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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times