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G A Henty in Russia
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.