Written by Brian Mefford
Everyone knows the world’s most famous spy, James Bond. Author Ian Fleming’s hero has been a box office star for more than half a century. Bond is known for his brilliant mind, wild adventures, and debonair charm. “Women want him, and men want to be him”. What most people don’t know, is that James Bond has his origins in Odesa, Ukraine.
James Bond is a fictitious character, but he was inspired by real people. Before writing the first James Bond book, author Ian Fleming had a successful career in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). This work gave Fleming the background he needed to write the Bond series of novels. Many of the plot devices and personalities featured in the series closely mirror Fleming’s personal experiences. However, the primary inspiration for the character of James Bond actually came from an era before Fleming’s own. James Bond was inspired by the incredible life story of a man born in Odessa on March 24, 1874, under the name Sigmund Rosenblum.
Rosenblum, who would later assume the more English-sounding name of Sidney Reilly, lived a life shrouded in intrigue and mystery. In fact, it is still difficult to discern which parts of Reilly’s life are historical fact, and which parts are mere legend. There is broad agreement over some of his most audacious escapades: observers generally believe he really did deliver the Persian oil fields to the British crown. He is credited with stealing Germany’s top naval secrets, and came within a whisker of assassinating Vladimir Lenin in 1918 as part of the “Lockhart Plot”.
Officially, Sigmund Rosenblum was born the son of Grigory, who was a wealthy Jewish contractor in Odesa. However Reilly claimed that his real father was Grigory’s first cousin, a medical doctor named Mikhail Rosenblum. Only Reilly’s mother Polina, who was a professional pianist (and possibly a distant cousin of Russian nobility), knew for sure. What is more certain is that his family’s home was located at 15 Aleksandrovskiy Prospect near Greek Square (Grecheskaya Ploshcha) in the city.
Reilly’s began his political and espionage work in Odesa on behalf of the “Friends of Enlightenment”, a Jewish emancipation movement which sought the right of the Jewish community to fully integrate into society. Working as a messenger for this secret group led to his arrest by the tsarist police known as the “Okhrana” in 1892. Having been arrested by the age of 18, Reilly understood his future in Russia would be limited. Shortly thereafter, Reilly faked his drowning under the ice in the Odesa harbor and caught a British ship sailing to Brazil. Apparently Reilly befriended some British explorers on the ship, and he started working as their cook. Once in Brazil, Reilly claims to have saved the explorers from cannibals. Following this heroism, the leader of the group awarded Reilly with a British passport and 1500 pounds – a substantial sum at the time. However in another version of the story, after faking his death in Odesa, Reilly robbed a pair of French couriers (or murdered a pair of Italian anarchists in another version) and used their money and passports to eventually arrive in Britain.
In London, Reilly established “Rosenblum and Company”, a pharmaceutical company. While in London, Reilly quickly became a fixture in the Russian émigré community and developed a taste for lavish living. Reilly’s prominence in the Russian community caught the attention of Scotland Yard, who began paying him as an informant. Like James Bond, the charismatic Reilly proved irresistible to women. He was aided in making connections in the Russian community by his romantic relationship with Ethel Voynich, the wife of Polish revolutionary Wilfred Voynich (and owner of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript). Reilly would later confess to Ethel about his life of espionage and intrigue, which gave the famous Victorian writer an idea for her novel “The Gadfly”, which was loosely based on Reilly’s real life exploits By 1896, Reilly’s value as an informant had increased dramatically, and he was recommended to British intelligence for overseas work. In 1897, Reilly began a secret affair with the 24 year old wife of Reverend Hugh Thomas. Reverend Thomas, age 63, regularly purchased medicine from Reilly’s pharmacy to treat a kidney disease. When the reverend suddenly died, Reilly married Margaret Reilly Thomas, his young widow in August 1898. Margaret Thomas inherited a substantial fortune which helped to pay for Reilly’s increasingly expensive lifestyle. A year after his marriage to Margaret, he decided to change his name from Rosenblum to his wife’s maiden name “Reilly”. Reilly’s rationale for the name change was, “in Europe, only the British hate the Irish, but everyone hates the Jews”. Though he never divorced Margaret, Reilly would have numerous romances with women on three continents. In addition to Margaret, Reilly maintained a romantic lifelong relationship with a distant cousin from Grodno (modern day Belarus) named Felitsia. One colleague in British intelligence said about Reilly, “he has eleven passports, and a wife to match each one”.
With his new wealth, knowledge of six languages, and proven record with Scotland Yard, Reilly was tasked with greater responsibilities. The same year as he changed his name, Reilly was in Holland disguised as a Russian arms dealer who reported to London about Dutch weapon supplies to South Africa during the Second Boer War. During the Russo-Japanese War, Reilly popped up in Port Arthur, Manchuria (China) as timber salesman in early 1904. In Port Arthur, Reilly may have worked as a double (and some say even quadruple) agent for the British and Japanese. What is clear is that Reilly co-opted a Chinese spy to give the Japanese (and British) the Russian’s plans for defense of the harbor. This led to a surprise attack at night by the Japanese navy and the deaths of 31,000 Russian soldiers.
