In the pre-dawn hours of 20 September 1918, a train, its headlamp off, heading eastwards out of Kransnovodsk on the Caspian sea, came to an unscheduled standstill among the lonely desert dunes of Transcaspia. From one of the two carriages stumbled a group of bound and blindfolded prisoners, who were pushed and dragged up to the crest of a nearby dune, and there gunned down and their bodies hastily covered with sand.
In the context of the times and the area — 15,000 men, women and children had just been slaughtered in Baku on the other side of the Caspian — the political execution of 26 Bolsheviks might not seem a major event, but it was a murder that would resonate down through Soviet history. In the years ahead almost everyone remotely connected with the crime was tracked down and executed, but as the fame and legend of the ‘26 martyrs’ grew and their grubby murders, celebrated in stone and painting in the best tradition of socialist realism, metamorphosed into a tale of communist heroism and imperialist brutality, the one man the Soviet authorities most wanted for the crime — a modest-ranking British Intelligence officer operating in the Transcaucasus and Transcaspian regions — had quietly disappeared back into the evil British empire that had spawned him.
The man was called Reginald Teague-Jones, though from the moment he got back to Britain and changed his name the world would know him as Ronald Sinclair. Taline Ter Minassian has successfully demolished the Russian campaign of vilification, but Sinclair himself was always wary enough of the long arm of Soviet vengeance — vide Trotsky — to hold on to his new identity until his death in 1988 at the age of 99.
This is not a new story — Peter Hopkirk wrote an excellent introduction and epilogue to Teague-Jones’s own posthumously published recollections — and once you have disposed of his single claim to notoriety it takes a certain amount of padding to turn his life into the stuff of full-scale biography. Taline Ter Minassian does have an impressive command of the political and cultural minutiae of the world in which Teague-Jones was operating, but for all the detective work she has put into this — or perhaps because of it — she seems impervious to the old truth that for the general reader, if not the academic, history writing is as much about what you leave out as what you put in.
In her defence the story of the Transcaucasian and Transcaspian areas in the years around the end of the first world war is just about as complicated as you can get. Our usual narratives of 1918 invariably focus on the crucial theatre of the Western Front, but while the last German offensives of the spring and summer were guttering out and the triumphant Allies advancing to pretty well the same spot they had started at four years earlier, two-and-a-half thousand miles to the east a bewildering medley of Islamic jihadists, Azeris, Armenians, Turkomen, nationalists, pan-Turkists, Ottoman irredentists, Reds, Whites, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, tribal bandits and largely supine old India hands were marking out the pitch for another century of bloodshed and international instability.
This can be difficult enough to digest in itself, but the real problem is that Ter Minassian seems never to be quite sure whether she is writing history or biography. At its most interesting this is a book about the fissures and tectonic plates of 20th-century global politics, but time and again the larger picture disappears in a maze of irrelevant detail or speculation about the movements of a man whose story cannot, in the end, carry the weight she wants to give it.
Teague-Jones is certainly engaging enough — an intelligent and humorous observer, a gifted linguist and talented field officer, and, with his strengths and prejudices, an unusually good example of a dying breed of India-trained British imperialist — but about great swathes of his life nothing can be said with any certainty. In the years between the wars he was clearly doing commercial and political intelligence work of some kind or other, but in the absence of documentation the business of tracing his movements across central Asia, Africa or the Far East inevitably descends into little more than an exercise in second-hand travelogue.
There is lots of intriguing and well argued stuff here — though for all Ter Minassian’s insistence on the modern relevance of her story Teague-Jones seems a relic of a lost past rather than a prophet of the future — but as a book it never quite works. ‘Articles, or even a book, (a book!)’ she quotes his incredulous response to an earlier historian pressing him to co-operate on the story of the ‘26 commissars’. ‘When the British authorities’ attitude to this situation can be fully summed up in three short paragraphs!’
Three paragraphs might be a bit parsimonious, but not for the first or last time in this account one feels that Teague-Jones’s story and legacy might safely have been left to the man himself.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033. David Crane’s latest book, Went the Day Well?: Witnessing Waterloo, was published last month.