Paul Dukes, the son of Edwin Joshua Dukes, a Congregational minister, and his wife, Edith Mary Pope, was born on 10th February 1889 at North Field, Bridgwater. Dukes was educated at Caterham School before travelling to St Petersburg to study music. He found work at the Mariinsky Theatre with the conductor Albert Coates.
Soon after the outbreak of the First World War he became a member of the Anglo-Russian Commission, a British propaganda organisation. According to his biographer, Michael Hughes: "For the next two years he was involved in promoting the somewhat nebulous range of propaganda activities carried out by the commission, serving both in the Russian capital and at the Foreign Office in London." In the summer of 1917 he was asked by the Tsarist Secret Police to spy on the Bolshevik leaders. Michael Smith, the author of Six: A History of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (2010), argues: "In order to spell out to officials back in Whitehall precisely what the Russians did and did not know, Dukes filed two heavyweight reports on the leading Bolsheviks, derived from information provided by the Russians and the French." Dukes also sent regular dispatches about events in Russia to the Foreign Office. Giles Milton, the author of Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Global Plot (2013) has pointed out: "Dukes... had witnessed first-hand the revolution that had swept the Bolsheviks to power. Indeed he had been one of the trio of Englishmen who had first glimpsed Lenin on his return to Petrograd in 1917. He had also seen the civil unrest that accompanied Lenin's first months in government. Dukes's intense eyes hinted at an inner sharpness, an ability to think on his feet and take clear decisions in moments of crisis. This natural intelligence, coupled with his fluency in the language, had already earned him unofficial employment in the service of the Foreign Office. It was almost certainly his vivid despatches about the Bolshevik revolution that brought him to the attention of Mansfield Cumming."
In the summer of 1918 Dukes was recalled to London for a meeting with Colonel Frederick Browning. In his book, Red Dusk and the Morrow: Adventures and Investigations in Soviet Russia (1922) Dukes reported that Browning explained: "You doubtless wonder that no explanation has been given to you as to why you should return to England. Well, I have to inform you, confidentially, that it has been proposed to offer you a somewhat responsible post in the Secret Intelligence Service. We have reason to believe that Russia will not long continue to be open to foreigners. We wish someone to remain there to keep us informed of the march of events."
Dukes was then taken to see Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the head of MI6. "This extraordinary man was short of stature, thick-set with grey hair half covering a well-rounded head. His mouth was stern and an eagle eye, full of vivacity, glanced - or glared as the case may be - piercingly through a gold-rimmed monocle. At first encounter, he appeared very severe. His manner of speech was abrupt. Yet the stern countenance could melt into the kindliest of smiles, and the softened eyes and lips revealed a heart that was big and generous."
Smith-Cumming's idea was for Dukes to rebuild MI6's shattered network inside Russia. He was to travel alone and would be expected to create his own network of couriers to smuggle out his reports. Smith-Cumming told him: "Don't go and get killed" Turning to Colonel Frederick Browning Smith-Cumming said: "You will put him through the ciphers and take him to the laboratory to learn the inks and all that."
Three weeks later Dukes was in Petrograd, using a false identity as a Ukrainian member of the Cheka. He joined up with other British secret agents that included John Scale and Stephen Alley. Dukes spoke fluent Russian and was able to pass himself off as a member of the secret police. He also joined the Bolshevik Party. His biographer, Michael Hughes claims that: "Dukes showed himself to be a master of disguises during his time in Russia, frequently changing his appearance and using more than a dozen names to conceal his identity."
In his autobiography, Red Dusk and the Morrow: Adventures and Investigations in Soviet Russia, Dukes recalled his work as a spy: "I wrote mostly at night, in minute handwriting on tracing-paper, with a small caoutchouc (latex bag) about four inches in length, weighted with lead, ready at my side. In case of alarm, all my papers could be slipped into this bag and within thirty seconds be transferred to the bottom of a tub of washing or the cistern of a water closet. In efforts to discover arms or incriminating documents, I have seen pictures, carpets, and bookshelves removed and everything turned topsy-turvy by diligent searchers, but it never occurred to anybody to search through a pail of washing or thrust his hand into the water-closet cistern. Only on one occasion was I obliged to destroy documents of value, while of the couriers who, at grave risk, carried communications back and forth from Finland, only two failed to arrive and l presume were caught and shot."
Dukes returned to London where he was awarded the KBE by King George V, since he was not, as a civilian, eligible to receive the Victoria Cross. Despite the success of his activities in Russia the Secret Intelligence Service appeared unwilling to make further use of him and so he moved to the United States where he joined a tantric community at Nyack, 15 miles from New York City.
On his return to England he became a special correspondent of The Times. He was also chairman of British Continental Press from 1930 to 1937. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War he was asked by some acquaintances to visit Germany in order to trace the whereabouts of a wealthy Czech businessman who was in hiding in Nazi Germany. He wrote about this in his book, An Epic of the Gestapo (1940). During the war he lectured on behalf of the Ministry of Information.
Dukes developed a strong interest in yoga and was the author of Yoga for the Western World (1955) and The Yoga of Health, Youth and Joy (1960). He also made a series of broadcasts for the BBC on the subject.