However Reilly rose to prominence in the ranks of British intelligence for his work in the D’Arcy Affair. Having previously visited Baku, Azerbaijan (then part of Persia) to investigate the oil sector in 1902, Reilly was aware of the vast energy resources of the country. The British Board of the Admiralty had made a decision in 1904 to change the main fuel supply for the Royal Navy from coal to oil, and steady supplies needed to be secured. Reilly had learned from his contacts close to the Persian Shah that the country’s oil field concessions had been granted to an Australian named William Knox D’Arcy. D’Arcy then traveled to Cannes, France to negotiate a sale and/or lease of the concessions to the wealthy Rothschild family. During negotiations on Lord de Rothschild’s yacht near Cote d’Azur in the French Riviera, Reilly disguised himself as a Catholic priest collecting charitable donations to gain entry to the boat. Interrupting the dinner between Rothschild and D’Arcy, Reilly was able to lure D’Arcy away privately for a few minutes. During those tense minutes, Reilly revealed his true cover and using his great charm and charisma, he persuaded D’Arcy that the British would offer more than the Rothschild. The daring gamble worked and with D’Arcy’s concessions on the Persian oil fields, the British obtained the oil supplies they needed to fuel their famous Royal Navy. As a result of having a reliable purchaser, Azerbaijan would be the world’s largest oil producer for the next two decades.
Reilly’s career would continue to benefit the British. In 1909 he appeared as a “Baltic welder” at the Krupp factory in Essen Germany. Using his access to the factory and lock picking skills, he discovered the company’s top secret weapons designs and made copies for his bosses in London. This information would be vital five years later at the onset of World War I. It was the same year that Sidney had an open affair with Eve Lavalliere, the wife of the director of the Parisian Theatre de Varieties, much to the anger of his wife Margaret. Reilly continued to help the British against the Germans and in 1911 he traveled to Russia. There he infiltrated the circle of executives of the German Blohm and Voss shipbuilding firm who were trying to negotiate the sale of German naval vessels to Russia. Having already seduced the wife of the Russian Minister of Marine, Reilly used his access to the minister’s home, to persuade the gullible minister to award the contract for rebuilding the Russian fleet to Blohm and Voss. This deal not only made Reilly a huge commission, but it also gave him access to the secret German naval designs, which he shared with the British. Using part of his commissions, Reilly then paid the Russian minister to divorce his wife Nadezhda Zalessky, so that he could marry her himself.
Reilly next pops up in New York in 1914 where he opened an office at 120 Broadway Street. In the “Big Apple”, Reilly countered German attempts to sabotage American supply efforts to France and Britain, as well as orchestrated the lucrative purchase and supply of American goods to support the Russian army against Germany. It was here that Sidney started a relationship with model Beatrice Tremaine. The same year, in 1916, Reilly ran the British underground in German occupied Poland, out of the Bristol Hotel in Warsaw. In October 1917 Reilly moved to Canada to join the British Royal Flying Corps. Reilly then parachuted behind German lines to conduct acts of sabotage and espionage to support the Allied war effort. He even managed to disguise himself as a German officer and infiltrate a meeting attended by Kaiser Wilhelm himself.
With the murder of Tsar Nicholas I by the Bolsheviks, the British government worried that the new government would sign a peace treaty with Germany. Reilly was sent to Russia in February 1918 with the Herculean task of keeping Russia in the war against Germany. Reilly and fellow secret agent Robert Lockhart, began orchestrating British government financial support for an army of anti-Bolsheviks led by Boris Savinkov, a former official in the Russian provisional government. Reilly, this time posing as Turkish merchant, began systematically bribing the Latvian bodyguards that protected Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Reilly’s plan was to have the Latvian guards, turn the two Communists over to him in exchange for money. Reilly either planned to kill Lenin himself, or to parade the two revolutionaries naked through the streets of Moscow, to humiliate and discredit them in the eyes of the Russian public. Simultaneously, Savinkov and his army of counter-revolutionaries would seize power to replace Lenin and Trotsky, and Reilly would play the role of “grey Cardinal”. However the plan was foiled at the eleventh hour by betrayal of the plot to the Bolsheviks by a French journalist, and an unorganized, failed assassination attempt against Lenin by Dora Kaplan. “I was a millimeter from being able to become the ruler of Russia” said Reilly about the events. To avoid arrest, Reilly first disguised himself as a Cheka officer (Bolshevik secret police), and later as a legal clerk traveling on a forged German passport, which allowed him to escape via Finland. Neither Lockhart nor two of Reilly’s mistresses (one of which, Olga Starzhevskaya, was a mole inside the Cheka)were as fortunate though. He was arrested and held in prison until later being swapped for a Russian spy. The mistresses were also arrested and disappeared from history (likely killed). Though Reilly was the ringleader, the events became known as the “Lockhart Plot” which resulted in a “Red Terror” of arrests and executions of suspected conspirators. Reilly was sentenced by Bolshevik court to death in absentia, in November 1918.
