The 1917-18 Envoys' Plot and its consequences in Russia Part Five
As explained in part one, two, and three, and four, variously called Ambassadors' or Envoys' 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.
In his upcoming book "British intelligence in the Far East and Siberia in 1916 - 1920" (written and published in Russian) Yuri Totrov writes that in the Russian State Archive of Military History (RGVIA) I was able to find a document with which the British Embassy in Petrograd notified the Russian Foreign Ministry on July 27, 1917, that “the Acting Major Mackintosh Bell was appointed British Vice-Consul in Vladivostok." The British decided to send him to Vladivostok as an employee of MI1/SIS under the guise of a vice-consul. And ads that doing searches in the TsGIA (State Archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg), and RGAVMF (Russian State Naval Archives) he was able to establish that there were in fact ten officers of the SIS, more than ten military intelligence officers, and about ten agents of the SIS and military intelligence.
Of course, as Captain Proctor later explained it was from Vladivostok that Japanese troops should advance along the Siberian Railway, leaving guards as required at stations, bridges, etc., and finally reach Vologda the northern point of a triangle linking Petrograd and Moscow without anyone knowing of their coming prior to their actual arrival. From Murmansk and Archangel, French and British troops could travel south, also to Vologda. Then, joined with the Japanese and tens of thousands of re-enthused Russian soldiers, ex-deserters who would flock to their banners, they could head west to confront the Germans.1
Bruce Lockhart requested that London supply additional funds for Cromie to bribe the Russian naval officers he had charged with destroying the Baltic fleet.2 Whitehall cabled its Petrograd consul: “Please hold at immediate disposal of Captain Cromie 1,500,000 rubles [then approximately £25,000; today approximately £1,375,000]3 from Embassy or any other available accounts. Lockhart has been asked to facilitate in any way possible your operating on above accounts.”4 Lockhart tried to spur Whitehall to additional commitments: “Desirable to make destruction [of the Russian Baltic fleet] coincide with Allied intervention . . .most important we should be informed in good time when action will take place.” He added, “I shall probably go to Petrograd tonight Saturday for 24 hours and will telegraph again when have seen Naval Attaché.”5 Whitehall cautioned him: “You would do well to leave . . . [destruction of the fleet] in the hands of the Naval Attaché, so that at least you may be able to disclaim being a party to any action that may be taken.”6 Lockhart met with Cromie anyway.
On the 26th, he met with another of Savinkov’s representatives as well, from whom he learned that plans for an uprising were nearly complete. He reported to London: “Savinkov proposes to murder all Bolshevik leaders on night of allies landing, and to form a Government which will be in reality a military dictatorship. . . . He . . . is quite prepared to act.”7 The young Scot thought events were approaching a climax. “My work here is coming to an end.”8 He did not yet appreciate, as London was starting to, that manpower demands on the Western Front meant Britain did not have the troops necessary to occupy the northern ports, any more than Germany did, let alone to send an additional “two divisions” from Archangel to Vologda to aid Savinkov, and that therefore the downfall of Bolshevism was not so imminent after all.
