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.

JAMIE KINGHAM/MILLENNIUM
Show Hide image

Snakebites and body parts

The city at the edge of an apocalypse: a love letter to Los Angeles.

I was emailing with Kenneth Anger, the film-maker, when the coyotes across the street in Griffith Park started howling.

That’s partially true.

I was emailing him to ask if he’d direct a music video for me. Maybe Lucifer Rising 2.0. Or anything.

Just him in the kitchen making tea, as recorded on his iPhone.

Kenneth Anger is alive and well in Santa Monica, so why not ask him to direct a video for me? Hopefully, he’ll respond. We’ve never met, so I sent an email to him, not with him. That’s the partial truth.

But the coyotes did start howling.

It’s the single best sound in Los Angeles, or any city. Is there another city where you can email an 89-year-old devotee of Aleister Crowley while listening to a few dozen coyotes screaming and howling and ripping the night into little pieces?

No. Just here. This oddness by the sea and an inch from a billion acres of Arrakis.

I never thought I’d end up living in Los Angeles, but I’ve ended up living in Los Angeles. This dirtiest, strangest paradise.

Yesterday I went hiking in a two-million-acre state park that’s 30 minutes from my house. A state park bigger than all of New York City. And it’s 30 minutes away. With no people. Just bears and pumas and coyotes and snakes.

And other things. Abandoned bridges. An observatory where Albert Einstein used to go to watch space.

What a strange city.

A perfect city. Perfect for humans at the edge of this strangely unfolding apocalypse. A gentle apocalypse with trade winds and Santa Ana winds and the biannual vicious storm that rips eucalyptus trees up by their roots.

What a strange city. And it’s my home.

Today I hiked to the back of the Hollywood sign. This was before Kenneth Anger and the coyotes.

The tourists were dropping like flies on the long, hot mountain trail, not aware that this isn’t a city with the safe European ­infrastructure that keeps them happy
and/or alive.

Every now and then, a tourist dies in the hills, bitten by a snake or lost at night. The emergency rooms are full of tourists with snakebites and heatstroke.

Where are the European safeguards?

Fuck us if we need safeguards. Go live in a place like this gentle wasteland where you’re not at the top of the food chain. If you’re not in danger of being eaten at some point in the day, you’re probably not breathing right.

I hope Kenneth Anger writes back.

 

22 May

I drove some friends around my neighbourhood. They want to live here. Why wouldn’t they? Pee-wee Herman and Thom Yorke live up the street.

David Fincher lives a block away. It’s blocks and blocks of jasmine-scented name-
dropping.

It’s warm in the winter and it’s weird all year round.

And there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright that looks like a lunatic Mayan spaceship.

And there go the coyotes again, howling like adorable delegates of death.

They’re so smart, I wish they would make me their king.

You hate Los Angeles? Who cares? You made a mistake, you judged it like you’d judge a city. Where’s the centre?

There’s no centre. You want a centre? The centre cannot hold. Slouching towards Bethlehem. Things fall apart.

Amazing how many titles can come from one poem. What’s a gyre?

Yeats and Kenneth Anger and Aleister Crowley. All these patterns.

Then we had brunch in my art deco pine-tree-themed restaurant, which used to sell cars and now sells organic white tea and things.

The centre cannot hold. I still have no idea what a gyre is.

Maybe something Irish or Celtic.

It’s nice that they asked me to write this journal.

Things fall apart.

So you hate Los Angeles? Ha. It still loves you, like the sandy golden retriever it is. Tell me again how you hate the city loved by David Lynch and where David Bowie made his best album? Listen to LA Woman by the Doors and watch Lynch’s Lost Highway and read some Joan Didion – and maybe for fun watch Nightcrawler – and tell me again how you hate LA.

I fucking love this sprawling inchoate pile of everything.

Even at its worst, it’s hiding something baffling or remarkable.

Ironic that the city of the notoriously ­vapid is the city of deceiving appearance.

After brunch, we went hiking.

Am I a cliché? Yes. I hike. I do yoga. I’m a vegan. I even meditate. As far as clichés go, I prefer this to the hungover, cynical, ruined, sad, grey cliché I was a decade ago.

“You’re not going to live for ever.”

Of course not.

But why not have a few bouncy decades that otherwise would’ve been spent in a hospital or trailing an oxygen tank through a damp supermarket?

 

24 May

A friend said: “The last time I had sex, it was warm and sunny.”

Well, that’s helpful.

October? June? February?

No kidding, the coyotes are howling again. I still love them. Have you ever heard a pack of howling coyotes?

