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Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted…

Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Plot for Global…

by Giles Milton

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History lite, and as such a fun read. Subtitle: "how British spies thwarted Lenin's gobal plot" overstates the case. Lenin's plot seems to have been as much hot air and propaganda as actual strategy, and the spies little more than gadflies on the Bolshevik bottom. Some great character sketches, though, including Lenin himself and especially Manfield Cumming, the eccentric headmasterly head of Brit intel, the first "C". Much derring-do of a Buchanesque variety including outlandish disguises, invisible inks (made from sperm so women spies were out!), one infiltrating the Cheka and being set to hunt down himself. Intriguing detail is how effective Trotsky, a mere journalist, was as military leader; The reds missed a trick when they booted him out. Seems to have been a playground for minor writers (Somerset Maugham, Arthur Ransome). Cheering to know that the Brits were inside the heart of the Soviet machine right from the start; the game didn't all go to Philby and Blunt. And breaking enemy codes, decades before Bletchley.
Not much to do with Lenin but a rich prologue is on the murder of Rasputin. The well-known story put out by Yousoupov i've known for a long time. Seems it's a cover-up. The coup de grace at least was a British bullet, probably delivered by a British hand, and that version has certainly been kept well under wraps. The Wikipedia account confirms it as a viable hypothesis, if not hard fact. Motive: Rasputin was against the war with Germany, so eliminating him would help keep Russia in the war. ( )
1 vote vguy | Aug 16, 2014 |
This Bloomsbury Press eBook is rather an odd volume, hard to get into but fascinating all the same. Beginning in 1916 with the conspiracy to murder Rasputin, this part of the book doesn't really seem to belong, but it does straighten out legend from fact about how much it took to kill the priest.

The book is more about Lenin's takeover of Russia and his grandiose plots to spread his revolution throughout Afghanistan and the other -stans, as well as India and beyond. He would stir up the various religious groups against the British, which is a little hard to believe when I thought it was common knowledge that Communist Russia was atheist. However, he succeeded to an alarming extent.

As I read about Lenin and his plans, I kept thinking about Putin instead. The similarities were a little frightening since Putin was beginning his "invasion" of Ukraine with blatant disregard of what the rest of the world thinks.

The major topic of the book though, is the founding of Great Britain's MI6, their version of our CIA. Spycraft was in its infancy at the time but Mansfield George Smith Cumming, the founder of MI6, brought together an outstanding roster of brave, innovative, brilliant men who managed to infiltrate Lenin's government as well as foil his association with the opponents of the Raj.

There are interesting little tidbits about the characters and their disguises and ability to evade capture, their love affairs and close calls. Somerset Maugham was one of them, even though he had tuberculosis, and later wrote his Ashenden spy novels as semi-fictional versions of his own experiences. The book portrays Churchill as a hothead who could have horribly botched things for his country. I don't recall anything good about him in this book at all.

Even though I learned a lot about spies and their life on the edge, I never got a real sense of just how much danger they were in most of the time. The difficulty in getting information to England, on the other hand, was fully explained, but then I kept thinking the spy whose messages were intercepted would be arrested, but they usually weren't. It also seemed like they were too easily able to fool Lenin.

This review is disjointed, I know, and I think that is a direct result of the fact that the book is too. I wanted to like the book but never could work up any enthusiasm for it. Sad.

Not recommended
Source: Bloomsbury ( )
  bjmitch | Jun 19, 2014 |
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RUSSIAN ROULETTE tells the story of the first global plot and the British spies who were sent to thwart it.

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