The 1917-18 Envoys' Plot and its consequences in Russia Part Seven
As we have seen, the British government formulated its Russian policy in the Cabinet’s discussions in early December 1917. It was decided to support ‘any responsible body in Russia willing to oppose the Maximalist movement (i.e. the Bolsheviks)’, and ‘within reason to give money freely to such bodies as were prepared to help the Allied cause’.
In the meantime, the French government had started its own operations in Russia mainly to support the Romanian Army that was being pushed towards Ukraine by the German and Austrian armies. To coordinate the present Allied policy a secret Anglo-French conference was called in Paris. The Conference was concluded with the ‘Anglo-French Convention’(Convention entre la France et l’Angleterre au sujet de Faction dans la Russie méridionale) on 23 December 1917, in which southern Russia was divided into ‘spheres of activity’ between the British and the French. London and the French really operated on their zone according to this ‘international’ agreement and British intelligence officers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Keyes, began to execute the War Cabinet’s instructions in Petrograd. They worked out, in co-operation with the Russian banker Karol Yaroshinsky, an elaborate scheme to finance the anti-Bolshevik forces within the British ‘sphere of activity’. It was designed to counteract the influence of German finance within Russia by bringing Russian banks under British control. Under the scheme, the British government was to give Yaroshinsky a loan of six million pounds (200 million roubles) to purchase a majority of securities in five Russian banks. Yaroshinsky was also supposed to set up ‘a Cossack Bank’ in South Russia, which could issue banknotes, and thus provides funding to the Don Cossacks and the Volunteer Army. The wild plan proceeded, after the approval of the Cabinet’s Russian Committee, and initially, 185,000 pounds were credited to the bank account of British agent Hugh Leech, from where the sum was drafted by Yaroshinsky’s agents.
Keyes was certainly thinking on a grand scale when he wrote:
We have the right to nominate our own directors and these banks with their 300 odd branches and their interests in numerous commercial and industrial! concerns offer us an unrivaled commercial intelligence system for investigating old and new undertakings. They offer us the means of setting on their feet such as our concerns as having suffered during the disorders, and of handing out loans and other financial interests.
When Wilson, on December 26, agreed to secretly advance the French and British whatever funds might be “necessary” to finance the Cossack coup against Lenin. The Allied PMs in Paris then sent French and British military scouts to the Don to see what the Cossack program looked like.
In this context, 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.
America’s spymaster DeWitt Clinton Poole, as was reported to the Secretary of State, wrote that “clandestine preparations” were being made for “counter-Bolshevik outbreaks” in Moscow and other cities, confirming that a Plot was afoot in December 1917. And on 18 January 1918 wrote to the Department of State on18 January 1918, that there was an “urgent” need for cash “at once,” 200 million rubles.
Described in part one, two, three, and four, five, and six, 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 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.
On Wednesday, 28 August, Eduard Berzin (captain in the Latvian Rifle Brigade) took the train to Petrograd, as we have seen. Sidney Reilly followed the next night. On Friday, the 30th, Reilly had the meetings (in the street and 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. So may have Berzin, separately.1
What we know is that head of the Cheka Felix Dzerzhinsky had chosen Alexander Engel’gardt (descended from a prominent Latvian family) to lead the three-man team of Chekists sent to penetrate Cromie’s organization in Petrograd. Engel’gardt took the alias “Shtegel’man.” The latter together with Jan Sprogis posing as “Shmidken,” along with Buikis (“Bredis”) took part in the Cheka operation directed by Dzerzhinsky and Dzerzhinsky’s second-in-command Jacov Peters the latter who took over briefly when Dzerzhinsky stepped back in the summer of 1918 and hence Peters took a primary role in designing the counter-plot to defeat Lockhart and some of the co-conspirators.
Buikis (“Bredis”) and Engel’gardt (“Shtegel’man”) penetrated Captain Cromie’s counter-revolutionary organization in Petrograd. He and Captain Eduard Berzin then approached Lockhart in Moscow and encouraged him to believe they could deliver the Latvians to his plot. Buikis (“Bredis”) and Engel’gardt (“Shtegel’man”) and a fellow Cheka agent, Lieutenant Sabir, were present at the British embassy building in Petrograd when Cromie met his death there.
It was, in fact, Cromie who had triggered the Plot about three weeks earlier when he sent Engel’gardt/Shtegel’man and Sprogis/Shmidkhen with a note for the British agent in Moscow. Dzerzhinsky and Peters, however, needed Engel’gardt and Alexander Shtegel’man in the former capital, where he could take advantage of his connection with Cromie to further penetrate the counter-revolutionary movement there. They sent him back and chose A century later, it is impossible to say what were the details of the Petrograd conspiracy whose principals meant to keep it secret, except that Cromie’s “plans may have included the destruction of certain bridges,”2 that he was “interested in several [Petrograd counter-revolutionary] organizations,” “that considerable sums of money were being spent,”3 and that some of the money probably supported counter-revolutionary agitation in the First Division of the Red Army stationed in the former capital.4 Cromie, who had been funneling Whites to Archangel to assist General Poole’s march south, also promised to supply him with armored craft for rivers and lakes.
From now on, the plotters would find themselves in increasingly dire straits. Much of that came from their own faulty security measures:
—Captain Cromie did not properly vet Jan Shmidkhen before sending him on to recruit Latvian Colonel Berzin for the Allied coup. Berzin reported the approach to the Cheka.
—Reilly wrote the address of his Moscow safe house on that card that Berzin found in Sidney’s Petrograd safe house. Berzin gave the address to the Cheka.
—Lockhart wrote and signed a pass for a Latvian courier who was going to meet with Allied forces at Archangel. The message didn’t go north. It ended up with the Cheka.
—Reilly gave cash to Berzin, not knowing he was an agent provocateur sent by the Cheka. Berzin turned the money into the Cheka.
—The Allies failed to check Marchand’s bona fides, allowing him to witness the secret meeting in Poole’s office and write an account for Dzerzhinsky and Lenin. With all that evidence in hand, Dzerzhinsky and Jacob Peters soon would ensue with Western agents' roll-up in Russia.
Jacob Peters considered the Americans the “worst compromised” in the Lenin Plot, and if DeWitt Poole could be captured, that would cement the Cheka’s case against the Yanks.5
Poole knew he had to get out fast. He sent a message to Chicherin’s assistant, Karakhan, asking for a pass to leave Russia. He promised to return the favor someday.
Karakhan responded quickly with travel papers. Evidently, the Soviet foreign commissariat didn’t want complications like American diplomats getting shot by the Cheka. Better to help Poole get out of the country as quietly as possible.
Sidney Reilly got out of Russia using a passport in the name of Georg Bergmann, a fictitious merchant in Riga. One of the boots (forgeries) the British embassy kept on hand for smuggling people out. George Hill gave it to him. Hill got out, too, but lost fourteen of his agents in the process.
Peters told Lockhart when he was in jail that the Americans were the worst compromised in the Allied plot against Lenin. It was a reference, of course, to Kalamatiano and Poole. But Peters said that for “political reasons,” the Soviets were not implicating the Americans as much as the French and British.6 Those “political reasons” apparently were the Soviets’ desperate need for U.S. foreign aid.
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time: Overthrow Lenin and the Soviet government on humanitarian, military, and economic grounds and install a benevolent dictator in Moscow until a democratic government could be elected. But it failed. It failed because it was a tragedy in the classical sense—flawed from the very beginning. And those tragic flaws brought on the Lenin Plot’s own destruction. After it was over, not much had changed in Russia except that many people were dead and a lot of money had been wasted. Lenin was still in power, and Soviet methods would only get more extreme in the decades to come.
The main flaw on the political side of the Lenin Plot appears to have been slipshod security on the conspirators' part. Agents were not properly vetted. Some seemed to have been accepted solely because they were fast talkers. That laid the plot open to infiltration by the Cheka.
