After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Britain engaged in a proxy war against the new Bolshevik regime. Their objective was simple: to stifle the nascent communist regime at birth, and to prevent the spread of the revolution to neighbouring countries. For the British Empire, this meant one country above all: India.
‘Britain’ here really means the aristocratic rulers of the United Kingdom. At the time of the Russian Revolution, only 60% of adult males in the UK were entitled to vote. The government was made up of the well-heeled sons of the privileged classes, and it is they who set out to undermine the Russian Revolution by any means necessary. The rules of cricket no longer applied (as if they ever did).
Even before the Revolution, British agents were playing a decisive role in Russian affairs. Milton shows how undercover agents may have assassinated Rasputin. Needing to cover their tracks, the conspirators then cooked up an elaborate fable of how the ‘mad monk’ had been almost indestructible, having been poisoned, shot and dumped in the Neva.
Russian Roulette is subtitled ‘How British Spies Defeated Lenin’ but it could just as easily have been ‘The Birth of the British Secret Service’. Though it began in wartime, from which the codename MI6 emerged (Military Intelligence Six), the undercover operations expanded immeasurably once the threat of communism appeared in Eastern Europe.
Milton is firmly on the side of the spooks, and there is a Boys’ Own feel to their daring escapades behind enemy lines. The ingenuity of the undercover agents on all sides is incredible:
[a German] spy had concealed documents inside his mouth. It was all to no avail. The searcher gently forced the mouth open, took out the top denture and from the roof of the man’s mouth a tiny packet of oiled silk, not the thickness of a postage stamp, fell on his tongue. Inside the packet was information in microscopic writing.
Other agents faced the risk of exposure or capture on a daily basis, but they often pulled through due to their superhuman chutzpah. In many cases, the only way to travel around Russia was to hold a pass denoting the bearer to be a member of the Cheka (a forerunner of the KGB). So the British agents just joined the organisation.
These agents were not averse to getting their hands dirty:
[George Hill] realised that he was being followed by two of the men … ‘Just as they were about to close with me I swung round and flourished my walking stick. As I expected, one of my assailants seized hold of it.’ He was in for an unpleasant surprise. ‘It was a swordstick, which had been specially designed by Mssrs. Wilkinson, the sword-makers of Pall Mall, and the moment my attacker had the scabbard in his fist, I drew back the rapier-like blade with a jerk and with a forward lunge ran it through the gentleman’s side’.
Britain’s spymasters did not have it all their own way. Astonishingly, at one stage before the revolution, the UK authorities held both Lenin and Trotsky prisoner, having captured each in separate incidents. A recent amnesty forced them to let both men go free.
Nevertheless, whipped up to a near genocidal frenzy by the success of the Bolsheviks, some members of the British government were prepared to launch total war against their undeclared adverseries. British officers used chemical warfare on Russian civilians and villages whilst aiding the White Russian resistance.
They didn’t even want to stop there. War Minister Winston Churchill enthusiastically urged the continuation of the campaign against rebel forces in India:
‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes … Gas is a more merciful weapon than [the] high-explosive shell … Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze?’ He asked. ‘It is really too silly.’
Making use of first-hand accounts and covering a vast geographic sweep, Milton does a miraculous job of keeping all the threads of his narrative under control. Russian Roulette unpicks a web of lies and deceit to take us behind the closed doors of a secret struggle that was open warfare in all but name.
There is also a fun photo section in the middle of the book where the spies are shown in their various astonishing disguises, although this does leave one mystery.
On the front cover of the book, there is a photo of a person who doesn’t appear in this middle section, so we have no idea who he is (this is the man on the left of the cover in the huge fur hat). The editors must have cut him from the photo section while the cover was being designed, leaving just one loose end hanging from this tightly-woven tale of a forgotten war.
UPDATE: the man in the hat is Frederick Bailey, ‘our man in Tashkent’, who performed wonders in evading capture behind ‘frenemy’ lines. Thanks for Giles Milton via Twitter!