Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s rise to power in Russia in 1917 not only spread fear across Russia and the world, but also triggered an entirely novel strategy by Britain for spying on the new Bolshevik government. As Giles Milton writes in “Russian Roulette,” a dashing historical nonfiction thriller that reads like a James Bond novel, the spies “would be working in the shadows, in a murky world of espionage, treachery and double-dealing.”
To Winston Churchill, not only was the stability of the region at stake, but the entire British Empire — including British India — was threatened by Lenin’s goal of achieving “political mastery in Central Asia.” Churchill was so obsessed by the threat that, in a little known blemish on his mighty legacy, he ordered the liberal use of chemical weapons on Bolshevik troops despite the concerns of his colleagues.
Under the direction of the ingenious Mansfield Cumming, head of the international division of the newly created Secret Service Bureau, British spies would sneak into Russia at frontier outposts, employing elaborate disguises, double identities, disappearing inks and misinformation. If caught, spies risked immediate execution by the Bolsheviks’ murderous security arm, the Cheka.
When writer W. Somerset Maugham agreed to smuggle cash into Russia he was told, “If you do well, you’ll get no thanks, and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help.”
The “Ace of Spies” was Sidney Reilly, a seductively charming bigamist with an insatiable libido who profited from selling munitions to the Imperial Russian Army during World War I. Although his name sounded British, he was, in fact, Russian. His real name was Sigmund Georgievich Rosenblum. With his life already fully immersed in subterfuge and possessing an intense hatred of Bolshevism, Reilly made the perfect spy. His effectiveness was such that he would eventually be awarded Britain’s prestigious Military Cross while being sentenced to death in absentia by Lenin.
Milton’s deft recounting of Reilly’s tales of derring-do remind us of an age before faceless drone surveillance and tech-heavy NSA snooping, a time when boots-on-the-ground connections and human cunning ruled the day. When describing the attributes of the ideal spy, Milton quotes espionage expert Hector Bywater, who said, “Steady nerves were, of course, a great asset, for the Secret Service man was liable at any moment to find himself in an awkward situation which demanded perfect coolness and presence of mind.”
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of three books, most recently “The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue and Redemption Along the Mississippi River.” He has recent work in American Way Magazine and Funny Times.