Sidney Reilly was a spy — a master spy, as the subtitle of this biography describes him. But he was also an enigmatic figure whose espionage exploits are in large part conjecture. Phrases such as “it is unclear,” “it is likely,” and “it may have been” accompany the account of the man and his activities.
Born in 1874 (or perhaps 1872), Reilly presented himself as Irish-born, a great British patriot, and firmly anti-Bolshevik. The latter descriptions were proven true; but Irish-born? No. And his name wasn’t Sidney Reilly.
Sigmund, or Shlomo, Rosenblum may have been born in Odessa (or possibly in Russian-ruled Poland) to Jewish parents (although his mother may have converted to Catholicism), where he spent at least part of his youth. He left as a young man, with several years unaccounted for, making his way to London in 1895.
From there, he would become a “businessman, con man, and spy” with an exceedingly active love life. He changed his name along the way, making it easier for him to travel and work, and distancing him from his Jewish roots. On that, it seems, he never looked back.
Much of the narrative of Reilly’s life intersects with the political machinations of the early twentieth century — Tsarist Russia, the Russian Revolution, oil exploration and licensing — and, later, the First World War. Spying mostly for Britain, he profited from the war, brokering arms deals and doing business in Britain, Europe, Russia, Japan, and the US, where one of his competitors was the J. Pierpont Morgan Bank.
Neither Reilly’s “deals” nor his espionage were straightforward, and he frequently came under suspicion. Some were convinced he was a German agent who, to make money, was supplying arms to Germany. There may have been “a very small element of truth” in this, Israeli historian Benny Morris writes. It was, however, never proven.
In 1918, Reilly applied for a position with MI6, the British military intelligence; and, despite suspicions about him, he was hired. While he would work to overthrow Russia’s Bolshevik government to the end of his life, MI6 severed his employment in 1920. Antisemitism, Morris maintains, played a part in his dismissal.
In 1925, Reilly was lured back to Russia, where he was imprisoned and interrogated. He was executed several months later.
Morris summarizes Reilly as “something of a chameleon, constantly changing identities, activities, and venues,” a revolutionary who came to see himself as “the man who would organize and perhaps even lead regime change” in Russia. He might have failed in that, but he succeeded in securing “a notable place in the annals of espionage.”