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
Literary Review | d e c 2 0 1 1 / j a n 2 0 1 2 8 h i s t o r y b r e n dan s i mms
Dire Straits The Russian Origins of the First World War
By Sean McMeekin (Harvard University Press/Belknap Press 324pp £22.95)
For many years, the ‘Origins of the First World War’ was a familiar topic to generations of British schoolchildren and undergraduates. They learned to use with care the various official collections of documents published by governments shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. In the late 1920s their standard reading became the ‘revisionist’ books by authors such as Sidney Fay, whose argument that primary responsibility for the war should be shared more or less equally among the powers, and certainly did not rest primarily with Germany, survived the Second World War. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, two iconoclastic – if turgid – works by the German historian Fritz Fischer, Germany’s War Aims in the First World War and War of Illusions, purported to prove what Allied propagandists had claimed all along, namely that the Kaiser’s government bore the primary responsibility for the outbreak of the war. He went beyond these critics by arguing that the aggression of imperial Germany reflected her peculiar domestic structure – part modern, part feudal – which required an ever more adventurous foreign policy to contain demands for change from below, especially from the Social Democrats. Over the past forty years, much of the literature on the First World War has confirmed Fischer’s thesis, not least by taking it as a point of departure. Recent work on Germany, to be sure, has modified the picture, but largely by stressing the geopolitical rather than the domestic concerns of policymakers in Berlin, not by questioning their principal responsibility for the carnage.
Now, as the centenary of the outbreak of the war draws near, we can expect a spate of new works marking the anniversary and re-examining its origins. Sean McMeekin, an American historian working in Turkey, has been quick off the mark with The Russian Origins of the First World War. He brings to the table a range of skills in the Russian and
Turkish languages rarely found in the Anglophone world, and more rarely still in combination. After nearly half a century of focus on Germany, McMeekin examines Tsarist Russia, the great power he considers most responsible for plunging Europe and large parts of the world into mass slaughter. He argues that the primary aim of St Petersburg remained what it had been since the late eighteenth century: the capture of Constantinople, known to Russians as ‘Tsargrad’ – the city
Tsar Nicholas II and his son: up for the fight of the emperors. Control of the Straits would provide unfettered access to the Mediterranean and allow them to appropriate the imperial Roman legacy of Byzantium. Throughout the nineteenth century, the British and French had blocked the way, most dramatically in the Crimean War of the 1850s. But from 1893, when the French and Russians joined forces against Germany, and 1907, when Britain and Russia signed a treaty which completed the Triple Entente against the Kaiser, those two powers had been drawn into a pattern of cooperation with St Petersburg.
Moreover, Russia now regarded imperial Germany as the main challenge to her ambitions at the Straits. German military missions to Constantinople and railway projects in Anatolia and Mesopotamia (discussed in McMeekin’s previous book The Berlin–Baghdad Express) threatened to turn the Ottoman Empire from the ‘sick man of Europe’ into a much more formidable competitor. Russian strategists now routinely stated that ‘the path to Constantinople runs through Berlin’. The author shows that far from having time on her side as she modernised with French help, as the conventional view has it, St Petersburg actually felt she was falling behind in relation to the all important naval balance in the Black Sea.
It is against this background that McMeekin closely dissects Russian policy during the ‘July Crisis’ sparked by the murder of the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Bosnian Serb assassins in late June 1914. The assassination was sanctioned by the head of Serbian intelligence in Belgrade, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, also known as ‘Apis’ (‘the bull’), and possibly also by elements within the government. The author does not claim that St Petersburg had prior knowledge of the crime, though it might have done, but he does note that the Russian envoy to Belgrade, Baron Hartwig, was extremely close to Apis. Moreover, McMeekin stresses that the Russian decision to mobilise was effectively taken much earlier than often imagined and at any rate well before that of Austria– Hungary or Germany. This effectively forced Germany to respond and unleashed war not only with France but also with Great Britain. In this way, Russia locked the Western Allies into her Balkan and Near Eastern vendetta against Germany.
Yet if the Russians had war in early August 1914, they did not yet have exactly the war they wanted. Most accounts of the origins of the war lose momentum after the outbreak of hostilities, but it is a merit of McMeekin’s account that he takes the story further. He shows that – to the despair of the French and British – the Russians spent the first few months of the war not pressing their advantage on the lightly held East German frontier, but d e c 2 0 1 1 / j a n 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 9