Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Plot for Global Revolution
  • Alternative view 1 of Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Plot for Global Revolution
  • Alternative view 2 of Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Plot for Global Revolution

Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Plot for Global Revolution

5.0 1
by Giles Milton

See All Formats & Editions

In 1917, a band of communist revolutionaries stormed the Winter Palace of Tsar Nicholas II—a dramatic and explosive act marking that Vladimir Lenin’s communist revolution was now underway. But Lenin would not be satisfied with overthrowing the Tsar. His goal was a global revolt that would topple all Western capitalist regimes—starting with the


In 1917, a band of communist revolutionaries stormed the Winter Palace of Tsar Nicholas II—a dramatic and explosive act marking that Vladimir Lenin’s communist revolution was now underway. But Lenin would not be satisfied with overthrowing the Tsar. His goal was a global revolt that would topple all Western capitalist regimes—starting with the British Empire.

Russian Roulette tells the spectacular and harrowing story of the British spies in revolutionary Russia and their mission to stop Lenin’s red tide from washing across the free world. They were an eccentric cast of characters, led by Mansfield Cumming, a one-legged, monocle-wearing former sea captain, and included novelist W. Somerset Maugham, beloved children’s author Arthur Ransome, and the dashing, ice-cool Sidney Reilly, the legendary Ace of Spies and a model for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Cumming’s network would pioneer the field of covert action and would one day become MI6.

Living in disguise, constantly switching identities, they infiltrated Soviet commissariats, the Red Army, and Cheka (the feared secret police), and would come within a whisker of assassinating Lenin. In a sequence of bold exploits that stretched from Moscow to the central Asian city of Tashkent, this unlikely band of agents succeeded in foiling Lenin’s plot for global revolution.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1918, Lenin announced that the Bolshevik victory in Russia heralded the beginning of worldwide revolution. so why did his claim fail to bear fruit? Prolific historian Milton (The Boy Who Went to War) credits British spies in this impressive account of skullduggery carried out by colorful figures amid the chaos of revolutionary Russia. Well before the revolution, British intelligence was operating in Petrograd, tasked with keeping the crumbling Russian army in the war against Germany. A British agent probably fired the fatal shot in the 1916 murder of Rasputin, the charismatic monk who exerted a baleful influence over the Czar’s family and was widely accused of sabotaging the war effort. After the revolution, British spies successfully gathered information, engaged in sabotage, encouraged and financed the regime’s opponents, and plotted an unsuccessful coup. Those who survived often wrote self-serving memoirs, and one who didn’t inspired a BBC TV series: Reilly, Ace of Spies. While brilliant spycraft frustrated a Soviet-led invasion of India, Morton fails to make his case that it thwarted world revolution, but readers will not regret picking up this entertaining history of spectacular, often nasty derring-do by real-life secret agents. Maps, 8p. b&w insert. Agent: Georgia Garrett; Rogers, Coleridge & White (U.K.). (May)
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-03-06
This chronicle of British undercover push back against Bolshevik world conspiracy proves to be an exciting ringside seat at the Russian Revolution. With so many astonishing world events transpiring at once as World War I still raged and Lenin returned from exile to foment proletarian revolution in Russia in 1917, accomplished British author Milton (Paradise Lost: Smyrna, 1922, 2008, etc.) does a fine job of keeping order without sparing suspense. The British, rightly alarmed by Lenin's incendiary rhetoric about toppling British imperialism by aiming at her crown jewel, India, could not spare troops from fighting Germany to counter the Bolshevik Revolution. Instead, the British would have to thwart Lenin's machinations by wilier ways. These included the work of London's Secret Service Bureau headed by Mansfield Cumming, who shifted from ordering espionage against Germany to directing Samuel Hoare's team of agents at the Ministry of War of the Russian Empire, which had been established in 1916 when Russia and England were still allies against Germany. Hoare's team, consisting of highly capable men of bilingual abilities who had established connections in Russia at the highest levels of business and government, would be involved in a number of perilous and influential events as the revolution unfurled: Oswald Rayner was likely one of the conspirators and even gunmen in the murder of Rasputin; Somerset Maugham was sent in to prop up Alexander Kerensky's government and keep the Russians at war with Germany; journalist Arthur Ransome was able to infiltrate and chronicle the workings of the Comintern; and Sidney Reilly, master of disguise, put in motion plans for a risky coup. Less well known is the Turkestan theater, where British officers for Indian espionage became London's eyes and ears as the Bolsheviks made their southern thrusts. A beguiling ride through a riotous time by a historian and able storyteller who knows his facts and his audience.
From the Publisher

