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By John Helmer, Moscow

Robert Service (lead images) commits the pathetic fallacy over and over.

It isn’t that his fallacies are pathetic, and so deserve to be pitied. It is that Service takes money for writing histories, purporting to be about Russia, its revolutionary leaders, and now its current leader, by projecting his own emotions on to his targets. It’s the kind of personification intended to convince readers of the hostility of his Russian targets, and Service’s wisdom in judging them for what they are; that’s to say, what deserves to be done to them (if they aren’t dead yet) by people like Service.

Service is a propagandist for Russia-hating, Kremlin-changing warfare. His output is a stream of books aimed by Pan Macmillan — now a German-owned publisher with most of its sales in the US — at American readers inveigled into wanting war with Russia.  

“I came to this project after serving as a witness in the Berezovski v. Abramovich trial in 2011-2012”, Service says by way of his oath to tell the truth at the start of his new testimony against Vladimir Putin. Service’s book, released this week, is called “Kremlin Winter: Russia and the Second Coming of Vladimir Putin.”   From the start line at the title, the assumption is Service’s war-fighting one: Putin is omnipotent in Russia – topple him so the world, as Service is paid to represent it, will be safe from global winter and other Kremlin hostilities.  

What Service doesn’t acknowledge is that he was hired by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich to testify as an expert in the High Court case against Boris Berezovsky. Service’s fee is also undisclosed; it would have been more than a vet’s (£90 per hour) but less than a neurosurgeon’s (£171). 

Berezovsky also hired a historian as his witness. Testifying in court at the time, Service warned against the other expert:  “I’m asked to give evidence here as a historian, I don’t accept anybody’s word, just because they say that something happened, without the kind of evidence to back it that does not come from the person who is saying it. So there has to be a sort of — in a perfect world, there has to be a multiplicity of sources to corroborate anything as having happened or not having happened… I would just add the reservation that the statements by big businessmen in Russia in the 1990s about what they did or did not do are riddled with cases of falsification, obfuscation and the rest of it. One has to be very, very careful about accepting anything from any of them.” The evidence for the history of Russia in the 1990s, he concluded, “is just not in yet.”  

Service’s book violates his own warning.

He also starts his book with an acknowledgement of the sources he’s “indebted to”. They include Luke Harding, a London newspaper reporter; Radosław Sikorski, ex-Polish foreign minister; Michael McFaul, ex-US Ambassador to Moscow, Catherine Ashton, ex-European Union foreign affairs commissioner; Toomas Hendrik Ilves, an ex-Estonian president; and Roderic Lyne, vice-chairman of the Chatham House think-tank.   A book on Russian politics with Russia-hating, warfighting sources like these cannot be believed. They are all in the same trench, on the other side of No-Man’s-Land. 

“Do the Russian authorities,” Service (right) asks, “genuinely believe all they say about the malign intentions of the western powers?” The question already presumes part of the answer, according to Service. He doesn’t believe there have been malign intentions on the part of the NATO alliance. His  book is designed to show that every time Putin, or other Russian officials, make this allegation, Service thinks it’s not genuine – Putin and his men are fabricating. But how does a professional historian like Service, adhering to the oath he swore in the High Court, know? How can he tell between what Putin says, what Service believes, and the truth?  “If we,” Service starts with a sarcastic conditional, “take [Nikolai] Patrushev [Security Council Secretary] and Putin at face value, the Kremlin has become a depository for imagined slights and threats. Yet people who have private conversations with Russian politicians and generals find that they concede that NATO offers no direct military threat to Russia.”

This is an important admission that Service makes – he has had no conversation himself with a Russian politician, general, Kremlin apparatchik, state enterprise director, commercial entrepreneur, or oligarch. Did Service ask them for interviews, and was turned down by every one? Did he make no attempt at all? Whatever happened, Service starts in violation of his High Court warning.

Transcript of the commencement of Service’s testimony in the High Court, December 2, 2011. Helen Davies QC, the second of Abramovich’s advocates, called Service for the Abramovich side (commencing at page 127). Service’s oath was a non-religious affirmation. After confirming he had signed the two expert reports already filed in court, Service was cross-examined on his claims by Berezovsky’s lawyer, Richard Gillis QC. Gillis began by challenging Service on a conclusion he had written defending Abramovich’s credibility. Service retreated: “…That has been brought to my attention since I wrote the report, that I've somewhat trespassed over the boundary from being a historian into being a putative judge, and I have no intention of laying claim to that status or dignity.” Challenged by Gillis on negative assessments Service had published about Berezovsky’s record, Service again retreated by denying the veracity of what he had published: “that's what I then perceived to be the case. I have more reservations about this now in the light of what I've read since I wrote that book nearly ten years ago.” Never before, nor after, have professors of Russian history been tested in an international court of law, and shown to have no conviction at all on oath.  For the full day’s testimony, click to read.

