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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The Wallets

A short story by Colin Barrett.

Doon was doing nothing, just killing time, while he waited for his mam to finish at meeting. Once she went down the steps into the basement he got out of there. The hour was too long to wait and he did not like seeing the others. There was always one freshly dire specimen hanging around outside, wrung-eyed and jitter-limbed and making a pitiable hames of trying to light up a cigarette. Sometimes he recognised the parent of some kid out of his class. He didn’t want to see the parents and he didn’t want them to see him. The meetings were another world. His mam went down there and an hour later she came back out.

He did laps of the town with his hoodie up. The drawstrings of his hoodie had little laminate tubes at the end that flailed as he walked. It was autumn, blond and ochre and umber leaves matted together and turning to slick mush underfoot. He was wearing dark olive combat boots laced tight, the ends of his combat trousers crimped into the tops of the boots. Passing an apartment block he saw something on the blue wooden slats of a bench seat. It was a wallet. He commended himself for noticing it and kept right on walking. As he walked he clenched his stomach muscles, an isometric exercise to promote definition and also a means of keeping warm.

He browsed a Men’s Fitness magazine in a newsagents, reread three times an article detailing the correct techniques for executing power cleans and deadlifts off the rack, and bought a large raspberry slushie. He’d loved slushies as a kid. Every six months or so, usually in one of the small newsagents still scattered around the town, he’d notice the plastic rotors mesmerically churning the blue- and blood-coloured ice in their transparent bins, and would buy one. Only after tasting it would he remember how nauseating they were. Three strawfuls in and there was already the sickly sensation of the syrup turning in his stomach and a bout of brainfreeze running through his head like static.

He went a few doors down, into the lobby of the Western Range Hotel. Still stubbornly sucking on the slushie, he strolled into the hotel bar. The bar was a spacious rectangle of smoked glass, carved teak and piped muzak, and went back a long way. Four men in suits were stalled by the counter, luggage cases on wheels poised beside them like immaculately behaved pets. A pair of them bid goodbye to the others, and headed towards the lobby. Doon watched the automated doors, the way they seemed to flinch before smoothly and decisively giving way. To escape the chatter of the remaining men he went and stood at the far end of the room. A recessed bank of floor-to-ceiling windows yielded a direct view on to the town’s main street, already streaming with Saturday morning shoppers. He watched the flow of bodies, the pockets of arrest within the flow. Directly across the street was the gated rear entrance to the county district court. The gating was innocuous, black bars without identifying signage, and if you did not know it led into the court, you would not have been able to tell. The gate was ajar, a concrete step leading down into the narrow mouth of an alley. In the alley a tall redheaded woman in a suit jacket was urgently conferring with a rough unit on one crutch. The man’s smashed-and-resmashed-looking face, the colour of baked clay, was tilted towards the sky. It was impossible to tell his age. He was leaning on his crutch and staring into the blazing nullity of the sky as the woman attempted to direct his attention to something in the heavy-looking black ledger she was holding tucked against her diaphragm. A page lifted up, levitated free of the ledger and fluttered down the street. The woman cursed, slammed closed the ledger, and stooped after the page as it curlicued along at shin level. The man turned his face from the sky and stared with bovine dispassion at her scooting, bobbing rump.

“You can’t eat that in here.”

Doon turned. The barman was behind him, a kid not much older than Doon with awry lugs glowing either side of his head, his black barman’s shirt squeezed over a snub-nosed paunch.

“I’m not eating anything.”

“That.” The barman pointed at the slushie. “Can’t eat that in here.”

“Don’t make me correct you again, I’m not eating anything,” Doon said, and took an emphatic suck of the slushie. From the depth of the plastic cup came a clotted suctioning noise that reminded him of being at the dentist: Snnnrgggkkk.

“C’mon man,” the barman said, his fussy little face turning the same colour as his lugs. “Just go finish it outside.”

“You get at all your potential customers like this?”

“You’re not a customer.”

“Could’ve been a case I was about to be.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“Even if you want something, you’ve to finish that outside first.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“So no one’s allowed just stand here for five minutes, make their mind up on giving you their custom.”

“Not no one,” the barman said, “but you’re you. You’ve to take that outside.”

“Nah.”

“C’mon.”

“This is profiling, lad,” Doon said.

The two men remaining at the bar were watching this exchange. The older, a tall lean man with grey hair, laughed, then cut the air with his hand, like enough.

“Lad’s got a point,” the grey-haired man said to the barman, indicating Doon with a nod of his head.

