Last month, Robert Service, author of Spies & Commissars, told an unconventional and riveting story of the Russian Revolution, looking beyond official government documents and examining the worlds of business, journalism, and espionage to see how the West interacted with the new Bolshevik government.
The story he told during the Hoover Archives Summer Workshop focused on some of the lesser known players of the era – such men as Sir Paul Dukes, the accomplished British spy who ”rescued princesses, was a master of disguises, and was a very, very modest man.” The cast of characters also included sometime-diplomat, sometime-spy Robert Lockhart; the dashing Captain George Hill; Sidney Reilly, the notorious “ace of spies”; and the children’s writer Arthur Ransome, “a pro-Soviet British agent” who liked Lenin.
While World War I raged around them, the Western powers needed to know what was going on in Petrograd, said Service, which was “extraordinarily important, especially if Germany won.”
“Both sides were trying in a gingerly fashion to persuade the other to take an indulgent view of it,” said Service. Hence, although the nations had no formal diplomatic relations, the British prime minister would take lunch with Maxim Litvinov, Lenin’s man in London.
Over in the fledgling Soviet Union, Trotsky wanted an air force, so he recruited British spy George Hill. “As you can imagine, he got a lot of information,” said Service.
This delicate choreography ended abruptly in March 1918, when Russia signed a pact with Germany, bowing out of the war. Western telegraph experts, the precursors of today’s technologists, helped break the code to find out what was happening in Russia. Meanwhile, Bolsheviks smuggled jewelry to the West to help far-left groups set up Communist Parties in their own countries – unnecessary, from one angle, since “they did it for free, they did it eagerly,” according to Service.
At that critical point, the Americans, British, and the French tried to bring down the Lenin-Trotsky government in a coup – the only such attempt by a Western power to do so, said Service – to enable Russia to select a new government more closely aligned with the Allies.
The plan was to be carried out by Reilly and Lockhart (who later downplayed his role), with help from Hill. It ended when someone else altogether tried to kill Lenin first, triggering a bloody purge.
Reilly escaped. The lunch-loving Litvinov was arrested in London, and exchanged for Robert Lockhart. ”He protested his innocence, but he wasn’t innocent. Very, very far from it,” said Service.
While doing his research in the Hoover Archives, Service found a letter written by Lockhart’s son, Robin, suggesting that his father had cut his tale to fit the times:
“If the question of my father’s relationship with Reilly still exercises anyone’s mind in the F.O., it is clear from his book Memoirs of a British Agent that once intervention in Russia had been decided on in 1918, he gave his active support to the counter-revolutionary movement with which, of course, Reilly was actively working.
“My father has himself made it clear to me that he worked much more closely with Reilly than he had publicly indicated…”
Lockhart, Reilly, Hill, and Dukes (by that time, another spy whose cover had been blown) gathered in London regularly for “Bolshevik liquidation lunches” to “talk down and drink down the Russian Revolution. Futile? Perhaps not. “They formed a lobby to hold a line,” said Service.
Which brings us back to March 1921, when it all changed again, like the twist of the kaleidoscope, with the Anglo-Soviet trade treaty. That made the U.K. “the first great power to break rank,” said Service. “Washington and Paris were infuriated.” Britain made its decision “unilaterally and by stealth.”
“If Woodrow Wilson and Clemenceau were horrified, anti-Bolshevik Russians were even more horrified,” he said.
That also returns us to the Hoover Archives: its papers show that pots of jam started to reach the Soviet Union from the British Midlands, and Scottish herring went directly to Petrograd.
Service said Hoover’s huge food and humanitarian missions in 1919 “probably did save Europe from the Bolsheviks.” But did the Britain save the Bolshevik revolution at a time it might have crumbled?
Winston Churchill warned the British government in vain. “He could never convince the rest of the government that a crusade was necessary.” Postwar Britain was wary of conflict, and its parliamentarians jeered, “‘Where are you going to get the money, Winston?’ England was bankrupt, bled dry.”
Success isn’t everything. “It’s pretty clear now that we value those politicians who saw things clearly, and said what they saw as forcefully as they could,” said Service.
The communists began to enjoy the perks of their predecessors. “We lived in grand hotels and he wore fur coats and smoked enormous cigars,” remembered Litvinov’s wife Ivy. The story becomes irresistibly reminiscent of Animal Farm, which ends with the pigs and the humans indistinguishable. By the time of the Second World War, Hill was in Moscow swapping tips on poisons with the head of Stalin’s fearsome security apparatus. And by 1945, Churchill and Stalin were grinning for the photographers at the old palace in Yalta.
That explains why, in the Soviet Union, Churchill is remembered as a Soviet ally. After my Russian friend had gone to sleep, our driver – an ethnic Armenian – told me how Churchill preferred Armenian brandy above all others. I doubted this, but it does show how the old man has become all things to all men.
As an afterthought, the New Statesman recently asked Service a question that brought up the name of another friend and frequent subject in the Book Haven. Can’t resist a mention:
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 [we wrote about him here and here among other places] 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.