On November 8, 1917, Vladimir Lenin gave a rousing speech at the Smolny Institute in Petrograd calling for permanent revolution across all Western democracies. Afterwards, his fellow Bolshevik and founder of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, stood at the podium, warning that “the Russian revolution will [either] create a revolutionary movement in Europe, or the European powers will destroy the Russian revolution.” Both Lenin and Trotsky knew that if communism did not become global, it would slowly disintegrate. And so they began thinking of ways to export their revolution.
There were whispers of Communist revolutions in Germany, Hungary, and Italy during this period. But these amounted to a few skirmishes rather than a true power grab. So Lenin came up with another strategy: If communism was to achieve global dominance, it would need to strike immediately at the heart of the world’s leading empire, Great Britain.
Lenin’s first attempt to dismantle imperial power began when he tore up the Anglo-Russian convention of 1907. This was an agreement that protected British India’s northern frontiers from a Russian assault. Lenin claimed that Britain was now the Soviet Union’s greatest enemy; furthermore, he intended to stir up a Soviet-backed/Islamic-led revolution within the British Raj. For Trotsky and Lenin, the plan was a no-brainer: If Britain lost its largest imperial production outpost in India—with her access to cheap labor and endless amounts of raw materials—then revolution in the mother country would follow suit. This, the Bolsheviks believed, would ignite revolutionary fervor throughout Western Europe, and eventually reach North America. Global capitalism would collapse and a utopian, classless world—as envisioned by Marx and Engels—would prevail forever. Or so they thought.
Lenin and his Soviet comrades would be prevented from turning this plan into reality by a vast network of spies working tirelessly for MI6 across Russia and Central Asia from 1917 to 1921. This subject is explored with great aplomb here, and Giles Milton’s narrative contains a cast of characters that wouldn’t be out of place in an Ian Fleming novel. In fact, many of these Oxbridge-educated, highly sophisticated alpha males—with their penchant for expensive brandy, voluptuous aristocratic women, forged passports, ready-made disguises, and multiple identities—inspired Fleming to write his series of James Bond novels.
We now know that the central hero here is Robert Bruce Lockhart, who was in charge of British espionage activities in Russia during this period and who became a close friend to Fleming after World War II. In Russian Roulette, Milton recalls how Lockhart attempted to topple the entire Bolshevik regime in August 1918. Other players in this escapade included a Latvian nationalist called Colonel Berzin and two British spies, George Hill and Sidney Reilly. Reilly handed the Latvian a fee of 700,000 rubles, nearly a quarter of which had come from the French and American consuls in Moscow. The British Secret Service had no knowledge whatsoever of the planned coup d’état, which was to place Lenin and Trotsky under arrest and march them through the streets of Petrograd, where a provisional government was to be set up.
The plan failed miserably, however, mainly because Lenin and the head of the Petrograd secret police, Moisei Uritsky, were both shot around the time the coup was to take place. Lenin survived—and the Soviet authorities arrested Lockhart, charging him with the attempt on Lenin’s life. (Lockhart would later be released by the Soviets when the British government arranged for him to be exchanged for several Soviet diplomats detained in England.)
Milton gives the Russians their due when they deserve it: The Soviet secret police, the Cheka, was ruthlessly efficient—and bloodthirsty—at penetrating British spy rings working in Moscow and Petrograd. He also points out that economic power was what ultimately cost the Soviets the information war: At the height of this global espionage operation, the British Treasury was coughing up a staggering £80,000 a month (nearly £3 million in today’s money) to keep the information flowing back to London. When it came to this vast network of intelligence, stretching from the Finnish border to Central Asia, the Soviets couldn’t compete on the same cost scale. And so they lost.
Milton also describes Lenin’s plan, masterminded with the Indian revolutionary Manabendra Roy, to lead an army of Indian nationalists to fight a proxy war in Tashkent.
The revolutionaries, fighting a Communist war masquerading as a nationalist one, would then be led through Afghanistan and across the frontier into British India. Yet it was a small network of enormously capable British spies, placed in the bleak, remote mountain ranges of Russian Central Asia, that prevented the plan from materializing into a reality.
Milton’s strength as a storyteller lies in his ability to whisk the reader along at the pace of a thriller. But it can be a dangerous game when the historian is on the outlook for drama. When Milton tells us that “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,” the reader feels instantly patronized. Still, this is a valuable contribution to the history of the Russian revolution—and a welcome revival of interest in a largely forgotten episode.
J. P. O’Malley is a writer in London.