Book Review: “Setting the East Ablaze” by Peter Hopkirk

(Oxford University Press – 252 pages)

Reviewer – Luke Brown

Having seized power of Russia in the 1917 Revolution and being subsequently disappointed that it didn’t have a snowballing effect on Europe, the murderous, tyrannical, communist dictator Lenin decided that it was through the East that he could hope to conquer the West. As Britain was considered his biggest rival for power, British India was his initial target for fomenting revolution that he hoped would then sweep the region in order that his vision of total control could be achieved throughout the world. Setting The East Ablaze is primarily concerned with this attempt, and the opposition to it by the British.

Like his other works, Peter Hopkirk ensures that the characters who populate this story receive the greatest attention, at rightly so. The most intriguing one, Colonel Frederick Bailey, whom had previously visited the holy Tibetan city of Lhasa with the legendary Francis Younghusband, was to play a vital role in combating the Russian threat. A master of disguise and a skilled operative (who, in a bizarre set of events, to effect his escape from the hands of the Bolsheviks, managed to get himself hired by their secret services to track himself down), he was a constant thorn in the side of the Bolsheviks. M.N. Roy, an Indian revolutionary, who became a member of the Comintern, was also, at times, a thorn in the side of the British, as he schemed to spark off a revolution in British India, and throw off the yoke of India’s British colonial masters. In addition, a brutal civil war was under way in Russia and beyond, between the Red Bolsheviks and the White Russian counter-revolutionaries. One such counter-revolutionary was Paul Nazaroff who had a torrid time escaping from the clutches of the likes of the Cheka, the secret police. Further east, a psychopathic and brutal White Russian baron, Ungern-Sternberg, with his visceral hatred of Bolsheviks and Jews, was attempting to take control of Mongolia (he was under the delusion that he was a re-incarnated Genghis Khan) for its use as a base to bring about a Greater Mongolia, and also from which to attack the Bolsheviks.

Aside from an extraordinary cast of characters, this period of intrigue was characterised by enough misinformation, psy-ops and treachery to fill a multitude of spy novels, and these are detailed expertly. All in all, Setting The East Ablaze is highly recommended, principally for throwing light on this little-known aspect of 20th century history, all in Hopkirk’s trademark witty and discerning style

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