A sometimes sluggish recitation of a thrilling episode at the dawn of the Bolshevik era.
Former MI6 operative Ferguson ventures that the findings of British spies in Russia during the civil-war era should have encouraged intervention to bring down the vulnerable Communist regime, which would have spared the West a great deal of trouble in the decades to come. But much of the action he recounts here was characterized by bad guesses, misinterpretations and crossed signals, for which Ferguson lays much blame at the door of early spymaster Mansfield Cumming (“the myth that he was an intelligence mastermind persists to this day”). In the contested theater of operations around Petrograd, a British agent named Paul Dukes had been caught in the Bolshevik lines, bearing sensitive documents. The only way to get him out, the stalwarts of the Royal Navy concluded, was to mount a daring raid. Ferguson’s novelistic touches in setting the scene are heavy-handed—“At long last, the grey-haired officer removed his spectacles and slipped a gold rimmed monocle into his right eye”—and his efforts at rendering dialogue are clumsy. The narrative gathers steam as the author follows the resourceful commandos and their attack on the heavily armed Soviet fleet at Kronstadt with a flotilla of plywood boats. It remains for the interested reader to learn the outcome of the attack. Suffice it to say that things did not go exactly as planned, but there were plenty of fireworks and cliffhangers—even though the Soviet regime survived both the attack and the civil war.
A somewhat useful documentation, but a shorter, tighter tale would have been welcome.