- - Wednesday, August 20, 2014

By Giles Milton
Bloomsbury, $28, 389 pages

To Great Britain, the threat issued by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known by his revolutionary name of Lenin — was clarion clear. In November 1917, soon after his Bolshevik faction seized control of Russia, he called on the “oppressed masses” of Asia to follow Russia’s example and throw off colonial rule.

He named as an early target India, the “jewel in Britain’s imperial crown.” Lenin declared, “England is our greatest enemy. It is in India that we must strike them hardest!” For emphasis, Lenin tore up the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention that laid out spheres of influence in Central Asia, specifically protecting India’s northern frontiers from Russian intrusion.

Lenin realized that Britain was especially vulnerable at the time. Wartime manpower priorities had forced London to strip bare its military strength in India, leaving only eight ill-equipped units permanently stationed on the volatile North-West Frontier.

In his exile years, Lenin had argued that his Bolsheviks would fund and assist Indians “in their revolutionary war against the imperialist powers that oppress them.” Commissars voted to invest the enormous sum of 2 million gold rubles in the overthrow. As Giles Milton writes, “He [Lenin] had been long convinced that if Britain lost its prized imperial possessions, with its cheap labor and raw materials, then revolution in the motherland would surely follow. This would spark a wave of revolutions throughout Western Europe and North America.”

For years after the Bolshevik Revolution, a succession of Soviet leaders — Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, whoever — bleated loudly about “perfidious Britain” using spies and sabotage in an attempt “to smother our new nation in its crib.” What hypocrisy. Through the public declarations cited above, Moscow made its intentions plain.

Britain accepted the challenge. When threatened with destruction, it was a nation that did not turn the other cheek and slink away. It resisted, and vigorously.

As Mr. Milton documents, the British intelligence service flooded Moscow with swarms of agents soon after the Bolsheviks seized power. The tasks were many. Could the Bolsheviks be overthrown and replaced by the ousted Kerensky government? Did the new government have the political will (and military capability) of continuing the fight against Germany?

The story of British machinations in Moscow has been related by both operatives and histories, ranging from Sidney (“The Ace of Spies”) Reilly to Somerset Maugham. Through skilled use of recently declassified files of Indian political intelligence, Mr. Milton gives a gripping account of how the Reds tried to carry out Lenin’s threat.

The Bolshevik schemes involved a mare’s nest of plots involving Muslims from Turkestan territories who bore a centuries-old hatred of Britain, plus recruits from the 190,000 German and Austrian POWs held by the Red Army. Soviet gold and arms flowed freely.

The British countered by sending its own agents to the areas abutting India, both to gather intelligence and to stir up opposition. One bold fellow, Frederick Bailey, was briefly captured. He brazenly told the Bolsheviks that they had many sympathizers in the British House of Commons. Were he to be harmed, this support could evaporate. The captors swallowed this yarn, incredible though it was, and Bailey went free. (He adopted the guise of an Austrian cook and continued his work.)

A more dangerous situation emerged in 1919 when the ruler of Afghanistan, Amir Amanulla, declared holy war against Britain. “Make their hearts tremble with your Islamic war cries,” he declared, “and destroy them with your flashing swords.”

Moscow chimed in with propaganda messages claiming that “Islam is in imminent danger of extinction.” It accused the British of converting a sacred Islamic shrine “into a cow-shed.” Oratory, no matter how passionate, has never been a match for field artillery, however, and the Afghans were beaten off.

Moscow made a last attempt through an Indian nationalist named Manabendra Nath Roy, who had been indicted in absentia in 1918 for plotting revolution. Roy made his way to Moscow and was embraced by the Soviet inner circle. He wanted bloodshed, saying that a nonviolent revolution was “as grotesque as a vegetarian tiger.” Roy sought to make use of some 50,000 militant Islamic tribesmen living along the North-West Frontier.

But even as he mustered his “Army of God,” economic reality crashed down on the nascent Soviet government. Postwar chaos saw industrial and farm production skidding, with millions facing starvation.

Story Continues →