The 1917-18 Envoys' Plot and its consequences in Russia Part Three
Russia’s disastrous performance in World War I was one of the primary causes of the Russian Revolution of 1917, which swept aside the Romanov dynasty and installed a government that was eager to end the fighting. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918) whereby Russia yielded large portions of its territory to Germany caused a breach between the Bolsheviks (Communists) and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, who thereupon left the coalition. In the next months, there was a marked drawing together of two main groups of Russian opponents of Lenin: (1) the non-Bolshevik left, who had been finally alienated from Lenin by his dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, and (2) the rightist whites, whose main asset was the Volunteer Army in the Kuban steppes. This army, which had survived great hardships in the winter of 1917–18 and which came under the command of Gen. Anton I. Denikin (April 1918), was now a fine fighting force, though small in numbers.
The Anti-Bolshevik Underground
As we have seen in part one and two a first attempt by America and the Allies to mount a coup against Lenin and install their own dictator in Russia was quit for 1917 when a planned Cossack coup failed. 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.
As for finding new local recruits, the political reality of 1918 was that Russia had been radicalized as a result of the tumultuous events of 1917. Whereby the disastrous effect upon Russia's political parties of 1917, then, led to the formation of several right-left inter-party groups. The so-called Union of Regeneration hereby combined a number of left-wing parties and the National Centre with a more right-wing orientation however went their separate ways in June 1918, with the UR heading east and the National Centre moving to South Russia, suggests that there was too little faith in this alliance formed between the two groups and that each hoped that they would be the more successful. The National Centre, after leaving Moscow, concerned itself with the Volunteer Army and seemed to be not particularly interested in the fortunes of the UR in its attempts to arrange a state conference that would create an all-Russian government according to the plans made in Moscow. For their part, members of the UR probably thought that an Allied an incursion into Russia via Arkhangelsk would help them to create a new eastern front, behind which would be the SR-heartland of the Upper Volga, and that the success of this intervention would give them hegemony in the anti-Bolshevik camp. Had the two organizations acted in a more unified manner, they might have had more success.
As it was, the efforts of the UR appeared to many (particularly in Siberia) as another attempt by SRs to subjugate all to their party. The potential strength of the two allied groups, then, never came to fruition as a result of this `go it alone' strategy, and before either organization even began work, they had made a crucial mistake: allowing the geographical distance between the two anti-Bolshevik zones to assume an even greater significance than could have been the case.
On March 3, 1918, Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, American consulates in Russia were ordered to step up their delivery of information to the State Department. But in this time of war and civil war, cable service was often unreliable. Poole told Francis that the Alexandrov cable was slow and “fearfully overloaded,” with a capacity of only 30,000 words per day. Also, service was often interrupted by electrical storms and by the Soviet government, which could pull the plug on a customer any time they wanted.
Unauthorized copies of ciphered telegraph messages sent by the U.S. consulate in Moscow were secretly delivered to Soviet “code artists” in Room 205 of the Hotel Metropol, the capital’s answer to the Ritz in Paris, occupied lately for more proletarian purposes than candlelit dinners.1 Codebreakers at the Metropol tried to decipher the telegrams and report the findings to the Bolshevik government.
Sending a cable “directly” to Washington sometimes meant pursuing a path of telegraph relay stations around the world, only to see it show up at the State Department a month late wireless stations bypassed British censors who controlled underwater cable service to America.
On April 4, 1916, Lanzing had created the Bureau of Secret Intelligence. An extralegal agency it would have access to information from the War Department, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Secret Service, and whatever other domestic or foreign agencies that were in a mood to help out.7 The BSI’s home staff was made up heavily of Treasury agents and postal inspectors. They were among the most highly trained federal agents in America. The Bureau of Secret Intelligence, code-named U-1, was a clearinghouse for intelligence reports coming in from overseas.