Whitehall also had begun to realize that the Czech Legionnaires wanted to get to Vladivostok and to sail across oceans, and to fight Austrians; not to travel by rail in the opposite direction from Vladivostok, and fight Bolsheviks. Or, if they could be persuaded to travel to Vologda after all, it was only because they saw it as a way-station on a shorter route to the Western Front. True, when Trotsky placed obstacles in their way in order to satisfy the Germans who did not want additional enemies in France, the Legion and the Bolsheviks came into conflict, with the Czechs invariably victorious. They took control of several nodal points along the Siberian Railway, made alliances with local anti-Bolsheviks, gave them money supplied by France, and even helped establish anti-communist local soviets. The Bolsheviks now perceived the Czechoslovak Legion as one of their most dangerous enemies. Nevertheless, the British finally had begun to understand that the Czechs’ ultimate goal was not to destroy the Bolshevik regime, but rather to return to France and destroy the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And therefore, because British officials could not say when the Czechs would arrive in Vologda, or what they would do if they ever got there, they could not tell Lockhart when their own landing would take place. Consequently, they feared that Savinkov was jumping the gun. His “methods are drastic, though if successful probably effective,” mused the mandarin George Clerk about murder and dictatorship, “but we cannot say or do anything until intervention has been definitely decided upon.”9
Savinkov’s drastic methods did not faze Lockhart either. The energy and intelligence he once had devoted to advocating Anglo-Bolshevik cooperation he lavished now upon speeding Bolshevik destruction. He channeled money to the great conspirator, although the latter always said he received his funds mainly from France.10 He tried to get the Foreign Office to plan with Savinkov in mind: “Intervention from Archangel would be very stimulating,” to Savinkov’s rebellion, he wired. “Whatever help Allies can give [to Savinkov] will be supported out of all proportion.”11
These messages worried wily George Clerk. He saw that Britain’s man on the spot was getting ahead of the game. He was putting himself into danger after all, and not only himself but also Savinkov’s entire conspiracy, by cabling enthusiastic reports about counter-revolution that the Bolsheviks, if indeed they had cracked the British cypher, might read. Clerk had taken Lockhart’s measure by now. Britain’s agent in Russia was brash, capable, and flexible, as his political volte face demonstrated. Clerk thought that Lockhart was subtle too: he could read between the lines; could find meaning in silence; could understand nuance and misdirection. Clerk sent a note to the Foreign Secretary: “I think we should caution Mr. Lockhart to have nothing whatever to do with Savinkoff’s [sic] plans, & to avoid enquiring further into them.”12 Balfour duly repeated these words to Lockhart in a cable, no doubt for Bolsheviks to read as well. It has mystified historians who did not piece together Clerk’s logic or the preceding chain of telegrams that makes the prohibition’s meaning clear.13 Lockhart’s masters in London now knew their agent would understand the cable to be a blinking yellow light, not the red one it appeared to be.
Moreover, Lockhart would have noted that the Foreign Office did not disavow, or even question Savinkov’s ruthless program. Not surprisingly then, his next step, more dangerous than any so far, was to meet with Savinkov in person. The latter came to see him at the Hotel Elite wearing a French uniform and dark-tinted glasses as a disguise, but also his trademark yellow spats.14 Lockhart gave him money.
Thus, the month of June 1918 passed in a welter of confusion, falsehood, and misdirection. Raymond Robins had embarked upon an epic, ultimately unsuccessful, journey home to persuade President Wilson against intervening in Russia. Lockhart, now firmly in the interventionist camp along with the remnants of his circle and his new anti-Bolshevik allies, was barraging the Foreign Office with cables exhorting intervention in Russia as soon as possible and asking for the date. But London was prevaricating: it realized intervention would be beyond Britain’s power until she could find additional troops. Meanwhile, Cromie was secretly preparing to destroy Russia’s Baltic fleet and funneling White officers north to launch a coup in Archangel. The French ambassador was falsely assuring Russian counter-revolutionaries that Allied assistance was imminent and, as a result, Boris Savinkov was honing his plans for a rising. The Czechs occupied one town after another as they continued along the Siberian Railway, in the wrong direction from Britain’s point of view. The last page of the monthly calendar turned and July dawned, hot and humid, storms brewing.
Once General Poole landed in Archangel, no one thought he would stop there; everyone thought he would march south, and no one believed any longer that he would then march west to reopen the Eastern Front and fight Germans. Everyone assumed the Allies intended to overthrow the Bolsheviks, whatever Allied leaders might say to the contrary...
The Rising of the Left Social Revolutionaries
Shortly after taking power, Lenin’s regime had outlawed non-socialist political parties, but not all socialist ones. In fact, during the summer of 1918, the Bolsheviks shared power with a rival socialist party, the left Socialist Revolutionaries, on various Soviets, and in the central government. Left SRs also held important positions on diverse official bodies, including even Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka.
