Most Secret Agent of Empire by Taline Ter Minassian, book review: Biography of a mysterious spy is an exercise in deception

The author's background leads to a post-structuralist interpretation of history

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The Independent Culture

Whatever happened in the Turkmenistan desert on the night of 20 September 1918 marked the end of Reginald Teague-Jones. Or did it? Four years later, the spitting image of the vanished spy reappeared, calling himself Ronald Sinclair. Teague-Jones was still under cover as Sinclair at the age of 99 when he warned his nurse that “the Bolsheviks” might yet “break down the garden door” to settle  their scores. 

Teague-Jones, who hyphenated his name to disguise his humble Liverpool origins, leaves few clues about his early life. One of the many mysteries of Teague-Jones is how he ended up in St Petersburg at the age of 13. One explanation is that well-off family friends took Reginald to Petrograd as a companion for their son. When Teague-Jones returned to England four years later, he was fluent in Russian, German and French – and had already seen bloodshed during the 1905 Revolution.

St Petersburg improved Teague-Jones’s social status, but not enough for the Foreign Office. Instead, he found himself training to be a colonial cop at the Punjab Police Academy. The budding spy began his career with the Frontier Constabulary, a paramilitary police force with only a dozen British officers. Their job was to control large regions without the expensive intervention of regular troops – when used, the soldiers nicknamed their punitive raids, “butcher and bolt”. The same region is now the target of drone strikes which, likewise,  have replaced the former, more costly operations. Nor have the tactics of the other side changed. A 1914 intelligence report warns of “a party of four Mahsuds dressed in uniforms of the South Waziristan Militia” whose object was to take hostage a British officer.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Teague-Jones, disguised as an Armenian merchant, travelled across Central Asia by mule and train, gathering intelligence. He had the impossible job of assessing the shifting alliances of a “complex tribal chessboard” which pitted Bolsheviks against pro-Turks and tribal nationalists against both.  The notorious affair of the murdered commissars – which inspired a  1933 Soviet feature film wrongly demonising Teague-Jones as the villain – grew out of these complexities.

The book itself is an exercise in deception. The cover photo, showing a turbaned Teague-Jones as an Indian Army officer, suggests a quintessentially British period piece. No one would guess that it was originally written in French by a female historian of Armenian origin. The author’s grandfather, a Dashnak  revolutionary, played a role in the historical events described.  Taline Ter Minassian’s book owes more to Foucault than Kipling or Marx. The heterogeneity of the author’s own background and her portrayal of the instabilities of Central Asia have turned a ripping yarn of empire into a post-structuralist interpretation of history.

The book boasts a superb collection of Teague-Jones’s own photos, but their sepia period tinge fades as the reader realises how much the spy’s life “illuminates present developments in the regions between Russia, Central Asia, Transcaucasia, India, Pakistan and the Middle East, the lands of the old and the new, Great Game”. Tom Rees’s translation is a flawless flow that captures both nuance and vernacular.