And although Poole and Kalamatiano were not Bureau of Secret Intelligence agents directly, they did work for the State Department, and their reports went through Polk and the BSI to Lansing and Wilson. So did reports turned in by other State Department operatives and their Russian agents. That made them all-important intelligence sources for the BSI.
Pictured below Leland Harrison was director of the State Department’s Bureau of Secret Intelligence, the predecessor to the CIA and NSA:
Poole’s operatives developed informants throughout Russia and Ukraine. Kalamatiano was his main field officer and recruiter. Kal’s agents included around thirty men and women who provided political, military, agricultural, financial, and economic reports.2 Kal condensed the reports into “bulletins” that he sent to Poole in Moscow. Poole shared them with Consul General Roger Culver Tredwell and commercial attaché Huntington, both in Petrograd, along with Ambassador Francis and French and British officials.
The establishment of Poole’s networks leaves no doubt as to his importance to U.S. intelligence in Russia. In just a few months he had moved up from a simple consul to the control officer for dozens of spies. In Russia, he was known as America’s chefagent (German for chief agent, or spymaster).
Lenin was going to sign a separate peace with Germany and take Russia out of the war. The Allies (including even the Left Socialist Revolutionaries) were stunned.
Lockhart conferred with Foreign Office officials and the British War Cabinet. Then after American Red Cross Colonel Thompson stopped in London on his way back to America, Lockhart was summoned to No. 10 Downing Street. Prime Minister Lloyd George informed Bruce that he had been chosen by King George and Alfred Milner, an ardent imperialist in the cabinet, for a special mission.
“I have just had a most surprising talk with an American Red Cross colonel named Thompson, who tells me of the Russian situation,” Lloyd George was quoted as telling Lockhart. “I do not know whether he is right, but I know that our people are wrong. They have missed the situation. You are being sent as a special commissioner to Russia, with power… I want you to find a man there named Robins, who was put in command by this man Thompson. Find out what he is doing with this Soviet government. Look it over carefully. If you think what he is doing is sound, do for Britain what he is trying to do for America. That seems, on the whole, the best lookout on this complex situation… Go to it.”
Lockhart was sent as an “unofficial agent” assigned to pursue “unofficial relations” with the new Soviet government.8 He had cipher privileges through the Moscow consulate and was supposed to be protected by diplomatic immunity. In time, that immunity would be severely tested.
Russia’s losses at Brest-Litovsk confirmed what President Wilson feared would happen: Europe was getting chopped up by the belligerents, and the fighting wasn’t even over. Borders were moved, nationalities shifted around like cattle. People in one country suddenly found themselves belonging to another country where they didn’t even speak the language.
But a more immediate problem was that Germany was still camped out on Russia’s doorstep, even though they had temporarily stopped advancing. Aside from the military threat, Germany’s presence challenged the Western powers that had an eye on Russia’s economic resources. Post-war Russia could turn out to be one of the world’s biggest markets for consumer goods. Germany wanted control of those Russian shoppers just as the Western nations did. Even if Germany lost the war in the west, look at what the Fatherland could have in the east.
Meanwhile, the main American operatives in Russia working on the 1918 Plot were in place, Francis, Poole, and Kalamatiano, and their Russian agents, along with Huntington, Judson, Brigadier General William Voorhees Judson head of the American military mission.
A British spy plotter arrives
When Sidney Reilly arrived in Moscow he was wearing the uniform of a British air lieutenant. He really had been commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps as a volunteer at Toronto the year before, but was not under RFC command in Russia.1
Although the Allies were fighting an undeclared war against the Soviets in the summer of 1918, ordered by the Allied Supreme Command and carried out by Western spies and surrogate armies such as the Czech Legion and Savinkov’s underground force, the public face the Allies wore in Russia was different. The Allies claimed that they kept their embassies, consulates, and military missions open in Russia to help the Soviets repel German invaders. That is if Lenin and Trotsky ever decided to do that. Hence, operating openly in a British uniform and carrying legitimate military credentials offered Reilly a measure of protection.
