As a regular visitor to Moscow (I chair the Russian Booker Prize), I am constantly struck by how many educated folk share the official paranoia about the West. Maybe it’s because there was a time, historically not so long ago, when we really were out to topple the regime.
Robert Service’s enthralling new book shows how from the 1917 Russian Revolution until the gradual acceptance in the early Twenties that the Soviet state was here to stay, Britain, France and the United States used every trick in the book – diplomatic pressure, espionage, subversion, military intervention – to strangle Bolshevism (as Churchill bluntly put it) in its cradle.
And why wouldn’t they? The British and French were losing horrific numbers in the trenches, their countries in mortal danger, when Lenin and Trotsky signed a separate peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, allowing Berlin to pull out troops from the eastern front and point them west. As a result of the pact, a quarter of the Russian empire, notably Ukraine, fell under German control.
Then there were the startling events in Moscow, and the Russians’ lurid calls for world revolution – a formality in later years but no empty threat at a time when the Comintern had just been formed and Moscow was busy fomenting uprisings in post-war Germany, Hungary and Austria. The West exploited the early inadequacies of the Soviet cipher systems to obtain intercepts about revolutionary activities abroad.
As we now know, revolution in central and eastern Europe was to fail. Gulled by theories of historical inevitability, Lenin had a poor grip of realities when it came to the proletarian upheavals he had confidently expected. For someone who had lived and intrigued abroad for many years, it was a curious blindness.
During these momentous years, Western policy veered this way and that, buffeted by the shifting tides in the war against Germany and the fortunes of the Whites in their anti-Bolshevik struggle. One moment the West was surreptitiously arming the White commanders Kolchak, Wrangel and Denikin or funding their counter-revolutionary plots – partly to prevent them from allying themselves with the Germans. Next thing, 500 French officers were helping to train the Red Army, when it was erroneously decided there was a chance of the communists returning to fight the Kaiser. At one point, President Wilson considered offering the services of 100,000 US troops to oversee free elections in Petrograd.
Crazy times throw up remarkable people, and much of the allure of the book lies in the colourful figures of the espionage world of the time. There was the ace British spy Sidney Reilly, a high-living, financially dodgy anti-communist who enjoyed "Bolo [Bolshevik] Liquidation Lunches” with fellow spooks, where they discussed how best to bring down the Soviet order. After one too many undercover trips to Moscow he was captured, and presumed shot.
Then there was Robert Bruce Lockhart, half-diplomat and half-intelligence man for the British, whom the Russians at one point arrested (with every reason, it has to be said). One of his infatuations was the legendary Moura Budberg, Countess Benckendorff, later a lover of Maxim Gorky and HG Wells. Soviet archives suggest she became a contact of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) and reported on both.
And of course there was the Russian-speaking children’s writer Arthur Ransome, an amiable, gangling fellow who had an affair with Trotsky’s secretary and a soft spot for Lenin, so one never quite knew whether he was working for his British secret service handlers or the Kremlin.
By 1921, with the Paris Peace Conference over, the Whites facing defeat, communist uprisings in Europe crushed and the Soviet regime obliged to adopt Lenin’s New Economic Policy, revolution gave way to trade. Agreements were signed and jam, beef and herrings went to Russia from Britain and shoes and tractors from the US, in exchange for gold.
As in his superbly demystifying biography of Trotsky, once again Service tells it like it was, and this time it is the flailing Western governments and their blundering intrigues that are in his sights. Yet, as ever, he keeps his balance. To this day, Lenin’s sympathisers claim that Red Terror was forced on him by foreign intervention. It is true there was no lack of anti-Soviet scheming and subversion, much of it British. But as Service has shown in his many books, the subsequent history of communism confirmed that terror was always at the heart of the Marxist-Leninist creed.