Left SRs differed with Bolsheviks on certain fundamentals.15 They opposed the Bolshevik tendency toward single-party rule both on principled grounds and from self-interest, and Bolshevik suppression of the bourgeois press, and the notion of state-sponsored terror, although members of the left SRs had committed individual terroristic acts and would commit them again. Although they had cooperated with the Bolsheviks in implementing a revolutionary policy of egalitarian land redistribution, they opposed the Bolshevik establishment of “Committees of the Village Poor,” tasked, among other things, with seizing grain from wealthy peasants (kulaks), so that it could be shipped to the starving cities. They charged, quite correctly, that the committees were brutal, needlessly divisive, and counterproductive. Perhaps most importantly at this moment, however, they believed the Bolsheviks had abandoned their revolutionary principles by surrendering to German imperialism and signing the Brest-Litovsk Treaty; more specifically, they accused the Bolsheviks of having betrayed Ukrainian peasants who now suffered at the hands of German occupier overlords.
On July 4, 1918, a Wednesday, 1,164 delegates chosen by an electorate from which the aristocratic and middle classes had been largely purged, convened in Moscow to attend the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets, and to fashion new policies for the revolutionary nation. In a country the majority of whose citizens were peasants, the left SRs had expected to win a majority of delegates. They did not; the Bolsheviks did, by a large margin, with left SRs at about half the Bolshevik strength, and an assortment of other socialist parties bringing up the rear, none with more than half a dozen deputies, except for seventeen Maximalists, whose party had broken off from the SRs in 1906. Most historians conclude, as the left SRs did at the time, that the Bolsheviks had fixed the process. They probably did not expect what followed, however. The left SRs, already deeply alienated, finally despaired of influencing government policy in the usual way. What we might term an unusual way beckoned; only it was not unusual for them.
When Boris Kamkov, a left SR leader, stood before the podium. He raged against Bolshevism, which he considered now to be Germany’s handmaiden. He also hinted at what was to come. Referring to the German Ambassador Wilhelm von Mirbach “The Soviet is nothing but the dictatorship of Mirbach,” he charged. Then he strode wrathfully across the stage to stand beneath the box of the German ambassador. He pointed his finger at the impassive, imperious figure seated above, and in a voice of thunder denounced him as a murderer and barbarian. Four hundred SR delegates, and probably not a few Bolsheviks, stood and stamped their feet and shook their fists, and cried: “Down with the tyrant! Drive him out of Moscow!” For ten minutes pandemonium reigned.16
That was Thursday afternoon, the second day of the Congress. Perhaps people should have foreseen what was coming. Friday, shortly after lunchtime, in a different part of Moscow, at the German embassy, members of staff gathered in shock over Count von Mirbach’s corpse. The ambassador lay at the end of a room whose window at the other side had been blown out by a grenade. The grenade was not what had killed him, however. Two left SRs had shot him down in cold blood. At precisely 2:15 that afternoon, Mirbach had agreed reluctantly to see them, because they belonged to the Cheka and claimed to have important business to discuss. Indeed, they presented a letter of introduction signed, ostensibly, by Felix Dzerzhinsky. Mirbach sat with them at a table accompanied by an interpreter and the embassy's first secretary. He appeared to be bored. Then, suddenly the two Cheka men stood up. “This is a matter of life and death,” said one. “I will show you,” said the other. They pulled out their pistols and opened fire, first missing their target who tried to run from the room, then finding the range, shooting him from behind, killing him. The grenade shattered the first-floor window. As they leaped from it into a waiting car, one of them tossed a second grenade for good measure.17
Here was left SR terrorism all right: its aim was to cause an irreparable breach between Russia and Germany, to force a resumption of war between them that would lead to the liberation of Ukraine, and revolution across Europe. SR leader Maria A. Spiridonova(Мари́я Алекса́ндровна Спиридо́нова), who had helped plan the operation days earlier, returned to the Opera House that afternoon to make a speech justifying it, and appealing to Bolshevik delegates to renounce Brest-Litovsk. Her aim, the aim of her party, was not to overthrow the Bolsheviks but to force them to change course.18
