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Sidney Reilly and the Monarchist Union of Central Russia

John Simkin

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Georgi Rosenblum probably became a British spy in 1899. The author of Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly (2003) points out: "In 1899 he became Sidney George Reilly by receiving a passport in that name, though he never legally adopted it or became a British subject. A patron, possibly his entrée into British intelligence, was Sir Henry Hozier (1838–1907), powerful secretary of Lloyds connected to the War Office intelligence branch. With his strong Jewish features and accented English, Reilly was an unconvincing Englishman, but this became his favourite of many alternative identities." According to Brian Marriner Reilly "possessed passports in eleven different names."

Although based in London, Reilly spent most of his time in the Far East. In 1904 he began working for the trading firm M. A. Ginsburg & Company in Port Arthur, China. The author, Richard Deacon, has argued that he was working as a "double-agent serving both the British and the Japanese." In 1906 he moved to St Petersburg, where he became friendly with members of the revolutionary underground. It is believed that as well as working for the British he was also spying for the Tsarist regime. Deacon adds that: "He was certainly being well-paid as in 1906 he had a lavish apartment in St Petersburg, a splendid art collection and was a member of the most exclusive club in the city."

In his book, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985), Christopher Andrew argues that Reilly was recruited by Mansfield Cumming, who was the head of the Secret Service Bureau that had responsibility for secret operations outside Britain (later known as MI6): "Reilly had a remarkable personal charisma and flair for intelligence work which was to win the admiration of both Cumming and Winston Churchill." The diplomat, Robert Bruce Lockhart, who had a generally low opinion of Cumming's agents, was impressed by Reilly, who he described as having the "artistic temperament of the Jew with the devil-may-care daring of the Irishman".

Reilly then got a job working for German naval ship-builders. This enabled him to see and copy all blueprints and specifications of the latest German naval construction. These he passed to MI6. On the outbreak of the First World War Reilly went to New York City as a war contractor buying arms supplies for the Russians. Richard B. Spence has argued: "His ruthless business tactics earned him a fortune and many enemies." During this period he remained in contact with Mansfield Cumming via William Eden Wiseman, his station chief in New York.

After spending a short time in London in 1917, Reilly was smuggled into Germany and was given the task of discovering how close the country was to defeat. The Foreign Office's George Nevile Bland, has argued that Reilly was "a man of great courage... coupled with a somewhat unscrupulous temperament, making him a rather double edged tool". Another MI6 official, Norman Thwaites, described him as having a "swarthy complexion, a long straight nose, piercing eyes, clack hair brushed back from a forehead suggesting keen intelligence, a large mouth, figure slight, of medium height, always clothed immaculately, he was a man that impressed one with a sense of power."

With the help of Norman Thwaites, on his return to England in October he joined the Royal Flying Corps as second lieutenant. In April 1918 MI6 sent Reilly to Russia. He later claimed that he was asked by Lieutenant Ernest Boyce, the local station chief, to assassinate Lenin and Leon Trotsky. He refused saying that his aim was "not to make martyrs of the leaders but to hold them up to ridicule before the world". However, Dora Kaplan did try to kill Lenin but he survived the attempt. Reilly worked closely with Boris Savinkov in various plots against the Bolshevik government.

Moisei Uritsky, the head of Cheka in Petrograd was assassinated on 30th August 1918. Russian newspapers claimed that Uritsky had been killed because he was unravelling "the threads of an English conspiracy in Petrograd". Reilly paid 60,000 rubles to be smuggled out of Russia on board a Dutch freighter, but MI6 agents, Robert Bruce Lockhart, Ernest Boyce and George Hill were arrested, and eighteen couriers and agents were executed. These men were released in October 1918 when they were exchanged for Maxim Litvinov and other arrested Soviet officials in London. Later, Reilly was found guilty of espionage and sabotage and was sentenced to be shot if apprehended. Reilly told Mansfield Cumming that he regarded the "salvation of Russia" as "a most sacred duty" and that he intended to "devote the rest of my wicked life to this kind of work".

Desmond Morton of MI6 claimed that: "Reilly is not a member of our office and does not serve C (Mansfield Cumming) in that he is not receiving any pay from us. He worked at one time during the war in Russia for C's organisation and is now undoubtedly of a certain use to us. We do not altogether know what to make of him. There is no doubt that Reilly is a political intriguer of no mean class, and therefore it is infinitely better for us to keep in with him, whereby he tells us a great deal of what he is doing, than to quarrel with him when we should hear nothing of his activities... he is at the moment Boris Savinkoff's right hand man. In fact, some people might almost say he is Boris Savinkoff. As such he has undoubted importance. In addition to the above, Reilly is of course a very clever man, indeed with means of finding out information all over the world. Whatever may be Reilly's faults, I personally would stake my reputation that he is not anti-British, at the moment at any rate, and never has been. He is an astute commercial man out for himself, and really genuinely hates the Bolsheviks."

Sidney Reilly was also involved in producing the Zinoviev letter that brought down the Labour government in 1924. According to Christopher Andrew, the author of Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985): "Reilly played an active part in ensuring that the letter was publicised. A copy of the Russian version of the letter has been discovered in what appears to be Reilly's handwriting, and there can scarcely have been another past or present SIS agent with so few scruples about exploiting it in the anti-Bolshevik cause."

The Bolshevik government decided to trick Reilly and Boris Savinkov into going back to the Soviet Union. As the author of Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985) has pointed out: "Since 1922 the GPU had been plotting the downfall of both Reilly and Savinkov by operating a bogus anti-Bolshevik Front, the Monarchist Union of Central Russia (MUCR), better known as the Trust, designed to ensnare the remaining plotters against Bolshevik rule."

Ernest Boyce, the MI6 station chief in Helsinki, wrote to Reilly asking him to meet the leaders of Monarchist Union of Central Russia in Moscow. In March 1925, Reilly replied: "Much as I am concerned about my own personal affairs which, as you know, are in a hellish state. I am, at any moment, if I see the right people and prospects of real action, prepared to chuck everything else and devote myself entirely to the Syndicate's interests. I was fifty-one yesterday and I want to do something worthwhile, while I can."

After a number of delays caused mainly by Reilly's debt-ridden business dealings, he met Ernest Boyce in Paris before crossing the Finnish border on 25th September 1925. At a house outside Moscow two days later he had a meeting with the leaders of MUCR, where he was arrested by the secret police. Reilly was told he would be executed because of his attempts to overthrow the Bolshevik government in 1918. According to the Soviet account of his interrogation, on 13th October 1925, Reilly wrote to Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of Cheka, saying he was ready to cooperate and give full information on the British and American Intelligence Services. Sidney Reilly's appeal failed and he was executed on 5th November 1925.


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