That did not prevent Reilly from returning to his native Odesa from February to April 1919 under the disguise as a British diplomat. While in Odesa, Reilly published several anonymous anti-Bolshevik letters to the editors of local newspaper and recruited agents among the Odesa elites. He also met Grigoriy Kotovskiy, a former thief in-law with Misha Yaponchik, who would later become a Red Army General. Naturally Reilly’s love of women continued, and he was seen meeting with actress Vera Holodniy in bar of the Londonskaya Hotel on Primorskiy Boulevard. Reilly also spent time with his aging mother, who was living on Trinity Street next to the British Consulate by this time (perpendicular to Aleksandrovskiy Prospect).
Upon his return to the UK, Reilly would eventually become an adviser on Russian affairs to Winston Churchill. The two found common ideological ground when Reilly publically penned that Bolshevism is “a cancer that affects the foundations of civilization..an arch enemy of the human race…the power of the Anti-Christ” and “at any cost, this abomination…must be destroyed…there is only one enemy. Humanity must unite against this midnight terror”. In 1921 Reilly was “officially” dismissed as a British agent, although that may have been a legend to protect both Reilly and the British government. The same year he amicably divorced Nadezhda, and then started an affair with 18 year old Caryll Houselander. However in 1923 he married Pepita Bobadilla, a Latin actress he had met in Berlin.
Using his wealth (and likely British government funding), Reilly began supporting several ant-Bolshevik groups inside Russia. One of the groups, known as “The Trust” was successful in raising money from White Russians in Europe, because it claimed to have high ranking officials embedded within the Bolshevik government. However, “The Trust” was a cover operation for the OGPU, the successor of the Cheka and the forerunner of the NKVD (Russian intelligence). “The Trust” invited Boris Savinkov to Russia to meet with the counter-revolutionaries. However upon his arrival in Russia, he was arrested by the OGPU and murdered shortly thereafter. To get revenge, Reilly penned the “Zinoviev Letter”. At the time, Britain’s Labor government had just recognized the Soviet Union and was about to provide them with huge financial loans. Reilly’s forged a letter from Grigoriy Zinoviev, a high ranking Soviet official to the British Communist Party, which called for the “revolutionizing of the …British proletariat…and develop the propaganda of ideas of Leninism in England and the Colonies”. The Zinoviev Letter was leaked to the media which led to thedefeat of the Labor government in the October 1924 elections. A month later, the new Conservative government canceled the yet unratified treaty with the Soviets, and the United States subsequently postponed recognition of the Soviet Union. Having become a true mover of world events, Reilly said, “it is a fake, but it is the result that counts”.
In September 1925, despite the murder of his friend Savinkov, Reilly surprisingly accepted an invitation from “The Trust” to visit the Soviet Union. From Moscow on September 27th, he mailed a postcard to a colleague in British intelligence stating merely “all is fine” before disappearing. Reilly’s disappearance became front page news in Britain and there was wild speculation about his whereabouts. The Soviets claimed Reilly had been killed trying to escape to Finland. For years there were “sightings” of Reilly in different parts of Europe. British intelligence worried that Reilly may have switched sides and made a deal with the Soviets. Reilly’s wife Pepita would eventually write a book about his exploits to keep the search alive. Finally in 2002, a former OGPU colonel confessed to the murder in November 1925, acting under direct orders from Joseph Stalin who wanted retaliation for the “Lockhart Plot”.
Why was Ian Fleming so captivated by the legend of Sidney Reilly? He could hardly have had a better introduction to the colorful world of Sidney Reilly. Lockhart himself shared his personal experiences and knowledge of Reilly with Ian Fleming. As a fellow British agent, Fleming was already well aware of Reilly’s reputation for daring adventures. He used the first-hand accounts provided by Lockhart to create the character of James Bond for his novels. Once, when asked about his inspiration for the wild plots in the Bond novels, Fleming responded, “James Bond is just a piece of nonsense I dreamed up. He’s not a Sidney Reilly you know!”.
It is quite fitting that an Odessa native should be the inspiration behind James Bond. After all, Odessa has produced a range of flamboyant fictional characters and literary legends such as Ostap Bender, Benya Krik, and Rabinovich. For centuries, Odessa has fired the imagination. It is only natural to learn that the city’s cosmopolitan climate helped inspire some of the greatest spy stories ever told. James Bond may be a global figure, but his charisma, cunning, aristocratic tastes, and appetite for danger are quintessential Odessa traits.
I hope this article has left you shaken and not stirred. The next time you watch a James Bond movie, you now may find it difficult to forget that the debonair hero was actually inspired by an Odessa adventurer. In reply to the character’s legendary “Bond, James Bond” introduction, Ukrainian viewers might even be excused for answering, “Mama, Odessa Mama.”