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Explained: Who were the Cambridge Five, Soviet spies now feted by Putin’s Russia?

The Cambridge Five was a KGB group of British spies who passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II and the early stages of the Cold War.

, Edited by Explained Desk |
Updated: December 21, 2019 7:30:59 am
Cambridge Five spy ring, Britain's Cambridge Five spies, Soviet spies, Cambridge Five spies, Russian spies, World war II, indian express explained, indian express news The Cambridge Five group comprised Donald Maclean (1913-83), Guy Burgess (1911-63), Harold ‘Kim’ Philby (1912-88) and Anthony Blunt (1907-83). (Reuters photo)

Russia honoured two members of the British “Cambridge Five” spy ring that passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II. The two members, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were honoured with a memorial plaque and a tribute from the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

The memorial plaque was unveiled on the day that Russia celebrates the work of its security forces. It was attached to the wall of the building where they lived between 1952-1955 in the city of Samara, Kuibyshev, Reuters reported.

Russian lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein, who attended the unveiling, posted on Twitter, “On the Chekist’s Day, a memorial plaque was opened in Samara to members of the legendary “Cambridge Five” G. Burgess and D. McLane on the house on the street. Frunze, where they lived after their withdrawal from England. Greetings to the participants were sent by the Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service S. Naryshkin.”

Who were the Cambridge Five?

The Cambridge Five was a KGB group of British spies who passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II and the early stages of the Cold War. The group comprised Donald Maclean (1913-83), Guy Burgess (1911-63), Harold ‘Kim’ Philby (1912-88) and Anthony Blunt (1907-83).

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While studying at Cambridge University, Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt developed ideas and notions against capitalist democracy and recruited by the KGB. In fact, Burgess began supplying information to the Soviet Union during the time he was a BBC correspondent between 1936 and 1938. Subsequently, he was a member of the MI6 from 1938-1941, and a member of the British Foreign Service from 1944.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in 1951, when Burgess was about to be dismissed from the British Foreign Service, he learned of a counterintelligence investigation by British and US agencies that was about to close in on him and Maclean.

To avoid being prosecuted, both men fled England after which their whereabouts were unknown till about 1956, when they held a press conference to announce that they were living as communists in Moscow.

How was the group formed?

According to the UK’s National Archives, the formation of the spy group began with the Cambridge University Socialist Society (CUSS), where Philby was elected Junior Treasurer in March 1932.

Here Philby met Burgess and Maclean, and in 1934 he was recruited by the Soviet Intelligence Officer Arnold Deutsch. Subsequently, Philby recommended Burgess and Maclean’s names for recruitment.

After leaving Cambridge, Maclean and Burgess went on to build careers in the British establishment and dissociated themselves with communism. While Maclean became a top diplomat, Burgess was a correspondent with the BBC and went on to work with the foreign office.

For over two decades of their careers, Burgess and Maclean moved around the highest circles of British governance without letting anyone know that all this while they were passing on top secret documents to their handlers in the Soviet Union.

The National Archives note, “Maclean was in many ways the archetypal career diplomat, and in 1938 a senior figure observed on his appointment to the British Embassy in France that, ‘He is a very nice individual indeed and has plenty of brains and keenness. He is, too, nice looking and ought, we thinking to be a success in Paris from the social as well as the work point of view’.”

About Burgess, Philby wrote in a document that was declassified in 2015 by the National Archives that he was “a strong personality with a bold and brilliant brain” and “an incredibly wide range of acquaintances”.

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