Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin’s Plot for Global Revolution

  • By Giles Milton
  • Bloomsbury Press
  • 378 pp.

Former spies tell outlandish yarns in this account of the birth of Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Giles Milton’s lively Russian Roulette recounts the birth of Britain’s professional Secret Service (now known as MI-6) during World War I and its immediate aftermath. The book has a great deal going for it, retelling yarns spun by former spies that are more outlandish than most fiction writers would contrive.

Start with the favored source of invisible ink for Britain’s doughty undercover agents. Because this is a family publication, I will describe it as a bodily fluid that is uniquely produced by males. Presumably this practice — practice, practice, practice! — placed a premium on brevity in dispatches composed for the home office. Not to mention pangs of revulsion among recipients.

Add to this biological bemusement the one and only Sidney Reilly, the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond and the first super-spy of the 20th century. If you have not seen every episode of the old BBC series “Reilly: Ace of Spies,” you should stop reading this review right now and acquire them. Sam Neill was perfect as Reilly, a Ukrainian Jew who mastered multiple languages, made millions selling war goods to Tsar Nicholas, slept with uncountable numbers of women (several of whom he married), and was plainly the most interesting man in the world well before beer commercials awarded that title to a bearded and theretofore out-of-work actor.

Reilly adopted and shed identities like a hyperactive snake. He not only dreamt of replacing Lenin as head of the Russian state, but actually planned to do so, only to be thwarted at the last moment by the wild currents of Russia’s revolutionary history.

But wait, cries the pitchman, there’s more! The founder of the British Secret Service really was a frosty but lovable curmudgeon who was known by a single initial (“C,” not “M,” as Ian Fleming had it). And when C’s son cracked up their car in a disastrous accident in a remote clime, C used a pocket knife to saw off part of his crushed leg so he could crawl over and comfort his dying son. Read that last sentence again.

How about having an A-list novelist like W. Somerset Maugham as one of the secret agents? Interested yet?

Then there’s the West’s face-off with Bolshevik Russia. I knew that Western troops landed in Archangel in 1919 in an ill-considered jab against the Reds, but how about British torpedo boats sinking Russian warships in the Baltic Sea? News to me. The long-ago conflict has a powerful resonance at a time when Putin searches for his jackboots and riding crop and pledges to protect the downtrodden “Russian speakers” of the world. (Keep a sharp watch, Brighton Beach!)

So why am I holding back in this review? Why haven’t I told you to rush out and buy the book? (Or, better yet, to buy it through the buy-the-book buttons at the bottom of this page, so The Independent gets 6 percent of the boodle?)

It’s just that it’s really hard to tell how much of this stuff is true. Which is the case for most Sidney Reilly stories, actually. Milton provides few source citations. Those he offers are generally to the memoirs of ex-agents, often composed in their non-salad days. Not, given the vagaries of the human memory, your top-drawer documentation, although government sources can be unreliable in their own ways.

Another problem is that Milton’s silky-smooth narrative sometimes jumps the tracks entirely. “Icy rain was pouring from a gunmetal sky,” he writes of a day in December 1916, “turning the ground to liquid.” I’m still working on that one. Or the way the Number 2 man in the Russian secret police “allowed himself a private chuckle” when he learned that a British agent had come to see him. Private chuckles – not often associated with Bolshevik spymasters – are uniquely within the knowledge of he who chuckled privately, yet there is no hint of a source that could possibly have provided that information. Milton, we are left to conclude, made that part up.

Finally, there’s the problem of Milton’s subtitle, which promises glorious British victory. Most of the British spies either fled from Russia one step ahead of the posse, or (poor Reilly) didn’t make it out at all. In a desperate search for a British triumph somewhere, Milton recounts an elaborate episode involving Afghan, Persian, and Indian scheming. That triumph, however, arose principally from the pressures created by Russian famine and economic catastrophe, not the telling stroke of a swashbuckling undercover agent.

Oh, the hell with it. It’s a fun ride. Go read it. And lay off the invisible ink.

David O. Stewart is the author of The Lincoln Deception (2013), a historical mystery about the John Wilkes Booth conspiracy, and several works of actual history. With footnotes and everything.


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