But even if the Allied coup in Moscow had succeeded, how long could the Western powers have held Russia? The country might have risen in a new revolution against the Western occupiers. Russia is a big place. Nailing down power, there would have required an Allied force as big as the one on the western front in France. Whereby given the many players that by now became involved in the allied intervention (including nations that did not know the secretive (because it involved individual agents), American and British plot can be said to have become rather complex.
The Triple Entente, which, with the United States, won the First World War, did not act as an ideal coalition. As a result, the Allies never developed a single concerted policy on Russia. This led to no common goal or ‘mission’ for Russia that was accepted by all participants, which left individual commanders to develop strategies to fit local conditions. In some regions, this led to an unintended expansion of the operation and, in others, no set goal to work towards. No one member of the alliance had such overwhelming power in 1919 that it could dominate the relationship. Nor was it the norm to have an alliance of such strong equals that no single nation could control the War's policies and overall operation.
Rapidly changing events in highly fluid situations plagued all players. Even if all the leading actors in the intervention had been equally prescient, they were all cursed by poor, wrong, or non-existent information, often filtered through particular personalities, individual self-interests, and transmitted by feeble and slow communication systems. Unified strategic decisions were nearly impossible. Political and military leaders of all the Great Powers were forced to deal with constant turmoil. Most dealt with it reactively, scrambling to find answers and take actions to slow or stem its effects. All tried to use it or to shape matters to their own ends. In turn, such political leaders' decisions shaped their nations' strategic perceptions and aims.
Nations working together have their own national interests. Each has its own strategic goals and, when there is resistance from allies, each goes its own way, usually secretly. Equally, each country may endeavor to change or pressure other allies to go along with them. Moreover, when individual national interests clash with the collective alliance goals, some will promote what they consider to be the only correct solution. Self-perceptions of power also play a role. Senior and junior allies may operate differently and for different reasons. In trying to re-establish the Eastern Front in Russia in 1918, the Great Powers illustrated many of these things. A case-in-point was the United States, which first tried to prevent any Allied military intervention. When that became inevitable, it refused to cooperate with its Allies in Siberia and attempted to restrict US troop employment in North Russia. At a more strategic level, the US administration agreed to have Japan in overall command in Siberia but then neglected to direct its commander to submit to Japanese leadership.
Other Allies fared no better. Japan looked at intervention as a means to control Siberia for its own national purposes. It agreed to intervention originally and ostensibly to assist the Czech Legion to escape Siberia. Still, it refused to send troops west of Lake Baikal to fight the Bolsheviks, trying to prevent the Legion's exit. The Japanese also actively supported rebels against the established anti-Bolshevik government of Admiral Kolchak, rendering impossible the avowed purpose of the operation. Japan consented to limit its troop strength to that of the US contingent but immediately sent double that number to dominate the Russian Maritime Provinces. This action alone spawned a heightened US distrust of its Asian Ally's intentions. Japan wished to control Siberia to counter the historical and ongoing US economic incursions into China. America's support of the ‘open door’ trade policy in China directly conflicted with Japan's wish to monopolize trade in its sphere of influence. This rivalry prevented the two nations from working together to establish a stable anti-Bolshevik government in Siberia, something Japan could not permit if it were to obtain the dominance it desired. But Japan was not the unified nation it appeared to be. The governing elite was divided over its approach to both Russia and the United States. Although the Army appeared to be in charge of Siberian operations, Prime Minister Terauchi and others were at odds with the General Staff. They were able to resist enlarging Japanese military forces in Siberia late in 1919. There were conflicts in the Japanese government on how to work with the United States. Still, there was no consensus other than to allow the military to continue its operations in Russia. This was only one part of the chaotic nature of the Allied intervention.
Because of their ignorance of Bolshevik methods and goals, the United States saw the two Russian factions as equals in the struggle. Still, they viewed the anti-Bolsheviks as reactionaries ready to return to the tyrannical government of the Tsars. For this reason, the United States would not support Kolchak against the rebels in Siberia. National interests submerged the collective Allied goal. In Britain's case, it not only worked for its own interests, but it also clashed with the interests of parts of its own Empire.
