The Books Interview: Robert Service

The historian talks about the early years of the Soviet Union and its relationship with the west.

Robert Service is one of this country's leading authorities on the history of the Soviet Union. He is the author of biographies of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. His new book, "Spies and Commissars: Bolshevik Russia and the West" (Macmillan, £25), deals with the early years of the USSR and the westerners who either supported it or sought to undermine it.

You've written biographies of the Big Three, Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. Did you ever consider writing a biography of one of the Russian Revolution's less well-known figures - Bukharin, say? Or was it always your plan to write this book next?

I'm not someone who just wants to write biographies, although it would be tempting to look at some of the other figures in the early Russian Revolution. But I thought that Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky in different ways symbolise certain basic features of the October Revolution. And biography didn't really attract me so much as the idea of breaking away from histories of the Revolution that only tell you about Russia and of highlighting the interaction between Soviet Russia and the west.

Years ago, when I was a research student, I derived a lot of data from a remarkable set of memoirs by one of the British secret intelligence agents of that period, Paul Dukes. And three or four years ago I came across Dukes's personal files at Stanford University and I found that quite a few British secret intelligence agents had deposited their papers there as well. We have a very secretive state in Britain, and material that you can't get hold of in the UK you can get hold of without the same restrictions in America. This led me on to think, "why not write a history of the interaction of Soviet Russia and the west?" But at all levels of interaction: not just the politicians, but the journalists, diplomats, spies, political and militants, lower levels of public life, the fellow travellers who went out to Soviet Russia. It was an attempt to look at Russian history through a different lens than is conventional.

There is an abundant literature on the western fellow-travellers of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and during the cold war. Did you think that the relationship between the nascent Soviet Union and the west in the immediate post-revolutionary period was under-explored before you wrote this book?

Yes. I think because we've taken politicians and military commanders as our main topic of interest, we've missed out on that broader set of interactions between Soviet Russia and the west in the early Soviet years. That's all the more surprising when you think about it because there were no formal relations between western governments and the Soviet government, so it follows very naturally from this that a lot of informal contacts were crucial to the development of the geopolitical interaction.

Do you think that the cold war acts as a kind of barrier to understanding the early years of the Soviet Union or as a distorting optic?

I think that we got into the habit of assuming that everything we needed to know about Russia happened inside Russia. But that's clearly not the case: a lot of what happened was conditioned by the western reaction to Russia. I'll give you a really good example of that precedes the cold war: Stalin industrialised the country to a very considerable extent through the purchase of American technology. America was going through the Great Depression in the 1930s and its manufacturers and government were only too happy to facilitate that commercial relationship. Without that technological transfer, Stalin would not have been able to build the factories that he constructed in the 1930s.

You say near the end of the book that the west dealt with the Soviet Union in a "confused fashion" throughout its existence. Is your claim that the template was set in the early years?

Yes. I think that all the way through the Soviet period, there was controversy in the west about how to handle Soviet communism, and the more powerful the Soviet Union became, the more contested the whole question became. But the polarity between accommodation and confrontation - you can already see it in the early years of the Soviet regime. In that sense, the cold war didn't start after the Second World War; it started in the early 1920s.

You said that you wanted to examine the role played not just be statesman and generals, but also by journalists and fellow travellers. Let's take John Reed, who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World. Do you think that Reed was excessively credulous when it came to the Bolsheviks?

Yes. The pro-Bolshevik journalists, the fellow-travellers, some of them actually became Communists themselves for a time, like John Reed. They were very naïve about Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin and Trotsky knew how to talk to them in order to jolly them along because they needed people abroad who could sing their praises. Poor old John Reed - it took him two or three years to become disillusioned, but he was a very disillusioned man by the time when he died in 1920. He had seen Soviet communism from the inside and he detested its hypocrisies and its oppressiveness. But there was something about the Communist message - after all, it was a message about the liberation of humanity from national and economic oppression which resonated in the minds of people who had good reason to resent the conditions of politics and the economy in their own countries under capitalism. So it's not hard to see why people who were not very well-informed about conditions in Soviet Russia were drawn to communism in the 1920s and 1930s.

Among those who went and saw what they wanted to see were the founders of this magazine, Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Of those whom you describe as "dissenting journalists" in Petrograd in 1917, were many of them what we would later call "fellow-travellers"?

