The 1917-18 Envoys' Plot and its consequences in Russia Part Two
Detailed by us in a 2011 article, variously called Ambassadors' or Envoys' Plot and later when the first related British documents were released, named in the press as the Lockhart-Reilly and finally misnamed as simple 'the' Lockhart Plot remains the most audacious spy plot in British and American history, a bold and extremely dangerous operation to invade Russia, defeat the Red Army, and mount a coup in Moscow against Lenin. After that, leaders in Washington, Paris, and London aimed to install their own Allied-friendly dictator in Moscow as a means to get Russia back into the war effort against Germany.
And while we have seen in part one that in July 1917, Raymond Robins, who would function as the first American spy in Russia, the British and French in turn negotiated the "Convention entre la France et l’Angleterre au sujet de Faction dans la Russie méridionale," and signed by France and England on 23 December 1917. In assenting to the agreement, the War Cabinet endorsed the arrangement that "every effort should be made to utilize in South Russia the personnel of the British missions now in Russia, and that for the present they should not be withdrawn altogether from the country."1 It established both the presence and the principle behind the use of "unofficial agents" in the quasi-diplomatic relationships thus far established with the Bolsheviks. The War Cabinet broadly interpreted the agreement to mean that all efforts were permitted "To prevent the transference of further (German) enemy troops from East to West" and, significantly, "To deny the resources of Russia and Siberia to the enemy."2
It was under this agreement, at Alfred Milner's urging, that Foreign Office and MI1 (c) representative Robert Bruce Lockhart was sent back to Russia in February 1918.4 It was under this agreement also that Francis Oswald Lindley and Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) Agent Henry Armitstead (who also was to get involved with a plot to safe the Tsar) and Leslie Urquhart (a Siberian manganese magnate) later moved to obtain trade guarantees from the new Soviet government.
By now, Secretary of State Lansing already had told President Wilson on 10 Dec. 1917 that the only hope for Russia lay in setting up a “military dictatorship.”3 Lansing’s idea was to choose one man and make him the boss of Russia on the side of America and the Allies.
But Lansing and Wilson faced problems in trying to set up a dictator in Russia. First, their man would need an army large enough to deliver a coup. The Cossacks, though, were a good start there. Cossacks were not the regular army. They were the traditional ancient Russian national army, a fast-moving strike force of mounted shock troops that could completely mobilize and move out within forty-eight hours.
The Bolsheviks considered the Cossacks to be their mortal enemies. The feeling was mutual. Hence, whatever Cossack the White House chose for a coup would probably summarily execute Lenin. Since the Western nations had not declared war on Russia, such a killing could not be considered an act of war. It would place the United States and her allies as a party to an assassination of a foreign head of state. That could fit the description of international terrorism.
A second problem would be supplies. But that could be solved if the French and British lifted their blockades of Russian ports and imported war matériel that way. And, as General Hugh Scott (a member of the Root Commission) had noted, thousands of tons of supplies, including locomotives, were sitting rusting at Vladivostok. Additional Allied supplies were stored in Archangel.
Then there was the money question. Who exactly was going to pay for all this? Britain and France supposedly had promised money to the Cossacks, but England was almost broke, and Paris was busy trying to deal with mutinies in her army. Would secret funds need to be used? If so, and the scheme backfired, it could spell real trouble for Wilson and the Democrats in the coming mid-term congressional elections, and for Lloyd George and the Liberals in the next parliamentary vote. The same went for seventy-six-year-old Georges Clemenceau, who was trying to maintain power in war-weary France.
And finally, what would the Allies do with their dictator once the Bolsheviks were thrown out and the war against German was won? Would he step down voluntarily after the constituent assembly decided on a new government?
This puppet ruler might decide that he liked power, and he was going to stay, thank you. Then the Allies would have to raise still another army to get rid of him. The Allies had spent four years in the most destructive war in history. Did they want yet another? But first things first. The new Caesar had to be chosen.
