Spies and Commissars: The Early Years of the Russian Revolution, by Robert Service (PublicAffairs, 480 pp., $32.99)
“Russia, my lords and gentlemen, is the decisive factor in the history of the world at the present time,” observed Britain’s then-Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill in 1919. In his new book, Spies and Commissars: The Early Years of the Russian Revolution, Oxford historian Robert Service shows that not only Churchill, but also most of the West, were aware of the emerging Soviet presence. For a crucial five years, though, the West remained passive while the new Bolshevik government teetered on the brink of failure.
Service, who has authored biographies of the holy trinity of Russian Communism—Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky—as well as nine more books on the Soviet Union, is meticulous in his treatment of Communist rule. The new book’s only downfall is its misleading title, which sounds like a publisher’s choice. While spies and commissars do factor into the book, those looking for tales of espionage and intrigue will be disappointed. This is a study of the early years of the Russian Revolution through both Russian and Western eyes.
Service begins with the Bolsheviks’ narrow consolidation of power over the Russian government in 1917. The new regime became Lenin’s and Trotsky’s own: vicious in a fanatical pursuit of a better world for their preferred classes of workers and peasants. As a German Communist noted: “One can’t make a revolution in white gloves. . . it will be necessary to pass through rivers of blood and mud to get to the destination.”
Regime leaders took pleasure in living lavishly while the masses suffered under police brutality, show trials, and state confiscations of food. While millions suffered in the name of progress, many top Bolsheviks enjoyed the “pleasures of the old upper classes,” including smoking cigars, wearing stylish fur coats, and having entire train cars to themselves. Not all were so hypocritical; some genuinely believed in the utopian dream of Communism. As the Bolsheviks solidified their power, they instituted reforms that met with mixed success. True to their revolutionary goals, they established free education (heavily censored by the state), housing for the poor (whenever possible), and even rudimentary health care (described by foreign witnesses as “barbaric”). The reforms were designed to build support among the masses; they were also part of a broader revolutionary idea of reengineering society. Marxism ultimately sought to transform the human soul. Service soberly notes, “Much though Bolshevik doctrine pretended to scientific status, it was in fact rooted in blind faith and the Russian revolutionary tradition,” Service notes soberly. “Lenin and Trotsky never seriously took account of the dire warnings about the likely result of their project.”
With the First World War at its height, and Germany making advances on the Eastern Front, the early Communists rallied around the banner of peace. Lenin and Trotsky knew that they could gain adherents and present themselves as the best solution to Russia’s problems. Service points out that even as they did so, the Bolsheviks sent out the newly created Red Army to terrorize the Russian people and crush dissent. Suing for peace in a farcical treaty with Germany, the Bolsheviks bought themselves time, troops, and supplies to inflict mass terror against their internal enemies.
Service’s book will be a valuable tool for policymakers, political scientists, and historians for its analysis of Western reaction to the Russian Revolution. Western Europe and America had already been wary of Communism long before October 1917, but once the threat materialized, the allies began taking covert action to learn what was happening inside Russian borders. Among the more notable secret agents was the famous Sidney Reilly, the “Ace of Spies,” who has recently gained notoriety from a British television series. Reilly’s intelligence-gathering and covert operations, along with the work of his fellow British secret agents, became the stuff of spy novels. The British, French, Americans, and Germans gathered and shared a wealth of information on the inner workings of the Soviet state. The West was aware, then, of what was happening inside Russia and was in unique position to do something about it.
The Western allies worried, of course, about an ideology that actively sought to undermine and destroy their political systems. Marxism-Leninism held that Communism must spread, and in the skillful hands of the Bolsheviks, this became a possibility. Moreover, as the allies learned, Communist goals would not be pursued as part of a process of “withering away” capitalism, as Marx believed, but instead, through inciting violent revolution—as Lenin had championed in his 1917 book, The State and Revolution. Bolsheviks infiltrated the high levels of state departments in both Britain and the United States as well as corporations and media outlets. The British Daily Herald owner, George Lansbury, approached the Bolsheviks in Moscow for financial help. They obliged him on the condition that he would publish Communist propaganda in his paper, which he agreed to do.
At war’s end, the West faced a choice: intercede and crush the Bolshevik menace or stay out of the Russian struggle completely. The allies’ conflicting policies, rarely coordinated, became an odd compromise of both options. The British sent troops into the former trading port of Archangel with the order to wait for anti-Bolshevik Russian reinforcements. The plan was for a combined British and Russian push south to reclaim Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and Moscow from the Bolsheviks. The United States placed troops in Siberia with orders to protect the railroad and telegraph lines but not to confront the Red Army.
Inside Russia, anti-Communists and a small group of Czechs raised their own White Army and began forcing the Red Army back. Their momentum wouldn’t last. After several months, the isolationist Americans pulled out, the British were eventually forced out, and the White Army began to retreat as the Communist propaganda machine churned out new recruits to fight them. Still, intelligence reports showed that Lenin’s popularity was waning, and that the Bolsheviks’ confiscations of land and grain were beginning to turn peasants against them.
Service makes clear that the Western allies had a real chance to stop the Soviet Union from achieving its full bloody potential. Allied intelligence revealed the terror within Russia. Winston Churchill warned: “Russia is being rapidly reduced by the Bolsheviks to an animal form of Barbarism. . . . Civilization is being completely extinguished over gigantic areas, while Bolsheviks hop and caper like troops of ferocious baboons amid the ruins of their cities and the corpses of their victims.”
By 1921, Soviet Russia was in shambles. Workers, peasants, and sailors began to revolt, and the Russian economy was failing. If ever there was a time for the Bolshevik regime to fall, it was now. At this moment, however, the British Parliament signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. British capital filled the regime’s coffers and allowed it to survive. Under Stalin, the newly empowered Bolsheviks brought terror and destruction to millions of Russians. To this day, we don’t know the full extent of the Soviet government’s atrocities against its own people, and we probably never will.
Service offers an important lesson in international politics and foreign affairs. While diplomacy and peaceful negotiations should always be the preferred approach, early Soviet history proves that some situations call for military intervention. The millions of innocent Russian men, women, and children who perished under seven decades of Soviet rule would no doubt have traded everything for a chance at a government based on inalienable rights and free choice. By standing aside when they knew what was occurring in Russia, the allies condemned millions to tyranny. Service’s excellent book is a stark reminder to the free world that the price of freedom is high but sometimes needs to be paid.
NB: This piece originally appeared in City Journal on November 30, 2012