Reilly’s destination on the sweltering afternoon of May 7, 1918, was a fearful one. He was on his way to the Kremlin, the ancient brick fortress in Moscow that was now the seat of the Soviet government.
A hot sweltering day it was, he knocked on one of the gates and announced to the guards that he was an emissary from none other than British Prime Minister Lloyd George. Sidney demanded to see Lenin at once. To his surprise, he was admitted.
They signed him in as “Relli.” Reilly was met by Vladimir Dmitrevich Bonch-Bruyevich, Lenin’s personal secretary and close friend. Bonch-Bruyevich already knew Sidney. They had met through a mutual friend, Alexander Ivanovich Grammatikov, a Petrograd book collector who had once been Reilly’s lawyer. He also used to be a Bolshevik but was now secretly a Social Revolutionary.
Bonch-Bruyevich and Reilly had a talk. Just as Lloyd George had sent Lockhart to Russia because he didn’t trust Ambassador Buchanan’s reports, now Whitehall was dissatisfied with some of the conflicting opinions they’d received from Bruce about what to do about the Soviets. Reilly was London’s new flashlight in the dark, at least as far as the British Secret Service was concerned.
“My superiors clung to the opinion that Russia might still be brought to her right mind in the matter of her obligations to the Allies,” Reilly wrote later. “Agents from France and the United States were already in Moscow and Petrograd, working to that end.”9
Reilly also thought he could fulfill his mission best if he worked alone and developed his own agents.10 But Reilly couldn’t get past Bonch-Bruyevich. After a brief talk, Vladimir Dmitrevich got rid of Sidney. Then shortly after 6 P.M., Bruce Lockhart answered the phone in his office. Lev Mikhailovich Karakhan, a deputy in the commissariat of foreign affairs, was on the line. He wanted Lockhart to come see him. He had an extraordinary story to share.
When they sat down to talk, Karakhan told Lockhart about the audacious appearance of this fellow called Relli. Was he really a British officer on a diplomatic mission? Or an imposter?
“I was non-plussed,” Lockhart recalled, “and holding it impossible that the man could have any official standing, I nearly blurted out that he must be a Russian masquerading as an Englishman, or else a madman.” (There was an old saying about mad dogs and Englishmen in the noonday sun.)
Bruce told Karakhan he would check on the matter and get back to him. Lockhart then returned to his office and called in Ernest Boyce. Boyce was technically head of the British Secret Service in Russia but would soon find that London’s new man in town intended to usurp his authority. “Relli” was Sidney Reilly, Boyce said, and he really was from the SIS. That evening, Lockhart summoned Reilly.11 When Sidney arrived, he corrected a few details of the story Bruce had heard, but otherwise confirmed it.
“The sheer audacity of the man took my breath away,” Lockhart said. “Although he was years older than me, I dressed him down like a schoolmaster and threatened to have him sent home. He took his wigging humbly but calmly and was so ingenious in his excuses that in the end he made me laugh.”12
Reilly took his reprimand patiently because Lockhart worked for a different ministry and had no authority over him. Nor could Boyce touch Reilly, since Sidney had been sent by the SIS chief himself. As far as Sidney was concerned, he was now the head of British intelligence in Russia, whether Lockhart and Boyce liked it or not. He would work with them as the spring and summer progressed, but right now he had his own operations to pursue.
Sidney Reilly seen here pictured during a later occasion:
Allied spy's and the Cheka
For Allied spies, their main problem was the Cheka, the Emergency All-Russian Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage. It was created in late 1917 by Lenin to liquidate his political enemies. (The latter words of the title were changed in 1918 to Profiting and Corruption.) The name was commonly abbreviated to VCheka, or simply Cheka. But some people liked to say that che’ka was the sound made when a Chekist cocked his Mauser pistol.