Meanwhile, probably (but not certainly) unaware of the mayhem that had taken place not far away, Bruce Lockhart was working in his rooms at the Hotel Elite. A knock at the door interrupted him. Britain’s agent opened it to discover Karl Radek, a leading Bolshevik whom he had met through Ransome and with whom he was on good terms, standing before him, visibly excited. Radek told him what had just happened. “I received this news at 4 o’clock and went immediately to Congress,” Lockhart cabled to Whitehall.19 Returning to his box, he noticed that many seats on the stage remained vacant. Delegates milled in the hall, realizing something had happened, not knowing what it was. Lockhart could see Maria Spiridonova looking “calm and composed.”20 Someone ushered the remaining Bolshevik delegates outside. No one else could leave. In his memoir, Lockhart wrote that Sidney Reilly appeared at about 6 p.m., to report that troops had surrounded the building and that there had been fighting in the streets. Then he and a French agent in the box began pulling what Lockhart recognized as “compromising documents” from their pockets. They tore them into pieces and swallowed them.21 But why would Reilly have entered a building surrounded by soldiers to swallow documents he could more easily have disposed of elsewhere, and why at such a late hour, and why did the soldiers admit him? Likely it went the other way: Lockhart entered the building because he had a pass from Karl Radek, appeared in the box, told his party, including Reilly and the Frenchman who were there already, what had happened, and warned them to destroy incriminating evidence. This cannot be proved, but given what we know of Lockhart’s recent activities and schedule that day, it seems to be the logical deduction. And what was the evidence that the two agents felt obliged to destroy? There is no proof that Lockhart, or Reilly or his French counterpart (who remains nameless) knew the SR plans, but it seems likely that the Frenchman did, for French agents, directed by Noulens, had supplied the bombs used in the assassination.22 It is not impossible that Reilly and Lockhart knew them as well. The former was cooperating with French agents by this point and was in touch with left SRs. The latter already was supporting SRs with hard cash. Conceivably all three men had incriminating documents to destroy that afternoon. There is even an indication, albeit nothing more, because elicited by the Bolsheviks while conducting a show trial of SRs in 1922, and we do not know by what means they obtained it, that Lockhart was no more opposed to murder as a political tool during wartime than Monsieur Noulens. At the show trial, a witness testified that in 1918 the British agent had passed money to an SR operative, Boris Donskoy, who shortly thereafter murdered the German General Herman von Eichhorn in Ukraine. Perhaps Lockhart knew nothing of SR plans, either in Ukraine or in Moscow, but gave them money for general purposes only. It is fair to wonder, however, whether some of his money might have helped to fund one assassination or the other, and fair to point out as well that in July 1918, with his country and Germany still at war, he would have had every reason to consider it money well spent...
As we will see Latvians and their Rifle Brigade were to determine the shape and then the outcome of most of the conspiracies and internal eruptions that convulsed Russia for the rest of the year. It was troops from the brigade, led by Captain Eduard Berzin, who crushed the revolt of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries in July, after they murdered the German ambassador. Meanwhile, the Allied conspiracy, now managed by an erratic caucus of Lockhart, Cromie, Reilly and the French ambassador, Joseph Noulens, was in chaos. They had assumed that the British force at Archangel, under General Frederick Poole, would advance south to seize the junction town of Vologda. His march was supposed to be timed to support counter-revolutionary risings in towns nearer Moscow, launched by their fanatical fellow plotter Boris Savinkov, who was involved in several attempted risings against the Bolsheviks. Unfortunately, General Poole failed to tell them that he had decided to postpone his offensive (he had previously requested reinforcements in the form of a brass band from Britain – jolly good for recruitment). As a result, Savinkov’s insurrections took place but were suppressed by the Red Army after brutal street-fighting.