“Milton has a rare ability--a talent for sifting fine pearls from faraway sands and transmuting the merely arcane into little literary gems.” —Simon Winchester, Boston Globe

“Impressive . . . [an] entertaining history of spectacular, often nasty derring-do by real-life secret agents.” —Publishers Weekly

“Giles Milton's research is impeccable and his narrative reads in part like a modern-day Robert Louis Stevenson novel.” —The Times on Nathaniel's Nutmeg

Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Russian Roulette

By Giles Milton


Copyright © 2014 Giles Milton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-568-0




Samuel Hoare eased himself from his chair and wandered over to the window of his office in the Russian War Ministry.

In the parade ground below, hundreds of young conscripts were rehearsing an attack through a quagmire of straw and mud. Icy rain was pouring from a gunmetal sky, turning the ground to liquid. Yet the conscripts seemed oblivious to the autumn chill as they advanced on their bellies towards imaginary German trenches.

Hoare stared at them for a moment before returning to the huge pile of documents that had just been delivered to his desk. Secret reports of battle failures; secret accounts of deserting troops; secret tales of disaster and mutiny. It did not take a genius to realise that Russia was losing the war on the Eastern Front.

Samuel Hoare was head of the Russian bureau, a seventeen-strong team of British intelligence officers working in Petrograd, capital of the Russian Empire. He had arrived in the city in the spring of 1916, excited and not a little bemused by his unexpected summons to join Britain's intelligence service.

It had all happened so quickly: a private meeting in Whitehall, some questions about his fluency in Russian and then an offer of employment, swiftly concluded with a handshake. 'In the space of a few seconds,' he later recalled, 'I was accepted into the ranks of the Secret Service.'

He was an unlikely candidate for espionage. An English baronet of the old school, he had been the Conservative Member of Parliament for Chelsea since 1910. Well-spoken, well-mannered, well-heeled, he was solidly conventional. Harrow and Oxford, old chap. Double first.

But he had taught himself conversational Russian and this had earned him the notice of the Secret Intelligence Service. He was to be sent to Petrograd in order to forge links with Russian generals and monitor the fighting on the Eastern Front.

It was not a question of spying on the enemy: Russia was a key member of the Triple Entente (Britain, France, Russia) fighting against Germany in the First World War. However, Hoare's role was certainly of vital importance. The conflict on the Eastern Front was tying down huge numbers of German troops that could otherwise be transferred to the Western Front. A sudden influx of battle-hardened soldiers to Northern France would spell disaster for the British Tommies struggling to hold their entrenched positions in Picardie and Champagne.

Hoare was hoping to be initiated into a world of glamour, duplicity and deception when he first arrived in Petrograd. He had been given a rudimentary training in eavesdropping and ciphering and was looking forward to using his new skills.

However, his work at the Russian War Ministry proved monotonous and exhausting, with twelve-hour days and no holidays. Far from infiltrating subversive meetings, he found himself helping to supply Russian ministries with much needed supplies. On one occasion, he was asked to procure thousands of beeswax candles for the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church.

His evenings were no less tedious – a succession of champagne soirées with highly decorated generals whose knowledge of battlefield strategy was lamentable. 'Incompetent, idle, self-indulgent, irresponsible,' was Hoare's opinion of the Minister of War.

