Historian: Robert Service

Name: Robert Service

Lived: 1947-2015

Nationality: English

Profession: Writer, academic (professor of Russian history at Oxford University).

Books: The Bolshevik Party in Revolution 1917-23; A History of Twentieth Century Russia; A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Putin; Lenin: A Biography; Russia: Experiment with a People.

Perspective: Liberal

Robert Service is, along with his adversary Orlando Figes, one of Britain’s best-known experts on Russia. Educated at Cambridge and Essex Universities, he currently holds a professorship at Oxford and is a prolific writer, penning eight books on modern Russian history. Service’s perspectives are post-revisionist and liberal. He is strongly critical of Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders, particularly the manner in which they handled change and crisis in post-1917 – but he saves his strongest condemnations for the ideology of Marxist communism. In Comrades, Service argues that Marxism was an “infection” and a “virus” that ultimately evolved into a political religion. It kept its followers spellbound by dreams of a better world to come, while hardening and blinding them to the sufferings of the Russian people. Since the early 1990s Service has been one of few Western historians to gain access to previously-closed Soviet archives. As a result he has been able to uncover a good deal of hitherto unknown information about the Bolshevik party, its leaders and the events of 1917-24. Service was the first Western historian to examine Lenin’s hand-written 1918 ‘hanging order’, in which he ordered the public execution of 100 kulaks as a deterrent to others. He also uncovered medical information about Lenin’s failing health, suggesting the Bolshevik leader’s impatience may have come from a realisation that his days were numbered.


“Official Marxism was emptying the minds of its adherents and then filling them with its potent tincture… There had always been a suspicion that the founders of Marxism were imbued with religiosity of a secular kind. They remained unconsciously influenced by religious ideas about the future perfect society and the salvation of humanity. They were fixed in their godless faith, as solidly as any Jewish or Christian believer. Soviet communists quoted excerpts from books by Marx, Engels and Lenin after the fashion of religious people with their sacred texts.”

“What happened in Russia after October 1917 had caught Lenin and his Bolsheviks by surprise. They recoiled at first and then reconsidered how best to deal with the situation … For a while the communists expected the difficulties to fade away, as the generations of people who had lived under the Russian Empire died off. They also tried to hurry forward a solution by campaigns of incarceration, as well as indoctrination.”

“And yet, while Lenin was cunning and untrustworthy, he was also dedicated to the ultimate goal of communism. He enjoyed power; he lusted after it. He yearned to keep his party in power. But he wanted power for a purpose. He was determined that the Bolsheviks should initiate the achievement of a world without exploitation and oppression.”