The 1917-18 Envoys' Plot and its consequences in Russia Part Six
Described in part one, two, three, and four, it 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 Soviet dictator Vladimir Ilich 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. Along with the British and the French the plot we now know had the “entire approval” of also President Woodrow Wilson. As he ordered a military invasion of Russia, he gave the American ambassador, the U.S. Consul General in Moscow, and other State Department operatives a free hand to pursue their covert action against Lenin. The result was thousands of deaths, both military and civilian, on both sides.
As the Left SR plot was unfolding in Moscow, a Right SR plot was being launched simultaneously on the Volga northeast of the capital. The latter was the work of Boris Savinkov, the former commissar who had been Kerensky’s acting war minister during the Kornilov affair. After the October Revolution, Savinkov had traveled to the Don and made contact with Generals Alekseev and Kornilov. A more impatient soul than they, Savinkov formed his own “Union for the Defense of Fatherland and Freedom” and pitched plans for an anti-Bolshevik rebellion to the Allies. The French ambassador gave Savinkov 2.5 million rubles, which he used to recruit former officers, including a formidable war hero, Lieutenant Colonel A. P. Perkhurov. Savinkov’s idea was to seize Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow on the only direct rail line to Murmansk, and hold it until the Allies would reinforce him from the north. Subsidiary risings would be launched at nearby Rybinsk and Murom, a station on the eastbound Moscow–Kazan railway. At around two a.m. on July 6, Savinkov’s organization took up arms, seizing Yaroslavl (where the competent Lieutenant Colonel Perkhurov was in charge) with ease.1
Back in Moscow at two o’clock that afternoon, two killers recruited by Spiridonova, posing as Cheka agents, entered the German Embassy.
So shocking was the crime, so potentially damaging to Soviet relations with Berlin, that Lenin himself went to the German Embassy at five p.m. to express condolences to Riezler (who had survived the assault) in person. It was an extraordinary scene, not least because Riezler was the very man who had overseen the Germans’ Lenin policy in 1917 while stationed in Stockholm, only to turn against the Bolsheviks after he had seen Lenin’s regime up close in May–June 1918. Unimpressed with Lenin’s apology, on July 10 Riezler requested permission from the Wilhelmstrasse to “temporarily” break off relations until the Bolsheviks showed “proper atonement for the murder.”2
Meanwhile, the Left SRs used the assassination as a springboard to a rebellion, of sorts. Cheka headquarters, in Lubyanka Square, were seized by Left SR sailors, who took the Cheka chief, Dzerzhinsky, hostage. After seizing the Telegraph Bureau, the Left SRs sent out a message over the national wires claiming credit for the murder of Mirbach and denouncing the Bolsheviks as “agents of German imperialism.” At seven p.m., the Congress of Soviets reopened in the Bolshoi Theater with a passionate speech by Spiridonova. Were the Left SRs going to seize power? No one seemed quite sure. Toward midnight, Lenin summoned Vatsétis, commander of the Latvian Rifles, who, after reinforcing Perm and the Volga region, had only about 3,300 men left in the Moscow area, facing 2,000 or so armed sailors fighting for the Left SRs. At five a.m. on July 7, the Latvians stormed the city center, reconquered the Lubyanka, and surrounded the Bolshoi Theater. Although the Germans still wanted justice for Mirbach’s murder, the rebellion was over.3
The crisis of authority Lenin’s government faced in July 1918 unleashed the beginning of what became known as the Red Terror. Food requisitions in the countryside were stepped up. In Moscow, Petrograd, and nearby towns, 650 Left SR party members were arrested. In Moscow, the Bolsheviks had 13 ringleaders executed, although they showed clemency to Spiridonova, who retained a certain mystique as a hero of 1905. The crackdown in Yaroslavl was more serious, owing to the brutal nature of the fighting there. Only on July 21 was Yaroslavl retaken by the Red Army, after days of shelling that “gutted” the ancient city center. This time, no mercy was shown. Although Perkhurov himself escaped, another 428 of Savinkov’s followers were shot, in the first mass execution carried out by the Bolshevik regime.4
By 2 p.m. Saturday, what the Bolsheviks already were calling the left SR “uprising” had been suppressed, chiefly by Captain Berzin and his Latvian Rifle Brigade. The Bolsheviks arrested Spiridonova and the rest of the left SR delegates and executed several whom they supposed to be ringleaders. (They spared Spiridonova.) And they launched a furious attack upon the “Anglo-French imperialists” whom they judged to have inspired and funded the assassination.
