cold war enemies? I suppose that these Cambridge Five - all students in the 1930's - had sympathies for the communists that was a reaction to the growing Nazi menace in Europe and these "sympathies" continued into the WW2 and Cold War years. (I've been trying for years to find out why Cambridge, rather than Oxford, so if anyone reading this review knows, please drop me a comment at the bottom of the review.)
Guy Burgess, born the first son of a naval officer and his wife, wound his way up the British establishment, into jobs at the BBC during the war, and later at the British Foreign Office. He was a drunk and he was homosexual, and was not able to keep his private life...private. He was a loaded pistol at work and the questions I kept asking myself as I read Lownie's book was, "Was there NO vetting done in Burgess's public life? Didn't anyone in MI5 and the Foreign Office see Burgess's basic unsuitability for his jobs? Why was he trusted, over and over again, with state secrets?" And, didn't anyone notice his communist sympathies?
Andrew Lownie does a superb job in looking at the man - Guy Burgess - and the times in which he operated. Burgess, like a few others, gave secrets to the Soviets that may have had a lasting influence on Soviet-British and Soviet-American relations. But, Burgess and his fellow spies, also created problems between Britain and the United States. Guy Burgess died in exile in 1963. Lownie tells his story in "Stalin's Englishman".