A century ago, the opening shots of World War One would be heard and a large part of the world was plunged into war. The United States would at first be neutral but that would change in 1917 with America’s entry into the conflict.
Germany, as it would do nearly thirty years later, would fight a two front war with Western European powers and the US on one side (The Western Front) and Russia on the other side (The Eastern Front.) However, when Russia, racked with increasing civil turmoil, signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in early 1918 effectively ending the war on the Eastern Front, revolution which had taken shape in Russia first with the overthrow of the Emperor Nicholas II and then with the victory by the Bolsheviks lead by Vladimir Lenin, was in full swing.
With his ascension to power, Lenin began to focus on exporting his socialist revolution to the world so that capitalism and capitalistic nations would fall. The English took a dim view of Lenin’s plans and thus began an effort to defeat those plans as well as re-establish a government friendly to the west, democracy, and capitalism. Giles Milton’s book chronicles this effort with the stories of an eclectic group of British agents and friendly Russians of what would become commonly called the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) or MI6.
Russian Roulette: A Deadly Game: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin’s Global Plot, is a wonderfully written and fast paced account of the SIS and its work in two primary locations – around Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg) and Moscow in Western Russia and in the mountainous “roof of the world” into which Lenin would pour material and troops for the purpose of enabling Indian revolutionaries to overthrow British rule and embrace socialism as a first step in a socialist revolution. And Milton tells this story as he introduces us to the head of SIS “C” or Captain Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming and several key agents including the notable (and to some the notorious) Sidney Reilly, Paul Dukes who became known as the “man of a hundred faces” and the resourceful and ruthless British General Wilfrid Malleson who used secret information given to him to undermine a Russian backed jihad in the harsh hinterlands of Central Asia. Alongside the stories of these and other men, Milton chronicles the development of modern spy techniques and tricks that became mainstream in the years ahead – safe houses, multiple disguises, developing contacts deep within a hostile government, invisible inks, and use of emerging military technology such as the use of British “skimmer” boats along the Finnish-Russian border.
The result is a wonderful book that brings to light stories about the development of modern intelligence as well as the attempts to save Russia from a harsh political philosophy that would last for over seventy years and enslave a large portion of central Europe for over fifty years.
I liked this book because of its main story line which filled in some history that I had never learned – notably Malleson’s efforts to thwart a Soviet-Islamic pact designed to turn India into a socialist state and because it showed me that places in which the West again finds itself, notably Afghanistan, continues to be areas of the world in which clashing worldviews and their respective political philosophies again are facing off against one another.
I rate this book a ‘magnificent’ read.
Note: I received a galley copy of this book from the publisher, Bloomsbury Press, via Net Galley in exchange for review. I was not required to write a positive review.