Books: Ace of Spies? More like a Joker

Iron Maze: The Western Secret Service and the Bolsheviks by Gordon Brook-Shepherd Macmillan pounds 20
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On a visit to Moscow's Lenin Museum six years ago I was intrigued by a display which seemed out of place amid the banners, paintings and posters glorifying the Workers' Revolution. The gleaming Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce with an astrakhan-collared black overcoat draped beside it are more suggestive of Yeltsin's plutocracy than Marxism-Leninism, yet the give-away is in the bullet holes in the coat and car bodywork.

It has taken Gordon Brook-Shepherd's coup of literary detection to solve the mystery behind these relics of the August 1918 assassination attempt on the architect of revolution. Exploiting unique access which he was given to MI6 files, the author has shown how the Soviet secret police, the Cheka, used the incident in which a young Social Revolutionary, Dora Kaplan, shot and wounded Lenin while he was visiting a factory, as an excuse to lay their own snare for foreign agents as well as Russian anti- Communists like Kaplan, and expose their plot to bring down Communism.

A prime mover in the inaptly named Lockhart plot (after Robert Bruce Lockhart, the raffish young diplomat who initially was a special emissary to the Bolsheviks) was Sidney Reilly, the Russian-Jewish secret agent and international wheeler-dealer who subsequently became the mis-named "Ace of Spies". How much of a misnomer becomes clear in Brook-Shepherd's judiciously handled yet never less than fascinating case history of the Secret Service's first major Intelligence disaster - one on which they maintained absolute silence for 80 years, until the author persuaded them to show him Reilly's personal file.

That, and his confessedly amazing luck in tracking down the unpublished diaries of General Alexander Orlov, the first prominent defector from the Russian Secret Service, gave this wartime Intelligence officer the lead he needed to solve the mystery.

Reilly was dispatched to Russia as Agent ST1 of the newly formed MI6 to help Lockhart turn post-revolutionary chaos to the advantage of the Allies, who were desperately trying to stem a German offensive on the Western Front supported by divisions released as a result of the armistice signed with the Bolsheviks on the Eastern Front. The "Ace" arrived with the personal backing of Captain Smith-Cumming - "C", head of the Secret Service - and 16 diamonds, worth pounds 640, to help him pass himself off as a diamond trader. A gambler, economical with the truth, Reilly was a wild card for "C" to play in such a highly charged political game.

The hare-brained scheme he concocted with the connivance of the French charge d'affairs was to arrest Lenin and Trotsky at the Bolshoi Theatre, while they attended a session of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Having bribed the Latvian Red Guards, the Praetorians of the Revolution, to change sides, the Allied counter-revolutionaries (who included an American agent of the forerunner of the CIA as well as Kaplan's confederates) would launch a coup, shooting the Communist leadership in their theatre boxes, and blowing up the Moscow bridges to prevent reinforcements while the Latvians broke out to join up with the advanced guard of Allied interventionists who had just landed at Archangel to "strangle the Bolshevik infant in its cradle".

Even had they believed Reilly's guarantee of independent statehood after the coup, the Latvians were the last citizens of All the Russias whom the conspirators should have trusted. They were the hard hit-men of revolution who formed the backbone of the Cheka, and had assassinated the Imperial family. Colonel Edward Berzin, who approached Lockhart with the news that the Latvian regiments were ready to defect, was an agent provocateur and Brook-Shepherd proves, for the first time, that the mastermind behind the entrapment scheme was Lenin. Reilly carelessly left the address of the conspirators' rendezvous - the flat of one of his many mistresses - lying around where Berzin spotted it and passed it on to the Cheka.

As Brook-Shepherd discovered, the Cheka already knew the conspirators' plans but were stampeded into launching their counter-strike by the Kaplan assassination attempt and the actual assassination of Uritsky, their bureau chief in Petrograd. Lenin's reach was long, even from a hospital bed, and Chekist raids netted the principal conspirators: Lockhart and Paul Dukes, MI6's chief of operations in Russia (whom Brook-Shepherd shows to have been more deserving of the "Ace" title).

Reilly escaped over the rooftops and back to England by cargo boat. Another escapee was Boris Savinkov, the "great revolutionary" who was probably Lenin's most formidable opponent and Kaplan's leader. Both he and Reilly were condemned to death in absentia - sentences executed years later thanks to probably the most elaborate scam ever carried out by the KGB's forerunners. The two men, both romantics, were persuaded, against all the evidence, and in Savinkov's case the warnings of his own supporters, of the existence of a super-plot in Russia against the Kremlin leadership. They both went back to their deaths - Reilly falling for the blandishments of the most effective "swallow" (female entrapment agent) ever to give her all for the KGB. He thought he could wriggle out of even a Lubyanka death cell as he had evaded so many earlier traps, but was shot on an informal evening drive in the country with his Cheka captors.

Brook-Shepherd leaves a provocative challenge behind, hinted at in his revealing foreword on sources. When can we expect the Secret Service files to be opened to throw light on other intriguing mysteries?