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Spies and Commissars: The Bolshevik Revolution and the West

Spies and Commissars: The Bolshevik Revolution and the West [Kindle Edition]

Robert Service
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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'...fascinating book, which recounts the fraught relationship between the young communist state and the West... Service has a wonderful eye for the telling detail. Service makes his rich cast into human beings again and does so with great skill.'
--Oliver Bullough, The Independent

`Service has produced a lively and compelling account of the dangerous years that followed the revolution, full of intriguing characters such as the US diplomat William Bullitt, the American left-wing journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant, and the maverick American businessman Armand Hammer, whose links to the Soviet Union would continue until his death in 1990. But it is ultimately the commissars rather than the spies who are the most interesting. Trotsky and Lenin have both been the subjects of acclaimed biographies by Service, so it is perhaps not surprising that, whatever the author's intent, it is they who remain by far the most compelling figures in this fascinating book.'
--The Sunday Times Culture Michael Smith

`...if a romance born of Utopian dreams and the glamour of the barricades still tinges the brave dawn of the Russian Revolution, then Robert Service's latest book is an effective gloss-remover. he devotes his research skills to many forgotten figures, among them some imperishable treasures whose names alone sound as if they were culled from a Monty Python sketch, such as the socialite Aimee Ernesta Drinker of the French intelligence office Charles Adolphe Faux-Pas Bidet.' --Mail on Sunday Review, Andrew Anthony

`..enthralling...Crazy times throw up remarkable people, and much of the allure of the book lies in the colourful figures of the espionage world of the time...As in his superbly demystifying biography of Trotsky, once again Service tells it like it was, and this time it is the flailing Western governments and their blundering intrigues that are in his sights. Yet, as ever, he keeps his balance. To this day, Lenin's sympathisers claim that Red Terror was forced on him by foreign intervention. It is true that there was no lack of anti-Soviet scheming and subversion, much of it British. But as Service has shown in his many books, the subsequent history of communism confirmed that terror was always at the heart of the Marxist-Leninist creed.' --George Walden, Sunday Telegraph

'It was a time of ferment and Service's colourful narrative teems with foreign mavericks and adventurers...'
--Christopher Silvester, Daily Express

`...his most vividly written book so 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...There is much to enjoy in Spies and Commissars...' --Christopher Andrew, Literary Review

`Robert Service's lively book brings his characteristic blend of erudition and common sense to a retelling of this turbulent story.' --International Affairs

`Service's colourful narrative teems with foreign mavericks and adventurers'
--The Oldie


"Library Journal
""[A] well-researched, detailed, and thoughtful analysis of the Russian Revolution, here removed from the global vacuum into which it is often relegated.... Service is careful not to lose focus on the cultural, political, and economic weight that the revolution brought to a dispirited Russia.... [A] nuanced and important contribution to the history of the Russian Revolution. Readers of Russian and early Soviet history, both in and out of academia, will find it illuminating."

"Kirkus Reviews"
"Careful, dense scholarly study" that "paints detailed portraits of the revolutionary principals and their sometimes-surprising allies and enemies."

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2096 KB
  • Print Length: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Macmillan; Unabridged edition (4 Nov 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #290,559 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

Robert Service is a Fellow of the British Academy and of St Antony's College, Oxford. He has written several books, including the highly acclaimed Lenin: A Biography, Russia: Experiment with a People, Stalin: A Biography and Comrades: A History of World Communism, as well as many other books on Russia's past and present. His most recent book, Trotsky, has been shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize. Married with four children, he lives in London.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding overview of Soviet controls 16 Sep 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is an excellent exposition of the growth of communisim in Russia. It clearly sets out the grounds of Bolshevik and communist suspicions regarding the West, which first began in 1917 with the view by the West that Russia must stay in the war on the Eastern front at all costs, regardless of Bolshevik leadership and politics. The Western skullduggery which followed that view is fully exposed and Service explains, very clearly, the subsequent grounds for Soviet caution against ANY future West intentions. Service has a good style of putting what could be a dry subject across to all readers. Fast paced, but not overly detailed, yet with more than enough substance to fully inform, this book is easy to read and absorb. Once again, Service has excelled. Highly recommended reading to anyone interested - however slightly- in the rise of Communism, Soviet Russia and its enduring stamp on world history, even today.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well informed good read 21 Sep 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Every time you read about this period, it strikes you just how close a run thing the Russian Revolution was, and just how easily a counter revolution could have succeeded, but sadly didn't.

