Sunday, 27 October 2013

Russian Roulette by Giles Milton, reviewed by Julia Jones

Russian Roulette
A Deadly Game: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Global Plot
Giles Milton

Julia Jones's review appears in the current issue of Mixed Moss - journal of The Arthur Ransome Society

This story begins at the Finland Station, Petrograd, 16th April 1917. Three Englishmen have been there for several hours already as the train they are expecting is running late. They know that something is about to happen: they are not yet sure how significant it will be. The three Englishmen are William Gibson, an English adventurer staying with his mother-in-law, Madame Schwatz-Eberhard, Paul Dukes, a British Embassy courier, and Arthur Ransome, then a journalist for the Daily News. The man for whom they are waiting is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – Lenin. Finally the train pulls in to the darkened station. A bright light illuminates the central figure, a band strikes up the Marseillaise, Lenin speaks to the waiting crowd: “Dear Comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers. I greet you as the vanguard of the worldwide proletarian army.”

Ironically neither Ransome nor Dukes appears to have made much of the event at the time. Ransome was well aware of the simmering unrest and latent violence that had intensified in the city since the assassination of Rasputin at New Year. However he had been instructed by the Daily News to cut down the length of his despatches so did not include Lenin's arrival in that evening's round-up. Dukes, though underwhelmed by Lenin's appearance, sent a message of warning to the Foreign Office that was widely treated as a joke. Gibson, whose mother-in-law's house had recently been invaded by rioters, was the most immediately impressed. “Without one word this seemingly wretched little figure made his presence felt to the onlookers in a way they had never before experienced in their lives.” Gibson plays no further part in the story. Both Ransome and Dukes were directly – and dangerously – involved.

Within weeks of his arrival at the Finland Station Lenin had repudiated the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention which set out spheres of influence in Central Asia and protected British India's northern frontiers from attack by Russia. Already the defences were weakened by the withdrawal of troops for service on the Western Front. Lenin was convinced that an alliance between Bolshevism and militant Islam with an attack across the North West Frontier would be the quickest and most effective ways to attack British imperialism and spread the world wide revolution. Russian Roulette follows this strand of history though until March 1921 when the extent of Russia's economic collapse forced Lenin to sign the Anglo-Soviet trade agreement and disown Manabendra Nath Roy's bizarre “Army of God” which he had financed and sent across the border only months previously.

What has this this new twist in the Great Game to do with Arthur Ransome, readers may ask? Giles Milton's contention is that the effective development of British espionage in Russia was the key ingredient in monitoring and thwarting Bolshevik ambitions as Lenin and the Comintern plotted to export their revolution. Grigori Zinoviev, first chairman of the Communist International (Comintern) had also been on the train that had arrived that at the Finland Station that April night. In March 1919 when the Comintern was founded and Lenin pledged global revolution Ransome was once again a witness. This time he had no doubt that what he was hearing mattered. “I could not help realising that I was present at something that would go down in the histories of socialism.” And by this time – March 1919 – he was officially part of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (later MI6). Paul Dukes had also been recruited.

After the killing of the Tsar and his family in July 1918 and the landings by Allied forces later that summer, diplomatic relationships between Russian and the outside world were almost non-existent and the position of any British, French or American national was, at the least, precarious. The ambassadors left the country: two hundred Allied nationals were arrested and interned. Official representatives were expelled. George Hill, a member of the Royal Flying Corps, who had originally been sent to Russian to train pilots for service on the Eastern Front, had previously asked Ransome's friend, Karl Radek, what would happen to him if Allied forces landed on Russian soil. Radek told him that he would either be imprisoned or executed “to show Bolshevik contempt for officers of a capitalist power.” In the summer of 1918 Hill realised it was time for him to disappear.

Clandestine information was the only way that the outside world could have any idea what was happening inside Russia – or what Russia was planning beyond its borders. Giles Milton traces the establishment of effective intelligence systems by the legendary 'C' – Mansfield George Smith Cumming, the Chief – from the arrival of Lenin in 1917 to the failure of his Indian ambitions in the early 1920s. Both Dukes and Ransome were recruited by 'C' in the winter of 1918. They were part of an organisation that included Somerset Maugham (who used his experience in his Ashenden stories), Sidney Reilly (the “Ace of Spies”), Augustus Agar who skimmed over the surface or the Baltic minefields in an ultra-light Coastal Motor Boat and George Hill, ex-Royal Flying Corps.

Hill had shared accommodation with Ransome in the Elite Hotel, Moscow. They had enjoyed heated arguments, frequently in their shared bathroom, after which Hill described Ransome as “beating himself dry like an outraged gorilla”. By 1921, when Lenin was finally forced into trade negotiations with London, British intelligence was so good that they were eavesdropping on every communication. “That swine Lloyd George has no scruple of shame in the way that he deceives,” Lenin instructed his trade envoy. “Don't believe a word he says and gull him three times as much.” This message, Milton reports, “was decoded and placed on Lloyd George's desk within hours of it being sent.”

I found it extraordinarily interesting to see Ransome as part of this wider picture. In an odd way Russian Roulette accentuates his individuality. Many of the agents who worked for the intelligence services were motivated either by a taste for reckless adventure or a hatred of Bolshevism. Ransome was neither. He believed he had a mission to explain each side to the other and he was also a man in love. He never allowed his sympathy for the Bolshevik ideology to tempt him to betray his country or his companions – unlike René Marchand, Bolshevik sympathiser and correspondent for Le Figaro, who was a trusted part of the British – French – American plan to overthrow the regime but then told all to Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka. Marchand was a genuine double agent as Ransome never was. 

Nevertheless, understanding the tension of the situation and the potential for damage, it's easy to see how Ransome's personal views and his relationship with Evgenia Schelpina (Trotsky's secretary) would make him suspect -- as it did to MI5. He should be “shot like a dog” said Major General Knox, formerly of the British Embassy in Petrograd. Those who knew the truth – like Lord Robert Cecil, Arthur Balfour and key players such as Robert Bruce Lockhart and George Hill – valued Ransome's accurate assessments of the situation. “He was extremely well-informed, intimate with the Bolsheviks and masterly at summing up a situation,” said Hill. It was a senior official from 'C's Secret Information Service (MI6) who pressurised the Daily News into retaining Ransome when he left Russia in November 1918. His work was deemed “vital” to British interests. Arthur Ransome was officially enrolled as agent ST76 and sent back to Petrograd.

The only quibble I have with Russian Roulette is its title. Yes, it emphasises recklessness, high stakes, calculation of the odds – many of the qualities of an outstanding agent – but one of the most important themes in Giles Milton's book is the importance of organisation; chains of couriers, safe houses and back-up. 'C' established bureaux in Stockholm, Helsingfors, Riga, Reval which provided essential support for Ransome, Dukes and the others. Those extraordinarily brave agents despatched deep into Russian Turkestan were not employed by the SIS. They therefore had no support network and frequently no means of sending out the information they had risked their lives to obtain. 

That single niggle aside, Russian Roulette is an exciting read, well and clearly written, generously sourced. It's a book that does more than fulfil its brief. As I read Milton's account of the ease with which the shrewd propagandist Wilfred Malleson succeeded in pitting Shia Muslims against Sunnis in Afghanistan, and the shameful episode of Churchill's use of poison gas in Northern Russia, I felt that Russian Roulette, like all good history, not only illuminates its period but has something to say to the present day as well.

Published by Sceptre August 2013
Hardback £20    Kindle edition £10.99