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18 November 2018

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Book Review

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Russian Roulette

By Giles Milton (Bloomsbury, $28, May)

It is well known that the Bolsheviks prevailed in their 1917 coup and subsequent Civil War despite being seriously outnumbered, outgunned, and hopelessly surrounded by enemies. What is perhaps less known is that not all the Bolsheviks’ conspiracy theories about “Western imperialist plots” were fabrications.

In fact, thanks to the recent opening of some British national archives, which this book mines to great effect, we are now privy to a slew of counterintelligence operations in Bolshevik Russia by a colorful cast of British operatives. The characters range from the charismatic Sidney Reilly (who came very close to effecting a coup d’état in 1918, but for the loose lips of a French journalist), to the chameleonic Paul Dukes and George Hill, to the notorious Robert Lockhart, Arthur Ransome, W. Somerset Maugham and Frederick Bailey. Some of their stories have been told elsewhere, but this is the first time they have been brought together into a single, interwoven narrative, and it makes for very compelling reading.

The spies’ individual stories of derring-do are the stuff of nineteenth century adventure tales, and their ability to go undercover merely by growing a beard and changing their dress seems a bit fantastic in our age, when every move we make creates a digital fingerprint. At times their exploits seem to be an endless string of barely missed opportunities, when history could have taken a hugely different turn — be it Reilly’s aborted coup, or the instance of Stephen Alley, who claimed he was ordered to assassinate Stalin in 1918, but refused for reasons of propriety. The operatives’ ability to infiltrate and extract intelligence from the highest echelons of power was truly astounding; the only thing that seemed to mute the effect of their efforts was the difficulty of transmitting their information back to London.

In the latter half of the book, Milton argues that these daring first recruits of what became MI6 were instrumental in blunting Lenin’s export of international revolution. Yet it is clear that it was not these cunning operatives, but the economic catastrophe of War Communism and the need for international trade, that stunted what little impact the Comintern might have had.

Never mind, the spy stories in this volume, rich in tradecraft and memorable anecdotes, stand strongly on their own as a thrilling compendium of espionage during a critical juncture in history. One only wishes the Russian archives on the period were also opened, as the book suffers from its faint use of Russian sources.

In fact, the book ends by mentioning the story of one of the most amazing moles in history, Boris Bazhanov, who was Stalin’s secretary for four years before defecting to the West. A valued source of British intelligence in the 1920s, Bazhanov is someone worth a book in his own right.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2014