Lockhart did not despair, though he now knew that Poole’s force was far too small to defeat the Red Army. ‘Determined, competitive, hard-nosed, capable and supremely confident, he set out to recoup the situation,’ Schneer writes. He began by hurling money around. He gave Savinkov’s clandestine National Centre a million roubles in cash, and planned – with a French colleague – to raise this to 81 million (nearly £60 million in today’s money). Then he began to think about the Latvians. How loyal were the soldiers of the Rifle Brigade to Bolshevism, now that the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had allowed the Germans to overrun Latvia? How loyal, indeed, were they to Russia as opposed to their own country? Could they be persuaded at least to move out of Poole’s way? In Petrograd Cromie was recruiting Latvian seamen for his own plot to disable Russia’s Baltic fleet, while Reilly was saying: ‘If I could buy the Letts, my task would be easy.’ Lockhart began to look for disillusioned members of the Rifle Brigade.
Just when the Bolsheviks became aware of the plot isn’t clear from Schneer’s book. But they surely assumed its existence even before it took shape. Nothing was more inevitable than that the envoys of the ‘bourgeois imperialist Entente’ would look for ways to subvert a communist revolution and incite its opponents to rebel. The Cheka kept a close eye on the consulates and embassies in Moscow and Petrograd, noticing that counter-revolutionary leaders were using them as sanctuaries, even as bases.
1. TNA, WO 106/1560, Russia Committee Meeting, February 9, 1918.
2. TNA, FO 371/3286, Lockhart to Foreign Office, May 25, 1918.
3. During the revolutionary period, rampant inflation meant that the ruble lost value every day. It is difficult, therefore, to accurately convert rubles of 1918 to pounds sterling of 1918. A currency converter for 1918 which pegged £1 at 45 rubles during the first quarter of 1918; at 60 rubles for the second quarter; at 80 rubles for the third quarter and at 150 rubles for the fourth quarter of the year. Another currency converter pegs the value of £1 in 1918 at approximately £55 in 2019.
4. The National Archives (TNA), FO 371/3327, Military Intelligence office of the War Office to Wardrop, n.d.
5. TNA, FO 371/3323, Lockhart to Foreign Office, June 1, 1918.
7. Ibid., May 26, 1918.
8. TNA, FO 371/3286, Lockhart to Foreign Office, June 1, 1918.
10. Stanford University, Hoover (SUHI), Lockhart Collection, Box 10, Robin Lockhart note to George Hill, n.d.: “In 1918, my father was . . . financing Savinkov . . .”
11. TNA, FO 371/3286, Lockhart to Foreign Office, May 26, 1918.
13. See, e.g., Richard Ullman, Intervention and the War: Anglo-Soviet Relations, 1917–1921, Princeton, NJ, 1961, p. 51
14. Lockhart, British Agent, p. 179.
15. Morgan Philips Price, My Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution, London, 1921, p. 319.
16. Konrad H. Jarausch, “Cooperation or Intervention? Kurt Riezler and the Failure of German Ostpolitik, 1918, Slavic Review, Vol. 31, No. 2 (June 1972), p. 387.
17. This is now the interpretation accepted by most historians. See, e.g., ibid., and also Alexander Rabinowitch and Maria Spiridonova, “Maria Spiridonova’s ‘Last Testament,’” The Russian Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (July 1995), p. 426.
18. TNA, FO 371/3287, Lockhart to Foreign Office, July 7, 1918.
19. Lockhart, British Agent, p. 297.
20. Ibid., p. 298. 13. A French agent had provided the grenade to the assassins. Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, p. 270: “I have been assured from several quarters that the latter [French military mission] supplied the grenades that were used in the murder at the German Legation.” Savinkov made the same charge, The Trial of Boris Savinkov, Berlin, 1924, p. 19.
21. TNA, FO 371/3287, Lockhart to Foreign Office, July 7, 1918.
22. UILL, Lockhart Collection, Bruce Lockhart, “The Counter-Revolutionary Forces,” p. 4.