The Odessa-Born Jew-Turned British Secret Agent Who Might Have Inspired James Bond

January 16, 2023 | A.E. Smith
About the author:

A native of tsarist Russia, Sigmund Rosenblum left for Britain in 1890s, where he took the name Sidney Reilly and at some point began working for a precursor of MI6 (the UK equivalent of the CIA). Thus began a career of espionage and intrigue that, according to some, was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. It is also the subject of Benny Morris’s Sidney Reilly: Master Spy, which tries to sift through legend and speculation to determine the facts of Reilly’s exploits. A.E. Smith writes in his review:

By the end of 1918, [Reilly] was back in Russia, this time in his hometown of Odessa, reporting back to MI6 on the progress of the Civil War in southern Russia where three armies—White, Red, and Ukrainian nationalists under Symon Petliura—were engaged in an existential struggle. Reilly was unabashedly partisan, praising White commander Anton Denikin’s “absolute honesty . . . political moderation, immense popularity, and . . . loyalty to the Allied cause” and dismissing Petliura as “ephemeral.” What he failed to mention was that the region’s Jews were helplessly caught in the middle of this war. Pogroms across Ukraine and the Donbas dwarfed those of the 19th and early-20th centuries, resulting in an estimated 50,000 casualties. Of these, more than 90 percent were carried out by Ukrainian nationalists or Denikin’s Whites and about 8.5 percent by the Red Army.

Even with their knee-jerk Edwardian anti-Semitism, Reilly’s upper-class colleagues in MI6 and the Foreign Office were horrified by what they saw. “The longer and more bitter the struggle against the Soviets,” wrote Captain George Hill in June 1919, “the more sanguinary the pogroms.” But Reilly evidently cared little for the fate of his fellow Jews, downplaying their plight in his reporting, and characterizing them as a pro-German fifth column.

Herein lies the central theme of Reilly’s life. From his name to his passport to his officer’s commission, Reilly seemed to go to great lengths to conceal, even repudiate, his Jewish identity. This is, of course, not an uncommon story. . . . Jewish history is full of shapeshifters and tricksters, and certainly Reilly seems to be one of them. In the story of his life, there is virtually nothing overtly Jewish. That, as above, seems to be the way he wanted it.

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