Russian MI6 Officer Appointed Director of Secret Intelligence Service in Asia

To pave the way for General Knox in Siberia, MI6 sent one of their top Russian officers, Captain Leo Steveni to Vladivostok in April 1918. Steveni’s grandfather was a Swedish Consul and his mother was a Russian Countess, but he was educated at Rugby School. During the first part of the First World War, he worked in the Russian War Office at Petrograd, where he met some of the top MI6 officers including Cud Thornhill, Stephen Alley and John Scale, who played a hand in the murder of Rasputin.

Arriving in Harbin in June, the British Consul Henry Sly introduced him to Admiral Kolchak. The renowned Arctic explorer offered him railway carriage number 2013, which became his accommodation for nearly two years. Before Knox and the other members of the British Military Mission joined him in Siberia, Steveni helped some of the desperate people fleeing from the Red Terror, such as Maria Ivana Zvegintsova, nee Obolensky, who was living with her three children among dozens of refugees in a cattle wagon at Ufa.

After the November coup that brought Kolchak to power, he took over the role of military intelligence in the Stavka and provided London with detailed information about the Siberian Army’s dispositions. He was awarded an OBE for this work in 1919, but the London Gazette spelled his name incorrectly. Steveni remained close to Kolchak throughout his time in power and only left him in Irkutsk in January 1920, when the British Consul decided to move all the British diplomatic staff east of Lake Baikal. His account of the retreat from Omsk was serialized in the Manchester Guardian in July that year.

Returning home via Shanghai, he was demobilized, but soon decided to rejoin the Army and was commissioned into Brian Horrocks’ Middlesex Regiment. For several years, he languished as a junior officer, but in the Second World War, he was rapidly promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and in 1942, he was appointed Director of Secret Intelligence Service in Asia; a fitting title for someone who is included in the list of the “real James Bonds” of the spy world. For more on the role he played in Siberia, see Chapter 3 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.

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