Service tries to hide this, and in the book he buries his second important admission: who are the “people” he relies upon, for their interpretation that Russians in the know don’t really believe the state’s strategic line? Service provides an answer in footnote 28 leading to small print at page 353 — a report by Roderic Lyne, Strobe Talbott, and Koji Watanabe, to the Trilateral Commission, dated thirteen (repeat 13) years ago in 2006.

The dubiousness of that as evidence for Service’s big conclusion is obvious when the character of the Trilateral Commission, a brainchild of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s, is recognized. But dubious isn’t the word for Service’s acknowledged sources – Lyne from the Foreign Office and the British Embassy in Moscow; Talbott from the State Department; Watanabe from the Japanese Embassy in Moscow. The only thing this troika can be relied upon, then or since,  is to defend their personal and their governments’ joint policy of advancing against the Russian frontier, west and east. The pretence about the Russian understanding of the strategic threat from NATO (and US bases in Japan) is Service’s.

Read how little Service admitted to knowing when he was under oath in the High Court in his second day of testimony, December 5, 2011. “I’m not a business expert,” he confessed to the judge. “I’m not a legal expert… I’m afraid I don’t know any of that information and therefore [sic] I haven’t had a look at it… We know so little in reality about the political and commercial history of the Yeltsin years and even less about those of the Putin years.”

Service testifying under cross-examination by Gillis on December 5, 2011.  By the end of the cross-examination Service was in full denial of his own written evidence. “I think, if I were writing that first report again,  I would have clarified my exposition in the way that I've tried to do in the last five or ten minutes.”

In a British court, on oath, under cross-examination from a skilled lawyer and judge, it turned out there wasn’t much Service had been paid to write down which later he was prepared to swear to be the truth. In this month’s book, has Service calculated that he’s no longer on oath, and that he’s free to publish falsehoods and fabrications so long as he can identify a source for them, other than himself? Here’s a Service sample:

  • The murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow in October 2006 may have had “[Putin’s] ultimate approval”. Source: “conclusive evidence has not come to light”. The term “conclusive” is Service’s innuendo.
  • Putin’s wealth “at a staggering $40-50 billion”. Source: “the Panama Papers published in 2016 appear to corroborate”. Qualification: “suspicion is not the same as proof”. Innuendo: “Journalists have been more effective in tracing the source of wealth for his daughters Yekaterina and Maria”. Source: Reuters.
  • The Georgian war of August 2008 was a case of Russian aggression, following Putin’s “ranting…[The Kremlin] wanted to settle accounts with [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili for his drive to become a NATO member, and now he was giving them the excuse they needed.” Source: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
  • The shooting-down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on July 17, 2014, over eastern Ukraine, by “rebel forces”. Service’s testimony: “the evidence already [July 2017] pointed towards Russian responsibility”. Service’s source: none.
  • Russian interference on the side of the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum of June 23, 2016. “There was well-grounded speculation that the Kremlin had sponsored these efforts”. Service’s source: none cited.
  • The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK on March 4, 2018, and the subsequent death of Dawn Sturgess. Putin identified “as having given the order for the attempted murder”. Source: Boris Johnson. Corroborating source: none.

In the High Court Service admitted under cross-examination that there is “the important caveat that when the range of sources is so limited, then the conclusions have to be all the more tentative.” In his new book, the fewer Service’s sources, the more certainty he passes on to readers.

About the domestic Russian opposition to Putin, Service thinks Mikhail Kasyanov was a major figure; that’s because he depends on a single source — Kasyanov’s autobiography. Service’s  only evidence that Misha Two-Percent had taken bribes when he was in charge of interstate Soviet debt writeoffs at the Finance Ministry is Kasyanov’s version that Putin had “dredged up the rumours” in order to “crush Kasyanov if he engaged in oppositional activity”.