This book gives a interesting and entertaining overview of the period.

Trenchant and witty writing brings the best out of in depth analysis which is sprinkled with adventurous anecodotes and vivid character studies of the main players. It's nice to have the Bolshevik revolution set in the context of how the rest of the world responded to it, as this adds a much needed dimension to the story.

Very good book, well worth a read.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was one of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century. Preceding it was the February 1917 Revolution, which began with a series of strikes in Petrograd (the Russian wartime capital) and ended with the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the establishment of a provisional government under Alexander Kerensky, a center-left politician pledged to keep Russia in the First World War.

This book offers a thorough and comprehensive telling of the events underlying both of these revolutions, and their immediate aftermath. The more I read the more I felt myself a part of an big, explosive drama of Shakespearian proportions studded with a variety of colorful and infamous characters. Lenin and Leon Trotsky emerge as the key figures from the Bolshevik faction of centre- and far-left parties who vied for control of the Russian government between the late spring and autumn of 1917.

Before reading this book, I like to think that I had a fairly broad understanding of the events that shaped Russia (and by extension, Eastern and Central Europe) between 1917 and 1922. But once I took the plunge into "SPIES AND COMMISSARS", I found that I had to tread a lot of heavy water. There was so, so much information to ingest and analyze. (Much of this information has only become available after the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991.) My opinion of Lenin, however, remains unchanged. He was a cunning, shameless opportunist who had no compunction about using violent means to consolidate and expand the Bolsheviks' control of Russia and, through the Comintern, spreading the gospel of Bolshevism throughout Europe.
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2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The start of the USSR - All the details 24 Jan 2012
This is a fascinating and massively-researched account of the beginnings of the USSR.
One now sees how the founders' fate hung by a thread, and the whole venture could so easily have failed.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and Masterly ! 2 Jun 2012
By Paul Gelman - Published on
In his short introduction to the book, Professor Robert Service writes that the "October Revolution gave rise to questions which remain important today, questions that find expression in their polarities of democracy and dictatorship, justice and terror, social fairness and class struggle, ideological absolutism and cultural pluralism, national sovereignty and armed international intervention".
Thus the reason to write this book, which examines not only the Russian Revolution, but also describes in great detail the efforts invested by the West to fight the Bolsheviks.To be more precise, Mr. Service came upoan the idea of writing his book after he had seen the papers of the British intelligence agent Paul Dukes, who was just one of many who tried to influence the outcome of the 1917-1918 events. In addition, John Reed and Arthur Ransome as well as two more famous foreigners and spies-Sidney Reilly and Robert Bruce-Lockhart-also make their vast appearances here. Among the primary materials used, Mr. Service checked for the first time documents found at Hoover Institution archives where he obtained permission to access the papers of Lockhart, papers from various individuals in Brtish and Russian archives and other contemporary periodicals.
The book is divided into four parts, and each one progresses chronologically. In each of them there he writes about the unfolding of the Revolution and about those who were for and those who were working against it.
The West, meaning in greater part Britain, thought that the Whites offered the chance of infiltrating and influencing Russia by intrigue. Therefore adventurers and spies, reportes and undercover agents found a ferile ground to play their game. As mentioned before, Lockhart, who was Churchill's representative in Moscow, was one of them. He and his mistress Moura Budberg(who, we are informed, was "bored by her husband"),George Hill who was another British agent and Reilly were among the most famous ones who invested their efforts to subvert the Revolution. Reilly, whose real name was Sigmund Rosenblum, was born in Odessa and was of Jewish origins. He is known as the "Ace of Spies". He was a great womanizer and was one of a long list of agents or spies who met in the Savoy Hotel in 1919 in order to discuss the most efficient ways to liquidate the "Bolo Revolution". At those lunches, which were financed by the British Foreign Office, one could also find Paul Dukes, Lockhart, Rex Leeper and John Baggge.The mission was to topple Lenin and his fellows.
