Perspective: Cloak & daggerCambridge Five Spies Burgess and Maclean Lauded by Russia as Heroes of Anti-Fascism

Published 23 December 2019

The Russian intelligence community on Friday honored two of the notorious Cambridge Five spy ring, whose members spied for the Soviet Union from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. The Cambridge Five also included Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross. The five were attracted by communism, and the Soviet Union, as young Cambridge University students in the early 1930s, after coming to believe that British – and, more generally, Western — passivity in the face of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler was aiding in the growth and spread of fascism. Maclean and Burgess defected to the Soviet Union in 1951, and for three years lived in the town of Samara on the Volga. On Friday, a plaque bearing the two Britons’ names was unveiled on the wall of the apartment where the two lived until returning to Moscow in 1955.

The Russian intelligence community on Friday honored two of the notorious Cambridge Five spy ring, whose members spied for the Soviet Union from the late 1930s to the early 1950s.

Tom Parfitt writes in The Times that Sergei Naryshkin, director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR), said that Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two of the Cambridge Five spies, “made a significant contribution to the victory over fascism”.

The Cambridge Five also included Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross. The five were attracted by communism, and the Soviet Union, as young Cambridge University students in the early 1930s, after coming to believe that British – and, more generally, Western — passivity in the face of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler was aiding in the growth and spread of fascism.

Naryshkin made his remarks in a letter to the organizers of an event in the city of Samara, where Burgess and Maclean lived from 1952 to 1955, after fleeing to Russia in 1951, as the British Secret Service was closing in on them. The event in Samara included the unveiling of a plaque bearing the two Britons’ names on the wall of the apartment where the two lived until returning to Moscow in 1955.

Samara, a city on the Volga, was called Kuybyshev under the communist regime which ruled the Soviet Union until 1991.

Kim Philby, the leader of the Cambridge Five spy ring, was, in 1951, the Washington, D.C. chief officer of MI6, the British spy agency. Shortly after Burgess and Maclean escaped to Moscow, he was dismissed from MI6 because of the suspicion that he was the “Third Man” – the insider who alerted Burgess and Maclean that they were exposed and were about to be arrested. He became the Economist’s Middle East correspondent, stationed in Beirut. In 1963 he escaped to Moscow after being warned that his arrest for spying was imminent.

Maclean and Philby became Russian citizens and respected analysts and experts in the Soviet national security and intelligence establishment. Maclean died in 1983, and Philby in 1988.

Burgess, an alcohol and a flamboyant homosexual, never adjusted to the drab life under communism – he once described Kuybyshev as “permanently like Glasgow on a Saturday night.” He died of liver disease in 1963, age 52, a few months after Philby arrived in Moscow.

John Cairncross, who became a high-level British Treasury official, confessed his spying in 1952, and was promptly dismissed from his civil service position. His hobby was French literature, and he was highly regarded as a translator of seventeenth century French poets and dramatists. He moved to the United States and became a professor of French literature at Northwestern University and that at Case Western. He retired to the south of France, and in 1995 returned to England, where he died later that year. He was never prosecuted for his spying.

Anthony Blunt became an Oxford University art historian. In the mid-1950s he became the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures – in effect, the curator of the art being on display at that various royal palaces and estates. In 1964 he confessed to his role in spy ring, but his confession was kept secret until 1979. He left his position as the queen’s art curator shortly after his secret confession.

The queen awarded him an MBE for his services, but in November 1979, as one of her first acts as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher told parliament about Blunt’s 1964 confession, and the queen promptly stripped him of his knighthood. He died in 1983.

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