November 5 marked 90 years since the death of the man who inspired 007.
Once again, the media went into overdrive over the new James Bond movie.
When author Ian Fleming created 007, he said “James Bond is just a piece of nonsense I dreamed up. He’s not a Sidney Reilly, you know.” So who was the ‘real’ 007?
Sidney Reilly was a chameleon, a devious, bold survivor, feared by both political extremes, from capitalist to commissar.
He was a con man with eight wives and a dozen passports, a businessman, master of disguise, a forger, and fluent in a number of languages.
He left a legacy of riddles. How did he become the fictitious Sidney Reilly, claiming to be a ‘British gentleman’ of Irish descent?
Did he die in front of a Soviet firing squad in 1925? Or did he live on with yet another identity until the 1940s?
His daring exploits beggar belief. He posed as foreign businessmen, royalty, politicians. His identity would change in a single train journey.
But it was in Russia after the 1917 revolution where the enduring legend of Sidney Reilly would be fully formed.
Working with the British envoy Robert Bruce Lockhart and MI6, he planned to kidnap Lenin and parade him on a truck through the streets of Petrograd in his underpants. But the plan stalled when Lenin suffered a failed assassination in 1918.
By then, Reilly and Lockhart were involved in a plan to bring allied troops into Russia to defeat the Bolsheviks. Yet the predecessor of the KGB, the Cheka, worked a clever sting against the allies, who through Reilly had paid Lenin’s praetorian Latvian guard a massive sum of money to rebel and support an allied invasion.
On August 31 1918, guards invaded the British Embassy where they shot dead the naval attaché, Captain Cromie, subsequently imprisoning every Briton in Petrograd. At this point, as ever, Reilly vanishes.
Was he executed by the Cheka? Probably – but we may never know the truth.