Teamwork meant everything to Hoare. He played according to the rules – taking pride in being firm but fair – and he expected his men to do the same. He was unaware that they didn't all agree with his very British approach to espionage. Nor did he realise that there was a far more nefarious side to the activities of the bureau that he directed. Among those serving in his team was a young Oxford graduate named Oswald Rayner. Along with a handful of others, Rayner had established a clandestine inner circle that members referred to as the 'far-reaching system'.

This 'system' aimed to act in absolute secrecy, spearheading underground missions that left no trace of their involvement. These dangerous operations, of which Hoare had no knowledge, were to become a hallmark of the Russian bureau.

Oswald Rayner's 'far-reaching system' was to make the first of many spectacular strikes in the winter of 1916. It was to leave a fingerprint so faint that it would remain undetected for nine decades.

* * *

The bitter chill of December 1916 brought a heightened sense of gloom to the city of Petrograd.

'For us,' wrote Hoare, 'it made the ordinary routine of life difficult and irritating, but for the hundreds of thousands of working women who, badly clothed and miserably housed, stood hour after hour in queues amidst the snow and sleet of a Petrograd winter, and often went home with nothing for their families, it was a grim tragedy that led inevitably to bloodshed and revolution.'

Hoare's weekly intelligence reports revealed that poor leadership and inadequate weaponry had led to Russian war fatigue. 'I am confident that Russia will never fight through another winter,' he wrote that December.

The imperial splendour of the Marinsky Theatre offered the only possibility of escape. Oblivious to the steady disintegration of the Russian Army, it continued to stage exquisitely choreographed ballets. Tsar Nicholas himself no longer attended, yet the royal box still sparkled with candlelight throughout the performances. '[It] seemed to many of us to symbolise a capital that the Emperor seldom visited and a society that the Emperor never saw,' wrote Hoare.

The tsar's absence only fuelled the rumours that he was no longer in charge of the country. The British ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, concurred with the many who said he was under the baleful influence of the tsarina. Others claimed that the affairs of state were being manipulated by the tsarina's 'holy' advisor, Grigori Rasputin.

As the tsarina grew increasingly alarmed about the health of her haemophiliac son, so she became increasingly dependent on Rasputin. He seemed blessed with semi-magical powers that brought temporary relief to the young tsarevich, heir to the Russian imperial throne.

Rasputin had many enemies. Licentious and dissolute, he was widely (if erroneously) believed to belong to the extremist Khlyst sect. Its practitioners held that boundless debauchery was the best way of suppressing lust and they engaged in orgiastic rituals while invoking the name of the Holy Spirit.

Rasputin's lifestyle was widely criticised in the press. The tsarina was also much maligned, albeit more obliquely. Born into the Hesse-Darmstadt dynasty, she was suspected of having pro-German sympathies. It was not long before she and Rasputin were being viewed as a monstrous duo that was secretly sabotaging the Russian war effort in the hope of a German victory.

As the food crisis worsened, people spoke euphemistically of 'Dark Forces' at work in the Petrograd palaces. 'Each and every calamity or inconvenience was in the public mind due to the "Dark Forces",' wrote Hoare.

Rasputin was eventually named as the leader of these 'Forces' and his removal from the court was demanded by the Duma, the legislative assembly. A succession of parliamentary speakers denounced his dangerous hold over the imperial family.

Hoare summed up these speeches in a single sentence: 'Let the Emperor only banish this man and the country would be freed from the sinister influence that was striking down its natural leaders and endangering the success of its armies in the field.'

He was convinced that Russia's problems would be instantly solved if only Rasputin were to be removed from the capital. But no one, it seemed, had the power or authority to rid the country of the tsarina's favourite.

* * *

An icy wind was whipping off the Gulf of Finland.

The River Neva was frozen to a pewter crust and fine wisps of snow were rasping its surface. The city of Petrograd was shivering in a deep winter chill.

