Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Spies and Commissars

Unfortunately, I have been working on a project that pulls my time away from Soviet Roulette.  My apologies to devoted readers.  However, I will try to recommend a few books on Soviet history even in my hiatus.  For instance, I'be been impressed with Robert Sevice's book, Spies and Commissars:  The Early Years of The Russian Revolution.  Although Service is one of the greatest living historians of Soviet history, I was offput by the title, expecting a small book of the outrageous adventures of a few marginal actors in the employ of the Kremlin or its adversaries.  Instead, Service offers up a comprehensive review of Soviet foreign policy in its early years, something to rival even George Kennan's treatment of the subject.  In fact, Service wisely depicts Soviet foreign policy in the much broader context of the Soviet Union's emerging social tensions.  Service deserves praise for a number of different accomplishments, including his objectivity, and broad understanding of European history.  Service knows the biographies of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, but he also understands something about the domestic and foreign affairs of almost every other European power in the interwar era.

For my part, Service's examination of the Soviet elite in the midst of the First World War and the Civil War demonstrates the fact that Trotsky and Stalin may not have been so far apart on the issues. Indeed, Soviet rulers changed their minds on a number of issues, and often changed sides on any number of domestic debates as events unfolded.  The situation was so fluid that not even the infamous Brest-Litovsky Treaty meant as much as modern historians might expect.  The beliefs of Lenin and his chief conspirators are difficult to reconstruct in part because it's hard to remember that they really did believe that all of Europe stood on the brink of revolution.  Indeed, from month to month the Soviet elite was forced to confront new realities, both at home and abroad.  The modern dichotomy between war and peace is in fact a false one when applies to Soviet revolutionary politics. The Bolsheviks were never completely at peace.  Their erstwhile socialist allies were potential enemies, and it wasn't entirely clear whether the Germans would be their enemies or allies from one month to the next.  Service demands a great deal of admiration for depicting the chaos of early Soviet politics in all of its complexity.  In the context of this fluid time, Service's title makes sense.  This was a time in which their were no clear distinctions between politicians and spies (witness Lockhart's strange career), journalists and propagandists, or  soldiers or rebels.