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Keep your friends close: Jonathan Haslam

This afternoon at Hay, Professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge University, Jonathan Haslam explained how, despite his personal paranoia, Stalin's first instinct was to trust friends..

Posted on 24th May 2013 by Waterstones

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"You had to find friends", this was Stalin's philosophy of espionage as set out by Jonathan Haslam in the Google Big Tent this morning.

This statement is quite jarring when compared against the Stalin of Western history - a man who suspected everyone, and had executed most of those he suspected. However, Haslam explained that despite his constant and all consuming paranoia, Stalin's approach to how his secret service should operate, was a product of the dream of the October Revolution.

What we may think of as the Russian Revolution was never intended to be merely a transformation of one state. Lenin and his comrades saw their overthrow of the bourgeoise as the catalyst for a full blown Communist world revolution. As Haslam put it, this was to be  "a revolution for everybody - for the entire international working class" and Russia's revolutionaries fully expected their actions to cause a wave of similar upheaval throughout Europe.

It was to some degree the buffer of Germany that stopped this ideological dream from coming to fruition. Much to the surprise of the Bolsheviks, Germany's working class did not rise up on mass to crush their oppressors, and consequently other little earthquakes in France and beyond failed to have the impact they may have had if there had indeed been a full East to West "domino effect" of rebellions.

Stalin came to power like a character on film where a slow shift of focus from background to foreground gradually brings them into clear and present view. "He always preferred the back office route" when it came to politics, and so it was no surprise that he took a great interest in his country's intelligence service once he succeeded Lenin. "Since the (world) revolution had failed" explained Haslam, "Stalin needed a secret service." But, this was not, at first, a secret service seeking foreign intelligence in the conventional manner.

The failure of the world revolution left hundreds of thousands of Russian expatriates stranded in mainland Europe and beyond, embittered that they could not return home. As far as Stalin was concerned, said Haslam, "the major enemy abroad were Russian émigrés. And this explains a bewildering behaviour by the Russian intelligence services: that they were so focussed on them that they would ruin relations with an important power, like France, in order to assassinate some counter-revolutionary leader, who most of Western Europe hadn't heard of."

Stalin chose the "British secret service model as the model to follow", though as Haslam pointed out it was more "the model of the model" than the real - slightly flawed - thing. So, it was split into three - the KGB, military intelligence, and codes and ciphers (which was something akin to Britain's GCHQ). Much despite himself, or as a result of the way he had achieved his position more likely, Stalin only trusted information from "friends". By this, Haslam said, he meant not only human intelligence rather than intercepted transmissions or communications, but also people "who didn't need paying and who owed loyalty." This way of thinking was born directly from the philosophical core of the October Revolution - that expected there to be like-minded people across the world willing to work toward a common cause. It also makes some sort of sense - information you pay for may not in fact be worth a penny.

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It was this, Haslam said, that led the Cambridge Five to centre stage. They were ideological allies - recruited to serve Communism as a principle, rather than Russia as a state. And, the Cambridge spies, along with others in Europe and America, for some time provided Stalin's Russia with a great deal of accurate and useful intelligence. Feeling vindicated, by his approach to obtaining secrets from his enemies, Stalin let his codes and ciphers department go to seed - and by the 1930s it was full of "the most extraordinary people. There was a man with a beard right down to the floor; people from Slovakia, Germany; aristocratic old ladies with pearls - it was like a human zoo from the last century." Then came the World War II, Bletchley Park and the age of the code-breakers...

Time seemed all too brief for Professor Haslam's talk. He brought us to the decline and fall of Stalin's human network with the discovery of the Cambridge spies, and the USSR's scramble to catch up on codes, but the pressures of time meant we did not get to hear how the KGB and other services were rebuilt to be the powerhouses they were in the 1970s and beyond.

For that, I for one am looking forward to reading his book.

Dan Lewis, for Waterstones.com/blog

You can buy Russia's Cold War: from the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall at your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/s6sdlu), as well as online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/172IJfs)