“Kaledin is a man of ponderous determination who is unaffected alike by victory or defeat,” Lansing told Wilson in that note proposing a dictatorship for Russia. “He is a strong character who carries through his purpose regardless of opposition. As a commander, he resembles Grant. He radiates force and mystery.” Lansing thought General Aleksey Maximovich Kaledin should be contacted “without delay” and should be assured that the United States was ready to prop him up.4
Lansing favored Kaledin. But it would be “unwise” for Washington to support Kaledin “openly,” yet Kaledin should be shown that the Allies were “most sympathetic” toward his efforts. “Without actually recognizing his group as a de facto government, which is at present impossible since it has not taken from, this [U.S.] government cannot under the law loan money to him [Kaledin] to carry forward his movement,” Lansing continued. “The only practicable course seems to be for the British and French governments to finance the Kaledine enterprise in so far as it is necessary, and for this government to loan them the money to do so.”5
Pictured below U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing the original architect of the Plot:
There it was. Covert American military aid would be laundered by the French and British, then passed along to the Cossacks in a plot to overthrow Lenin and the Bolsheviks. As Lansing suggested, some might say this was illegal. Still, Lansing directed Walter Hines Page, U.S. ambassador to Britain, to act “expeditiously” and confer with France and Britain on the matter. “This has my entire approval,” Wilson said.6
Thus DeWitt Poole left Moscow on December 15, 1917, on his secret mission to hire a Cossack army to overthrow Lenin and set up an Allied dictatorship. His control officer was Maddin Summers, Consul General at Moscow.7
Pictured below DeWitt Clinton Poole, U.S. consul general in Moscow, would become America’s spymaster in Revolutionary Russia. He ran dozens of American, Russian, and Latvian agents, both civilian and military:
Poole carried two sets of identity papers, one from the American consulate and the other from the Bolsheviks. If Poole got captured by either side, and they found those conflicting papers, he could get shot. His survival would depend on a mix of personal charm, nerve, and a talent for bluffing his way through tight spots.
Poole’s destination was Rostov, 665 miles south of Moscow, close to the Ukrainian border. It had been built about fifty years after St. Petersburg, making it one of Russia’s “new” cities. Also called Rostov-on-Don, it was the largest city in Cossack country.
In case he got questioned, Poole’s cover story was that he was there to “investigate the commercial situation” in Rostov and open a consulate. With his Wilsonian three-piece suit, high white collar, and pince-nez glasses, Poole could have easily passed for a commercial attaché. Like Kalamatiano, he carried a cane, the mark of a gentleman. A cane was also useful for self-defense. Some canes came with a sword blade inside; others were hollow so an agent could hide his money and codebook inside, as Kalamatiano would do later.
Don Cossack Cavalry Alexey Kaledin and Mikhail Alekseyev had captured Rostov the day that Poole left Moscow. But Bolshevik forces were still around. They might counterattack and seize the city at any time, so it remained a dangerous combat zone. But when Poole arrived in the city on 18 December, he wasn’t certain exactly who held the city, the Reds, or the Cossacks. What should he say if he got detained at a checkpoint?
He walked the corridors of his hotel, eavesdropping on conversations. He didn’t know much Russian at that point but was able to understand, as Poole wrote in his Reminiscences, a man saying “Bronstein”and “ufa.” The man spoke with contempt and almost spit the words out. Bronstein was Trotsky’s real name. And “ufa” meant a Jew. He was calling Trotsky a dirty Jew. “So that was the solution,” Poole said, with relief. “We were in anti-Bolshevik country.”8
Poole immediately set out shopping for a dictator, not hiring anybody right off, not writing any checks, not making any promises, just auditioning the talent. Summers had told him to do whatever his “judgment dictated.”9
“In the south I was circulating and gathering information,” Poole wrote in his reminiscences. “I was simply what we would now call an intelligence officer.”10
Poole found three main military forces in Don country: Alekseyev’s Volunteer Army, Kaledin’s Cossacks, and the Southeastern League. Those forces controlled the region’s valuable coal and grain supplies, which the Bolsheviks were desperate to get their hands on.
