During WW1 MI5 was preoccupied with the German spy threat. As the war came to an end there were threat of mutinies in the armed forces as some units decided de-mobilisation was not going fast enough. Then there were the Fenians along with trouble makers in the Empire. To top all that the new Bolshevik government was an unknown quantity. They hardly knew which way to turn, the politicians were trying to cut their budgets and SIS were attempting a power grab to take over all Intelligence functions. Cagey as they were, the Russians seemed to be getting away with murder.
The situation in early 1921 was that the CPGB had been created, with Lenin giving it his blessing, the trading company ARCOS had been set up, the Soviet Trade Delegation had been granted diplomatic status and money was being smuggled into the country to subsidise both the CPGB and the Daily Herald which was in poor financial shape and only survived with Soviet help.
For most of the twenties the leader of the CPGB was Albert Inkpin, a charisma free zone ; his second in command was Harry Pollitt who did have charisma. These two were at least working class, some the other leading lights were from much loftier realms. One of the men who made a difference was Andrew Rothstein, son of Theodore who was forced to stay in Moscow having left these shores, he had sat on Lenin’s knee as a child, in the lefty pantheon that is about as good as it gets. MI5 monitored Andrew’s post, telegrams, phone calls and meetings but could never pin anything on him other than their conviction that he was up to no good.
In April 1921 the miners planned a strike, fully expecting to be supported by their brethren in the rail and transport unions,the so called Triple Alliance. When the miners pushed the button, they were left on their own, deserted by their comrades. Moscow was not amused having heard only glowing reports about the CPGB, admittedly from the CPGB itself. After ten days the strike collapsed and the miners were subjected to all of the owners’ threats such as lower wages and lay-offs.
In March 1922 a man calling himself George Brown suddenly started appearing at communist events. He arrived just at the start and left just before it finished. Mr Brown was in reality a Comintern troubleshooter, his real name was Mikhail Borodin (originally Gruzenberg). He had spent a decade in the USA and spoke fluent English.
George’s job was to stiffen English backbones and his message was of more coordination and obedience to the Comintern. British Intelligence had no idea he was even in the country and he moved around freely. Eventually in July 1922 there was a tip off that George Brown might not be exactly who he claimed to be. As officers tracked him they quickly realised they were dealing with an undercover spy who had arrived from Russia. In August Special Branch received word that his name was Borodin and he was scheduled to attend a meeting in Glasgow later that month. His collar was felt and during many interrogations he refused to admit to anything. Eventually he was charged with being an illegal alien and after six months was deported to Petrograd. Yet another case where British Intelligence had no idea what was going on until far too late.
Borodin had used an innocuous sounding name but there was the Johnnie Walker case, Walker seems to have been named after the famous scotch whisky. He arrived in Britain before Borodin with his wife and left again before being caught. He returned and carried on where he had left off. The most infuriating part of the case was that he was just a novice when he left Moscow in September 1920 rather than the expert agent Britain’s Intelligence Services had assumed he was.
Walker’s real name was Jacob Kirchenstein a Latvian who had married a Latvian girl, Vallie Waldman while in the USA and became an American citizen. When the revolution happened in 1917, the Kirchensteins decided to return to go back home, impending American conscription may have helped Jacob make up his mind. They returned via Vladivostok with $3,000 of savings hidden in their clothing. After joining the Red Army and then working on the railways, Jacob got a job in the Comintern. Jacob convinced the Bolsheviks that he could get to Britain and work against the Naval blockade that was hurting the Bolsheviks so much.
They made it to Newcastle, assisted by local socialists all the way, where they hid on the ship until the evening and escaped with the help of Anger Petersen, one of the ship’s officers. Petersen would be their main contact with the outside world during their stay in Britain. Coincidentally there were at one point assisted by Trygve Lie who would later become General Secretary of the United Nations, a rat’s nest of communists if there ever was one.
Living rather well on their dollars from the Comintern, Jacob was not at all successful in stopping the Royal Navy’s blockade. Once the trade negotiations had been completed the blockade was lifted anyway and Jacob found other ways to make himself useful. Chief among these was to be a reliable pair of hands when conveying money. Eventually Anker Petersen was found carrying communist literature and a search of his cabin on the ship revealed a letter signed Johnnie Walker. Jacob, though worried survived this episode and although British Intelligence realised that a top Comintern was was in the country had no idea who or where he was. Jacob left the country after getting a fake British Passport in the name of Cornelius Stormonth along with his wife. With his fake passport he could travel when and where he wanted and the authorities would have no idea.
On his second visit to the UK Jacob was employed at ARCOS with the authorities still having no clue that he was Johnnie Walker.
MI5 was under great pressure to uncover Bolsheviks during this decade but they didn’t really know where to begin. Anyone famous who associated with communists came under suspicion and had to be checked out but this invariably turned up nothing. On of the most famous was Clare Sheridan, a sculptress who was Winston Churchill’s cousin. They spent ages trying to prove she was working with the Bolsheviks, but she wasn’t. All this wasted resources that could have been better used chasing real spies, it’s just that MI5 hadn’t really learned how to spot them.
© well_chuffed 2018