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Book review: Spies and Commissars: Bolshevik Russia and the West

Robert Service reveals the bizarre plots and ignorance that filled the early years of the relationship between the West and the Bolsheviks

By Angus Macqueen  /  The Observer, LONDON

Spies and Commissars: Bolshevik Russia and the West

In our age of many so-called “revolutions,” it is good to be reminded what a real revolution tastes like: not simply the removal of a ruler but the complete overthrow of the social, economic and political structures. Robert Service’s new book revels in the sheer exuberance of the first months of Russia’s 1917 upheavals, with the new leaders “cheerfully smashing institutions to smithereens.” As he makes clear, these Bolsheviks were committed to the overwhelming use of force and terror in achieving their revolutionary ends. In this context, the idea of “democratic revolutions” such as those in Egypt or Tunisia seems like a contradiction in terms.

As befits the serial biographer of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, Service is well primed to draw sharp portraits of the leading actors. The picture of a grumpy Lenin writing his April Theses on the infamous sealed train, which the Germans permitted to cross their territory, will long live in the mind. Humorless to a fault, Lenin not only banned smoking on the train but also introduced a ticketing system for the overused toilets. If only the Russian proletariat had known what it was in for.

In those early years, both the Bolsheviks and the Western powers were desperately trying to understand what had happened in Petrograd in 1917 and what it meant for the rest of the world. Lenin and Trotsky seized power convinced that they were merely the vanguard and, even if they were crushed, Russia’s revolution would have provided the spark for Europe to follow. By the early 1920s, they saw that Marx had got that bit of futurology wrong. After the first chaotic flush, they began the dual strategy of seducing the captains of Western industry while attempting to undermine them.

Publication Notes

Spies and Commissars: Bolshevik Russia and the West

By Robert Service

424 pages

Macmillan

Harkcover: UK


There is a lovely moment when a serious diplomatic mission arrived in Berlin for peace talks with the German government, only for a crate they brought in their diplomatic luggage to break open on the railway platform, spilling out “insurrectionary propaganda.” While it was dispiriting to watch as uprisings in Berlin and Budapest and Munich guttered into nothing, the failures also gave the new leaders the sense that they had the right to control and patronize their brothers and sisters elsewhere. Though even Lenin had to admit, when the Red Army was defeated in Poland, that the workers had joined “a Polish patriotic upsurge” rather than the international revolution.

Lenin was faced with giving up at least temporarily his belief in state control, and reintroduced a market economy in order to survive. When famine struck, the Bolsheviks had to accept food aid from the US. These are the years when the party learned that ideology did not govern — and when the shape of the future centralized, paranoid Soviet regime was forged.

On the Western side, there was a heady mix of ignorance, uncertainty and fear. At first, attempts were made to keep the Russians in the war against the Germans; later the fear of contagion drove Western leaders to all sorts of absurdities, and half-baked intervention. Those who want to understand the seemingly genetic antipathy the Soviet secret services (ex-employee: prime minister and soon to be president again, Vladimir Putin) have for their British counterparts need look no further than the tales of the ace of spies, Sidney Reilly, and Robert Lockhart. Modern Russian agents are no doubt fed on a diet of perfidious Albion — as Lockhart turns from supportive friend of the new leaders to the astonishing plot to capture Lenin and Trotsky in the Kremlin. Lockhart claimed the intention was to “strip them to their nether garments” and parade them through Moscow, so humiliating them in front of their people; Service has little doubt that the real intention was to kill them.

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