Times of extreme political turbulence bring forward adventurers, cutthroats, amateurs and phonies, all of whom flourish in the uncertainty and flux. Such turbulent times are at the centre of “Spies and Commissars,” Robert Service’s study of espionage and intrigue during the early years of the Bolshevik regime in Russia.

Mr Service, a distinguished biographer of Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky, is not just a Stakhanovite scholar, mining archives with assiduous care, but also a popular writer who can bring complicated subjects to general readers. In this case, he is operating, like his characters, in a shadowy world of double and triple agents, of duplicity and betrayal. The intrigue of the early years of the Russian Revolution, rather like the story of Rasputin and the murder of the Romanovs, has long been cursed by wild-eyed hobbyists repeating the fantasies of their predecessors. In the hands of Mr Service, the subject is grounded in historical evidence, though it is no less thrilling for that.

Part of “Spies and Commissars” is devoted to the Bolsheviks’ attempts to consolidate their power. The story itself is well told here-the Revolution of October 1917, the civil war, the Western intervention, and the brilliant but brutal measures by which Lenin won the war, using slaughter combined with the deployment of “useful idiots” and economic flexibility. The result was a war regime founded on terror that behaved like a flint-hearted conspiracy for most of its existence.

But a greater part of Mr Service’s narrative is given over to chronicling Western attempts to strangle the regime in its cradle. Britain had good reason to act against the first Marxist government even had it not been also devoted to promoting revolution in the rest of Europe, as it most certainly was.

When Lenin came to power he promised peace and indeed withdrew Russia from World War I within weeks, handing over to the Germans much of the Ukraine. Even after Germany’s defeat, Winston Churchill remained obsessed with crushing what he called the “baboon-like” evil of Bolshevism. He pushed his own war, fought by “my army,” the disunited, ruthless and chaotic anti-revolutionary Whites, who at times almost destroyed Lenin’s Soviet creation.

One threat to the early Soviet state came from a bizarre cast of British-sponsored characters pledged to intrigue and double-dealing. It is clear from Mr Service’s account that the hoary clichés of the Russian ruling elite, then and now, about Britain seeking to dislodge the early Soviet leadership are at least founded on truth. On one side we have Lenin, Trotsky and their secret-service boss, the half-mad Polish nobleman Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. On the other, anti-Bolshevik British agents. Two agents in particular stand out.

The first is Sidney Reilly, born Sigmund Rosenblum of Odessa, the agent known as the Ace of Spies. He combined urbane good looks, a wanton appetite for women and an obsession with collecting Napoleoniana with a hatred of communism and a gift for espionage and disguise. Reilly was almost certainly a murderer and fraudster, as well as Britain’s best agent in Russia; he ran an émigré and espionage network inside and outside Russia to subvert Leninism. Despite his own self-promoting tales of seduction and murder, it is hard to know how important he really was. The Russians took him seriously enough to lure him back one last time to the Soviet Union, in 1928: He was seized and executed by the OGPU (as the KGB was called at the time).

The second extraordinary agent in Mr Service’s chronicle is the flashily amateurish diplomat-spy Robert Bruce Lockhart. At first he befriended Lenin and Trotsky and then, with his ally Reilly, planned a coup d’état by which he and a few Russian allies would behead the regime. (It was not beyond the realm of possibility; after all, the Bolsheviks had seized power with relatively few men.) Reilly claimed cheerfully that he would merely humiliate the Bolshevik leaders-”strip them to their nether garments” and march them through Moscow. Mr Service leaves no doubt that Lockhart and Reilly, backed by the British government, had every intention of murdering them.

Reilly’s plans were assisted by his mistress, Moura Budberg, Countess Benckendorff. She was a gorgeous adventuress and intriguer, a promiscuous courtesan, and the intimate friend of several notable figures, including Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells. Mr Service offers good evidence to suggest that she was a double agent, reporting both to the Cheka and Lockhart.

The Lockhart plot ended in preposterous tragicomedy-with his arrest and deportation, along with incredible (but basically true) revelations of womanizing, orgies and intrigue, all of it embarrassing for Britain. By 1921, when Lenin had won the civil war, the West was ready to trade with-and recognize-a government that was still its mortal enemy.

“Spies and Commissars” is an outstanding work of scholarship with all the excitement of a real spy novel-and with lessons beyond its historical moment. It is especially valuable, in our own epoch of Arab revolutions, for showing the fragility and unpredictability of new regimes. And in Moscow, the hangover from this period is felt down to the present day.

Even while British power shrinks and withers-even as British intelligence becomes ever more meagre and British diplomacy ever less influential-the Kremlin is probably the last place on earth (outside the James Bond movie franchise) that believes in the competence, global reach and murderous plots of the British secret services.                      –WSJ