Spies and Commissars: Bolshevik Russia and the West

Harold Shukman on a fascinating study of Britain's daring wartime plans for counter-revolution

January 5, 2012

The Russian Revolution had the immediate effect of isolating the new "Workers' State" from Russia's recent allies, as Robert Service shows in this compelling account. Having withdrawn Russia from the war, Lenin quickly found himself surrounded by still-belligerent countries that - counter-intuitively - wanted to bring Russia back into the war against Germany. The only forces likely to meet the West's expectations were the various groups of Whites, or their leaders, that hoped to assemble still-undefeated bodies of soldiers loyal to the ideals of the Tsarist regime. With the Whites chronically short of money, disparately led and with little coordinating ideology to rally round, it was perhaps inevitable that conspiracy and subterfuge would substitute for the sort of mass organisation that might have achieved some of their goals. Thus, while on Lenin's side a burgeoning mass of armed men was gradually and efficiently forged by Leon Trotsky into the Red Army, on the White side the hope of coalescence of forces seemed increasingly utopian.

But Western, and especially British, politicians thought the very disparate nature of the White side offered the opportunity for infiltration and political intrigue, through which daring plans for seizing power from the Bolsheviks and restoring "sanity" to the White side might be accomplished. The scene was thus set for introducing adventurers and colourful diplomats, spies and undercover agents who barely recognised national borders or loyalties, but who knew when and how to seize an initiative when it presented itself.

Such men included Churchill's representative in Moscow, Robert Bruce Lockhart. Churchill was virtually the first among Western statesmen who publicly identified the Bolsheviks as capitalism's natural enemies, a "bacillus" to be exterminated before it could infect the West and particularly the British Empire. Among Bruce Lockhart's intimates in Moscow (apart from his Russian mistress Moura Budberg) was George Hill, a versatile British government agent - and a cousin of Elizabeth Hill, who as professor of Slavonic studies at the University of Cambridge would create and administer courses to train wartime British servicemen and their National Service successors in the 1950s as Russian interpreters and intelligence gatherers.

No less adventurous and ready for derring-do was Sidney Reilly, born Sigmund Rosenblum in Odessa and by the time of the revolution a practised secret agent on behalf of the anti-Bolshevik British government. Well provided with large sums of Western currency, Reilly - known to history as "Ace of Spies" - had nearly all his pieces in place for a coup against Lenin when the Socialist Revolutionaries in Moscow launched their secret weapon, a half-blind, deluded girl called Fanny Kaplan, who fired her pistol at Lenin at point-blank, managing to plant a bullet in the leader's neck, mere millimetres away from killing him. The British plan was thus thwarted, and here Service's narrative shifts from the plans of individual conspirators to the greater forces of national diplomacy, and civil and international war.

Wrestling masterfully with the masses of original materials stored in the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California, Service has rendered a highly complicated entanglement of personalities and institutions into an always readable and never boring account of the interstices of politics and diplomacy, not forgetting the colourful private lives of his characters, and thereby adds to the already distinguished range of his books on the liveliest period of Russian history. With its unexpected and highly original assembly of materials, Spies and Commissars greatly expands Service's panorama of Russia's 20th-century history and enriches our knowledge of a time when personal venality and ruthless behaviours were barely redeemed by the all-too-human qualities exhibited here.

Spies and Commissars: Bolshevik Russia and the West

By Robert Service


432pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780230748071

Published 4 November 2011

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