Shortly before midnight on 29 December 1916, a lone car swung into the courtyard of the Yusupov Palace. The car's yellow headlamps cast a brief glare on the palace's colonnaded gateway. The vehicle then made a circular sweep of the snow-covered courtyard and came to a halt by the side entrance of the building.

Three people were seated inside the car, all of them from very different walks of life. At the wheel was Doctor Lazovert, an army doctor on leave from his duties at the battlefront. He was dressed in disguise, masquerading as the chauffeur of the Yusupov family.

Behind him sat Prince Feliks Yusupov, an elite member of the imperial Corps des Pages. He was heir to the richest dynasty in the Russian Empire and celebrated as one of the most decadent aristocrats in Petrograd. He was also one of the most handsome. His almond eyes and delicate cheeks might have looked effeminate were it not for the compensation of a strong aquiline nose.

The third person in the car was Grigori Rasputin, the Russian tsarina's confidant. He usually wore the simple garb of an Orthodox monk but on this particular night he was dressed for a party.

'He wore a silk blouse embroidered in cornflowers with a raspberry-coloured cord as a belt,' recalled Yusupov in his account of the evening. 'His velvet breeches and highly polished boots seemed brand new.'

Rasputin's beard, usually a wiry tangle, had been neatly combed: Yusupov had never seen him look so immaculate. 'As he came near to me,' he wrote, 'I smelt a strong odour of cheap soap.'

Rasputin was visibly agitated. He confessed to Yusupov that he had been warned that hidden enemies were plotting to kill him. His close friendship with the tsarina and his perceived influence over the tsar had indeed earned him many foes.

Rasputin's reputation may have been tarnished in the eyes of the public at large, but it had done him no harm amongst the aristocratic ladies of the Imperial court. His attraction was so magnetic – hypnotic, even – that women lost all sense of propriety when they were in his presence. One English eyewitness looked on in horrified astonishment as a succession of princesses queued up to suck his fingers after he had finished eating his meal with his hands.

The death threats against Rasputin had not stopped him from accepting an invitation to the Yusupov Palace. He had been lured there by the promise of a debauched midnight rendezvous with Prince Feliks's wife, Irina.

Marital infidelity was not unusual amongst the more decadent sections of Petrograd's aristocratic elite. Yusupov knew that offering his wife to another man would raise few eyebrows amongst those in his own dissolute social circle. He was himself almost certainly bisexual and he was also ambiguous in his gender. He confessed in his memoirs to spending his evenings disguised as a lady and consorting with the gypsy musicians of the Neva Delta.

For Rasputin, the chance of a few snatched hours with Princess Irina was not to be turned down lightly. She was blessed with both a wistful beauty and an impeccable pedigree: she was the tsar's niece. As Yusupov knew all too well, his wife was most alluring bait.

Dr Lazovert stepped out of the car and opened the side door to the palace, standing aside to allow Yusupov and Rasputin to enter the marbled atrium. The sound of echoed laughter could be heard coming from Yusupov's study and the gramophone was playing a scratchy version of 'Yankee Doodle Went To Town'.

The merriment unnerved Rasputin and he asked what was going on. 'Just my wife entertaining a few friends,' said Yusupov. 'They'll be going soon.'

Neither of these statements was true. Yusupov's wife was more than 2,000 miles away at the family's country estate in the Crimea. And the guests had no intention of leaving. Grand Duke Dmitri, the tsar's first cousin, had arrived a few hours earlier, along with a flamboyant monarchist named Vladimir Purishkevich. There was also a Russian officer named Captain Sergei Soukhatin in the palace that night. Unbeknown to Rasputin, all of these men were conspirators. They were planning to murder him before the first light of dawn broke through the winter sky.

It was to be a night not just of murderous intent, but of spectacular deceit. Nothing was quite as it seemed in the Yusupov Palace on that December evening. Nothing would happen exactly as it was recorded. When the perpetrators came to set down their stories, it was as if the entire evening had been reflected in a distorting mirror that twisted and obscured reality.