“We have a policy,” the barman croaked.

“What’s that?” The man went on, “Harass the kid with the skint head and hoodie? So he’s eating a slushie, so what? I worked in a bar myself when I was a young buck. Just let the shift see itself out if it’s going quiet, lad and don’t give patrons grief that aren’t giving you grief.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“See, listen to the oul fella,” Doon said and grinned at the man.

The man grinned back.

“Let’s resolve this simply,” the man said, taking out his wallet. “I’ll get him something, so then he counts as a customer, and we can all let him finish his drink in peace. Do you want a Coke or a coffee, lad?”

“Pint of Guinness, fella,” Doon said.

“Ha, now, lad. What age are you? I’ll buy you a coffee but I’m not buying a minor a pint on a Saturday morning.”

Doon took an extended, convulsive suck of the slushie’s remnants as the barman beetled in behind the counter. When it was empty, Doon placed the cup on the bartop.

“You’re alright so then. Coffee’s worse for you than drink,” Doon said. He considered the two men again, and grinned. “You boys are in a savagely dapper condition for this town, even of a Saturday afternoon. Is there a wedding in or something?”

The men smiled at each other. The younger one, who had a V-shaped hairline with a bald patch spreading out from his crown, like Zinedine Zidane, shook his head. “We were in for a convention. Sales conference for the NorthWest Connaught Regional Estate Agents Association.”

“Christ, I lost interest halfway through that sentence,” Doon said.

The grey-haired man grinned again.

“So,” the barman interjected, but talking to the man, not Doon. “Did you want a coffee then, or?”

“You heard me decline the fella, didn’t you?” Doon sneered. Now he turned his back on the men, to focus his ire squarely upon the barman. “Congratulations, son, three souls in your dying-on-it’s-hole bar and you’re successfully chasing a third of them off. Profiling is what you were doing.”

Doon began walking backwards towards the lobby, his face bright with contempt.

“Your mam’ll be well proud. Speaking of which, tell her I said hello,” Doon said, and stuck his raspberry-coated tongue all the way out.

He heard the two men behind him chuckle again and his leading heel struck something. “Watch,” he heard the grey-haired man say as he swung his other heel into place alongside the first. He turned, knocking over the carry cases. “Jesus,” Doon said, stepping across the two men at the exact moment they stepped forward to right their luggage. “Sorry,” he said, feinting to step one way, then another, but somehow ending up still between them and the cases. He faced the grey-haired man and grabbed hold of his forearms, as if balancing or restraining him. The man stepped back and Doon stepped with him, like a dance partner.

“Sorry, lads, sorry,” he said to the man. He was close to the man’s face. The man’s face was indrawn and baffled. Then Doon stepped off him. He turned, picked up and righted the man’s case.

“I’m all of a daze with the harassment,” he said, gripping the case’s handle and yanking it twice to extend it out, before offering the handle to the man. The man looked at it, looked at Doon, and took it. Doon was already walking straight towards the automated doors.

He went through the lobby and out on to the street. He looked left and right, because that’s what people do. He checked the wallet, took the nice big fifty, left the two tens and a fiver. He went back in, said, “Found that outside, doll,” to the best-looking receptionist, dropped the wallet on the counter and went straight back out again.

 

***

 

His mother, as usual, was one of the first ones out. She came straight up the steps with her head facing forward and did not look back. She handed him the car keys and they walked towards the car park. They passed the apartment block. The wallet was still there, on the bench, and the instant Doon knew his mother would see it, she did. She stopped. “Look at that wallet some eejit’s after leaving there.”

“Come on,” Doon said.

“Check it to see if it says whose it is,” she said, nudging him.

Doon stayed in place. “Leave it. It’s not our concern.”

His mam looked at Doon and smiled. “‘Not our concern,’” she repeated. “Christ lad, where you get your talk from sometimes. You sound like a policeman.”

“A policeman’d be over there rooting through it with his big snout.”

“I don’t mean the sentiment,” his mam said, “I mean the tone.”

“Feck off,” Doon said.

“Now, now, don’t be regressing to sewer-mouthery just cos I’ve hit a nerve.”

“You’ve NOT touched a nerve,” Doon snapped.

She placed her hand on his neck.

“I mean you’ve got this authority to you,” she said. “It’s just your way. My lad. Soul of a policeman.”

Colin Barrett’s debut short story collection, “Young Skins” (Vintage), won the Guardian First Book Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge