h i s t o r y return to England. Lockhart is unlikely to have known just how violent Peters’s career as an underground revolutionary in prewar London had been. Though details remain obscure, Peters was allegedly involved in the murder of several policemen in 1910 prior to the celebrated ‘Siege of Sidney Street’, during which the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, famously appeared in the front line.
The most colourful of the secret agents who set out to topple the early Bolshevik regime was the so-called British ‘Ace of Spies’, Sidney Reilly, whose exploits oscillated between high adventure and low farce. Reilly allegedly planned at one stage to capture Lenin and Trotsky, remove their trousers and ‘nether garments’, and expose them to public ridicule by parading them through the streets dressed only in their shirts. Service understandably finds it ‘hard to believe’ that Reilly really had such a plan. But Reilly’s propensity to fantasy, which later played a part in his downfall, makes it at least credible that he did. We shall never know exactly what he planned.
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Though Spies and Commissars is a good read and rightly draws attention to a sometimes neglected aspect of early British–Soviet relations, it suffers from a disconcerting level of confusion about the role and organisation of the British intelligence agencies. Service repeatedly refers to operations against the Bolsheviks by the British Secret Service Bureau. The Bureau, however, had ceased to exist some years before the Bolshevik Revolution.
The Secret Service Bureau had been founded by the Asquith government in 1909 to deal with intelligence both at home and abroad. It quickly divided, however, into separate intelligence departments: a domestic agency, later known as the Security Service (MI5), and a foreign espionage agency, later known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6). The author seems to have only a sketchy knowledge of the contents of the much-praised official history of SIS/MI6 by Keith Jeffery.
The text of Spies and Commissars also contains no reference to either MI5 or its first long-serving head, Sir Vernon Kell, an excellent linguist who had learned Russian in Russia. Like other historians, Service would have found fascinating material on some of the characters in Spies and Commissars in their MI5 files in the National Archives.
He notes, for example, that ‘no Russian Marxist had a better command of English’ than the Manchester Guardian journalist Theodore Rothstein, who ‘ably discharged’ the task of keeping the Soviet Commissariat of Foreign Affairs informed on British affairs. Spies and Commissars, however, contains no reference either to Rothstein’s MI5 file or to the research on him by Dr David Burke, the leading historian of Russian revolutionary émigrés in Britain. Among other characters in Spies and Commissars on whom the MI5 files also shed new light is Nikolai Klyshko, a Russian Bolshevik who for some years worked for Vickers Engineering. Klyshko’s MI5 file reveals that in 1920 he became the first Cheka head of station in London.
The first major turning point in British relations with Soviet Russia was the trade negotiations in London in 1920–21, which ended in an agreement amounting to British de facto recognition of the Bolshevik regime. By the time the negotiations began, Britain’s best source of intelligence on Soviet policy came not from spies but from decrypted telegrams. Among the decrypts shown to Lloyd George was Lenin’s forthright instruction to the Soviet delegation: ‘That swine Lloyd George has no scruples or shame in the way he deceives. Don’t believe a word he says and gull him three times as much.’ Though Service quotes this colourful intercept from a secondary source, he has not looked at the other Soviet intercepts in the Lloyd George papers. Lloyd George took such insults in his stride. Winston Churchill, among others, did not.
Service is, unsurprisingly, at his best and most engaging when he describes the mindsets and idiosyncrasies of the Bolsheviks and their foreign admirers. He captures wonderfully the mood of the revolutionary émigrés when they heard the news of the February Revolution and the abdication of the tsar:
Litvinov was so elated that he tried to shave with his toothpaste and got into the bath without having turned on the water. He had waited for revolution all his adult life. Now it had happened, and his hands trembled with excitement as he read the newspapers. Lenin had his emotions under better control. Even on the famous ‘sealed train’ back from exile in Switzerland with other revolutionaries after the February Revolution, he was preoccupied with imposing his own infallible authority on the course of events:
Throughout the trip he was a killjoy: he was determined to get on with his writing as the train chugged its way through Stuttgart, Frankfurt-on-Main and Berlin on its route to the ferry port at Sassnitz. He reprimanded anyone who smoked. When he saw a queue building up for the toilets, he introduced a ticketed waiting system – this calmed his mood until he discovered that Radek was using his time in the closet to light up his pipe. There is much to enjoy in Spies and Commissars. But there is also a good deal that merits attention before the publication of the paperback edition. To order this book at £20, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 57
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