When everything changes, what should be done?
Over 30 years after Ayatollah Khomeini lit the Islamic fire, the West is still fumbling its way to a proper response. Imagine, then, the challenge posed by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. A key partner in the Allied war against Germany had just been hijacked by a fanatical cult intent on remaking the world, and the world had no clue what to do in reply.
That’s the background to this fine new work by Robert Service, a distinguished historian of Soviet communism perhaps best known for his biographies of Lenin and Trotsky, two monsters brought to unusually vivid life in these pages. Here’s Trotsky, flirting with Clare Sheridan (Winston Churchill’s embarrassing first cousin, as it happens) as she sculpts his bust in the Kremlin, and there’s Lenin, “shortish, pedantic and impatient. With his thumbs tucked into his waistcoat, he seemed at times like an angry Sunday preacher.”
This is a deftly drawn book, illuminated by the author’s eye for detail, ear for a good quote, and nose for a ripping yarn.
And what a yarn it is. The ancien régime is no more. We are given a quick look at the deposed and imprisoned Czar Nicholas, the most prominent, if far from the most important, of all the “former people” (to borrow the chilling Bolshevik phrase), reading “Turgenev . . . [and] anti-Semitic tracts.” Meanwhile, the armies of his kinsman, the Kaiser, are tearing chunks off what once was the Russian Empire, before dissolving into confusion after defeat on the Western Front.
All is flux. The territory controlled by the Bolsheviks shrinks and grows in a mirror image of the tides of a vast, bloody, and chaotic civil war, and the Kremlin’s efforts to export its revolution to Warsaw and beyond. National independence movements rise and fall. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania get clean away (for now), Ukraine and Georgia are not so lucky. Hovering uncertainly on the fringes are troops dispatched to Russia by its erstwhile allies in the hope that they might somehow reverse the worst of the revolution. They were never able to do so.
Service gives an excellent overview of this bewildering series of conflicts, and of the dawn of revolution as a whole, but this is just the frame for his picture of a country where nothing was as it had been and everything was up for grabs. Older, more genteel techniques of influencing events no longer worked. Traditional diplomacy was dead.
But both Russia and its revolution were too big to ignore. Although foreign governments may have dithered, some of their citizens did not. It is around their stories that Service shapes his narrative. The Bolsheviks might have thought that they were steering immense, impersonal, and unstoppable historical forces, but the new world that they created was so fluid and so fragile that the individual could, and did, make a difference.
There were the true believers—early fellow travelers not just along for the ride but eager to speed it on its way—such as the American journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant, and, more equivocally, the Briton Arthur Ransome. Reed, the author of Ten Days that Shook the World, ended up an honored corpse beneath the Kremlin walls; Bryant, his widow, was subsequently married (for a while) to the man later appointed the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union. Ransome became a much-loved children’s writer (Swallows and Amazons and similarly wholesome fare) and a less-loved husband of one of Trotsky’s former secretaries.
Not so idealistic, but in some ways no less credulous, were the prospectors among the rubble, the entrepreneurs and con men who saw the collapse of Russian capitalism as a business opportunity. And then there are the real heroes of this book, the remarkable band of (mainly) British or British-sponsored adventurers who did what they could to overturn Bolshevik rule.
While a small British expeditionary force gathered in the far north, His Majesty’s irregulars set to work in Moscow. At least three of them—Sidney Reilly, Paul Dukes, and George Hill—could, notes Service, “have supplied inspiration for James Bond.” No martinis, but in just one paragraph we read about Reilly’s involvement with Yelizaveta. And Dagmara. And Olga. We also read about that clever and unconventional thrill-seeker, Robert Bruce Lockhart, designated “Head of the British Mission” and the ideal agent-diplomat for a place where the rules of diplomacy had broken down. Between romances, Bruce Lockhart plotted coups. And the Britons were not alone: Uncle Sam was represented by the more staid, but not ineffective, “Information” Service, run by the marvelously named Xenophon Dmitrievich de Blumenthal Kalamatiano, a one-man tribute both to American’s melting pot and its enterprise.
If all this sounds like the stuff of John Buchan, only more so, that’s because it is. This is a story with room for Latvian riflemen, Czech Legionnaires, and a Polish Women’s Death Battalion; for failed revolutions across Europe, for conspiracies and spies, and for the daredevil aviator Merian Cooper, one of the American volunteers in an air squadron that helped Poland beat off Bolshevik invasion. (“Coop” was shot down but escaped after 10 months of Soviet captivity. A decade-and-a-half later, he coproduced, cowrote, and codirected King Kong.)
For all the tales of derring-do, however, it’s impossible to read this book without sadness and frustration. This was a tragedy that could have been cut short. Winston Churchill, a minister in the British government during this period, argued for more to be done against the Reds. He understood what his cousin Clare Sheridan did not: that this terrible infant revolution needed to be “strangled in its cradle.” Not for the last time in his career, too few listened until it was too late.
To some Western leaders, Bolshevism was a spasm that would pass. Russia’s counterrevolutionary armies—the Whites—would prevail with just a little support from the West; or maybe Bolshevism, an onslaught on human nature itself, would simply collapse, or be overthrown in its own heartlands. Others, not unreasonably, feared that their own, already war-weary peoples would be driven to revolt by the prospect of participating in what many were bound to see as a bosses’ crusade against a bright, brave experiment. So, denied the outside assistance that might have made a difference, the Whites were overwhelmed, beaten by an enemy that, in the end, proved more cohesive and determined than they were. The undersized and ultimately irrelevant Allied detachments—primarily French, Japanese, American, and British—slunk home from their beachheads, but the Western statesmen told themselves not to worry: Trade would blunt Leninist rigor, and a cordon sanitaire of new East-Central European states would keep Bolshevism confined to its birthplace.
Less than a quarter of a century later, the Red Army was in Berlin. As for His Majesty’s irregulars, most resumed lives of quieter distinction, but the (probably) Ukrainian-born Sidney Reilly (né Rosenblum) continued to fight. Lured back to the Soviet Union in an elaborate sting operation, he fell into the hands of the secret police, and, like millions to come, was killed.
Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.