The principal eyewitness account was written by Prince Feliks himself. It makes for a compelling, if disturbing, read. He recalled that Rasputin paused momentarily in the atrium before the two of them descended into the palace basement where there was a private dining room.

It was rarely used by the family, for it was a grim vaulted cellar with chiselled stone walls and granite flagstones. But it had one distinct advantage over all the other rooms in the building: it was deep underground and hidden from the eyes and ears of the world. Anything could happen down here and no one would ever know.

Yusupov had decked out the room with antiques to make it look as if it was in daily use. Rugs had been spread across the flagstones and on the red granite mantelpiece there stood golden bowls, antique majolica plates and figurine sculptures carved from ivory.

Rasputin's eye was drawn not to the rock-crystal crucifix, as Yusupov had expected, but to a small wooden cabinet studded with little mirrors. '[He] was particularly fascinated by the little ebony cabinet,' recalled the prince, 'and took a childish pleasure in opening and shutting the drawers, exploring it inside and out.'

Rasputin spoke once again of the supposed plot to kill him. 'There have been several attempts on my life,' he said, 'but the Lord has always frustrated these plots. Disaster will come to anyone who lifts a finger against me.'

Yusupov's account of what happened next is extremely detailed, but it omitted several important facts. He claimed that he had four accomplices, and that one of their number, Dr Lazovert (the fake chauffeur), had supplied the poison that was to be used to murder Rasputin, lacing the cakes and dainties that the target was known to enjoy.

'Doctor Lazovert put on rubber gloves and ground the cyanide of potassium crystals to powder,' wrote Yusupov. 'Then, lifting the top of each cake, he sprinkled the inside with a dose of poison which, according to him, was sufficient to kill several men instantly.' Concerned that Rasputin might decline the cakes, he dusted the wine glasses with cyanide as well.

Yusupov recalled how Rasputin chatted with him for more than an hour in the underground dining room. Then, finally, he ate two of the poisoned cakes in quick succession. They had no effect.

'I watched him horror-stricken,' wrote Yusupov. 'The poison should have acted immediately but, to my amazement, Rasputin went on talking quite calmly.'

The monk then knocked back several glasses of Madeira, but once again the cyanide proved ineffectual. 'His face did not change, only from time to time he put his hand to his throat as though he was having some difficulty in swallowing.'

Almost two and a half hours had by now passed since Yusupov and Rasputin arrived at the palace. As the clock struck three, the prince heard his fellow conspirators in the room above. A drowsy Rasputin raised his head and asked what was happening. 'Probably the guests leaving,' said Yusupov. 'I'll go and see what's up.'

Yusupov rushed upstairs and broke the news that the poison had not worked. He asked to borrow Grand Duke Dmitri's pocket Browning and then returned to the basement. He was preparing himself for the kill.

If Yusupov is to be believed, Rasputin was examining the crystal crucifix when he re-entered the room armed with the Browning. 'A shudder swept over me: my arm grew rigid, I aimed at his heart and pulled the trigger. Rasputin gave a wild scream and crumpled on the bearskin.'

The gunshot brought Yusupov's friends rushing into the room, all of them anxious to see the dead Rasputin. 'His features twitched in nervous spasms,' wrote Yusupov, 'his hands were clenched, his eyes closed.'

Within moments, his corpse stiffened and all movement ceased. Dr Lazovert examined the body and declared that the bullet had killed him instantly.


Excerpted from Russian Roulette by Giles Milton. Copyright © 2014 Giles Milton. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Giles Milton is the author of many books including the international bestsellers Nathaniel's Nutmeg and Big Chief Elizabeth. His other titles include The Riddle and the Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan, and Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. His website is www.gilesmilton.com and he tweets at @SurviveHistory. He lives in London.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Plot for Global Revolution 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago