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Originally published Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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'Spies and Commissars': Russia's revolution had no friends in world

"Spies and Commissars: The Early Years of the Russian Revolution" by Russian history scholar Robert Service focuses on how Germany, Britain, France, the United States and other powers maneuvered to either turn the Bolshevik experiment to their advantage or scuttle it entirely.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Spies and Commissars:

The Early Years of the Russian Revolution'

by Robert Service

Public Affairs, 441 pp., $32.99

Nearly 95 years after a small band of determined radicals seized control of the largest nation on Earth, and two decades after the regime they established finally crumbled, the Russian Revolution remains a grimly fascinating drama. The sheer improbability of how Lenin and his Bolsheviks took power from the hapless Provisional Government, and then successfully fended off a host of enemies through tactical genius, brutal determination and the conviction they really were on the right side of history, makes for a great story.

From John Reed's "Ten Days that Shook the World," which appeared while the Bolsheviks were still struggling to hang onto power, to recent histories and biographies that draw upon newly opened Soviet archives , there are enough books on the Russian Revolution to stock a decent-size bookstore. So any new account carries the heavy burden of justifying itself as providing new information, a new perspective or both.

Robert Service, a longtime scholar of Russian history, accomplishes this by focusing not so much on Lenin, Trotsky & Co. as on the response of the outside world to what they were doing. The revolution didn't happen in a geopolitical vacuum: World War I was still raging, and Germany, Britain, France, the United States and other powers were keen to either turn the Bolshevik experiment to their advantage or, failing that, abort it completely.

The revolutionary regime had no real friends. The closest thing to an ally was Germany, which only wanted the Bolsheviks to remain in power long enough for German troops to win on the western front. Winston Churchill's assessment — that "civilization is being extinguished over gigantic areas, while Bolsheviks hop and caper like troupes of ferocious baboons amid the ruin of their cities and the corpses of their victims" — was widely shared.

Using archival records, personal letters, memoirs and other primary sources, Service well describes the odd three-way chess game played by the Bolsheviks, Central Powers and Allies (mainly Britain and France). The Bolsheviks desperately needed time to consolidate power, but also tried to foment revolutions elsewhere in Europe; the Allies half-hoped to persuade them to rejoin the war against Germany, but also landed troops in Russia, aided the counterrevolutionary Whites and plotted to overthrow the regime. Germany, for its part, was working to win the war and absorb its new eastern conquests, and was perfectly content for the Allies and Russia to keep each other busy.

After Germany lost the war, Britain and France (with sometimes-reluctant U.S. help) stepped up efforts to get rid of Soviet Russia. However, their intelligence operations inside Russia were hardly equipped for such a task. Service has a wonderful time describing the follies of Robert Bruce Lockhart, Britain's dilettantish agent in Moscow (who seemed at least as interested in bedding Russian women, some of them likely double agents) and Sidney Reilly, the "Ace of Spies" whom Service describes as a "compulsive conman" who saw everyone as a potential mark.

Service clearly knows this material and tells it well, though his penchant for diplomatic detail may leave less-knowledgeable readers behind; a roster of characters would have been helpful. Some stray odd errors (such as Service's apparent belief that President Wilson was constitutionally restricted from traveling abroad) don't detract from the overall narrative. This probably shouldn't be the first history of the Revolution one reads, but it makes a dandy companion to the more traditional Kremlin-focused accounts.

Drew DeSilver is a business reporter

for The Seattle Times.

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