The Soviets called the 1918 Allied coup attempt the Conspiracy of the Ambassadors because of the American, French, and British diplomats involved, Francis, Poole, Noulens, Grenard, and Lockhart. Others have called it the Reilly Plot because Sidney took it over from Lockhart and paid the Latvians. It could also be the Cromie Conspiracy since he set the whole thing up. And why not the Poole Plot, since DeWitt had first tried to organize it in 1917? Or maybe the Lansing Plot, since it was his idea originally? Or the Wilson Plot, because he was the head of state who okayed it?
Once again, however, soon Lockhart thought the climax approached. “As this may be the last telegram I may be able to send I would once more impress on you vital necessity for immediate action [by which he meant occupation of the ports]. I would also beg you to give me power immediately to spend up to 10 million rubles [worth approximately £125,000 then, the equivalent of nearly £6,875,000 today] in supporting those organizations which may be useful to us in event of intervention.”5
From Czech's to the Latvian Rifle Brigade
Whatever Lockhart may have known about SR intentions, it seems impossible that he did not know what Boris Savinkov meant to do now. He would have discussed and coordinated with Cromie in Petrograd, and with Savinkov’s agents, whom he continued to meet in Moscow. Apparently, Savinkov had not known precisely what the left SRs were planning. He believed, because of talks with ambassador Noulens, and because of Lockhart’s encouragement and money, however, that the Allies would occupy Archangel that very week aided by an uprising from within and that then, aided by Czech Legionnaires, they would take Vologda, from which point they could menace both Moscow and Petrograd. “Bountiful promises of both men and money were held out” to Savinkov, Lockhart later confessed.6 The great conspirator did not know, and neither did Bruce Lockhart, that British General Frederick Cuthbert Poole, who arrived in Murmansk from Britain late in May, had despaired of the Czechs reaching Vologda in time. Poole judged his own numbers too few to proceed without them. He had nothing like the two divisions that Lockhart, Cromie, and Garstin all had fixed upon as necessary for a successful invasion. He could not contact Savinkov to tell him, or Bruce Lockhart either, however, for British telegraphic traffic from Moscow to Murmansk had been temporarily interrupted (to this day no one knows why or by whom). Nor did the French, whose lines of communication remained intact, tell Savinkov that the Allies had postponed action. The great conspirator later suspected that Noulens kept the information from him because he had been “trying to time our operation with the [left SR] revolt in Moscow.”7 Surely, he was right.8
Mistakenly assuming, then, that Allied reinforcements were in the offing, and just as the left SR’s were detonating their bomb in Moscow, Savinkov launched a three-pronged insurrection in Yaroslavl, Rybinsk, and Murom. Had he taken those towns, and had the Allies taken Vologda, then Moscow would have faced from northwest to northeast, a partially encircling belt. The belt might have tightened if sympathetic uprisings had broken out in the south and if the White Army of General Alexeyev in the South Don region likewise had taken action. Then the belt would have formed a circle and might have choked the Revolution to death, without regard to the success or failure of the left SR action in Moscow.