Alekseyev’s army, made up of war veterans, cadets, and students, was the dominant group, Poole said in a lengthy report on his visit. Kaledin’s Cossacks were under Alekseyev’s ultimate command.
The Southeastern League was the smallest group, made up of other Cossack tribes and mountain men of the Caucasus. The federation maintained contact with anti-Bolshevik forces in Ukraine, Siberia, Transcaucasia, and Bessarabia.11
Alekseyev had been named imperial army chief of staff after Nicholas II took over as commander in chief. Alekseyev was a brilliant tactician, a key planner of the Galician campaign that defeated Austria-Hungary. Following the emperor’s abdication, Alekseyev was promoted to commander in chief of the provisional government’s Russian Revolutionary Army. But he refused to tolerate the committee system and its breakdown of discipline in the ranks. He, too, was fired by Kerensky, and he went back to Don country to raise his Volunteer Army. Alekseyev assured Poole that he wished to restore order in Russia, call free and open elections, and put the country back in the war, in short, overthrow Lenin and the Bolsheviks. That’s what Poole, Summers, Lansing, and Wilson wanted to hear.
But Kaledin and his Cossacks seem to have been Washington’s favorite. Kaledin had been a protégé of Brusilov’s during the war. Kaledin commanded the Russian Eighth Army at the Battle of Lutsk during Brusilov’s 1916 offensive, caught the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army by surprise, and forced them off the field with 130,000 casualties. And that was just in the first two days. But, like Alekseyev, Kaledin refused to have anything to do with the army’s committee system and its loss of officers’ authority after the revolution. He blamed those breakdowns on Kerensky and the Petrograd Soviet. It was no surprise, then, that Kerensky added Kaledin to his pile of discarded commanders. Kaledin returned to the Don, became Alekseyev’s lieutenant governor, and helped raise the Volunteer Army. The third general that Poole interviewed was Lavr Kornilov, who had been appointed army commander in chief by Kerensky back during the July Days in Petrograd. But in September 1917, Kornilov tried to install himself as dictator through a coup against both the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet. It failed, and now he was back home again.
Poole thought Kornilov a great cavalry leader, the Sheridan of the Russians. But at the moment, his track record wasn’t so good. One of his commanders had surrendered Kornilov’s army in that failed coup against Kerensky and then went off to shoot himself.
Kerensky had Kornilov locked up after his failed putsch. But this was Russia, where stubborn jail locks could sometimes be opened by the application of gold. Kornilov’s people sprung him, and they rode off into the night.
“Kerensky’s supreme mistake was in splitting with General Kornilov, who had gathered behind him the only force capable of handling the Bolsheviki,” Charles Crane wrote later. After Kornilov’s coup failed, Crane had felt there would be no help for Russia for a “long time to come,” and he went home to Chicago.12
While at Novocherkassk, Poole met Brigadier General Raymond de Candolle, an army railroad engineer from the British military mission in Rumania (now Romania). On Christmas day, 1917, also a Colonel Hucher from the French military mission in Rumania arrived. Like Poole, Candolle and Hucher were in the Don to raise armies to defeat the Bolsheviks. The French were concentrating on Ukraine, Crimea, Bessarabia, and Rumania. The English were most active in the Caucasus and the Don.
On 27 December, Hucher told Alekseyev that Paris had approved a credit of 100 million rubles to restore order in Russia and get the country back in the war against the Central Powers, that is, to mount a coup against the Bolsheviks.13
Poole admired all these exiled generals. In his opinion, they had risen to the top of the army because they were men of great courage and ability. They were fierce fighters, not apple polishers or Bolshevik slackers. But politics began to sully the waters of this early Lenin Plot, both in the Don and in Washington.
For one, Boris Savinkov appeared in the Don and demanded to be included in Alekseyev’s command structure.
