Book Review

Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly

by Richard B. Spence

Review by, Amy Keller

Our world today is changing rapidly. No longer abstracts that haunt the imagination of children and novelists alike, terrorism and intelligence issues have not only come to America’s shores but have become part of an accepted cultural frame of reference. The scholarly reader often looks to relevant historical material in times of societal change and upheaval. It is to this reader, as well as any aficionado of twentieth century Russian history, that I would recommend this book.

Densely packed with fact after meticulously footnoted fact, Trust No One often reads like a James Bond thriller. This may come as no surprise, since many postulate that the book's protagonist, Sidney Reilly, may have been the model upon which the original James Bond character was based. Spence paints Reilly as an ingeniously resourceful individual, possessing the perfect mind to create a life for himself as an at-least-double agent.

Spence ferrets out and presents the possibilities of Reilly’s early life, constructing a tableau of elements in which the young Reilly could easily have learned the skills of identity reconstruction and obfuscation, talents not trivial to someone cultivating a career in espionage. Wherever he came from, and however he came to meet those individuals who would push him toward a lifetime of intrigue, disguise, and amoral opportunism, Reilly’s success ultimately resulted from his ability to manipulate his resources and environments in ways that put him at the forefront of action: interpersonal, corporate, governmental, or otherwise.

Spence, a History professor at the University of Idaho, specializes in research involving modern Russia and Russian intelligence. Sidney Reilly was most likely born in Russia, and always held what one could term a soft spot for all things Russian throughout his entire career. Spence guides us through Reilly’s initiation into the ranks of tsarist intelligence that eventually delivers him to China, Japan, England, and even America. The political climate during this time was far from static: various political fringe elements were engaging in civil unrest and terrorist acts aimed at overthrowing the Russian monarchy in the name of communism and Marxism.

Because “isms” such as these are ideologically loaded, one often thinks of their construction and implementation in terms of black and white morality and practicality. Spence informs us that this was not so in the Russia of Reilly’s young adulthood. In fact, many of the key backstage political masterminds of the tsarist regime went on to retain their old positions once Tsar Nicholas was out of the way. These shadowmen seemed to value their positions of prestige more than their loyalty to any one political doctrine. It was among such individuals that Reilly became a spy; no wonder, then, that he often seems to abide by what is today a Green Party slogan, that of being “neither left nor right but out in front.”

Spence takes his reader on an intercontinental journey in which Reilly builds a life for himself by learning to be in the right place at the right time with the right people, especially in Germany, Britain, Russia, and the United States. As we watch Reilly learn the ropes of international protocol, we do more than cling to the adventure story of this singular protagonist. We are shown the inner mechanisms that power political regimes, wars, and terrorist operations. Much of what Spence presents us with is eerily relevant to today’s nebulous sociopolitical backdrop.

Although the text is often too dense to fully digest in a single reading, this book is packed with detailed information about a man and the world he both existed in and manipulated. And while the volume of typos in the manuscript is at times distracting, it does not impede the enjoyment of what is otherwise a well-flowing composition. Without a doubt, this is definitely worth reading.

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