It was a warm, humid afternoon, typical of Moscow in August, and children were playing in the street below. Apartment No 66 was on the top floor and the television crew were using the small lift to shuttle their equipment up in relays. Boris Gudz sat patiently in the corner of the study as cameramen and sound technicians set up around him. Although clearly a man of advancing years, there was little in his outward appearance to betray the fact that two weeks previously he had celebrated his 100th birthday. On his blazer lapel, appropriately, hung the Order of Artuzov. Artur Artuzov was the Ogpu mastermind credited with conceiving Operation Trust, the subject of the afternoon’s interview for Russian television.
A counter-intelligence coup of epic proportions, the 1925 Trust operation succeeded in luring back to Russia the man Ogpu – the Soviet military intelligence service – ranked as one of its greatest and most formidable enemies, the British “master spy” Sidney Reilly.
When the equipment was finally ready and the interview began, Gudz explained that he had been born in the Kherson district, the same district as the Russian-born Reilly. After his father was arrested for revolutionary activity, he joined Lenin’s Bolshevik party and eventually took part in the 1917 revolution and the civil war that followed. Artuzov, head of Ogpu’s counter-intelligence section, was a family friend and had offered Gudz a job as liaison officer to his subordinate, Vladimir Styrne. Gudz’s initial role in the Trust deception was as a courier delivering messages and money to Eduard Opperput, one of the front-line agents engaged in apprehending Reilly.
Like many others in the west, Reilly was convinced that the Trust was an anti-Bolshevik group and believed Opperput to be one of its representatives. It was at Opperput’s “safe-house” apartment on September 26 1925 that Reilly wrote a postcard to the MI6 station chief Ernest Boyce. Gudz recalled that after leaving the building and posting the card, Reilly got into a car he thought was taking him to the railway station. Instead, handcuffs were snapped on his wrists and the car sped off to the notorious Lubyanka headquarters of Ogpu.
Reilly’s incarceration in cell 73 was kept a closely guarded secret, even from other Ogpu personnel. According to Gudz, “The cell was more like a room of a good hotel: there was a sofa, an armchair and a table in it.” Concern that Reilly might attempt suicide is evident from a conversation Gudz recalled with the jailer, who told him that day and night observation was being kept on Prisoner 73, “so that he won’t lay hands on himself”.
The interrogation, led by Styrne, began the day after Reilly’s arrest. From the very start, Styrne’s approach was one of respect for someone he considered a worthy adversary. Although it was made clear to Reilly that he was still under sentence of death for his part in the attempted coup against Lenin in 1918, Gudz was keen to emphasise that at no point during interrogation was torture used – “no physical methods were applied to him. I can guarantee that”.
Reilly made several statements to Styrne about his background, but would not be drawn on any of the matters Ogpu most wanted to know about, principally MI6 operational details. Although “physical methods” of torture were not employed, there is strong evidence in the Ogpu’s records to suggest that psychological torture certainly was.
While in cell 73, Reilly kept a diary of sorts, making tiny, handwritten notes on cigarette papers. These he hid in his clothing, his bed and in cracks in the plaster walls. On October 30 1925 he recorded that Styrne had told him that, “unless I agree to co-operate [my] execution will take place immediately”. On his refusal, Styrne called in the executioner. Reilly was handcuffed and taken out to be shot, or so he thought. After “an endless wait” in the courtyard, he was brought back in and told that a stay of execution had been granted for a further 20 hours.
According to Ogpu observation reports, Reilly spent that night alternately crying and praying before a small picture of his wife Pepita. It seemed that the classic mock execution technique had finally shaken his resolve. Despite his agreement to provide, “full evidence and information… relating to the organisation and personnel of the British intelligence service,” subsequent interrogation reports indicate that the details he gave Styrne were either of a low-grade nature (much of which they already knew) or were completely bogus. On being asked, for example, who the new head of MI6 was, he gave a fictitious name – Rear Admiral Gaygout – instead of naming Rear Admiral Sinclair.
According to Gudz, Reilly was regularly taken from the Lubyanka after dark and driven to the Sokolniki district for walks in the woods. As a “secret” prisoner, great care had to be taken to conceal his movements: Reilly was always dressed in an Ogpu uniform for the trips.
By November 4 it was decided that Reilly had no more to tell. Stalin, who Gudz says was kept fully informed throughout, believed that the longer Reilly remained alive the greater the chance that word of his incarceration would leak out. Once this happened, diplomatic scandals and intrigues would surely follow. According to Gudz, Stalin, “anticipated this situation and ordered his execution”. Although the decision to carry out the execution was an irreversible one made at the highest level, it would seem that the Ogpu officers on the ground did, in fact, exercise a degree of discretion in how it was done, deciding to shoot Reilly unawares on his next walk in Sokolniki on the evening of November 5.
“However paradoxical it may sound,” said Gudz, “it was a humanitarian act. Reilly had been taken on those trips many times before, and this, his last trip, was just another in his eyes.” With Reilly in the car that evening were the driver, Ibrahim Abisalov, Grigory Feduleev and Grigory Syroezhkin. Prior to leaving the Lubyanka, it had been agreed that the driver would stop the car at an appointed spot just beyond the pond on the narrow Bogorodsk road. When Reilly was 30 to 40 paces from the car he was shot in the back by Abisalov.
It should be noted with some historical irony that Artuzov, Styrne and indeed most of those involved in Reilly’s apprehension and death would eventually find themselves in front of Ogpu firing squads, as victims of Stalin’s purges. Gudz and his friend Abisalov were more fortunate. As relatively junior officers they were merely sacked from the organisation and quickly melted into civilian life. Gudz, who soon found himself a job as a bus driver, ultimately survived not only the purges and the second world war, but the demise of the Soviet Union whose birth he had witnessed.
· On His Majesty’s Secret Service – Sidney Reilly, Codename ST1 by Andrew Cook is published by Tempus, £14.99