Robert Service is a wizard. Not only does he make the often complicated history and personalities of modern Russian history intelligible to contemporary readers, as his excellent recent biography of Trotsky attests, but he's also an expert at de-mythologizing the "enigma wrapped in a riddle," as Churchill famously stated. In "Spies and Commissars," Service gives us a remarkably clear portrait of Russia as it emerged from the Bolshevik coup d'etat, and the efforts of its erstwhile allies Britain, France and the United States to compel the regime to (a) remain in the war against Germany, and failing that, to (b) isolate it and extinguish the bacillus of communism. The story is told with panache and great insight. Yes, it has been told before, but Service's achievement is that he has drawn together threads from disparate sources to weave a story that is vivid and fresh. Moreover, the characters that loom large in the telling wildly colorful Western agents and their grim Bolshevik foes are a match for anything to be found in the most enthralling political thrillers. Quite a triumph.”
"[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."
"Careful, dense scholarly study" that "paints detailed portraits of the revolutionary principals and their sometimes-surprising allies and enemies."
Booklist"The twenty-first century needs this kind of unflinchingly honest history." Simon Sebag Montefiore, Wall Street Journal"An outstanding work of scholarship with all the excitement of a real spy noveland with lessons beyond its historical moment" that "is especially valuable, in our own epoch of Arab revolutions, for showing the fragility and unpredictability of new regimes."
In his previous studies of the Russian Revolution, its leading figures, and its place in time and history, Service (Russian history, Oxford Univ.; Stalin: A Biography) focused, as many historians have, on the revolution from an internal, Russian perspective. In this work, he combines his previous insights with his view of the Russian revolutionary period (1917–21) from an external perspective. He examines not only the internal machinations of the Bolshevik struggle to gain and maintain power in Russia, but how the international community's reactions and aggressions altered or influenced Bolshevik tactics. The result is a well-researched, detailed, and thoughtful analysis of the Russian Revolution, here removed from the global vacuum into which it is often relegated. In the process, Service is careful not to lose focus on the cultural, political, and economic weight that the revolution brought to a dispirited Russia. VERDICT This is 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.—Elizabeth Zeitz, Otterbein Univ. Lib., Westerville, OH
British historian Service (Russian History/Univ. of Oxford; Trotsky, 2009, etc.) examines the fraught birth of the Soviet Union in this careful, dense scholarly study. The conventional view of the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath posits a Marxist-Leninist regime cut off from the rest of the world, a state behind an iron curtain decades before the fact. As Service capably shows, this view is incorrect. The outside world was well aware of events inside the new Soviet Union, while the Union had a network of agents, representatives and sympathizers able to convey its wants and demands abroad. During the first years of the Soviet experiment, civil war raged in the country. The White and Red armies were well apprised of one another's actions, and it seems largely thanks to the ineptitude and personal strangeness of many of the anti-Soviet commanders that the Revolution was not overwhelmed, particularly since foreign expeditionary forces--including American, British and French detachments--were fighting on behalf of the Whites inside Russia. One of the most interesting snippets of Service's book is a passing reference to what happened to the White leaders after the civil war ended: Pëtr Wrangler died suddenly and mysteriously in Serbia, Anton Denikin wound up in the United States and Nikolai Yudenich retired quietly to the French Riviera "and shunned émigré affairs through to his peaceful end in 1933." Meanwhile, on the opposing side, Trotsky suffered a terrible end, Lenin was embalmed and entombed and Stalin took the nation through several grim decades. Service paints detailed portraits of the revolutionary principals and their sometimes-surprising allies and enemies--e.g., one British spy who worked inside the Soviet Union was the noted writer W. Somerset Maugham. Why did the Soviets kill the tsar? Why was Finland granted its independence? How did Keynesian economics save Lenin's skin? For those with an interest in such questions, Service's book will hold plenty of appeal.