The Cheka had two branches, political, and criminal. The criminal branch was made of former municipal police detectives, who in tsarist days had been known as agenturi, or fileri. They wore suits and handled routine police work and answered the calls that came even in time of civil war, arson, robberies, murders, kidnappings. Uniformed officers had formerly been called gendarmes, though some people used the traditional term, blue archangels, or simply, blues. The Bolsheviks changed the name of the police to “militia.”
The political branch was the dreaded secret police. They tracked down enemies of the party, a category that included everybody from nosy newspaper reporters to foreign spies. Some of them were experienced holdovers from the Okhrana. Some were Germans, who had a reputation for efficiency and discipline. The old hands wore suits and were more quietly efficient than the younger recruits who strutted about in leather caps and jackets, khaki trousers, and brogans, with pistols tucked into their waistbands.
After the Russian Civil War, Soviet intelligence and counterintelligence officers would pride themselves on being nondescript. They wore suits and ties. They shaved. They got haircuts. They were no more tough-looking than anybody else you saw on the street. Under Dzerzhinsky, though, a menacing appearance was de rigueur for a headhunter. That included a heavy beard stubble. All Bolsheviks who weren’t at a top-level were supposed to look shoddy, DeWitt Poole later wrote. “I suppose they had to shave occasionally. I don’t know what they did after shaving, probably laid up at home for a day so that they could grow a stubble.”7
The Cheka relied heavily on informants. That might be the waiter serving you tea in a café, the schoolteacher living next door to you, the woman driving your streetcar. Informants wore jackets, dresses, municipal uniforms, work clothes, or student attire, all looking invisibly Russian. In return for their services, their internal passports announced they were Cheka “collaborators.” That allowed them to pass through checkpoints and to break up in lines. This widespread use of citizen informants would serve as the model for Hitler’s Gestapo, Mussolini’s OVRA, and the East German Stasi.
Xenophon Kalamatiano (or Kal as he preferred to be called) and other Allied operatives in Russia had to watch for such informants as they made their rounds collecting information. They had to be suspicious of everyone, including people they thought they knew. Agents got turned all the time. And double agents, today known as moles, were sent in to infiltrate the networks. That’s why the cells were compartmentalized.
Kal recruited agents by using his social and business connections. He undoubtedly picked up additional prospects from the consulate. But he had to be especially cautious of volunteers. Walk-in offering information might turn out to be an agent provocateur sent by the Cheka. Another source of danger was journalists skilled at eavesdropping on conversations that were supposed to be secret. One of those listeners would soon contribute to a catastrophe for the Allied plotters.
One of Kalamatiano’s most valuable military informants seems to have been Colonel Alexander Vladimirovich Friede, head of Red Army communications in Moscow. Friede was a Latvian who was secretly anti-Communist. He made copies of incoming military traffic and sent them by courier to Kalamatiano and British agent Sidney Reilly.
On a higher level, French colleagues working with Poole and ambassador Francis included General Jean Lavergne, chief of the French military mission to Russia; Joseph-Fernand Grenard, consul general in Moscow; and Ambassador Joseph Noulens. At one point, Poole told Francis that he and Lavergne were working “along the line of action that you [the ambassador] have recommended.” Poole said that Lavergne and a General Romé “were deeply impressed with the need for immediate action, counting each day lost as a threat to the process of any military operations we may eventually undertake.”8
Paris was particularly keen to overthrow the Soviets because French investors lost 13 billion francs when Lenin repudiated tsarist debts in February 1918.9
The money had been invested in bonds purchased by French citizens (that allegedly were backed by the Gold held by the Russian Czar) to finance the war and maintain a Franco-Russian alliance against Germany. Now France wanted her money back. Deposing the Soviets and seizing control of the Russian economy would go a long way toward paying that debt. Kalamatiano’s closest French street associate was Martial-Marie-Henri de Verthamon.
De Verthamon was sent to Russia in early 1918 as a saboteur to work against both the Soviets and the Central Powers.