It is from this point onwards where Mr. Service describes the plans and intrigues used by those individuals, showing their private lives and the various techniques they used against the Bolsheviks. The most famous plan was the one used by Lockhart, who wanted to kidnap Lenin and Trotsky. According to a secret report written by the Cheka, both Russians were to be shot after capture. The plan was foiled and during the trial in Moscow, it was revealed that dozens of other Americans and British citizens were conspiring against the Reds. Lockhart escaped to London. He and his friend Reilly as
well as others were declared "enemies of the working people" and sentenced to death if ever they were found on Soviet territory.
The main gain of the West from all these and other well-documented plots was that they got a very good picure of what was going on in Russia. To quote:"...communism was never obscured from the view of the leaders who took the big decisions.It is true that the information was often patchy and even contradictory, but it was good enough for judgements to be made". In addtion, the chances of toppling the Reds were slim, the military expeditions to Russian were constantly too small and the Whites were no match for the Reds. The main fear of the West was a communist Germany and the spread of communism elsewhere in Europe. This definitely happened after 1945.
This excellent book is a description of extremely complicated entanglements of personalities and institutions, of politicians, spies, reporters, lovers and assassins (Fanny Kaplan among them) and is a vast micro-history which adds another dimension to the most famous revolution of the twentieth century. Highly recommended!
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Pride of England 22 Jan 2013
By Bernard Chapin - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Robert Service, along with Anthony Beevor, are my two favorite living historians. At this point, after the excellence of his Stalin, Trotsky, and Lenin biographies I will read anything he writes. Therefore, I was excited about this book and ordered it immediately. Here, he's taking a special angle on his subject and not simply constructing a linear narrative. Much of the craziness that went on in Russia during the March and October revolutions of 1917 is his focus as is the ensuing civil war. The allies--England, the US, and France--had a large hand in the goings on in the USSR and even occupied portions of its landmass during the period after the Tsar's ouster. We had various spies trying to relay information back to the Entente, but we were also testing to determine what methods for counter-revolution were available to us (not many!). Within this concise work are numerous personalities that most of us have never heard of before--including an Englishman who may have partially served as the inspiration for James Bond. Students of the Soviet Union will appreciate this book as it offers up extensive detail regarding an era rarely discussed in 2013. It also will appeal to laymen who love a thrilling tale by a master historian.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mis-titled 18 Dec 2012
By Thomas Reiter - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
While decent enough, this book should have been titled "Diplomats and Trade Ministers" rather than "Spies and Commissars", because that is the main topic of the book. In fact, this book contains very little specific information about the activies of spies or commissars, and certainly no tales of derring-do. The book has interesting sections about the personal relationships between some of the Westerners who come to Soviet Russia for one reason or another and the Bolshevik leadership, but much of it is about various trade missions, political activities in Western countries, etc. As long as you aren't expecting to actually read about Spies and Commissars, not a bad book, although it is more dull than its title would imply.
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific explanation of the origin of the Soviet apparatus 20 Sep 2014
By Michael Green - Published on
This book answered all of my questions regarding the origin of Soviet paranoia, spying networks, secret agents, secret police and the like. I disagree with the reviews that say how the book is heavy-handed, meant for scholars generally. This reads almost like a novel. There is grim humor in the book which no one can deny is heavily researched, but it never loses sight of its purpose. This great book ably describes the shift between Tsarist Russia with all its ills and evils and Soviet Russia with many of the same ills under a different name. I think the title is appropriate, though indirectly. Diplomacy, ideology and methods are at the heart of the subject, but spies and commissars are the result.
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but a very specialized topic 31 Jan 2014
By Rob Fitzgibbon - Published on
A deep dive into the heterogeneous cast of characters involved in the Russian Revolution. Does provide some interesting facts and insights specific to diplomats and international relations during that chaotic period. Robert Service's book is a little dry for the average reader, but is probably compelling to the specialist.

Fantastic cover design by Timm Bryson in a style reminiscent of Shepherd Fairey and of course, old Soviet posters from the 1920's.
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