Imagine a gaggle of drunk college girls who also happened to be canine demons. Screaming with blood on their teeth.

It’s such a beautiful sound but it also kind of makes you want to hide in a closet.

No Kenneth Anger.

Maybe I’m spam.

Vegan spam.

Come on, Kenneth, just make a video for me, OK?

I’ll take anything.

Even three minutes of a plant on a radiator.

I just received the hardcover copy of my autobiography, Porcelain. And, like anyone, I skimmed the pictures. I’m so classy, eating an old sandwich in my underpants.

A friend’s dad had got an advance copy and was reading it. I had to issue the cautious caveat: “Well, I hope he’s not too freaked out by me dancing in my own semen while surrounded by a roomful of cross-dressing Stevie Nicks-es.”

If I ever have kids, I might have one simple rule. Or a few simple rules.

Dear future children of mine:

1) Don’t vote Republican.

2) Don’t get facial tattoos.

3) Don’t read my memoir.

I don’t need my currently unmade children to be reading about their dear dad during his brief foray into the world of professional dominatrixing, even if it was brief.

The first poem I loved was by Yeats: “When You Are Old”. I sent it to my high-school non-girlfriend. The girl I longed for, unrequitedly. I’m guessing I’m not the first person to have sent “When You Are Old” to an unrequited love.

Today the sky was so strangely clear. I mean, the sky is almost always clear. We live in a desert. But today it felt strangely clear, like something was missing. The sun felt magnified.

And then, at dusk, I noticed the gold light slanting through some oak trees and hitting the green sides of the mountains (they were green as we actually had rain over the winter). The wild flowers catch the slanting gold light and you wonder, this is a city? What the fuck is this baffling place?

I add the “fuck” for street cred. Or trail cred, as I’m probably hiking. As I’m a cliché.

You hike, or I hike, in the middle of a city of almost 20 million people and you’re alone. Just the crows and the spiralling hawks and the slanting gold light touching the oak trees and the soon-to-go-away
wild flowers.

The end of the world just feels closer here, but it’s nice, somehow. Maybe the actual end of the world won’t be so nice but the temporal proximity can be OK. In the slanting gold light. You have to see it, the canyons in shadow and the tops of the hills in one last soft glow.

What a strange non-city.

 

25 May

They asked for only four journal entries, so here’s the last one.

And why is # a “hashtag”?

Hash? Like weird meat or weird marijuana? Tag, like the game?

At least “blog” has an etymology, even if, as a word, it sounds like a fat clog in a drain.

A friend who works in an emergency room had a patient delivered to her who had a croquet ball in his lower intestine. I guess there’s a lesson there: always have friends who work in emergency rooms, as they have the best stories.

No coyotes tonight. But there’s a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn. Where?

Where in LA would there be a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn?

It’s such a faraway sound. Lonesome hoboes watching the desert from an empty train car. Going where?

I met a woman recently who found human body parts in some bags while she
was hiking.

Technically, her dogs found them.

Then she found the dogs.

And then the sky was full of helicopters, as even in LA it’s unusual to have human hands and things left in bags near a hiking trail a few hundred yards from Brad Pitt’s house.

What is this place?

When I used to visit LA, I marvelled at the simple things, like gas stations and guest bedrooms.

I was a New Yorker.

And the gas stations took credit cards. At. The. Pumps.

What was this magic?

And people had Donald Judd beds in their living rooms, just slightly too small for actual sleeping – but, still, there’s your Donald Judd bed. In your living room at the top of the hill somewhere, with an ocean a dozen miles away but so clear you can see Catalina.

They drained the reservoir and now don’t know what to do with it.

Good old LA, confused by things like empty reservoirs in the middle of the city.

Maybe that’s where the lonesome train lives. And it only comes out at night, to make the sound of a lonesome train whistle, echoing from the empty concrete reservoir that’s left the city nonplussed.

“We’ve never had an empty reservoir in the city before.”

So . . . Do something great with it. I know, it’s a burden being given a huge gift of ­empty real estate in the middle of the city.

Tomorrow I’m meeting some more friends who’ve moved here from New York.

“We have a guest bedroom!” they crow.

A century ago, the Griffith Park planners planted redwoods across the street. And now the moon is waning but shining, far away but soft, through the redwoods.

No coyotes, but a waning moon through some towering redwoods is still really OK. As it’s a city that isn’t a city, and it’s my home.

Goodnight.

Moby’s memoir, “Porcelain”, is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad