Nearly a century ago, Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik party took power over Russia. The party, later known as the Communists, won by wholesale deceit and ruthless murder.††† Above all, it won by imposing a level of state terror that far surpassed both its predecessor, the Tsarist Monarchy, and its own historical model, the French Revolution.
While the Bolshevik leaders were ruthless men, willing to do anything to gain power, the primary architect of the murder and terror was Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder and first director of the Bolshevik Secret Police, the Cheka (later, OGPU, KGB). This same Secret Police, under various names, has held Russia and its satellites captive ever since. First it was a tool of Dzerzhinsky, then a tool of Stalin. Since Stalin's death in 1953, it has made itself more and more obviously the real ruler of Russia.
Among his Chekists, Dzerzhinsky was revered almost as a god, and that reverence has persisted to the present day. This is no accident: Dzerzhinsky himself cultivated the appearance of selfless, almost saint-like devotion to the Bolshevik cause. He acted the part of a man of feeling who was almost suicidally depressed by what he was doing, but was forced to shoulder the burden for the sake of the Revolution.
Many Western scholars consider Dzerzhinsky an evil genius, although some say his brilliance has been overrated. The author feels that, on the contrary, Dzerzhinsky has been underrated. Some of his plots have never been uncovered, although they set the course of the Soviet state and made critical contributions to the horrors of the rest of the century. This too is no accident: Dzerzhinsky covered his tracks well.
One person may have uncovered enough of those tracks to see how dangerous Dzerzhinsky really was: his major antagonist, the British spy Sidney Reilly.† But the Reilly of modern fictional legend, the superspy Reilly, said to be the model for Ian Fleming's James Bond and the subject of Robin Lockhart's Ace of Spies, is not the subject of this book.
Nor does this book believe in the Reilly of modern intelligence legend, the traitor and Soviet mole of Robin Lockhart's subsequent recantation, Reilly: the First Man.† †Both the superspy legend and the first-mole legend were deliberate fabrications -- originally devised by Reilly himself. Then they were seconded at different times and for different purposes by SIS/MI6 and the Cheka/KGB. Having something to hide, each organization arranged for strategic leaks to prop up one legend or the other, sometimes both at once.
By now there is probably no one left on either side who feels that Reilly's story will endanger their power and reputation, or that of their organization. There may be no one left who even knows about it.
In 1991, the author met with Lev Bezymensky, writer and publisher of Novaya Vremya, and at that time one of the leading KGB experts on both Reilly and the Revolution. Bezymensky commented, "Every new director of the KGB has sorted our files on Reilly. There remain† very few original documents."
Perhaps now there is room for a middle position between the legends.
Yet the almost surreal story told in The Private War of Sidney Reilly shares with much other truth the quality of being stranger than the corresponding fictions. It will probably not find much support from historians, although three of the acknowledged experts have conceded that it is possible.† One, the Soviet journalist, thought it the likeliest interpretation of events.
Historians, like novelists and playwrights, want dramatic action to grow naturally out of people's characters; but today's historians are unhappy when too much of the action is determined by too few of the characters.† Historians prefer to find that historical forces beyond any one or two individuals are stronger than the individuals who happen to be in a position to direct those forces. They do not happily acknowledge the total responsibility of even the Hitlers and Stalins of the world, much less the Reillys and Dzerzhinskys.
Their accounts seek a certain sense of inevitability -- partly because, like the rest of us, they do not want to believe that our world is the result of catastrophes that did not have to happen. As scientists, they are also justifiably concerned about the career-blighting effect of being labeled "conspiracy theorists."
Nevertheless, those of us who are not professional historians have a legitimate citizenly interest in well-argued conspiracy theories. We want to know the kind of thing that may be happening behind the facade. And if we are sane and responsible, we will not use that knowledge to argue that all, or even most, mysteries are really conspiracies. What we will do is to fight for transparency in the construction and use of power, because our fears of being manipulated for the gain of a few are legitimate and realistic.
Reilly's legacy has grown primarily from the superspy legend. The results of that legend are still with us. Who knows how many Western spies found in Reilly and the fictional James Bond their first fascination with the exercise of backstairs power? More significantly, the superspy has surely provided a subliminal background influence on those who debate particular secret operations. The power to decide military strategy is real power.† But the power to use it in secret is super power, whether exercised by SIS/MI5, the CIA or KGB/FSB.
Dzerzhinsky's legacy has been an organization that ran one of the most oppressive police states in the history of the world, and certainly one of the least transparent. The conjunction of these traits is, of course, no accident. But we tend to forget that however the twig was bent, the tree of tyranny was nourished by the soil of idealism and trust. Apart from Dzerzhinsky's own henchmen, literally everyone's trust in him was misplaced, even Lenin's.
So this story has a lesson for idealists of all persuasions: there are levels of power with which no one can be trusted, however well their professed ideals may match our own.
Allan Torrey, Author
Bill Barus, Editor
New York City, June, 2014