This Day in Jewish History

1925: The Russians Murder the Real James Bond

What exploits Sidney Reilly really got up to, or didn't, remain shrouded in mystery, as is only proper for a purported British superspy.

Wikimedia Commons and Dreamstime, elaboration by Haaretz

November 5, 1925, is the day that historians believe Sidney Reilly, the British super-spy, whose purported exploits inspired Ian Fleming in the creation of James Bond, was executed by the Soviets, in a forest outside Moscow.

The entire life of Reilly – as it were -- the subject of many books and of the 1983 television mini-series “Reilly: Ace of Spies,” is shrouded in mystery and disinformation, much of it provided by Reilly himself. Even the episodes that have been confirmed, however, make for a good story, even if the star of the story turns out to have been far less of a hero than he claimed to be.

Who dunnit?

The uncertainty about Reilly begins with his paternity and his birth.

Andrew Cook, author of the 2002 biography “Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly” proposes that he was born Salomon (or Shlomo) Rosenblum, on March 24, 1873, in Kherson, Ukraine, in czarist Russia. (The original “Ace of Spies” was a 1967 book by Robin Bruce Lockhart, which served as the basis for the TV series, and which in turn was based on the writings of Lockhart’s father, R.H. Bruce Lockhart, a colleague of Reilly’s).

Cook also believes that Reilly’s mother, Polina Rosenblum, had been impregnated not by her husband, Grigory Rosenblum, but by a cousin of his, Mikhail Rosenblum, a physician from Odessa. Nor are many definite facts known about Reilly's education or the events surrounding his departure from Russia.

Where did he do it?

Rosenblum probably came to Britain in 1895. According to him, he came via Brazil, where he had heroically saved the members of a British intelligence mission when they were attacked by local Indians. Cook says it is more likely that Rosenblum came to England from France, carrying a large sum of money earned in the robbery and murder of two political anarchists he encountered near Paris.

Once in England, Rosenblum, who seems to have studied chemistry, founded a company, Ozone Preparations Company, which made and marketed patent medicines. In this capacity he met the 63-year-old Rev. Hugh Thomas, and his 24-year-old wife, Margaret Callaghan.

Thomas, a chronic sufferer from Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder, hoped for relief from one of Reilly’s concoctions; instead, he soon died under mysterious circumstances. At Margaret’s demand, he was buried without an inquest, and within four months, with an £800,000 inheritance from her late husband, she was newly married to Salomon Rosenblum.

Soon after, Rosenblum became “Sidney Reilly,” and began working with William Melville, who headed the Special Branch of Scotland Yard, a predecessor of Britain’s MI6 foreign-intelligence service.

Why exactly did he do that?

In 1899, Reilly traveled to Russia under cover to assess, for the British government, the size of oil deposits in the Caucusus.

According to Lockhart’s version, it was Reilly who convinced William D’Arcy to sell the licenses for oil drilling he had bought from the Persians, and licenses that he was negotiating to buy from the Ottomans, to the United Kingdom, rather than to France. Lockhart also credited Reilly with traveling to Germany in 1909 and stealing weapons-design plans that became relevant during World War I, a few years later.

Andrew Cook is dubious, and although he has confirmed some of the details of Reilly’s missions, he suggests that more often than not, he was working for his own financial advantage, not for king and country.

Reilly does seem to have been in Russia in 1918, soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, to organize anti-revolutionary activity. His plot to assassinate Vladimir Lenin was preempted by another group’s attempt on the Soviet leader’s life, and although Reilly escaped from Russia without being arrested, he was tried in absentia and sentenced to death by the Soviet regime.

Although Reilly knew he was a wanted man, he responded to the bait laid by the OGPU (Soviet secret police), when it invited him to Russia to meet with anti-Bolshevik plotters, in 1925. In September, when he crossed the border from Finland, he instead found himself arrested.

Andrew Cook reported that secret reports declassified by British intelligence in 2000 confirmed that Reilly, after several months of interrogation, was shot to death, on the direct orders of Joseph Stalin, outside Moscow, on November 5, 1925.