At the same time, another group was forming around Kornilov, causing Poole to worry that the whole movement might “miscarry for want of agreement between these different groups.” The French, though, intervened to stop the squabbling and set up a leadership council. Alekseyev would be the minister of war. Kornilov would continue organizing the Volunteer Army and command all forces outside the Don. Kaledin would head up the Cossacks and all defensive operations within the Don.
Alekseyev yielded to Savinkov and included Boris in the leadership council. Savinkov then demanded the inclusion of three other members like for example, Sefa Burhan Agiev, a leader of the left-wing of the Don Cossacks and president of the Don Parliament (the Krug); Vinderzgolski, a former commissar of the Eighth Army; and Mazurienko, president of the All-Russian Peasants Union of the Don. Alekseyev agreed to Savinkov’s demands. Then others, both conservative and radical, were added, including SDs, SRs, Kadets (Constitutional Democrats), a banker, and a prince.
Alekseyev envisioned his group becoming the new Russian provisional government. He promised to get back in the war on the side of the Allies and call a new constituent assembly. But Savinkov left the Don after six weeks with a “profound distrust” of what he had seen there. At his trial later in Moscow, he said that Alekseyev, Kaledin, and Kornilov were surrounded by cliques “occupied chiefly with intrigues, career-hunting, and scandals… everybody busy with his own little affairs.” He said he was looked upon as an enemy because of his past terrorism against the tsarist government. At one point, a Cossack artillery officer was sent to Savinkov’s tent to assassinate him. But the man didn’t have the courage to draw his weapon, Savinkov said. The officer asked that the matter be dropped, which Boris agreed to do.14
Savinkov’s presence suggests that Poole, the French, and the British might have been dealing with Bloody Boris in a coup conspiracy against Lenin long before other high-profile plotters such as Bruce Lockhart and Sidney Reilly came aboard.
Poole, in his first report from the Don, urged the “countenance and support” of the American government for the Cossacks. He said the Southeastern League had extended its influence throughout the country and was the “one serious hope of saving at least a part of Russia.” In a follow-up report, Poole said there was an “urgent” need for cash “at once,” 200 million rubles to last until the end of April 1918.15
Poole also reported that “clandestine preparations” were being made for “counter-Bolshevik outbreaks” in Moscow and other cities, confirming that a Plot was afoot in December 1917.16
Initially, Edward M. House (known by the nickname Colonel House) was against the plot idea, but House changed his mind. “On the other hand,” he told Wilson, “if they [the Cossacks] are not given money or encouragement they may go to pieces.”17
Wilson, on December 26, finally agreed to secretly advance the French and British whatever funds might be “necessary” to finance the Cossack coup against Lenin.18 The Allied PMs in Paris then sent French and British military scouts to the Don to see what the Cossack program looked like. Those were probably the two envoys Poole met down there.
There are several estimates of what Alekseyev asked for, 400 million rubles, 500 million, and so on. But official documents do not indicate how many if any, dollars were actually disbursed. It was, after all, supposed to be a secret payoff.
Yet the White Volunteer Army in the region of the Don, from which the Allies expected much, was not prospering. Its leaders, Generals Alekseyev and Kornilov, loathed each other. Its officers tended to sympathize with the old elites in most matters, including crucially the matter of returning to its former owner's land expropriated by the peasants. This hardly lent its mass appeal. Moreover, White nationalist insistence upon “Russia one and indivisible” alienated the minorities in the former Russian Empire who longed for autonomy. Most particularly in this instance, this Russian nationalism alienated a second fighting force in the region, the Don Cossacks, with whom the Whites needed to unite if they were to prove successful.
