‘I’ll launch a few proclamations and then shut up shop,’ announced Trotsky when he took over as People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs in 1917. The policy did not quite work out. Soon he was going in for the usual secret diplomacy, playing the Germans off against the Western powers. By 1921 there was a regular Soviet diplomatic service. White ties were worn, excellent French was spoken, and in the interstices a remarkable espionage machine was created. But there were also organisations devoted to fostering communist revolutions abroad, and there have been good descriptions of these political schools: all pseudonyms, no sex or drink, grim females, bare floorboards and relentless Marxism-Leninism as the adepts struggled to understand a given capitalist or third-world society.
Soviet language training was very good. In the great days, the experts knew that it is not important to speak absolutely perfectly; on the contrary, an excruciating foreign accent is often disarming. But an agent or diplomat must understand what is said – every inflection, every idiom. Overall