Russian roulette, p.1
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       Russian Roulette, p.1

           Giles Milton
Russian Roulette

  Russian Roulette

  A Deadly Game: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Global Plot

  Giles Milton

  First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Sceptre

  An imprint of Hodder & Stoughton

  An Hachette UK company

  Copyright © Giles Milton 2013

  The right of Giles Milton to be identified as the Author of the Work

  has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright,

  Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,

  stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any

  means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be

  otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that

  in which it is published and without a similar condition being

  imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

  A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library

  ISBN 978 1 444 73705 9

  Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

  338 Euston Road

  London NW1 3BH

  For Alexis

  ‘James Bond is just a piece of nonsense I dreamed up. He’s not a Sidney Reilly, you know!’

  Ian Fleming


  List of Characters




  Part One





  Part Two









  Part Three








  Notes and Sources

  Selected Reading

  Permission Acknowledgements

  Plate Section

  About the Author

  Also by Giles Milton



  Mansfield Cumming: Head of Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Director of secret operations inside Soviet Russia.

  Samuel Hoare: SIS bureau chief in Petrograd.

  Ernest Boyce: SIS bureau chief in Moscow.

  John Scale: SIS bureau chief in Stockholm.

  Paul Dukes: spy (operating under aliases of Joseph Ilitch Afirenko, Joseph Krylenko, Alexander Vasilievitch Markovitch and Alexander Bankau).

  Arthur Ransome: journalist and spy.

  George Hill: spy (operating under alias of George Bergmann).

  Sidney Reilly: spy (operating under aliases of Konstantine Markovich Massino, Mr Constantine and Sigmund Relinsky).

  Augustus Agar: special agent.

  Somerset Maugham: special agent (operating under name of Somerville).

  Oswald Rayner: special agent.

  Frederick Bailey: spy employed by government of British India (operating under aliases of Andrei Kekechi, Georgi Chuka and Joseph Kastamuni).

  Wilfrid Malleson: army general and spy-master employed by government of British India.

  Robert Bruce Lockhart: diplomat.


  Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: Russia’s revolutionary leader.

  Leon Trotsky: revolutionary and leader of Red Army.

  Felix Dzerzhinsky: Director of the Cheka, Russia’s secret police.

  Karl Radek: Vice-Commissar for Foreign Affairs.

  Yakov Peters: Deputy Chairman of the Cheka.

  Grigori Zinoviev: Head of the Comintern.

  Evgenia Shelepina: Trotsky’s secretary and Arthur Ransome’s lover.

  Maria Zakrveskia (Budberg), known as Moura: Robert Bruce Lockhart’s lover.


  Manabendra Nath Roy: Indian revolutionary and leader of the ‘Army of God’.


  Much of the research material for Russian Roulette is housed in two depositories of archives: The India Office Records, now kept at the British Library, and the National Archives at Kew.

  Special thanks are due to the ever-helpful staff of the India Office Records. They proved invaluable in guiding me through the 751 files of Indian Political Intelligence. They also provided access to Frederick Bailey’s photographic collection: two of his photographs are reproduced in the plate section of this book.

  The staff of the National Archives proved helpful in locating key documents. The pictures of the M Device, also reproduced in the plate section, were found in one of the National Archive’s many files concerning the development of chemical weapons.

  Thank you to the Institute of Historical Research.

  The librarians of the London Library, where much of this book was written, have proved as helpful for Russian Roulette as they were for all my previous books.

  A full list of sources is provided at the end of this book but special mention must be made of one author whose works have proved particularly inspiring. The doyen of Great Game specialists is Peter Hopkirk, whose books combine serious scholarship with page-turning narrative. Although new material has come to light in recent years, they remain a standard (and invaluable) reference for the subject of the struggle for control of Central Asia.

  I am indebted to those spies who elected to publish their experiences, risking costly law suits for doing so. ‘There is scarcely a page . . . that does not damage the foundation of secrecy upon which the Secret Service is built up.’ So reads a Secret Intelligence Service memo concerning the publication of Compton Mackenzie’s book Greek Memories, with its account of Mansfield Cumming.

  First-hand accounts must be treated with caution: my aim throughout was to corroborate and balance the sometimes exuberant stories of the spies’ undercover adventures with the more sober tone of their intelligence reports.

  Thank you to my literary agent, Georgia Garrett, for her hard work and ever-helpful advice; and to her team at Rogers, Coleridge and White.

  Thank you, equally, to my editor, Lisa Highton, for her excellent advice, encouragement and supportiveness, and for seeing the project through from inception to publication.

  Thanks are also due to Federico Andornino, Juliet Brightmore (for her work on the plate section) and Tara Gladden, who copy-edited the book.

