Sidney Reilly: Smoke and Mirrors

If Reilly had been the only prototype for James Bond, there is no doubt Bond would have been a very bad guy indeed. Euphemisms like removal or targeted killing didn’t exist back in Reilly’s days. Back then, they called it murder.

The word alleged, however, takes on its full meaning when it comes to Reilly. Everything about him is smoke and mirrors and most of his tall tales, which he enthousiastically disseminated himself, are disputed or cannot be verified. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that he lived, as the Chinese would put it, in interesting times.

Reilly isn't even his real name. Born in obscure circumstances in Odessa, possibly in 1874, possibly named Georgi Rosenblum, he got in trouble with the Tzarist secret police at about eighteen years of age. Showing strong promise in the art of deceit, he faked his own death and stowed away on board a ship. He then either a)- went to Brazil where he earned a British passport and a small fortune from a grateful British official by singlehandedly shooting up a native raiding party or b)- to France where he killed a couple of anarchists for their money and escaped to Britain. I'd tend to believe the second version because Reilly always chose to tell everyone the first version, and also because the second version seems to be the best fit for his character.

I guess you can see where this is going.

Once in London, he started a snake oil business, what we now call a health products company, and became a snitch for a man named William Melville. This proved to be a fateful encounter, for Melville was with the Yard's Special Branch and in 1909 became the head of the British Secret Service Bureau.

Reilly then had an affair with a rich clergyman's young wife and Presto! The rich clergyman croaked right after making his young wife executor of his will. I'm sure Reilly felt very sad for the young widow's chagrin because he immediately married her and changed his name from Rosenblum to Sidney Reilly. And we're not even talking about the death certificate and the widow's wish for a quick burial.

The British government then sent Reilly all over the Caucasus in search of oil deposits. Of course, London paid him for his report. He then went to Manchuria as a double agent for the Brits as well as the Japanese, but mostly as a war profiteer. In an almost Pyrrhic victory, the Russians defeated the Japanese. Reilly apparently stopped by Japan to pick up his paycheck on his way to France, where he hooked up with Melville again.

He kept on selling ammo to both sides of the Russo-Japanese war until WWI. Then began the phase of his career where he seems to have become a full time secret agent at His Majesty's service.

He was then assigned to convince an English industrialist to keep his newly acquired Saudi oil concessions within the Empire; dressed as a German pilot and borrowed a newfangled magneto from a crashed German plane prototype, had it copied to paper, then put it back; studied welding in order to get hired in a Baltic ship yard, killed a foreman and stole weapon plans. Maybe.

And that's just the beginning. His accomplishments are many and his cut-and-pasted bio is all over the web, but even Sidney Reilly eventually broke the 11th commandment. He was lured to Moscow by members of The Trust, a false flag OGPU operation, and ended up in the Lubyanka morgue.

Let me just quote from Wikipedia here, concerning his demise by firing squad : “Historians debate whether Reilly was tortured while in OGPU custody...”

Come on! The OGPU? I'll bet they offered him tea and crumpets instead.

From just a few of days spent researching Reilly, it appears that he was a mercenary spy who held allegiance only to his hate for the Soviets. I'm no psychologist, but he looked to me like an “accomplished”, very intelligent sociopath. That, unfortunately, would also explain away his incredible courage.

But who knows? He was such an expert at misrepresentation that he may very well have fooled me from the grave, decades after his death.


Ultimate Spy, Inside the Secret World of Espionage, DK, ISBN 978-0-7566-5576-1

Would you like to know more?

Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly (Revealing History)

Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly

Sidney Reilly: The True Story of the World's Greatest Spy

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