Boris Nemtsov, according to Service, was “like Kasyanov…good looking and dynamic”. Service then tries the old Henry II-Archbishop Becket ploy to pin indirect responsibility for Nemtsov’s assassination on Putin on account of an excess of zealous loyalty on the part of Chechens responding to Putin’s anger. Service’s account of that story is sourced to a man named Vadim Prokhorov (right). He reports no other source, nor the court records when Nemtsov’s assassins were put on trial. All that is missing (repeat missing) from Service’s version is identification of Prokhorov as the Nemtsov family’s lawyer, who by his own account had been acting for Nemtsov since 2001.  Professionally, Prokhorov is paid to make a case, true or not —  never mind whether Prokhorov’s hearsay is believable or not. Service fails, deliberately, to let his readers know.  Prokhorov appears to be the only Russian whom Service reports having  interviewed for his book. For more on exactly what happened to Nemtsov, start here

Service has tried the same method in earlier books, and been caught out.  David North, an American specialist on Leon Trotsky, analysed what happened when Service wrote at extreme speed, summarizing a selection of other people’s leavings, ignoring those with whom he disagreed himself, making factual mistakes. “His biography of Trotsky was fabricated”, wrote North (right), “according to a commercial formula he worked out with his publishers (Macmillan in Britain, Harvard University Press in the United States). The biography of Trotsky became the third big book of Service which was thrown out by the author on the market within only five years. The first book, a biography of Stalin, was published in 2005. It contained 604 pages of text, skillfully divided into five parts. Each part contained 11 chapters of 10-13 pages. Service’s second book, Comrades, was published two years later, in 2007. This volume, claimed to be the authoritative history of world communism, contained 482 pages of text divided into six parts. Each part included six chapters. Each Chapter consisted of 10-12 pages…. In Trotsky, published in 2009, the Service and its publishers achieved a perfect balance between the commercial schedule and the text creation process. Trotsky contains 501 pages of text, divided into four parts, 13 chapters each. Total 52 chapters, 9-10 pages each.”

“Thus, it is reasonable to assume that Service was expected to produce one chapter per week and complete the work in just one year. Taking into account the additional months required for editing, proofreading, typing and printing, the two-year publishing schedule did not leave  Service sufficient time to read, analyze and evaluate documents, as well as to ponder the material. This might partly explain the astonishing number of factual errors in the biography he wrote…. The work of finding all the errors in his book is an occupation that would require several months of work by more than one graduate of the History Department of Oxford. What I wrote in my first review was no exaggeration: refuting every claim that is factually incorrect, lacking the necessary evidence, and that violates accepted norms of research would require a volume almost as large as the Service book itself. Each chapter contains statements and judgments that are completely incompatible from a purely professional point of view.”

On Russian military matters, where Service ought to get serious about the “Kremlin winter” which his villain is coming the second time to inflict upon the world, the emeritus professor cribs from the very journalists and rival professors he disavowed when under cross-examination in court. For evidence, Service provides not a single western balance of military force assessment. He’s ignorant of the reports which contradict his claims. 

Service does claim to have hearsay evidence of Putin’s thinking that “he cannot rely on the United States to abide by any compromise he might agree to.”  The source? “Conversation with Henry Kissinger, 11 December 2017. I am grateful to Dr Kissinger for sharing this impression on the basis of his discussions with Vladimir Putin.”  Service is making a laughing-stock of both himself and Kissinger for repeating an “impression” Putin and the entire Russian leadership have repeated in public, with their evidence, many times over.

In short, Service is fabricating propaganda. And in his only concrete recommendation of what is to be done next, Service explains: “an appeal has to be made to the Russian people’s self-interest: most of them know something is wrong with how they are governed, and Western cable channels, internet outlets and magazines could do more to undermine the Kremlin’s manicured image of official policies, practices and privileges.”

Do more? That’s Service’s advertisement to hire him for the next book, think-tank engagement, and media appearance – except, perhaps, for court appearances.

Left to right, in December 2011 Service put his professional reputation on trial in the High Court: Roman Abramovich, who engaged him as expert historian; Richard Ellis QC who cross-examined him for credibility; Justice Dame Elizabeth Gloster who reminded Service who is the judge of evidence. 

Service adds a parting shot at the western media not to listen, not to pay money, to Service’s rivals in the marketplace. “They [media] could also focus on the activities of Westerners who aid and abet the Putin team. Consultants and spokesmen for so-called oligarchs must be exposed too; likewise the lawyers and accountants who protect them.”

There’s a good reason Service is hostile to western lawyers. It was one of them who reminded  Service that he was testifying on his oath to tell the truth in the High Court; and who obliged him to withdraw his claims for lack of proof, and to apologize for his mistake of  confusing being a judge with being a historian. In court on that occasion, Service proved himself to be neither.



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