  I would like to single out my French editor, Vera Michalski, for special mention. She embraced the project from the outset and bought the French (and Polish) rights long before the book was completed.

  Thank you, also, to the other foreign editors who will be publishing the book, notably Peter Ginna at Bloomsbury USA and Sindbad editors in Russia.

  Lastly, a fanfare of thanks must be sounded for the home team: Alexandra, who read countless versions of the manuscript yet still managed to provide excellent (and much-needed) advice; and to Madeleine, Héloïse and Aurélia for reminding me that there is life outside the world of espionage, skull-duggery and dirty tricks.

  Magny, spring 2013.




  Shortly before dusk on 16 April 1917, three Englishmen could be seen loitering in the shadows of Finlyandsky Station in the Russian city of Petrograd.

  They were not spies – at least, not yet. But they had all been drawn to the station for the same reason. They had been informed that something
unusual, and possibly dangerous, was due to happen that very evening. And they wanted to be there to witness it.

  They had already been waiting several hours, for the train they were hoping to meet was running extremely late. When it at last pulled alongside the platform, it let out a valedictory hiss of steam, as if to remind passengers of its tiresome trek across Northern Russia. Then the carriage doors started to bang open, as the passengers flung them against the side of the train.

  From one of these doors emerged a most peculiar-looking individual. His beard was clipped to a sharp point and his protruding forehead was accentuated by his felt homburg. In the gloom of a Petrograd twilight, he had the air of a Scandinavian goblin.

  This newly arrived stranger looked from left to right as his beady eyes adjusted themselves to the darkness. The long years of war meant that only a few of the station’s gaslights were working.

  As he called to his comrades who were still on the train, there was the loud snap of a carbide lamp. Suddenly, dramatically, the station’s shadows were cut through by a thick shaft of light. The mystery figure was bathed from head to foot in dazzling brightness.

  It was a scene of operatic grandeur, or so it seemed to the small group that had gathered on the station concourse. As a hastily assembled band pumped out the ‘Marseillaise’, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – better known as Lenin – turned to acknowledge the crowd. He was returning to Russia after ten years in exile.

  The group of armed revolutionaries who had gathered to greet Lenin unfurled their red and gold banners and shone more of their lights onto their beloved leader. As they did so, Lenin clambered onto the bonnet of an armoured car and made his first historic address on Russian soil. He declared that the political turmoil afflicting Russia was no local affair: it was the beginning of a worldwide revolution that was certain to engulf the democracies of Western Europe and North America.

  ‘Dear Comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers! I greet you as the vanguard of the worldwide proletarian army.’ Lenin’s opening words prompted a wild fanfare from his supporters. As the cheering increased in volume, he launched into a fiery and uncompromising speech, promising to unleash ‘a civil war throughout Europe’ that would rip the continent apart. ‘Long live the worldwide Socialist revolution!’

  Lenin was entirely ignorant of the fact that his arrival was being monitored by three Englishmen. One of these men was Arthur Ransome, a journalist with the Daily News. Ransome was not impressed by this bald-headed revolutionary, with his outdated clothes and caustic tongue. He did not even mention Lenin in that evening’s despatches.

  Paul Dukes, a courier working for the British Embassy, was similarly underwhelmed. He described Lenin as a ‘little man with Asiatic features who was totally unknown to the general populace’.

  Yet there was something about Lenin’s turn of phrase that grabbed his attention. It was gripping – magnetic, even – and he was sufficiently disturbed by his gospel of world revolution to send a warning to the Foreign Office in London. His telegram was widely treated as a joke. ‘Some of my colleagues laughed,’ said Dukes. ‘They pooh-poohed the idea of Lenin’s having any significance.’

  The third in the trio of Englishmen at the station, William Gibson, left the fullest account of Lenin’s arrival. ‘An ugly bald man below medium height, with eyes like daggers, he regarded the crowd with an indescribable look of insolent mastery.’

  Gibson watched in appalled fascination as Lenin commanded silence with a flick of his hand. Everyone instantly obeyed. ‘Without one word,’ wrote Gibson, ‘this seemingly wretched little figure made his presence felt to the onlookers in a way they had never before experienced in their lives.’

  Gibson felt repulsed and fascinated in equal measure by this enigmatic character. ‘Whatever he was, he seemed alike superhuman and inhuman; ready to bathe in blood to gain the glorious realisation of his mighty dream.’ It was as if Lenin was a new Messiah, albeit one preaching violent revolution rather than peace.

  ‘There was something sinister, terrifying, in the air, and yet one felt drawn towards him.’ Lenin’s hypnotic charm worked an immediate spell on its audience.

  William Gibson had been right to fear this revolutionary oddball. Everything that Lenin predicted seemed to come to pass. Like an Old Testament prophet, his words were miraculously transformed into reality.

