James Bond lived! Or, to be more precise, the inspiration for Ian Fleming's superspy hero was a real British secret agent. Moreover, this man's exploits can readily withstand comparison with anything Fleming imagined.
The real spy was a man named Sidney George Reilly. Born in Russia in 1874, he was recruited by the British secret service shortly before the turn of the century and worked under cover for some three decades—mostly for the British, but apparently also at times for his own purposes. His most famous assignment involved a nearly successful plot to overthrow Lenin, shortly after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.
Reilly's life is still cloaked in mystery. Most of what is known is contained in a 1967 biography, Ace of Spies, written by Robin Bruce Lockhart, son of a British diplomat who worked closely with Reilly on the anti-Bolshevik plot. It is from this source that PBS's Mystery series brings us Reilly: Ace of Spies, a 12-part show broadcast last year and being rerun in most cities beginning June 6.
The first several episodes are largely self-contained examples of Reilly's early espionage activities: his first assignment, investigating early oil finds in Persia (Iran), and a later mission during the Russo-Japanese War.
It was Reilly's later assignments that established his master-spy reputation. To determine the true dimensions of the pre-World War I German arms build-up, Reilly took a job as a welder at a Krupp munitions plant. At night, he photographed blueprints and specifications and sent them off to England. Later, by posing as a Bavarian officer and seducing the wives of various German politicians, he was able to attend high-level military meetings. The payoff, in this case, was securing complete details of the new German battleships.
Reilly spent much of the prewar period in Russia, where he developed extensive contacts in business, government, and society (and married the second of his three wives). When the Bolshevik revolution took place, Reilly possessed more extensive knowledge of the country than anyone else in British intelligence. The ambitious plot to overthrow Lenin—and install Reilly himself as head of the government—failed. But what's amazing to learn is how close it apparently came to succeeding.
Having seen the Bolsheviks up close and been horrified at what their revolution was doing to Russia, Reilly devoted the rest of his life to anti-Bolshevik activity. His most notable success—for which he apparently paid with his life—was unmasking "the Trust," one of the most successful instances of deception and disinformation in history.
After the revolution, the exiled anti-Bolsheviks in Europe and the United States placed all their hopes on an organization inside Russia, ostensibly made up of opponents of Lenin and secretly working for his overthrow. Reilly was convinced that the Trust was bogus. And it was, in fact, the creation of Felix Dzherzhinsky, head of the Cheka (predecessor of today's KGB, the Soviets' internal spy agency). Convinced that the Trust was working to bring down the Communists, the exiles raised millions of dollars for the organization—all of which went to finance the fledgling Soviet government. Moreover, the Trust provided a superb way for the Cheka to keep tabs on the anti-Soviet activities and plans of the emigre groups. It was only after Reilly's 1925 trip to Russia to meet with the leaders of the Trust—a trip from which he never returned—that the true nature of the organization began to be widely suspected (and ultimately confirmed by a high-level defector in 1927).
The Mystery series is superbly done. Sam Neill (of My Brilliant Career) is icily precise as Reilly—debonaire, charming, and utterly ruthless. Leo McKern (of Rumpole of the Bailey) makes several appearances as arms merchant Sir Basil Zaharoff. And Tom Bell, from Masterpiece Theater's Sons and Lovers, is chillingly correct as the evil Dzherzhinsky.
If you missed Reilly the first time around, you have another chance June 6 through August 22. And it's an "ace of shows."
Robert W. Poole, Jr., is REASON's in-house intelligence connoisseur.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: The Real James Bond on PBS".