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Cloak and Dagger: On Espionage and Intelligence Services. Part One (October 2020): The Second Oldest Profession

Christopher C. Lovett

The Second Oldest Profession

By the twentieth century, all the major powers had established intelligence services to collect information and security services to protect state secrets or arrest subversives. Scholars have largely avoided panoramic narratives of the subject, but Phillip Knightley, a British reporter for the London Sunday Times and an espionage consultant for the BBC, was the first to write an overview of the occupation in The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century. Knightley had previously written extensively about the Cambridge spies and Kim Philby’s treason, which rocked the British intelligence establishment. Knightley’s study offers useful insights into such legendary, and often forgotten, agents as Sidney Reilly, the British Secret Intelligence Service’s master spy, who spied on, and initially outwitted, the Bolsheviks both during and after the revolution, only to be later captured and executed by the Cheka, the first Soviet security organization. Jeffrey Richelson’s A Century of Spies: Intelligence in the Twentieth Century similarly traces intelligence operations from WW I to the end of the Cold War and beyond, importantly covering non-European services like Israel’s Mossad and the role of intelligence services in defusing major crises like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the world was on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. 

Of the many casualties of WW I, none was greater than the fall of the ruling dynasties in Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, embodied by the Houses of Hohenzollern, Romanov, and Habsburg. In Russia, the first act of the new democratic and revolutionary government in 1917 was to dismantle both the gendarmes and the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police. Lenin, always conscious of political power, was not going to make the same mistake as the provisional government, and under his direction the Cheka was formed in place of the Okhrana, led by Felix Dzerzhinsky, a former Polish nobleman committed to defending the Bolshevik regime. To understand the Cheka, George Leggett’s The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police underscores how crucial the security services were in the Soviet Union, and are currently in the post-Soviet era, as two heads of state have emerged from them: Yuri Andropov and Vladimir Putin. 

Initially, the Bolsheviks were vulnerable following the war. Social revolutionaries nearly succeeded in assassinating Lenin, British intelligence was working to topple the new regime, and anti-Bolshevik forces were waging a civil war against Bolshevik authority. To counter those forces Dzerzhinsky launched a counterintelligence operation called the Trust, luring Russian émigrés, anti-Bolshevik opponents, and foreign operatives such as Sidney Reilly back to Russia, and ultimately capturing and executing them. Robert Service’s Spies and Commissars: The Early Years of the Russian Revolution remarkably chronicles this phase of Soviet intelligence. Even more importantly, Service demonstrates how the arm of Soviet intelligence was assisted by the Comintern, or Communist International, especially for long-term influence operations in the UK.

Nigel West, a British military and intelligence historian, and Oleg Tsarev, a former KGB lieutenant colonel working in the Russian intelligence archives, detail the Kremlin’s early clandestine operations in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s in The Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of the KGB Archives. Believing the Soviet Union was vulnerable to a capitalist attack that could destroy their embryonic experiment, Lenin and later Stalin extensively searched for the traitors involved in exposing the infamous Zinoviev letter, as West and Tsarev detail. Their efforts led to the fall of the first British Labor government, the break in diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and, even more troubling for the Kremlin, the closure of the London rezidentura, the center of Soviet intelligence operations. The authors trace the early recruitment of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Anthony Blunt as probationers, all crucial members of the Cambridge espionage ring that penetrated the heart of the British establishment.