The British agent met with the leader of the National Center on July 13, which is to say shortly after the suppression of Savinkov’s revolt.9
Three days later, this time accompanied by Fernand Grenard, he attended another clandestine meeting and, on his own authority, gave the organization one million rubles (worth approximately £12,500 then, £687,000 today). The Frenchman made a like contribution. And the two planned to combine forces to find for it the astonishing additional sums of eighty-one million rubles (a little over a million pounds then, or £57 million today), and ten million rubles more for General Alexeyev who now proposed to join forces with the Czechs if some of them would turn back toward Vologda after all, and half a million yet again for Savinkov, hiding underground.10 Lockhart had devised a method for transferring his share of these vast amounts: writing Foreign Office checks in pounds to a British firm in Moscow, Camber-Higgs, and Company, which cashed them in rubles and submitted them to London for repayment.11
The recent twin debacles had led him to rethink the interventionist scheme, however. Previously he had believed the Czechs were key to a successful intervention, because, as they traveled west to confront the Bolsheviks, they would be establishing Allied control, symbolically planting the Allied flag, all along the Siberian Railway. “The man who controls central Siberia will be economic master of Russia,” he had coached the Foreign Office.12 But the Czechs, who were focused upon their nationalist goals as always, had let down Boris Savinkov as badly as the Allies had done. If they would not play the role for which the anti-Bolsheviks had cast them, who would? Then Bruce Lockhart thought of the Latvian Rifle Brigade.
It is unclear when Lockhart first began to think the Latvians might be ripe for recruitment into the counter-revolutionary movement. In June, as part of the British effort to support local opposition to German occupiers everywhere, he had wanted to channel funds to the Latvian Provisional National Council, which intended to raise a brigade to expel the invaders from their country.13 Perhaps this planted the idea in his mind.14 Or perhaps the seed took root a month later, in July, when General Poole in Murmansk grew impatient of Czechs, and began trying to enlist Latvians to help him fight Bolsheviks in the north.15
Because he was in close touch with Captain Cromie it is likely he knew that the naval attaché was recruiting Latvian sailors to help him scuttle Russia’s Baltic fleet. He must have known by then too that that several of Savinkov’s chief lieutenants had served previously as officers in the Latvian Rifle Brigade. And surely, he discussed the matter with Sidney Reilly, who claimed to have understood from his first moment in Bolshevik Russia that: “If I could buy the Letts, my task would be easy.”16
Everyone knew that Lenin would send the Latvian Rifle Brigade to stem the Allies when they marched south from Archangel. At some time during that summer Lockhart asked himself the following questions: What if the Latvians did not stem the Allies? What if they stood aside and let them pass, because the Allies had won them over with bribes and inducements—such as a promise to help establish an independent Latvia? The Latvian Rifle Brigade came to occupy in Lockhart’s mind the space previously taken by Czechs.
Felix Dzerzhinsky’s sensitive antennae picked up some of this. “Rumors about the attempt of the Anglo-French to bribe the command staff of [the Latvian Rifle] division,” reached him even before Savinkov mounted his abortive insurrection at the beginning of July.17 If the rumors were true, if the Latvian Riflemen did prove susceptible to Allied bribes, the results could be fatal for Bolshevism. How could the Cheka stymie this latest gambit of the Allies? Could they even turn it to an advantage? Felix Dzerzhinsky began to devise a plan.18
George Hill (who also worked for the Secret Intelligence Agency) and Reilly would now work together on the conspiracy Lockhart had set in motion. Reilly led the way.
