If you want some wonderful spy stories, and a lesson in 20th century revolution, try “Russian Roulette” by Giles Milton.
Just under a century ago, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known today as Lenin — returned to Russia and swept away the old Czarist regime. His first speech to his followers was at a train station on April 16, 1917, and was monitored by three British spies.
Only one of the latter took him seriously.
The British government soon would take Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the other revolutionaries very seriously when they overthrew the regime, instituted communism and attempted to spread it worldwide.
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“Russian Roulette” is a very readable book told through research, records, the spies’ own accounts and archives. It is an entertaining one-stop-shop book that introduces readers to the turbulent years of the Russian Revolution and the new “great game” of intelligence run by the British and the Soviets.
Who were these spies? The author Somerset Maugham was one. Another was Sidney Reilly, portrayed by the actor Sam Neill in the 1983 TV series “Reilly: Ace of Spies.” The leaders of the new Soviet regime thought the third, journalist Arthur Ransome, was on their side, but he reported back directly to British Intelligence. There were others as well who had contacts and lovers among the Russian revolutionaries. Some of the agents would die. So would their friends.
The effect of the Russian Revolution was felt not only in Moscow and Europe. Milton tells the story of Frederick Bailey, who was sent to discover what the Bolsheviks were doing in what is now Uzbekistan, a country to the northeast of Afghanistan, then part of a far-flung Russian empire.
Over the next 18 months, using several identities, Bailey sent information back on the spread of communism and the danger to British India. With a price on his head, his winter escape, through a desert and a blizzard, is torturous and fascinating reading.
The book’s index and bibliography will help if you want to explore more about this exciting, dangerous time.
“Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin’s Plot for Global Revolution” by Giles Milton; Bloomsbury Press, NY (400 pages, $28)