Monday, June 15, 2015

"Russian Roulette" by Giles Milton (2015)

When you watch films such as “The Four Feathers”, or “The Bengal Lancers” and “Gunga Din” you may be tempted to dismiss them as mere dramatizations of history, but you would be shortsighted to do so. Those films actually portray the British struggle to maintain control over India during the last days of the Raj in a fairly accurate way.

In his latest book, “Russian Roulette”, author Giles Milton takes us back to the days of the First World War and the Russian Revolution to illustrate the way in which Lenin’s Bolsheviks were prevented from exporting the Revolution to India by way of Afghanistan, Turkestan, and also how the British developed the Secret Intelligence Service; commonly referred to as MI6.

Reading this book is almost like watching one of those old movies I mentioned earlier; only better. When the Russian people finally had enough of the war; which was decimating the working class; they revolted. The Revolution is always considered to have occurred in November of 1917 when the Bolsheviks finally got to kill Tsar Nicholas and his family, but the truth is that it was brewing for some time.

Aside from the obvious problem of having Russia leave the war against Germany was the security of the large stores of ammunition stored within Russian borders. The concern was twofold; should the Germans acquire it then the tide of the war in the area would be turned. On the other hand, should the Bolsheviks get ahold of it then we risked losing Russia to internal strife. To deal with the political problems this engendered the British created an espionage network which spawned what some have termed “the Great Game”; a game which continues today in the same areas as it began, between the same powers that began it.

When the war ended the British efforts to stop the spread of Bolshevism didn’t end; if only for the fact that Lenin was actively pursuing a foothold in India to topple the British Raj. To that end, Amir Amannullah; the ruler of Afghanistan at the time; issued a jihad directing a Holy War against British India in 1919. 

But as determined as the Russians might have been to expand their reach into India, the British were equally determined to oppose that expansion. To that end they chose to use some 50,000 shells of a toxic gas known as “the M-Device.” This was a nechloroarsine, which caused instant death in some; and violent illness in others. Churchill declared it to be more humane than explosives. Of those 55,00 shells, 47,282 remained unused and were dumped in about 240 feet of water in the White Sea, where they remain until this very day. Ninety years later Britain would be chief among those nations condemning Saddam Hussein for gassing the Kurds in Northern Iraq.

The book is filled with the characters you would expect to meet in films like “The Man Who Would Be King”. Some of these men were professional adventurers; some were men with political bents; others were just “doing their bit”; but all of their stories reflect, if not surpass, the antics of all the stars in those movies I mentioned earlier. Several have left manuscripts; published and unpublished; which the author has used to create a wonderfully accurate picture of a time and place which has not changed much since the time these events occur.

The names of men such as Mansfield Cumming; Arthur Ransome; Robert Bruce Lockhart; Sidney Reilly and George Hill may be lost in the greater annals of history, the rocky plains and mountainous areas of Afghanistan are still the same. And the “Great Game” still continues on its useful; and sometimes incomprehensible; course. This book will aid you in navigating that history.

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