November 5th, 1925 – Death of the First Super-Spy

Today-In-History

On November 5th, 1925, British secret agent Sidney Reilly, the first “super-spy” of the 20th century, was executed by the OGPU, the secret police of the Soviet Union.

Sidney Reilly

Sidney George Reilly (c. 1870 – c. 1880 – c. 1925)

Reilly, commonly known as the so-called “Ace of Spies”, was a secret agent of the British Secret Service Bureau, the precursor to the modern British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6/SIS). He is alleged to have spied for at least four different powers.

Sidney Reilly Young

A younger Reilly

Reilly’s fame was created during the 1920s, in part by his friend, the British diplomat and journalist Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, who publicized their thwarted operation to overthrow the Bolshevik regime in 1918. The London Evening Standard published in May 1931 a serial, headlined “Master Spy”, imparting his exploits. Later Ian Fleming used Reilly as a model for James Bond. Today many historians consider Reilly to have been the first 20th-century “super-spy”. Much of what is thought to be known about him could be false, however, as Reilly was a master of deception and most of his life is shrouded in legend.

In September 1925, undercover agents of the OGPU, the intelligence successor of the Cheka, lured Reilly to Bolshevik Russia, ostensibly to meet the supposed anti-Communist organization The Trust—in reality, an OGPU deception existing under the code name Operation Trust. At the Russian border, Reilly was introduced to undercover OGPU agents posing as senior Trust representatives from Moscow.

After Reilly crossed the Finnish border, the Soviets captured, transported, and interrogated him at Lubyanka Prison. On arrival, Reilly was taken to the office of Roman Pilar, a Soviet official who the previous year had arrested and ordered the execution of Boris Savinkov, a close friend of Reilly. Pilar reminded Reilly that he had been sentenced to death by a 1918 Soviet tribunal for his participation in a counter-revolutionary plot against the Bolshevik government.

Reilly Ace of Spies

Sam Neill portrayed Reilly in the TV mini-series “Reilly: Ace of Spies” (1983)

While Reilly was being interrogated, the Soviets publicly claimed that he had been shot trying to cross the Finnish border. Historians debate whether Reilly was tortured while in OGPU custody. Cook contends that Reilly was not tortured other than psychologically by mock execution scenarios designed to shake the resolve of prisoners. During OGPU interrogation, Reilly maintained his charade of being a British subject born in Clonmel, Ireland, and would not reveal any intelligence matters. 

Despite facing such daily interrogation, Reilly kept a diary in his cell of tiny handwritten notes on cigarette papers which he hid in the plasterwork of a cell wall. While his Soviet captors were interrogating Reilly, Reilly in turn was analyzing and documenting their techniques. The diary was a detailed record of OGPU interrogation techniques, and Reilly was understandably confident that such unique documentation would, if he escaped, be of interest to the British SIS. After Reilly’s death, Soviet guards discovered the diary in Reilly’s cell, and photographic enhancements were made by OGPU technicians.

According to British intelligence documents released in 2000, Reilly was executed in a forest near Moscow on Wednesday November 5th, 1925. According to eyewitness Boris Gudz, the execution of Sidney Reilly was supervised by an OGPU officer, Grigory Feduleev; another OGPU officer, George Syroezhkin, fired the final shot into Reilly’s chest. Gudz also confirmed that the order to kill Reilly came from Stalin directly. After Reilly’s death there were various rumours about his survival. Some, for example, speculated that Reilly had defected and became an adviser to Soviet intelligence.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

One Response to “November 5th, 1925 – Death of the First Super-Spy

  • I too track historical events with a steampunk penchant. I’m very happy to have found you.

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