The unhappy history of Britain’s failed bid to prevent the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, and its equally disastrous attempt to turn the tables once they had done so by backing the ‘whites’ against the ‘reds’ in Russia’s civil war, is well known. Indeed, it should stand as a warning from history to the current government as it contemplates intervening in Syria’s civil conflict.
Here, popular historian Giles Milton has turned the story on its head by focusing on the daring deeds of a dirty dozen British secret agents who, though they did not manage to stop the Bolsheviks, did foil Lenin’s plan to export his revolution to British-ruled India.
Because Milton’s team of spies – with one notable exception – survived their missions, his chronicle of their secret war reads not only like a nail-biting thriller, but a success story, rather than the often farcical fiasco that it was. He’s helped by a cast of colourful characters whose real-life exploits are a Bond novel beyond Ian Fleming’s wildest dreams.
There’s Paul Dukes, the only Briton ever knighted for spying, whose proficiency in disguise – he was known as ‘the man with a hundred faces’ – enabled him to penetrate the Soviet Politburo itself. There’s Augustus Agar, who won a VC for skimming over mines in a revolutionary craft and torpedoing the cruiser Oleg. There’s Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome, a Guardian journalist whose radical sympathies literally got him into bed with the Bolsheviks – he married Trotsky’s secretary – yet who doubled as MI6 agent S76. And there’s Sidney Reilly, the ‘ace of spies’ himself.
The only member of Milton’s team eventually caught and shot by the Bolsheviks, Odessa-born Reilly, outdid even Dukes in his ability to inhabit multiple identities – all equally convincingly. His downfall came when he tried to take over the reins of power in Russia himself. His coup, coinciding with a nearly successful attempt to assassinate Lenin, provides Milton with a suitably gripping climax.
Pulling the spies’ strings back in London was the original ‘C’, MI6’s founding father Mansfield Cumming. Delightfully eccentric, the one-legged Cumming would skate along his office corridors and idly plunge a paper knife into his false leg in interviews to test recruits’ nerves. Beneath the bonhomie, however, Cumming was a deadly serious operator with an uncanny knack of picking brilliant agents.
The failure to roll back the revolution was not due to any lack of ruthlessness on Britain’s behalf. It has only recently emerged, for example, that a British agent, Oswald Rayner, fired the fatal bullet into Rasputin’s brain to eliminate the sinister influence of the ‘mad monk’ over the Russian imperial court. This gives the lie to those who piously protest that British spies never carry out ‘wet jobs’ – spy slang for assassinations.
Milton has pulled together memoirs by these spies, recent studies by other authors, and newly released files from the National Archives and the India Office to present a coherent, readable narrative from the glory days when spies did a lot more than hack into computers.
Nigel Jones is the author of Peace and War: Britain in 1914, set to be published by Head of Zeus early in 2014