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 Policy curtailed 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.
A former government strategist turned academician, Dr. Madeira has unearthed a goldmine of secret documents from Britain, the continent and Moscow, in a book that often reads like John le Carré writing history, with neither tinkers nor tailors but plenty of soldiers, statesmen, diplomats and of course spies. With Russia again at the epicentre of geopolitical intrigue and mounting suspicions on both sides, an understanding of what went wrong, went right and why, could not be more welcome by any thinking reader.
After the 1917 Bolshevik uprising, Britain was governed by men we might miss today; well-read, imbued with Christianity, suspicious of academic “eggheads” or egregious self-promoters, prizing the Roman virtues of selflessness and sport, teamwork and administration. Most were the sons of clergymen, followed closely by family backgrounds in trade, manufacturing, teaching and public administration. Their bigotry was perhaps mild for their era, but they all came from the middle and upper echelons and had no understanding of the working classes. Hence they echoed Marx, who believed that industrialised powers such as Britain, rather than Russia, would form the first communist state. Britain’s rulers swallowed the propaganda of a tiny minority of noisy, communist agitators salted among the true patriots in the emerging trade union movement.
The toilers had suffered the worst privations of the Great War, Dr. Madeira writes, while their wages remained stagnant afterwards, and they flexed newfound political muscle watching the super-rich grew ever more numerous and ostentatious. But the real threat of communism, so tiny within Britain’s working classes, attracted political alarm while somewhat more significant Bolshevik subversion of the media, elites and administrators went largely ignored.
How to respond became politicised. Churchill and Curzon were hawkish, wary of tsarist adventurism in the Nineteenth Century “Great Game,” while Britain’s centre and left, still anti-Bolshevik, thought that cooperation and economic growth, exporting manufactured goods while importing cheap raw materials, outweighed the risk of subversion. Each side was paralysed, fearing that the next British political party in power would reverse policy.
British intelligence decrypted Bolshevik signals and ciphers revealing detailed plans for subversion, the need for which was written into the Bolshevik genome. Their only protection against the Tsar’s fearsome secret police, the whole Marxist-Leninist canon, and their belief in the inevitability of a worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat, ensured it. Then rightwing British politicians launched a police raid that exposed their knowledge. The Russian spooks deployed single use pads, a cumbersome but still failsafe method protecting secrecy. Like Tiresias punished by the gods, British intelligence was blinded.
As in recent Middle Eastern debacles, intelligence officers fell for dubious chancers whose contacts and loyalties could not be trusted. Notably, those government workers who were discovered to be communist agents, at worst lost their jobs attributed to “budget cuts” and never stood trial. Meanwhile St. John Philby was recruited by communists; the civil servant and orientalist who nicknamed his son, the treasonous Harold, after Kim who was Kipling’s fictional child spy. Philby fils, and the other Cambridge spies, were so senior, effective and notorious that they eclipsed public scrutiny of the earlier debacle now revealed by Dr. Madeira.
Today we know more about whether economic warfare may have worked, especially when most countries were less reliant on imports. When I volunteered for President-elect Reagan’s State Department Transition Team in late 1980, a paper analysed the effects of President Carter’s anti-Soviet grain embargo after they invaded Afghanistan. It harmed them for less than six months, by which time the global marketplace rerouted supplies. The Argentines, for example, bought US surplus grain and sold it to the USSR with a tiny mark-up. But since then, America has launched more punitive sanctions than ever (dozens against countries and more than six thousand against named companies and individuals) because it is something that politicians can be seen doing, however ineffective or counter-productive.
No doubt a much stronger, pan-Western effort, military and economic, may have felled the Bolsheviks. But dispirited by deaths in the trenches, impoverished and eager for trade, the chance passed, the USSR consolidated economic and political control, and history went as we know it. Starting with superior intelligence, Britain lost to internal political competition and misplaced policy, and Dr. Madeira tells the story well.
There is no evil in this tale, apart from communist ideology and perhaps its British traitors; nor is there sheer folly, for even actions that look unwise in hindsight seemed plausible at the time. What looms large is the conflict lost by government restrained in a free society and the commercialism that freedom engenders, enabling its greatness while holding it back from resembling its enemy. Replace yesteryear’s Bolshevism with today’s insurgent Islamism and the options and risks are identical. If Western liberality, enquiry and prosperity survive future threats, ever shall it be so and human mistakes are guaranteed.
The publisher did us two disservices. In a series on intelligence, by pricing the book so high it seems more interested in selling a few copies to libraries and institutions alone. With only 190 pages of text, and the rest in footnotes and index, this book neglects the great tale of the Soviet intellectual and social subversion that so corrupted Britain’s ruling classes and spread far further than the Cambridge spies. Perhaps the author will treat us to a longer popular history on that, with a less specialist publisher.
He concludes with Bolshevik suspicions that the West was perfidious and ever seeking profit and exploitation; in that case luring Britain to ignore proof of subversion in pursuit of trade. “For two hundred and fifty years,” he writes, “but especially since 1917, Russia has cleverly exploited this weakness, with promises of quick and substantial profits, and preferential access to vast natural resources.” So is our downfall our greed? Was Lenin right to say that capitalists will hang themselves if sold enough rope?
One of fifty-two BBC interviews at the end of the Twentieth Century featured Mikhail Gorbachev recalling peace talks with Ronald Reagan, whom he said almost singlehandedly convinced him that rapprochement was no greedy trick, and that the West welcomed a real partner. Then what happened? No Marshall Plan, as Dr. Madeira laments. A steady stream of slick Harvard ideologues urged massive Russian privatisations under the guise of building a market economy; creating billionaire, gangster plutocrats, without building stability from the bottom up by letting families buy their plots of land, or small businesses open bank accounts. Wittingly or not we proved to be false friends, helping to create another oppressor state still pandering to the fears of serfs ancient and modern. Rather than being an intentional trick, perhaps greedy short-termism is written into the Western DNA—as astronaut John Glenn recalled fearing as he first circled the earth, that every part in his spaceship was made by the lowest bidder.
“Russia does today what it did under Lenin and Stalin,” the author warns, but is it so? Her modern kataskopocracy (rule of spies—eighty percent of Russia’s modern high officials served in the Soviet KGB or its successors) murders her prominent defectors, renders media into propaganda and surveils as she did under tsars and commissars. Her territorial expansion, so far, seems pale compared to the tsarist sweep across Central Asia in the mid-nineteenth century, Stalin at Yalta, 1956 Hungary, or even the later Brezhnev Doctrine. The poisonous ideology of inevitable communism is gone from nationalistic and Orthodox Russia, thriving chiefly on Western campuses and in similarly inconsequential backwaters. While our greedy elites still dream of Russian natural resources delivering a quick buck, and Russian masters ignore suffering masses while their untapped forests and minerals remain money in the bank, still in some respects the past is not the present.
Having replaced Britain as the great Western power, America stands to lose the most from Russia, China and Iran developing their Central Asian back garden, spanning Eurasia with railways and pipelines, and replacing petrodollar hegemony with currencies of their choosing. It is an attractive proposition to India, Turkey, Brazil and many others weary of manipulation. Little can stop it except to nuke people engaged, even for once, in honest trade. Theirs is an innocent and sensible response to our greed and wanton bullying, and so it may show that wicked, old Lenin got one thing right. How ironic were the powers that defeated Marx’s Dialectical Materialism slain by materialism of their own.
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Moving from this journal to new projects, Stephen Masty thanks readers for their patience and may be contacted for information on forthcoming books at firstname.lastname@example.org