MISSION TO TASHKENT.
MISSION TO TASHKENT by Lieutenant Colonel FM Bailey (Folio Society, 19.95 [pounds sterling], hb)
For eighteen months in 1918-20 Lieutenant-Colonel Bailey lived incognito in Russian Turkestan under the hostile eye of the new Bolshevik regime. He was the Great Game personified: a forward listening post for British India in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union. The Civil War between Reds and Whites (actively aided by Britain and her allies) raged throughout his time there. He could have been arrested and shot at any moment.
Tashkent, now the capital of independent Uzbekistan, is still recognisably the lively, cosmopolitan, raffish city, with its tree-lined streets and colonial architecture, that Bailey found it, with still a whiff of danger. There was gunfire in the distance when I was there in 1995. But the danger Bailey was the constant likelihood of being betrayed, apprehended, murdered as so many thousands were in Tashkent in those times.
That Bailey was able in 1946 to put this memoir together at all is something of a miracle. The diaries that he wrote at the time were three times lost or abandoned and rewritten from memory. The encoded messages he spent much of his time penning in invisible ink and sewing into coat linings were mostly burnt, passed on into unreliable hands or eaten by their bearers, such was the need for secrecy. As a result the narrative is sometimes disjointed, unchronological or repetitive, with odd flashbacks and flashforwards.
There is naturally little about his intelligence work, it may not have added up to much in the great scheme of things, but there is fascinating detail of the heterogeneous people of Turkestan, some of whom sheltered him, others who were a potential threat, and much about their simple way of life, in these days of post-war food shortages, unsprung carts, street checkpoints and unnerving Communist propaganda and paranoia.
Throngs of Austrian and German prisoners of war filled the city streets: at various times Bailey assumed the disguises, and passports, of a Hungarian cook, an ancient Lett, a Romanian coachman, his life plagued by agents provocateurs and made more precarious by the presence in nearby Persia of British troops fighting to overthrow the Bolsheviks in what is now Turkmenistan.
The life of a spy has its longeurs (he read the entire Bible). It is a gripping tale, self-deprecatingly told, and should be read in conjunction with Peter Hopkirk's excellent Setting the East Ablaze, the first six chapters of which expand on Bailey's achievements.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1999|
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