Start-up Communist Nation

This lively and readable volume by the distinguished British historian, Robert Service raises the thought-provoking question: what are the proper topics or subject matter for historians to address and investigate? How much detail adds up to the whole, or to a larger picture of whatever is chronicled, and how much detail deserves to be recorded and scrutinized?

Service has written many books about the Soviet system and its founders (even a world history of communism I had the pleasure to review a few years ago) and has an impressive knowledge of Soviet history and the various source materials which shed light on it. Unlike his other books (at any rate those familiar to me) Spies and Commissars focuses on a large number of relatively minor figures who played some part in the early, revolutionary period of the Soviet Union, or were foreign eye-witnesses to its formative years. Most of those dealt with are in all probability, only familiar to specialists of Soviet history. The enormous reach of this study multiplies the number of these figures to include not only those from the Soviet Union but also protagonists from virtually every country that had any dealings with the young Soviet state. They are diplomats, politicians, journalists, spies, military officers, trade union functionaries, foreign sympathizers, as well as critics, and foreign communist party functionaries. The rapidly moving, dizzying cast of characters is enormous and it is not easy to keep straight and remember who is who. Arguably this may be one of the virtues of this book: it introduces the reader to colorful figures of varied historical importance, he or she never heard of and is not likely to encounter in other studies of the same subject. This is not to suggest that Service ignores much better known visitors and commentators of the early Soviet period such as John Reed, Louis Bryant, Bertrand Russell, or H.G Wells.

The less familiar figures include Paul Duke, the British intelligence agent, Sidney Reilly also working for British intelligence and distinguished by telling throughout his life contradictory stories about himself. We also learn that “he was shortish, sallow complexioned and balding”(146]. Arthur Ransome was an English author, who among his four books on Russia wrote a biography of Oscar Wilde and was sued by Wilde’s former lover Lord Alfred Douglas for libel. [43] His “journey to Russia offered him an escape” from the ”evening rages” of his wife.[43] Ethel Snowden was a British pacifist-feminist, Christian-socialist politician and member of a delegation of the Labor Party that visited the Soviet Union in 1920. Clare Sheridan a sculptress befriended Lev Kamenev in London and “had long felt a penchant for Russia. ‘I was insatiably interested, I loved Slavs, Slav music, Slav literature…art and decoration and had…always been drawn to Russia.’” [274] Bessie Beatty, a journalist, had interviewed both Lenin and Trotsky; Jacques Sadoul was the French military attache as of 1917; Leonard Krassin, Bolshevik politician/diplomat, commissar of foreign trade; George Hill a British intelligence officer born in Estonia who spoke six languages. All those listed visited Russia (or lived there) and wrote books about it.

The portrayal of Robert Bruce Lockhart, one of the numerous British spy-diplomats featured, illustrates the discursive approach of the author alluded to above:

having previously been sent home to avoid scandal over an affair with a married woman… [he] lost no time in finding another love in Moscow. He first met Maria Benckendorf (nee Zakrevskaya) on 2 February 1918 over a game of bridge in Petrograd. On that occasion they only shook hands but he was smitten by her glamour and vivacity… Moura, as she liked to be known, still moved in the old high society… she was bored by her husband Ioann who had retreated with their children to his large Estonian estate some weeks earlier. Lockhart was looking for excitement and would confess:‘I fell desperately in love with her.’ Soon they were having an affair. She fell pregnant by him…

Lockhart and others in the British intelligence network in Moscow had an uninhibited lifestyle. But Sidney Reilly outdid them all. Among his many lovers was a young Russian actress Yelizaveta Otten, who rented a well-appointed apartment in Sheremetev Lane a few hundred yards north of the Kremlin. Yelizaveta’s flatmate Dagmara Karouz was, according to George Hill, another of Reilly’s conquests. [147-148]

Another example of excessive attention given to matters of modest importance in the larger scheme of things:

Mansfield Cumming’s (director of British Intelligence) willingness to gamble in selecting agents for the Secret Intelligence Service was not confined to Maugham, Hill and Reilly. One of his inspired choices was Paul Dukes, who until 1914 worked as a répétiteurat the Imperial Mariinski Theatre and helped conductor Albert Coates with preparations for Stravinsky’s Nightingale. Dukes father was a Congregational minister and staunch anti-Papist who often had to change incumbencies because deacons objected to his authoritarian style of leadership. Paul, a sickly child showed an early talent for music. The Rev. Dukes had a future in mind for him as a chapel organist, but Paul rebelled in his mid-teens and ran away from home with less than four pounds in his pocket. [223]

Not only are the protagonists numerous, so are the events and settings covered. They include World War I, the numerous theaters of the Russian civil war, the Soviet-Polish war, the short lived communist uprisings in Hungary and Germany, a variety of diplomatic maneuvers with special reference to the Brest-Litovsk treaty, spies and spying of different parties, the personal experiences of many (mostly British) travelers to the Soviet Union, and those of Soviet visitors to the West, matters of trade between Western countries and the Soviet Union, the rise of Communist organizations in the United States following the October Revolution, etc.