By getting involved with the Latvians however, Reilly was exceeding his instructions. London had told him only to survey the situation and get out of the country. Now he had taken over the role of a paymaster in the scheme. Reilly later defended his drifting away from his original instructions by claiming that the planned coup was an opportunity that couldn’t be allowed to slip away. Russian draftees were deserting the Red Army in droves, he said. They didn’t like high ting before, and the Soviets’ new forced conscription hadn’t changed their minds. He intended to take advantage of that. He did have a point. Building the new Red Army was slow going for Trotsky. The provisional government’s Russian Revolutionary Army had been lost in a dust cloud after Lenin turned it into a mob of deserters in late 1917, and after that, the ranks of the temporary Bolshevik army had to be propped up with German deserters and Chinese mercenaries. The Red Guards hadn’t been much help, either. They tended to be insolent and undisciplined. Many were criminals who continued their activities under the color of law. They were being minimized and would soon be disbanded altogether. The Latvians were the most reliable professional troops the Soviets had in Moscow. But like the Chinese, the Latvians had no patriotic ties to the Reds. They served for money. Whoever paid them controlled the capital. Reilly resolved to be their new commander. He saw himself as a reincarnated Napoléon. “And why not?” he asked. “A Corsican lieutenant of artillery trod out the embers of the French Revolution. Surely a British espionage agent, with so many factors on his side, could make himself master of Moscow?”19
Hill thought that he “knew the situation better than any other British officer in Russia, and as also he had the more delicate threads in his hand, I therefore agreed to cooperate with him and leave the political control and our policy in his hands.”20 It is worth quoting Hill’s report again: “The proposed turning of the Lettish troops to our cause . . . could not be achieved without very seriously affecting the Moscow and Petrograd centres. The simultaneous change on the fronts and at Moscow and Petrograd would have destroyed the Soviet Government.”21 Precisely so: whatever disclaimers Whitehall might produce at the time or later about invading Russia only to protect supplies from the Germans and to reconstitute an Eastern Front, in fact they aimed to destroy Soviet power from the moment Poole embarked from Murmansk, if not from long before.
The plan was audacious and ruthless, and reflected the realization that bread riots had helped to spark the February Revolution and could spark yet another. Thus, Allied agents, who previously had deployed their skills as saboteurs against the Germans in occupied regions of Russia, would deploy them now against the Bolsheviks. Reilly may not have known that General Lavergne had just requested from the Deuxième Bureau in Paris “poison for livestock and rot for cereals and potatoes [sent in] reduced packets, by preference boxes of conserves,”22 but he told the two Latvians of plans to destroy bridges and rail lines to interrupt food supplies. The hungry people of Petrograd and Moscow, including the Latvian Riflemen, would understand only that the present regime could not feed them. Meanwhile, Reilly claimed, other Allied agents would be stockpiling food in depots close to the big cities. It would be released, and people fed, immediately after the counter-revolution.
That was the backdrop, the precondition for revolt. As for the main outlines: Reilly wanted Berzin to arrange the transfer of two Latvian regiments from Moscow to Vologda. There they would perform the job originally intended for the Czech Legion: capture the city and turn it over to General Poole and his forces when they arrived. Then there would be an uprising in Moscow, either at a meeting of the Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars), or at a joint plenary session of the TsIK (Central Executive Committee) and the Moscow Soviet. Lenin, Trotsky, and other important Bolsheviks would be present on both occasions. A small group of desperados, led by Reilly himself, but backed by another brigade of Latvians ostensibly guarding the event, would arrest them all. “In case there was any hitch in the proceedings,” Reilly promised, “the other conspirators and myself would carry grenades.”23 Simultaneously, additional Latvian regiments would be capturing the Moscow state bank, telephone and telegraph offices, and main rail stations. Then the leaders of the coup would declare a military dictatorship, pending the arrival of Allied troops from Vologda.
The conspirators did not rely entirely upon the Latvians. As we know, Lockhart and Reilly already had links with the underground White Guards of the Moscow National Center. In his “autobiography” Reilly claimed that 60,000 of them, led by a former Tsarist officer, General Yudenich, would emerge from hiding as soon as the coup began. In fact, Yudenich was involved with the Petrograd plotters at this time. Later, he would organize the White forces in the Baltic provinces against the Bolsheviks. Probably, he would have played no role in Moscow events, but the Moscow White Guards most certainly would have. Reilly said they would form up in pre-arranged units to patrol the city and maintain order in working-class districts where resistance might be expected.24 Lockhart and Reilly also had established links with the Russian Orthodox Church, as we know. The Patriarch Tikhon, to whom they had delivered a suitcase of money earlier in the summer, had arranged for public prayers and sermons supporting the coup. The Patriarch himself would announce a prayer of thanksgiving on the morrow of the uprising.
