Review: Aseff: The Russian Judas, by Boris Nicolaievsky

By the time this book was published in 1934, the name of Ievno Azef had already faded from popular memory. But a quarter century earlier, he had achieved infamy as the most dangerous man in Europe — the head of the much-feared Combat Organisation of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. He was Russia’s leading terrorist, and had a direct hand in the killing of the Tsar’s relatives and senior ministers. At the very end of his career he even came dangerously close to killing the Tsar himself.

And the entire time he was active as a terrorist — for more than 15 years — he was a double agent. A well-paid police spy, he was allowed to initially spy on the terrorists, then to join their ranks and finally to rise to the very top of their organisation as part of the great Russian innovation in counter-terrorism known as provokatsiia.

He was finally exposed as a police spy by Vladimir Burtsev, known as the ‘Sherlock Holmes of the Revolution,’ who proved Azef’s guilt beyond doubt. Incredibly, Azef lived another decade as a hunted man, using various assumed names, working as a stock-broker and then running a corset shop in Germany. He died impoverished and alone in 1918.

Nicolaievsky was himself a Russian Social Democrat and historian, and this 90-year-old biography still remains a gripping tale of man who was in the end loyal to no one but himself.

As for the tsarist police, known as the Okhrana, it later turned out that Azef was not their only high-placed agent in a revolutionary party. Among the Bolsheviks, they employed such men as Roman Malinovsky, head of the Bolshevik faction in the State Duma (the Russian parliament) and others.

There were many such agents who were never identified according to the testimony of the men who “ran” Azef. Okhrana archives were burned and many escaped revolutionary justice, as Azef did. Some of those may even have been men who rise to heights even higher than Azef reached, their pasts as traitors to the revolutionary cause now forgotten.