While packed with information, indeed overflowing with it, the book does not have an overarching theme, theory or proposition and regrettably, it does not hang together. To be sure, to have a central theme is not obligatory – historians are entitled to tell us about a multitude of events, about what actually happened without theorizing about them or seeking to make a larger point. The only larger point of this study I could locate is demonstrating how messy, confusing and unpredictable were the circumstances surrounding the birth and survival of the Soviet Union, and how replete its survival had been with the proverbial unintended consequences of the actions of all parties concerned.

The point of departure stated at the very beginning is the author’s belief that “revolutionary Russia… was shaped not only by Lenin and Trotsky, but by an extraordinary miscellany of people: spies and commissars certainly, but also diplomats, reporters and unofficial intermediaries, as well as intellectuals, opportunistic business men and casual travelers.” [1] But the same may also be said about most other political systems, shaped in various ways by countless minor or medium players. In particular the author “stumbled upon the idea for the book” stimulated by the personal papers of the British intelligence agent Paul Dukes which led him “to investigate other examples of reportage by foreigners.” [2]

Two major misconceptions entertained by the opposing parties of the period are laid to rest. One was held by the Soviet leaders, the other by Western politicians. On the Soviet side there was the strongly held and ideologically conditioned belief, or rather, delusion, that the October Revolution will be followed by similar uprisings in Western European countries inspired by the Soviet example and that these more advanced countries (especially Germany) will provide much needed economic assistance and moral support to the young Soviet state. More than that, the Soviet revolutionary leaders “believed that their revolution would expire if it stayed in one country alone…” [1] Hardnosed realists like Lenin and Trotsky were deeply convinced that a “permanent revolution” will follow the Soviet one and the Soviet Union will not remain isolated, that “the working classes of the world were about to achieve liberation from every kind of oppression” [4}. Both Lenin and Trotsky “were convinced that Europe was on the threshold of communist revolution and that it needed only a slight nudge from them to make it all happen.” [6] In 1918 Lenin was so confident about the approach of European revolutions that “he ordered grain stocks to be laid aside for shipment to Germany when the revolutionary upsurge occurred.” [166] Lenin also “discussed with Stalin how best to organize a system of Soviet-style states stretching from the Rhineland to the Pacific.“ [295] Both Lenin and Trotsky “having seized power in Petrograd in a spirit of millennial optimism…could not let themselves think that capitalism might survive and flourish around the world.” [247] These monumental, ideologically inspired hopes and misconceptions proved to be very consequential and detrimental for the development of the Soviet Union as Trotsky in particular realized and discussed later on.

On the Western side, prominent politicians and military men could not bring themselves to believe that the seemingly disorganized and poverty-ridden Soviet state could survive. As Service wrote “no realistic calculus of military power in Europe favored the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution… When the communists…took power in Petrograd, they could not be certain that their government would last more than a few days.” [3]     Arguably the implicit thesis of the book is that neither the birth nor the survival of the Soviet system was predetermined. At the same time Service correctly grasps a major fact that helped (and occasionally hindered) the system to survive, namely that certain ideas, beliefs and ideology were firmly embraced by the leaders and shaped the system; the founders were true believers who felt entitled to maximize their power because of their good intentions and determination to create a utopian society. Service writes: “The Bolshevik leaders saw themselves… as the advance guard of Marxist science and revolutionary progress – they hated being thought of as mere politicians.” [63] Bukharin in particular “offered an ecstatic hymn to the glorious communist future…[he] clearly felt that a great and perfect epoch lay ahead for humankind.” [62-63] At the same time Service also recognizes that “though Bolshevik doctrine pretended to scientific status, it was in fact rooted in blind faith and the Russian revolutionary tradition.”[71] Paradoxically enough the founders of the system “paid no attention to details of governance…Action took precedence over forethought” [70] – in sharp contrast to what followed, and especially the calculating disposition and policies of Stalin.

The readability of the book is enhanced by being divided into thirty two short chapters, and four parts “I Revolution, II Survival, III Probings and IV Stalemate” plus a postscript. There are also dozens of excellent illustrations. I failed to discern self-evident connection between the titles and contents of parts III and IV.

While I questioned the organization and approach of the book the reader can learn a great deal from it about the origins of the Soviet system, why and how it survived and how its beginnings shaped its future and – especially illuminating – about the trajectory from early idealism to totalitarian regimentation and repression.