Russian historian Yuliya Mikhailovna Galkina wrote that he was a small man, a cigar smoker whose black hair and mustache matched his black trenchcoat and cap. He chose “Monsieur Henri” as his code name, which left French ambassador Noulens in despair.
The ambassador was also irked that de Verthamon insisted on operating independently of the French military mission in Russia. But that was Henri’s style. He didn’t trust anybody’s headquarters; they would be under surveillance by the opposition. He preferred a portable office. He could move it from his apartment to a park or a quiet café down a side street somewhere. He sent in his reports and stayed away from missions, embassies, and consulates.
De Verthamon was thirty-seven when he arrived in Kyiv on March 22, 1918. He spoke no Russian and had to rely on the two French naval lieutenants who worked with him. He was fluent in Spanish, though, and carried a Spanish passport. He and his co-conspirators claimed they were Spanish refugees fleeing the war. Once they got to Ukraine they set about poisoning grain supplies the Bolsheviks had promised to Germany after Brest-Litovsk. Henri then went to Moscow in May and used “the military tact of old France” to recruit former tsarist officers for his spy network. He’s credited with blowing up a Soviet power plant, three railroad bridges, and some ammunition dumps and oil wells.10
Monsieur Henri also worked with military attaché Pierre Laurent, who used to be the liaison between the French mission and the provisional government’s Russian Revolutionary Army and who was now spying against the Soviets. Laurent possibly supplied de Verthamon with the explosives he used. Poole said he later gave false passports to some French and British spies to smuggle them out of Russia. He said they had been poisoning food supplies in Ukraine, so they might have included de Verthamon’s team.11 Another French spy available to Kalamatiano was Captain Charles Adolphe Faux-Pas Bidet (https://www.ouest-france.fr/europe/russie/charles-adolphe-faux-pas-bidet-l-ennemi-de-trotski-5362065). Bidet joined the French navy as a boy, and as he sailed the seven seas he learned seven languages, including Russian. He left the navy at the age of twenty-nine and joined the Paris Prefecture of Police in Paris in 1909. In 1914 he was assigned as a detective with the Sûreté Nationale, the highly efficient French counterintelligence service that had served as a model for Scotland Yard. Bidet worked the case against Mata Hari, an exotic dancer hired to spy for the French but who was exposed as a double agent for Berlin.
Bidet also kept an eye on Trotsky in Paris before the war, when Lev Davidovitch was editor of an internationalist newspaper, Nashe Slovo (Our Word).11 Trotsky later complained that Bidet watched him with a “hateful” look.
“He was distinguished from his colleagues by an unusual roughness and brutality,” Trotsky wrote. “Our interviews always ended in splinters.”12 Shop
Still, there seems to have been some other kind of relationship between the two men. To keep Trotsky from getting arrested by the tsarist secret police, Bidet deported Lev Davidovitch to the safety of Spain. Perhaps it was an act of mercy. Perhaps Bidet was trying to groom Trotsky as a future mole for the French. Whatever the motivation, it would later save Bidet’s life in Moscow. Bidet was sent to Russia in 1917 as one of France’s top spies after receiving the Legion of Honor.13
Meanwhile, the war continued against the Central Powers, even if Lenin had surrendered Russia. French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, supreme Allied commander, at first advocated cooperating with the Bolsheviks if they would stand up to the German army. Foch’s general staff concurred. Getting into bed with the Reds that way was simply a matter of ignoring soiled sheets in the name of expediency.
Noulens, too, showed a patient wait-and-see attitude toward the Reds, at first. So did Louis de Robien, a twenty-six-year-old attaché at the French embassy in Petrograd. De Robien said that if France broke with Russia, Paris would be playing into the hands of the Germans. Then Berlin would have a clear field to make Russia their “most rewarding of colonies.”14
After Brest-Litovsk, Lansing instructed American diplomats in Russia to withhold contact with the Bolsheviks. But the consuls went ahead and tried to deal with them anyway, discreetly, for a while. “One has to,” Poole said at the time. They were the de facto government.15
Then Poole began to press Washington for intervention against the Soviets. But he warned that a purely military operation would fail. It had to be accompanied by economic relief, technical assistance with railroads, and probably some administrative help.