Furthermore, the leaders of both forces were unlucky. Poorly-trained Red Guards defeated the Don Cossacks at Taganrog. The mortified Don Cossack commander, General Kaledin, committed suicide. Shortly thereafter, General Kornilov perished when a single Red Army shell struck the house in which he quartered. He was the only casualty. Not much later, General Alekseyev, founder of the Volunteer Army, died of a heart attack. Eventually, the White Army did rally under General Denikin and succeeded in gaining control of much of the Caucasus. Ultimately, it would manage to form an uneasy alliance with the Don Cossacks, but too late to help the Allies win World War I, and therefore too late for the Allies to help them overthrow Bolshevism.19
The attempt by America and the Allies to mount a coup against Lenin and install their own dictator in Russia was quit for 1917. But the Plot itself was still alive. As we will see in part three, it simply segued into 1918. DeWitt Poole was still leading the charge for the United States, and he would soon be joined by new players, new armies, and new infusions of cash.
The 1917-18 Envoys' Plot and its consequences in Russia Part Three.
1. Public Record Office, Kew (PRO), War Office (WO 161/5, Appendix B, 23 December 1917, p. 11.
2. Gollin, Proconsul in Politics: A Study of Lord Milner in Oposition and In Power, p. 557. Lindley had the benefit of having Sidney Reilly reporting to him. While he was at Vologda, Reilly, writing from the "British Intelligence Section, attached Head Quarters Russian Staff, Petrograd, telephone 2-56-05," was asking his advice on matters concerning the Russian internal political situation. PRO, FO 175/6, 23 July 1918. Sydney Reilly was also reporting to Bruce Lockhart, of course, and, as well through him to MI1 (c) and to Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Steel at MIO(a). Steel at this time was responsible for liaising with the White generals- see Bentwich and Kisch, Brigadier Frederick Kisch: Soldier and Zionist,1966, p. 42.
3. The Secretary of State to President Wilson, December 10, 1917, President Roosevelt to the President of the Soviet All-Union Central Executive Committee (Kalinin), October 10, 1933, in Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers, The Soviet Union, 1933–1939, 711.61/287a (hereafter referred to as FRUS), Lansing Papers, Papers, 1914–1920, Volume II, 861.00/807a. See also: https://www.history.state.gov
4. Lansing to Wilson, December 10, 1917, 861.00/807a.
5. Lansing to Wilson, December 10, 1917, 861.00/807a. Lansing and Poole both from time to time spelled Kaledin phonetically, as in Kala-deen.
6. Draft Telegram to the Ambassador in Great Britain (Page), December 12, 1917, FRUS, Lansing Papers, Volume II, 861.00/804d. Lansing’s wire was sent the next day.
8. Poole, “Reminiscences, of DeWitt Clinton Poole,” 1952 unpublished typescript, Columbia
Center for Oral History, Columbia University, 141.
9. Poole, “Reminiscences,” 139.
10. Poole, “Reminiscences,” 96, 170–71.
11. Poole to Francis, “Confidential report.” to the ambassador respecting the movement in the Don country for the restoration of order in Russia, the holding of a constitutional assembly, and the continuance of the war,” January 28, 1918, David R. Francis Papers, Missouri Historical Society Archives, St. Louis.
12. Crane, Charles Richard. Memoirs of Charles R. Crane . New York: Columbia University. http://www.archive.org. “Crude oil prices.” Literary Digest, 1920, 327.
13. Poole to Francis, “Confidential report.”
14. THE TRIAL OF BORIS SAVINKOV, August 27, 1924, Pravda, August 30, 1924, transcript trans. by Emanuel Aronsberg, courtesy of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University. Hereafter referred to as Savinkov testimony.
15. Poole to Department of State, January 18, 1918, Francis Letters.
16. The Special Representative (House) to the Secretary of State, December 2, 1917,
763.72/7926, FRUS, 1918, Russia, Volume II.
17. Phillips, 40–41.
18. The Consul at Tiflis (Smith) to the Secretary of State, November 23, 1917, 861.00/711, FRUS, 1918, Russia, Volume II.
19. S. A. Smith, Russia in Revolution, Oxford, 2017, especially pp. 161–96. For more on the Russian Civil War one might also consult, among many, Ronald Sinclair, The Spy who Disappeared, London, 1990, I. C. Dunsterville, The Adventures of Dunsterforce, London, 1932, N. Baron, The King of Karelia, London, 2007.