Yes, they were. But there were all sorts of fellow-travellers: there were fellow-travellers who wanted some sort of communism to be spread from Russia to the rest of the world (and people like John Reed were that sort), but there were some fellow-travellers who thought that communism suited Russia but that it wouldn't work anywhere else. One of these was Arthur Ransome, who told Lenin to his face it just would not take root in London. He's an interesting figure, Ransome, because at the same as he was what you might call a Soviet fellow-traveller, he was also a British secret intelligence agent.

You describe how his editor at the Manchester Guardian, C P Scott, suspected in Ransome an excess of enthusiasm for the revolution. But did Scott have an inkling that Ransome was in fact working for the British?

As far as I know, Scott didn't know the exact role that Ransome was playing on behalf of the British, and the British didn't really know what to make of Ransome either, because he was such a confusing mixture of attitudes. He felt that he could, by dint of getting information that no one else could get out of Moscow, and by placing it before the attention of the British authorities, he could get the British government to be more pro-Bolshevik than it currently was. I don't think he had much effect on David Lloyd George as it happens. But Ransome, although he was a sort of innocent abroad, he was also the sort of innocent who could cause problems for the people he worked among. He wasn't very discreet.

Winston Churchill was a particularly enthusiastic supporter of the Whites in the Russian civil war wasn't he?

He was. He would have brought down Bolshevism early on if he possibly could have done. But every time that he got too boisterous in the cabinet Lloyd George asked him to cost any enterprise that he might have in mind, and that usually shut Churchill up. But Churchill did the maximum he could, which was to lend assistance to the White armies. The British knew that the White armies were not the most liberal force in Russia; they turned a blind eye to that, thinking that, basically, Russia would be better off under the Whites than under the Reds.

Why was Lloyd George reluctant to give full-throated support to the Whites?

Britain was in a terrible economic condition: it was being financially bailed out by the Americans, the Labour movement was vigorously opposed to continued military intervention in Soviet Russia, and Lloyd George saw a trading opportunity and wanted to get in for the British before the Americans possibly got in under some forthcoming administration. So there was a bundle of reasons. What you do have to emphasise, though, is that Lloyd George was strongly supported in what he was doing, covertly, by a large section of the British business community, who didn't break cover about this because they didn't want to be seen as pro-Bolshevik. But they were pro-profit and so a lot of manufacturing enterprises in the North and in the Midlands were very very favourable to the Anglo-Soviet trade treaty of March 1921.

An interesting aspect of the story you tell is the rapidity with which the Soviets developed a spy network in the 1920s. That took shape very quickly didn't it?

Once they had completed their operations in the civil war they got down to setting up an effective intelligence agency in western countries. It has to be said that the west was quicker to get its intelligence agencies set up in Soviet Russia in 1917-1918; there was a lot of intelligence gathering going on on both sides and one of the really striking things that I found in doing research for the book was how important the telegraph was and how useful it was for hackers.There are so many echoes of today's politic s- the telegraph was more or less an open source as far as governments on all sides were concerned in this period.

Was it the job of the Cheka simply to confirm Lenin's and Trotsky's preconceptions about the imminence of the proletarian revolution?

You couldn't be a Bolshevik and not believe in this - this was an article of faith for the Bolsheviks; this is why they had seized power; this is why they had become Bolsheviks in 1917 and in many cases left the Mensheviks. The October Revolution was premised on the assumption that Europe and North America were on the threshold of communist revolution and it was one of the prejudices that they never seriously questioned.

You did a lot of the archival work for this book at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which was the domicile of the great British Sovietologist Robert Conquest. Is he someone who has had a particular influence on your work?

I think Robert Conquest is one of the great postwar Sovietologists. The British have had an influence on thinking about the Soviet Union out of all proportion to the number of people working in the United Kingdom on the Soviet Union. Conquest certainly wrote one of the great pioneering books, The Great Terror.

Why do you think Britain has had such a great influence on Sovietology?

I think that a lot of this comes from our fallen status as a global power. At the time of the October Revolution, Britain was one of the great global powers and our historians were brought up to think geopolitically. And that tradition outlasted our real power and affected the way that we organised our universities and arranged our newspapers and magazines. It meant that public discussion of the USSR was very vibrant after the Second World War. There were a lot of outstanding figures: on the left there were EH Carr and Isaac Deutscher; on the other side there were Leonard Schapiro and Hugh Seton Watson.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit