‘James Bond is just a piece of nonsense I dreamt up,’ the former naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming once said. ‘He’s nota Sidney Reilly you know.’
Sidney Reilly was not really Sidney Reilly either; but he was certainly a James Bond. Born Sigmund or Schlomo Rosenblum (this is a book full of caveats), he spoke possibly six languages and identified at different times as an Englishman, an Irishman, a Greek or Turkish merchant, a German machine-tool operator and a Tsarist officer. In fact he came from a Ukrainian Jewish family, but ignored his heritage as much as prevailing anti-Semitism would permit, and devoted his life to making love and money and, with only slightly greater dedication, fighting Bolshevism as an MI6 spy.
First arrested, aged 20, by the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police, Reilly emerged from the cells grief-stricken by the death of his mother during his incarceration but free to make his own way in the world. Reaching London via Paris, suspiciously richer after the sudden deaths of two anarchist money couriers, he launched himself on his triple career as ‘businessman, conman and spy’. Money, like women, passed rapidly through his hands, providing sparkle rather than security. Another dubious death and a quick marriage furnished not only funds, but also a Foreign Office passport under the name of Sidney Reilly. It was far easier for him to travel as an Irishman than as a Jew from Odessa, and soon he was a spy to several masters, including MI5 and MI6.
The rest of Reilly’s colourful life was spent against the changing backdrop of Shanghai, Tokyo, Manila, Rio, Paris, London and various parts of Russia, although little feeling for these glamorous locations is evoked in Benny Morris’s book. But there is plenty of action. For starters, Reilly may have murdered several men. He certainly oiled the wheels of the war industry trade between Russia, Germany and Britain, making a fortune on the side, and chalking up a string of significant intelligence successes involving émigré Russian revolutionaries, German armaments producers and the Tsarist army and navy.
What Reilly failed to do, but had a good stab at, was overthrow the Bolshevik regime. If they were not executed immediately, Reilly favoured parading Lenin and Trotsky through the Moscow streets ‘with their nether garments missing’. As he would discover some years later, when a midlife crisis contributed to send him back to Russia, their plans for him would not be so forgiving.
While not (and sometimes while) spying, Reilly enjoyed a series of affairs. ‘Women fell to his irresistible charm like leaves from the trees in autumn,’ Morris quotes a previous biographer, although his own narrative is less romantic. ‘En passant, Reilly also bagged Nadine,’ he writes. Yet it seems that Reilly’s lovers were not passive conquests. This Nadine confessed that she had ‘immediately decided to have’ Reilly, and a later lover declared she was ‘swept up in temptation as dry grass is swept by a flame’.
In fact, most characters in this book have significant agency, and what a cast there is. Remarkable intelligence officers Bruce Lockhart and Boris Savinov; Trotsky – who may have been related to Reilly; and MI6’s ‘C’, Mansfield Cumming, are just a few of those who play significant roles. Walk-on parts go to, among others, Winston Churchill at the Paris Peace conference, the author and spy Somerset Maugham, and Lenin’s would-be assassin Fanny Kaplan, ‘leaning her chin upon her hand… apparently resigned to her fate’.
Published as part of the Jewish Lives series for Yale University Press, this concise book, with only one inside photograph, concludes with an assessment of how similar Reilly was to Bond, how successful he was as a spy, and his difficult relationship with his Jewish origins. Having distanced himself from his heritage as much as possible, Reilly denigrated ‘ugly’ Jewish women, and made surprisingly little reference in his intelligence reports to the pogroms taking place against European Jews. Avoiding speculating as to why, Morris can only admit that his subject remains ‘an enigmatic figure’.
Morris is on safest ground when framing the story in its historical context, in particular the end of the first world war and the Bolshevik revolution. But safe ground was not his subject’s natural habitat, and despite the high drama of Reilly’s life there is little atmosphere, tension or suspense in this telling. We discover on page three how Reilly dies, and learn when on page ten, a lifetime before it happens. A few more facts may have been pinned down but, despite some evocative quotations from Reilly and his associates, there is little feeling for the suave yet savage ‘Ace of Spies’ on these pages. Would Reilly have been disappointed by this rather hesitant account or pleased by his continued evasiveness beyond the grave? From what we have here, it is hard to tell.