- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

By Richard Spence
Feral House, $29.95, 544 pages, illus

A British-made dramatic series first telecast in 1984, "Reilly, Ace of Spies" was splendidlyexecuted and popular. The series of 12 one-hour programs featured a young Sam Neill and recounted the career of a deeply mysterious character active from fevered years before World War I to the Bolshevik Revolution and the aftermath. One of those who watched the series was the author of "Trust No One," Richard Spence, a freshly minted historian, as he puts it, with a special interest in Russian history.
Mr. Spence, though fascinated by Sidney Reilly, was occupied with a biography of a Russian adventurer. "But Reilly haunted that story as he did my imagination," writes the University of Idaho history professor. Mr. Spence eventually decided to track the tangled life of Reilly, and indeed the trail is dramatically involved, intricate and at times dizzying. "Perhaps the single most important fact about Sidney Reilly is that he never truly existed at all." In essence "Reilly was the most visible and significant persona" used by a man who employed many aliases and covered his various paths with exceptional cunning.
Sam Neill's Reilly was a charmingly devious fellow in the tumultuous maneuvering for power that rattled the world in those years. The television series portrayed him pretty much as favoring the British (it was based on a book by Robin Lockhart, the son of Sir R.H. Bruce Lockhart, a British intelligence agent who figured prominently with Reilly in a failed coup against the Bolsheviks).
Mr. Spence's Reilly also has remarkable charm, but is a man without conscience who spied both sequentially and simultaneously for Great Britain, Russia and its bloody transformation into the USSR, and, it may be, for Germany and Japan. Reilly's allegiance, always, was to himself, however. Whatever else he was, Sidney Reilly was a genius of opportunism.
That "whatever else" might have included murder, certainly bigamy, forgery, theft and relentless mendacity. He was a protean personality, often treacherous, always audacious.
"Trust No One" constitutes one of those games that you can't begin to follow without a scorecard an uncommonly lengthy one. The narrative is crowded with qualifiers perhaps and possibly and probably, "interesting to speculate," "very likely" and so forth. Given the tangled thicket to which Mr. Spence has addressed himself, these seem less evasive hedges than respect for what evidence can be circumstantially adduced.
Reilly's birth year is not certain; he would sometimes give it as 1873. Mr. Spence writes that he was born in southwest Russian Poland, and his given name was Salomon Rosenblum, variants of which he would use, as convenient or necessary, in his darkly peripatetic travels. He would at times give his birthplace as Odessa or Ireland.
His mother devoted her energies to raising him as "a proper and cultured gentleman." While Yiddish was the home language, she insisted that he learn German and Polish; and despite conflict with her husband, she also had tutors to teach him French and English and to study the classics in Greek and Latin.
Sidney, as he would become, would claim to have attended university in Odessa, though records do not corroborate the claim. He drifted into local politics, and Mr. Spence notes that there was a "good deal of inter-pollination" between the revolutionary and criminal spheres. In the 1890s, he was arrested by the tzar's secret police, the Okhrana. The "possibility certainly exists," writes the author, that he began to collaborate with that organization.
He may also have joined the freemasonry during those "student" years, and this abetted his introduction to British intelligence services after he arrived in Britain in 1895 (his Paris departure might have been the result of theft of Russian spy funds). He took the name Sidney Reilly and an Irish nativity. There he met a woman married to a wealthy husband who, not long after, came to a suspiciously lethal end after which Reilly married the widow.
Boxes within boxes and more boxes, as one would expect in a life of espionage: Reilly was at Port Arthur in 1904 when the Japanese smashed the Russian fleet and captured the strategic port and it is not unlikely, says Mr. Spence, the he spied for the Japanese as well as maintaining British connections.
After that he spent a good deal of time in St. Petersburg, ostensibly as a navy ship broker as the British, the French and the Germans finagled for lucrative contracts to rebuild the tsarist fleet. With the coming of World War I, Reilly expanded his entrepreneurial energies (timber and oil, among them) into contracts for Russian war supplies; he was also busy in New York in that capacity, and Mr. Spence says he became wealthy from fees and bribes.
After the Russian revolution, Reilly's career becomes even more vertiginous. It appears that his primary paymaster was the British Secret Intelligence Service, which operated with great autonomy. That he was valued is indicated by a "cover" commission in the Royal Air Force and an eventual award of the Military Cross.
Reilly knew all hands in the revolutionary Soviet hierarchy, and certainly Mr. Spence feels he may have been doing some heavy lifting for its brutal Cheka.
After the anti-Bolshevik coup failed, there shortly came into existence "The Trust" supposedly a group of Russian monarchists who would collaborate with foreign intelligence services against Lenin. In fact, The Trust evidently was established by the OGPU (the predecessor of the NKVD) to lure into Russia those hostile to the Soviets to crush them. Reilly was there.
To make a long story shorter and this is a long and convoluted story Reilly was arrested. There are versions that he was held in the notorious Lubianka prison and interrogated before being executed in 1925.
Or survived into 1926 or even 1927 before being shot? Finally, in the legendary maze Mr. Spence exhaustively slogs through, might the man killed in the Soviet Union not have been Reilly at all and that he was working with the Soviets all along? And is it possible that in a "final, gigantic swindle" Reilly made off with the millions he had stashed and ended on "some sun-drenched shore" with his secrets?
A reader may find himself impatient from time to time as he tries to keep up with the cast of thousands and the turubulent and unforgiving world in which they operated.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide