on 14 October 2013
In 1917 Russia fell to the Bolshevik Party and became the world's first communist state. In response, Britain's nascent intelligence service sent some of the bravest, maddest, and frankly suspect men in her employ to spy on Moscow.
Among them were Paul Dukes, who shed identities like snakes do their skin, Sidney Riley, who lived on a precipice but acted as if it were a plateau, and Arthur Ransome - yes, that Arthur Ransome - who had access to Lenin but also Bolshevik sympathies.
The spies mission was to send information back to Britain that would help her formulate her political and military response to the new Russian government/threat. Given the type of characters involved, though, it is perhaps no wonder that one of them - Riley - became involved in a plot to actually overthrow the Bolshevik government. Amazingly, it very nearly succeeded.
Britain's secret war against Bolshevik Russia was not limited to Petrograd, where the 1917 Revolution started, and Moscow. In north eastern Iran, Wilfred Malleson, conducted a dirty tricks campaign against Russia and Afghanistan that was so successful it caused a breach in relations between the two countries.
Giles Milton does a wonderful job of bringing the exploits of Britain's spies to life in Russian Roulette. Of course, he is helped by the extraordinary deeds of his subjects, and the fact that they remain relevant today - Churchill's decision to launch chemical attacks on the Bolshevik army being a case in point - but there can never be a substitute for a good narrator; Milton is such a man. His narrative is clear, engaging and sympathetic to its subject. No one is perfect but any faults in Milton's penmanship weigh as heavy as feathers.
If I have one criticism of the book it is that it is over too quickly. Having said that, Riley et al are such a remarkable bunch that I don't suppose a thousand pages would have been enough for me.
Russian Roulette will obviously appeal most to lovers of the spy genre, and those interested in Russian and British history of the early twentieth century. If you simply like a good yarn, however, with the added frisson that the events recounted by Milton actually happened, then I think you will be equally satisfied.
In short, Russian Roulette was an absolute pleasure to read, and I commend it wholeheartedly to you.
on 18 September 2013
This is a very well written and researched book on one of the most unknown episodes in contemporary history, namely: the involvement of England and its efforts to prevent a Communist takeover in India. It was the idea of Lenin to act there because he thought that a Communist India would further his global revolution.
Giles Milton demonstrates with great skill in what way spies were responsible for subverting Lenin's plot. He does so with the help of newly declassified documents and explains in great detail the deeds of those English spies who risked their lives for England. Indeed, it was also Churchill who made use of chemical weapons against those whom he despised tremendously, the Bolsheviks. The book shows to what extent the early English spies of the twentieth century were productive in gaining and offering raw intelligence material about Russia to their masterspies, in particular to C, the so-called famous Mansfield Cumming. The role of intelligence in history is well known, and Mr. Milton has added another piece in this fascinating puzzle. As he writes, "one spy could produce information worth one year of diplomatic work".
This book is fascinating and is a very good read, covering the years 1909-1925.
on 16 November 2013
No question, the author tells a good story and has built on relatively recent releases to The National Archives at Kew. A review ought to be by a professional historian, which I definitely am not. The running theme is the Comintern (Communist International) intent to stir up unrest in British India in the period 1919 to 1921, but this damp squib is sauced up with well documented British spying activity elsewhere in the brand new Bolshevik 'October' Revolution of 1917. Why 'damp squib'? Because Lenin, as the author relates on p324 et seq., gave priority to his country's economic state: an international trade agreement was signed with Britain in March 1921, and his New Economic Policy (NEP) introducing a limited level of private enterprise, was inaugurated. Before that, in November 1920, the author tells us, 'a huge military entourage slipped unnoticed out of Moscow's Paveletsky station'. Two trains were bound for Tashkent. 'Their task was to raise a Soviet-Islamic Army of God ... The person in overall command ... was not Russian and .. could not speak the language'. ... 'curt order from Moscow to abandon his training camp and disband his army.'
It is up to others to determine if there was a real threat to British India, given that the new USSR was riven by civil war and roaming White Russian armies. The author bolsters his case with so many unjustified adverbs and adjectives that the feeling the reader has is that, despite what read like revelations, his case is not made.
The November 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was a matter of great concern to the British Government. Lenin had stated his intention to take Russia out of the war with Germany; that would leave Germany able to concentrate all its efforts on the Western Front. Lenin was bent on the destruction of the British Empire, specifically stating, 'England is our greatest enemy' and identifying British India as a prime target. And Lenin's declared plans for world revolution were far from mere rhetoric; again, India was a specifically-named target.
So we need not be surprised that British Intelligence Services were active in Russia even before Lenin and Trotsky returned from exile. It is even thought likely that the bullet that killed Rasputin (believed 'guilty' of attempting to use his influence with the Tsarina to take Russia out of the war) came from the revolver of a British agent, Oswald Rayner.
The Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, was formed in 1916 under Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the original 'C'. Russian Roulette is primarily concerned with the period from that time until Smith-Cumming's death in 1923. The book is largely based on the surprising number of memoirs written by British agents operating in Russia before, during and after the Revolution, and on government documents placed in the National Archives in Kew and in the British Library.
Some British agents were already established as writers; they included Arthur Ransome, and Somerset Maugham. Arthur Ransome was in Russia as a correspondent for the Daily News. At one point the newspaper had to be pressured by MI6 not to sack Ransome for his apparent Bolshevik sympathies; his reports were uniquely valuable as he was personally acquainted with Lenin and Trotsky and close to (and was later to marry) Trotsky's secretary.
Robert Bruce Lockhart, in 1917 the Acting British Consul-General in Moscow, went on to become Editor of the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary. In Moscow, he was a co-conspirator with the infamous 'Ace of Spies', Sidney Reilly, as they plotted to launch a counter-revolution with the assassination, by Reilly himself, of Lenin and Trotsky.
Reilly - born Rosenblum in southern Ukraine - 'believed that he would do for Russia what Napoleon did for France' and 'When he had come to consider who might replace Lenin, he looked no further than the mirror.' He failed, of course, and he and Lockhart were lucky to escape Russia with their lives. In 1925, Reilly was unwise enough to return and was caught and executed by the Cheka.
Other British agents given very full coverage in Russian Roulette include George Hill and Frederick Bailey. Ian Fleming's fictional James Bond surely owes something to the real exploits of both Sidney Reilly and George Hill. They operated in north-western Russia, mainly Moscow and Petrograd. Frederick Bailey penetrated the nascent Soviet Union from northern India, living openly at first, but later undercover, in Tashkent. His stay there became more and more dangerous and he ultimately escaped disguised as an Albanian mercenary who applied for and was appointed to a position in the counter-espionage branch of the Cheka.
Russian Roulette sits at the popular end of history publishing. Much of the subject matter lends itself to that and, where the opportunities present themselves, Giles Milton makes what he can of extra-marital relationships, the Emir of Bukhara's 400 concubines, and the use of human semen as invisible ink. But there is plenty of ultimately more significant material too. In total, the book is a good romp through the subject.
on 15 September 2014
Fast paced booklet containing lots of exciting stories, as you would expect from the subject matter (British espionage in early revolutionary Russia) and from Giles Milton.
The one point of critique I have is that Milton might perhaps have expanded a bit more on some interesting storylines. I was very curious about the alleged British involvement in the 1916 murder of Rasputin (the thinking, if you can call it that, being that somehow Russia's poor showing in the war was due to Rasputin's malign influence), and would have liked to learn more about just how the various spies actually went about in recruiting high-placed informers. With perhaps a 100 pages more this book would have been truly great.
on 5 February 2014
I enjoyed this book having read Peter Hopkirk's work, but to be honest I found it a little lightweight. It describes the exploits of a number of people, some of whom are typical late Victorian British eccentrics who would not have been out of place in any number of settings. There is something of a Richard Burton, a young Churchill in the desert with Kitchener or a host of explorers of Africa. Although Alexander Burnes is not mentioned in the book, you can feel him as somebody who would have fitted well into this milieu. G A Henty was of course the great storyteller of British Empire derring do. His stories filled many a schoolboys mind with the exploits of heroic and fearless Britons challenging foreign rogues, and this is both the books strength as a story and weakness as a piece of political analysis (if indeed that was ever the intention). So much has been written about the period and it suffers so much from historical hindsight, politically rigid thinking, and socialist beatification that it barely gets a chance to be viewed from the perspective of the time itself.
There are some wonderful vignettes in this book, Mansfield Cumming cutting off his own leg trapped under a car before crawling to the side of his dieing son before he became C.. Frederick Bailey working in extreme isolation in Tashkent and then disguising himself in an Austrian uniform with the aid of some apricot jam, and still finding time to collect butterflies. Then there is of course the famous 'Sidney Reilly', the man who came to epitomise, perhaps undeservedly the ultimate spy. One of his first actions in Moscow was to put on a full British military uniform walk up to the Kremlin and insist on being admitted as a representative of the government, much to the anger and surprise of the British ambassador who knew nothing about him being there.
The likes of George Hill and Paul Dukes I had little knowledge of, they placed themselves at enormous personal risk and showed a degree of fortitude, organisational skill and elan that make them very rare people indeed. Arthur Ransome's story is a little apart considering his obvious sympathies for the revolution rather than the revolutionaries. His relationship with Trotsky's secretary gave him a degree of access that would have been impossible for most other foreigners given the violence and paranoia of the regime and Dzerzhinsky's Cheka.