From the other side, American Consul-General Poole sent a cyphered telegram (the Bolsheviks had not broken American codes) to Washington, DC. He anticipated acts of sabotage carried out by the conspirators, then Allied intervention, clashes between Whites and Reds and between General Poole’s advancing army and the Reds. The telegram said in part: “every effort must be made to remove allied functionaries and nationals from that part of Russia controlled by the Bolsheviks . . . this territory must be regarded as hostile."25
On Wednesday, 28 August, Berzin took the train to Petrograd, as we have seen. Reilly followed the next night. On Friday, the 30th, Reilly had the meetings (in the street and in his flat) with Berzin, whom perhaps he no longer trusted. According to his best biographer, he met sometime that day with Captain Cromie as well.26 So may have Berzin, separately.
1. Pipes, Russian Revolution,1991, 646–649. For more on the Savinkov plot, see also Richard H. Ullman, The Anglo-Soviet Accord, p.189–190, 230–231; Winfried Baumgart, Deutsche Ostpolitik, 1966, 228.
2. Riezler: cited in Baumgart, Deutsche Ostpolitik, 225.
3. John W. Wheeler-Bennett, Brest-Litovsk the Forgotten Peace, March 1918, 337–338.
4. “Executions at Moscow,” from Novaia Zhizn’, July 14, 1918, and “Executions at Yaroslavl,” Pravda, July 26, 1918, reproduced in James Bunyan, Intervention, Civil War, and Communism in Russia, April-December 1918, pp. xv, 594 Johns Hopkins Press, 1936., 227–228.
5. The National Archives, London (TNA), FO 371/3287, Lockhart to Foreign Office, July 7, 1918.
6. University of Indiana , Lilly Library (UILL), Lockhart Collection, Bruce Lockhart, “The Counter-Revolutionary Forces,” p. 4.
7. Trial of Savinkov, p. 20.
8. TNA, FO 371/3287, Lockhart to Foreign Office, July 13, 1918.
9. Ibid., July 16, 1918.
10. Stanford University, Hoover Institute, SUHI, Lockhart Collection, Box 10, ‘Questionnaire.’
11. TNA, FO 371/3324, Lockhart to Foreign Office, June 14, 1918.
12. Geoffrey Swain, “‘An Interesting and Plausible Proposal’: Bruce Lockhart, Sidney Reilly and the Latvian Riflemen, Russia 1918,” Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 14, No. 3 (1999), p. 86.
13. Ibid., pp. 81–102. See also Geoffrey Swain, “The Disillusioning of the Revolution’s Praetorian Guard: The Latvian Riflemen, Summer–Autumn, 1918,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 51, No. 4 (June 1999), pp. 667–86.
14. Historia.lv atbalstitaji, http://www.historia.lv/raksts/v-october-1917-october-1918, p. 12.
15. TNA, FO 371/3333, Lockhart to Foreign Office June 6, 1918.
16. See, e.g., TNA, FO 175/1, Lindley to Foreign Office, August 13, 1918, but referring to earlier organizing efforts.
17. Reilly, The Adventures of Sidney Reilly, p. 21.
18. “Report by . . . Peterson to VTsIK,” quoted in V. A. Goncharov and A. I Kokurin (eds.), Gvardeitsy Oktiabria. Rol’ korennykh narodov stran Baltii v ustanovlenii I ukreplenii bol’ shevistskogo stroia, Moscow, 2009, p. 147, trans. Andrey Shlyakhter.
19. Reilly, Britain’s Master Spy, 21
20. Kings College, Little Hart Center, KCLHC, Poole Collection, Captain Hill’s Report, p. 25.
21. Ibid., p. 37.
22. Occleshaw, Dances in Deep Shadows, p. 204.
23. Sidney Reilly, The Adventures of Sidney Reilly, London, 1931, p. 30.
24. Ibid., p. 21.
25. TNA, FO 371/3336, Poole to Washington, August 26, 1918.
26. Richard B. Spence, Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly, 2002, p. 227.