Robert Service is well known for his impressive biographies of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. Spies and Commissars is his most vividly written book so far. Its subject is the ‘dynamic interaction between Russia and the West’ during the early years of Bolshevik rule, which, Service argues, was shaped not merely by political leaders on both sides but also by ‘an extraordinary miscellany of people’: spies, commissars, diplomats, reporters, unofficial intermediaries, intellectuals, opportunistic businessmen and casual travellers.
Colourful characters abound. In the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University, Service’s main source of new material, he has uncovered possibly the most preposterously named intelligence officer of the early twentieth century, Monsieur Faux-Pas Bidet, who was partly responsible for expelling Trotsky from France in 1916. Trotsky turned the tables