  People scoffed when he vowed to sweep away the old order in Russia. Yet he did just that within months of arriving back in the country. Few believed that he would pull Russian forces out of the First World War and even fewer that he would have Tsar Nicholas and his family murdered in cold blood. Yet both of these things came to pass.

  Very soon after Lenin seized power, the world awoke to the fact that it was facing a new and terrible threat. The British ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, was the first to alert London to the fact that a dark force was emerging in Russia – one quite unlike any other regime in existence. He warned that Lenin had not only brought revolution to Russia, but was determined ‘to overthrow all the so-called imperialistic governments.’ He first intended to direct all his energies into the struggle against Britain. Then, he would turn his attentions to the rest of the world.

  Scarcely had Buchanan’s message been received in London than Lenin tore up the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. This was an agreement of vital strategic importance to Britain: it set out spheres of influence in Central Asia and protected British India’s northern frontiers from attack by Russia. Suddenly, those frontiers looked very vulnerable.

  Lenin’s nullification of the treaty was accompanied by an uncompromising message; one that sent the first shiver of alarm through Whitehall. He issued a rallying cry to Asia’s oppressed millions, urging them to follow the lead of the Bolsheviks and cast off the yoke of colonial rule.

  His rhetoric soon became even more fiery. India, the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown, was to be snatched away by the Bolsheviks. ‘England is our greatest enemy,’ he thundered. ‘It is in India that we must strike them hardest.’

  The timing of Lenin’s call to arms could not have been worse for the rulers of British India. Civil unrest was on the rise and revolutionary violence was greatly feared by the authorities, especially given the paucity of British troops in the subcontinent.

  At the outset of war, India’s viceroy, Lord Hardinge, had spoken of ‘the risks involved in denuding India of troops.’ But the soldiers of British India had been urgently required in both Europe and Mesopotamia and they were transferred en masse. Hardinge feared the worst. ‘Our position in India is a bit of a gamble at the present time,’ he warned.

  This was an understatement. By the time Lenin seized power in Russia there had been such an exodus of British troops that not a single battalion remained on Indian soil, with the exception of the eight permanently stationed on the volatile North-West Frontier. Even these were hopelessly ill-equipped. ‘The recruiting barrel has been scraped to the bottom,’ conceded their commander, Lieutenant-General George Molesworth.

  Lenin had long argued that the Bolshevik movement should fund and assist Indians ‘in their revolutionary war against the imperialist powers that oppress them.’ Now, the Bolshevik Council of People’s Commissars voted to invest the enormous sum of two million gold roubles in exporting their revolution.

  Ambassador Buchanan was appalled by what he was hearing. ‘Mr Lenin spoke of us as rapacious extortioners and plunderers,’ he said, ‘while he incited our Indian subjects to rebellion.’ He added that it was quite extraordinary ‘for a man who claims to direct Russian policy to use such language to a friendly and allied country.’

  But Lenin did not see Britain as a friendly and allied country. He had long viewed it as his most bitter enemy, one whose empire needed to be violently dismantled.

  Ambassador Buchanan feared that Lenin was intent on launching a whole new chapter of the Great Game – the struggle for political mastery in Central Asia. He also believed that Russia’s Bolshevik rulers would stop at nothing to p
ush revolution deep into British India.

  This was indeed Lenin’s goal. But his revolutionary vision had an even wider sweep. He had long been convinced that if Britain lost her prized imperial possession, with its cheap labour and raw materials, then revolution in the motherland would surely follow. This would then spark a wave of revolutions throughout Western Europe and North America, causing the world’s greatest democracies to topple like dominos.

  The old order was already haunted by the spectre of revolution by the time Lenin seized the reins of power in Russia. There was a very real fear that it would only take one extra push for the Western world to come crashing down.

  Thus began an exhilarating game of Russian Roulette in which the stakes could not have been higher. The world was at a tipping point and no one could predict which way the balance would fall.

  The most obvious way to counter the Bolshevik revolutionaries would have been to launch a full-scale military intervention in Russia before the new rulers had consolidated their grip on power. This was indeed contemplated. But Britain simply did not have the resources to land a sufficiently large army in Russia while it was still at war with Germany. Indeed, it was struggling to survive a catastrophic conflict that had claimed millions of young lives.

  The threat posed by Lenin was so unpredictable and relentless that it was to call for a wholly new approach, one in which the rules of the game were to be forever changed.

  With military intervention an impossibility, there was no other option but to rest the fate of the Western world upon the shoulders of a small but highly trained group of secret agents. They would have to risk everything to infiltrate Russia’s revolutionary government and sabotage Lenin’s strategy from within.

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