SPIES AND COMMISSARS: THE EARLY YEARS OF THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION
By Robert Service
PublicAffairs, $32.99, 480 pages
“Spies and Commissars” serves up a rich witch’s brew of intelligence intrigue and chicanery, bubbling with rogue characters who changed names (as well as claimed nationalities and mistresses) about as often as most folks change socks.
The broad outline of how the fledgling Bolshevik government clashed with the outside world after the 1917 revolution has been revealed in large part over the years. But scholar Robert Service delves into recently declassified British intelligence archives to add rich and very readable details of the cross-plotting.
The relative handful of Communists who seized power could not be certain if their government would survive more than a few months — or even days. The minute, ill-equipped Red Army would be no battlefield match should the Germans choose to invade. Nor could they have effectively resisted a thrust by their erstwhile Western Allies in the war. Furthermore, adherents to the ousted czar — the so-called “Whites,” with support from Britain, the United States, various European states and Japan — put up fierce resistance in scattered areas.
Lenin and Trotsky had a messianic faith that their communist revolution would triumph worldwide. “Soon there would be no government, no army, no bureaucracy on the face of the earth,” as Mr. Service writes.
Nonetheless, to survive financially, the Bolsheviks realized they needed to trade with the West, especially Great Britain. So they adopted a two-track plan. Overtly, they dispatched diplomats to engage both the British and Americans in trade talks. Covertly, through dispatched agents and British sympathizers, chiefly in the trade unions, they worked furiously to overthrow the current government.
But the duplicity was two-sided. As Mr. Service writes, “Western diplomats were deeply involved in subversive activity but full disclosure would have embarrassed subsequent governments in the West which wanted to appeared as clean as the driven snow in the way they conducted their political and military rivalry with the USSR. They preferred to suggest that all the skullduggery took place on the Eastern side.”
President Wilson, while piously expressing neutrality, authorized $75,000 ($1.4 million in today’s dollars) for anti-Soviet propaganda within the USSR, the same amount as the British Foreign Office. The American Embassy in Moscow relied on officers of the American Red Cross to gather information from within the Bolshevik hierarchy.
The British, given their long experience in the black arts of intelligence, went much further. One scheme was for Latvian military units guarding the Kremlin to seize the communist leadership at gunpoint. Lenin, Trotsky and others would be stripped of their “nether garments” and forced to march through the streets clad only in their shirts “with the aim of humiliating them and showing how vulnerable they were.”
British agents early on sized up Joseph Stalin as the most dangerous man in the leadership. Mr. Service found a memo from agent Stephen Alley in which he said he was tasked with arranging a pretext interview with Stalin. Once in his office, Alley would assassinate him. Alley professed to be a “brave patriot,” but he knew he would die himself if he killed Stalin. So he declined. Mr. Service muses, “Only in retrospect was it possible for him to appreciate how much he would have benefited the world if he had snuffed out the life of one of the twentieth century’s great mass murderers.”
Some leftist American “journalists” crossed the line into communist political activism. Prominent among them were the writer John Reed and his socialite wife, Louise Bryant. Reed happily went on the Soviet payroll ($50 to $60 a month). His pro-Bolshevik writings were translated into perhaps a dozen European languages and distributed over the Continent. More importantly, Reed “received a million rubles’ worth of diamonds for disbursal in the U.S. The emergent U.S. communist movement would not lack financial support.”
Bryant also acted as a smuggler to get Soviet diamonds to the West, where they were easily exchanged for cash. “Women were the perfect couriers because they could wear the valuables discreetly round their necks and on their arms.” (Bryant griped loudly when the Philadelphia Public Ledger, for which she was a correspondent, refused to publish her blatant propaganda and fired her.)
The supposedly sophisticated Brits made some odd choices in dispatching agents. One early choice was the distinguished writer W. Somerset Maugham. “This broke a rudimentary rule of intelligence,” Mr. Service comments. “Maugham’s renown meant he could never be inconspicuous in the Russian capital. One of his plays was currently in performance there.” He knew naught about Russia, its politics or its personalities, and his contribution proved nil. (Maugham, to his credit, had done valuable earlier work elsewhere in Europe.)
Mr. Service also drives what I hope will be the final nails into the media-created image of Sidney Reilly, lauded in books, a movie and a miniseries as “Reilly: Ace of Spies.” In reality, Reilly was a bungling con man and braggart whose operations ended in disaster time and again.
Mr. Service’s hero is Paul Dukes, a volunteer agent who began by gathering information while posing as a worker for the YMCA and the Boy Scouts. When he was ready for more serious assignments, Mansfield Smith-Cumming, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, dispatched him with the chilling admonition, “Don’t go and get killed.”
At one point, Dukes even enlisted in the Red Army and got into the regiment of a commander who was a secret anti-Bolshevik. He was able to put together a network of informers who passed invaluable information to the SIS.
(Dukes wrote two credible memoirs in the 1920s. With access to the papers held by Dukes’ family, Mr. Service expands upon them.)
Among the tragic outcomes of the Russian Revolution was the willing self-abasement of many Western journalists and “intellectuals” caught up on the revolutionary swirl. As Mr. Service writes, “The old romance of exotic Russia entered their minds and gave their lives a new meaning.” Few had read a word of Marx’s writings; most sympathized with Lenin. They helped impose a deadly fraud on the world.
Joseph C. Goulden’s most recent book is “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak Into English” (Dover, 2012).