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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > October 2017 > Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette

As the curtain fell on World War I, Giles Milton uncovers the British spies who attempted to bring down the West’s newest enemy: Lenin
In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, communism now posed the greatest threat to European political stability, spearheaded by leader of the Russian Republic, Vladimir Lenin

The night was thick with frost and the Moon hung low in the sky. On the banks of the River Sestra – the frontier between Finland and Russia – a lone figure could be seen crouching in the shadows.

When he was sure that no one was watching, he slipped into a boat and rowed in silence across the fast-flowing water. It was November 1918, and that shadowy figure was a British spy named Paul Dukes. His codename was ‘ST 25’, and he was to prove one of the most The ective undercover agents ever to work inside an enemy country.

Bolshevik soldiers march through the Red Square in Moscow, shortly after the 1917 revolution

In successfully smuggling himself inside Soviet Russia, Dukes was placing himself in the greatest possible danger. He had come to spy on Lenin’s Bolsheviks, working in disguise under a variety of aliases. He had fake identity papers, a list of safe houses, and a network of contacts that he would need if he were to stay one step ahead of the Cheka, Lenin’s dreaded secret police.

Dukes had no illusions as to what would happen to him if he were to be caught: there would be a show trial and then he would be summarily executed. The stakes could scarcely have been higher, but Dukes thrived on danger. In slipping into enemy Russia, he was embarking on a highly dangerous game of Russian roulette.


Paul Dukes was one of a small band of British spies smuggled into Moscow in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Their task was to infiltrate every branch of Lenin’s revolutionary government and subvert the Bolshevik cause wherever possible. It was work of the utmost importance. Lenin’s avowed aim was global revolution. He wanted to topple all the Western democracies – governments still reeling from the slaughter of World War I. Revolution was in the air, with violent unrest in Germany and political agitation in Britain. It was felt that one push might bring the whole house down.

Leon Trotsky, ‘People’s Commissar of Military and Naval A airs’, makes a speech to soldiers of the Red Army, 1918
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About History Revealed

"From raiders to invades: Medievalist Dr Ryan Lavelle tells the story of how the Vikings dropped their hit-and-run tactics and instead banded together to form a Great Heathen Army, eventually conquering a large part of Britain. Also in the issue, find out how a Lancastrian widow came to marry a Yorkist king during the Wars of the Roses, and what happened when a German monk dared to take on the Pope with a 500-anniversary feature on Martin Luther's Reformation. Plus, inside Hitler's last gamble at the Battle of the Bulge, the spy who tried to kill Lenin and the Atomic Age in pictures."