Russian Intrigue: Déjà vu All Over Again
by Stephen Masty
Britannia & the Bear: The Anglo-Russian Intelligence Wars 1917-1929, by Victor Madeira (The Boydell Press, UK)
Another cache of secret documents may not make forgotten history timelier than this. Modern asymmetrical confrontation truly began after 1914-1918, chiefly between Great Britain and what soon became the Soviet Union. While American troops tipped the balance and sailed home again, the young giant lacked Britain’s global empire, cultural influence and diplomatic prestige. Moreover the UK had a full
security apparatus, ranging from intercepted signals and human intelligence to analysts, uniformed and plainclothes police, propaganda and dirty tricks, when there was neither a CIA nor an FBI and the US Secret Service were only bodyguards. Britannia was the power which Russian communists knew that they must out-manoeuvre, subvert or supplant.
The Bolsheviks inherited the Tsar’s oppressive playbook and vast network of cryptographers and spies but many defected abroad; needed as their new state fought a civil war and economic collapse. The communist dictatorship survived by nationalising all wealth but soon the disincentives of collectivism bore bitter fruit. Before Lenin’s 1922 New Economic Policycurtailed their command economy and restored some rewards for hard work and initiative, Russia’s starving bought human body parts for sale in foodless markets.
Britain suffered Great War slaughter that decimated her young elite, costs far greater than forecast, outward investment confiscated by the Bolsheviks, a post-war reduction in overall trade, Irish separatism, angry trade unions, ten percent jobless, and overworked, malnourished policemen fainting on duty. Meanwhile Bolshevik subversion, threatening the Weimar German democracy, began to fuel a far rightwing reaction. Much lay at stake. But Britain was democratic and enjoyed a free press while the Bolshevik dictatorship did not. Her rule of law, a millennium old, protected her subjects from any commissar’s whim. To a degree, tradition bound Britannia’s hands.
Moreover Britons of every class had, just behind them, a century of growing freedom, prosperity and mounting expectations, and men could vote; unlike recent Russian peasants still ignored by new masters. The Bolshevik and British adversaries had different objectives, vulnerabilities and strengths; and neither Russia nor the West could afford full battle so soon after the First World War. Still the conflict could not have been less equal had one team played cricket and the other soccer on the same pitch. Chiefly through the lenses of Russian and British intelligence, Dr. Victor Madeira gives us an insightful and privileged tour of the Twentieth Century’s first Cold War.