The basis of this book is that the Comintern planned world revolution by undermining Britain in India and then exporting revolution further afield. Even given the evidence in this book concerning the Indian nationalist Roy and his army being built for the purpose of invasion, it is difficult to tell, and it works on the basis that and invasion would have precipitated military defeat and then a general uprising. Given the nature of the Indian Mutiny where many Indian army regiments and units were both active in the fighting and loyal to their British officers, it is impossible to tell whether an encompassing Indian nationalism had developed to a sufficient degree to allow such an uprising to take place. The perception of course from the British side was that any attempt to foment insurrection could not be tolerated especially given the fact that the vast majority of front line Indian army units were fighting in Europe or in north Africa and the Dardanelles. It is little wonder then that Wilfred Malleson the highly effective and ruthless British officer running a network of spies in central Asia took the threat so seriously and reacted with considerable effect.
The activities of the various white armies, foreign invaders, the majority Japanese it would seem, the British had a bit of a one man and his dog effort, not surprising given commitments elsewhere, and the fighting with the Poles is not dealt with in great detail, although again this is a subject much written about elsewhere. The fact that Churchill at this stage was spoiling for a fight and deployed chemical weapons against the Red Army is distasteful, but such weapons were in considerable use at the time and no doubt the Soviets did not use them simply because they had none.
A disappointment of the book for me was the apparent lack of the use material in the Russian archives. This would have added considerably to a view both of the situation and of the individuals at the time. It is of course possible now that Putin is pulling the reigns of power ever tighter that such access is becoming harder. The British spies individually and collectively worked through a whole series of safe houses, couriers and contacts, some reliable and some not. Reilly it seems even had an opportunity to decapitate the revolutionary leadership, until being betrayed by a French journalist sympathetic to the regime. We sometimes get a glimpse of these people and sometimes not. What was their motivation, loyalty to the Tsar, hatred of the regime, money, love. It would have been nice to understand this better. Fanya Kaplan, nothing to do with this group, shot Lenin twice, but she herself was a socialist revolutionary, what were the factors that led them to help Britian. Many were killed, but perhaps the information is simply not there.
One major disappointment for me comes right at the end of the book with the story of Boris Bazhanov, secretary to the Politburo, who was passing information to Britain for several years, and it seems having been smuggled out of Russia by British intelligence survived numerous assassination attempts. This story alone would make both a fascinating book and a pretty sensational film. Indeed it is likely that the information supplied by him gave the British government the opportunity to threaten the Soviets concerning their plans for India, that being the whole point of the book and of the British spies activities in Russia it seems to me a major omission not to explore this in significant detail.
Worth reading but I feel could have been both more thorough and more politically observant.
on 19 May 2015
When written well, a book can bring history to life, but as non-fiction it can also send a reader to sleep if it is not written so well. ‘Russian Roulette’ has everything going for it; it is a book about the high tension period of history were British spies infiltrated Russia to try and undermine Lenin and co. Author Giles Milton has obviously got his hands on some pretty dense archive material because this is a book that follows the facts, sometimes down some unnecessary alleyways.
‘Russian’ starts off well as we discover that the Brits had a hand in the assassination of Rasputin. We are introduced to some of the main players in the British intelligence services of the time as well as some of the Russian. However, as this is fact and not fiction, Milton is compelled to stick to the truth and that is not always as free flowing as you would like. The book has to leap back and forth amongst characters as new players enter the field. These are real men and women, so you cannot transpose the acts of one onto the other. What this means is that the book spends inordinate amounts of time exploring the background of the people and not getting to the spy elements quickly enough for my liking,
This book is written as a piece of light history that should be accessible to all. It is far more readable than an academic textbook, but that does not mean it is any more interesting. Milton is too often distracted in his writing and explores areas that are quite dull. I am a fan of fiction first, but tried ‘Russian’ for something a little different. Although the book is straight forward to read, it is not really engaging enough to bother and I will stick to the made up stuff for now.
on 23 January 2014
With the onset of Bolshevism, Russia became a very dodgy place for Brits. Plans for World domination,via India, by the proletariat scared the pants off Britain. Many British spies were recruited to keep London informed of the situation in Russia. This book tells the tale of these very courageous and sometimes foolhardy individuals.Brilliant read.
on 14 January 2014
Much that I didn't know here. Well written, with a nice pace, and easy to read. A bit like a modern-day Boys' Own tale overall; and most enjoyable to read. I can fully recommend it.
on 28 September 2013
I thoroughly enjoyed this well written book. Whilst it says very little which is new about the topic I think it a good introduction for those have not met the subject previously. Perhaps it needed something on British involvement in the Caucuses. The further reading list at the end of the book is very useful for those who want to read more.
At times I wanted to know more in particular about Malleson the intelligence officer based at Meshed, a Kitchener man, whom neither Meinertzhagen and Teague-Jones had much time for. In this book the author says Malleson led troops into Russia I thought he sent them in and someone else actually led the battle troops -L/Colonel Knollys?. If memory serves me correctly in his "Army Diary" Meinertzhagen says Malleson (I assume the same one) was sent home from East Africa by Smuts for leaving the battlefield - a fighting soldier he was not.