“The bulk of the Russians are generally ignorant and moved only by immediate and material considerations,” Poole wrote in a report to Lansing. “The educated political leaders are [Communist] party men lacking in the Western conception of patriotism. No class has developed self-reliance, and all dislike hard work.” Even with the goodwill of the Russian people, “we can count on very little serious practical help from them.” Poole further wanted to reopen the Russian fronts to keep the Germans tied down in the east.16
Trotsky did ask for Allied help in training his new Red Army, and General Lavergne was open to the idea. But diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Quai d’Orsay, the mother church of old-line French diplomacy, didn’t like the idea of helping raise an army that might turn on them. The Quai d’Orsay overruled Lavergne. The idea of Franco-Soviet cooperation turned out to be only a brief flicker of a candle.
British representative Bruce Lockhart initially believed that the Allies and the Bolsheviks could work together.’ Another member of Lockhart’s circle was the fiercely vigorous Captain Cromie, the British naval attaché, who regarded the Bolsheviks – indeed, all Russians – with contempt, but agreed on the tactical need for good relations. Back in London, right-wing advisers were selling the war cabinet a different plan. The Allies should seize the Russian ports of Murmansk, Archangel and Vladivostok, and use them as bases to cross Russia and – with the help of anti-Bolshevik forces – re-establish the Eastern Front. Like the Americans in Iraq in 2003, the British had deluded themselves that they would be welcomed as liberators by the Russian population. Patriotic Russian soldiers, they told themselves, would be burning to resume the war against Germany.
So far, American, French, and British diplomats in Russia had been sharing information with one another. America and France had spies in Russia, but the British Secret Service had not contributed any high-level agents but that changed now when Sydney Reilly and Bruce Lockhart joined the plot.
1. DeWitt Poole to Ambassador David R. Francis, June 21, 1918, Francis Papers.
2. Kalamatiano to Poole, undated report, courtesy of NARA. Kalamatiano smuggled this report out of prison a few weeks after he was arrested. He probably gave it to a Norwegian consul who visited him.
3. According to the Imperial War Museum, the RFC had become the Royal Air Force the month before Reilly arrived in Moscow. See “Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force Family History,” www.iwm.org.uk.
4. Sidney Reilly, Adventures of a British Master Spy: The Memoirs of Sidney Reilly, 2014, 6–7.
5. Robert Hamilton Bruce Lockhart, Memoirs of a British agent,2003, 273–74.
6. Lockhart, British Agent, 273–74.
7. Poole, “Reminiscences, of DeWitt Clinton Poole,” 1952 unpublished typescript, Columbia Center for Oral History, Columbia University,135.
8. Poole to Francis, May 3, 1918, Francis Papers.
9. Carley, Michael Jabara. Revolution and Intervention: The French Government and the Russian Civil War. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1983, 44.
10. Yuliya Mikhailovna Galkina, “To the question of the French involvement in the Lockhart affair: Who is Henri Vertamon?” in cleo No. 3, 2018, Institute of Humanities and Arts, Ural Federal University, 176–86, www.academia.edu.
11.Phillipe Madelin, Dans le secret des services: La France malade de ses espions? (Paris: Éditions Denoël, 2007), 19, www.rackcdn.co.
12. Phillipe Madelin, Dans le secret des services: La France malade de ses espions? (Paris: Éditions Denoël, 2007), 19, http://www.rackcdn.co.
13. Nicolas Skopinski, “Charles Adolphe Faux-Pas Bidet, l’ennemi de Trotski,” Ouest-France, November 6, 2017, http://www.ouest-france.fr.
14 Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia, 1917–1918, trans. by Camilla Sykes (New York: Praeger, 1970), 149.
15. Poole, “Reminiscences,” 175.