In its turn, France undermined the White Russian General Denikin in favor of the Ukrainian rebels, despite the agreed Allied aim. France assiduously worked at advancing any scheme that would ensure Russian payment of the enormous pre-war loans and massive war debts. This blinkered view of pursuing compensation by any means to the detriment of common goals steadily undermined collective Allied efforts to assist the Whites. These illustrate how national self-interest trumped many of the collective goals.
But the Alliance's strategic aims in Russia were also fluid. The First World War was the driving force until November 1918. The Allies' intentions in Russia were to re-establish the Eastern Front to alleviate German pressure on the Western Front. The United States, however, did not accept this goal as achievable or necessary. But with the Armistice, even this goal was no longer relevant, and the war on Bolshevism became one of many other reasons for intervention. Yet the Allies could not agree on one policy as it applied to Russia. Moreover, with the end of fighting in Europe, Russia lost strategic importance in producing a peace treaty in Paris.
Significantly, Russia was intimately tied to the laborious and often bitter negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference. Even well after the Armistice, Allied soldiers were part of the continued fighting and turmoil across Russia. At Paris and in Allied capitals, there was fear that Russia could fall under Germany's influence, despite the latter's defeat in Western Europe. Russia could not be separated from the larger subject of Germany and its place in Europe. Revolution and tumult were spreading in Middle and Eastern Europe and Germany. So, while the negotiating Great Powers did not want Russia present at the Paris Conference, that nation could not be separated from their talks and decisions. Here was a major weakness of the Allied interventionist effort: without Russia in Paris, the Allied intervention was likely doomed to be piecemeal and driven by individual self-interest. And Russia also had an impact on nations far from its shores.
There were smaller actions and other motives at play in these events, and mistrust often spread. In Canada, Sir Robert Borden first urged his government to establish economic missions to accompany the Canadian contingent destined for Siberia, hoping to reap economic rewards. Based on the way Britain had acted during the Great War concerning munitions orders, directing them to the United States and ignoring Canada's factories, he did not trust the British economic delegation to look after Canadian interests. For some Canadians in 1919, Russia offered an opportunity to help recoup the financial cost of the First World War and also keep the newfound Canadian industrial success going well into the 1920s. So Canada, like other nations, mixed too many expectations on a policy that should have been kept as simple as possible, given war's natural characteristic to be chaotic and uncontrollable.
Personalities had a major influence on the courses that nations followed. Individuals can often drive action or cause inaction. Politics and personalities cannot be ignored. Decisions, in turn, determine what will not be done as well as what is done. And people made these decisions. Strong-willed people are very important in a functioning alliance. In the Allied intervention in Russia, there were influential people at every level of decision-making. The strongest examples in the actual events and historical interpretation were David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, and Woodrow Wilson.
Although some American historians point their finger at Wilson for singlehandedly causing the failure of the Allied Intervention, more honestly, it has to be laid at the feet of more than him. Many others had various shares in this failure, but besides Woodrow Wilson, another major contributor was British Prime Minister David Lloyd, George.
George Kennan's conclusion - blaming Wilson for the outcome - is based more on American national centrism rather than detailed analysis: that is, Wilson was against both Russian factions equally because neither lived up to his idealistic version of the American dream. Initially, Wilson had fought against sending Allied troops into Russia from a sense of superiority combined with naïveté. He firmly believed that the Russian Revolution was based on people's desire to rid themselves of a tyrannical government and establish democracy. Convinced to the point of unreason, he considered it immoral to interfere in the Russian people's internal political struggles. The United States had to set an example to other nations and should not actively interfere on one side or the other of an internal political fight. Yet as we have seen, Wilson's view was, ironically, also anti-Bolshevik, although not to the point that he would allow the US military to assist either faction in Russia. He also deeply abhorred imperialism. Therefore, he was suspicious and reluctant to act with an entity he naturally recoiled from, such as the British Empire or a reconstituted Russian one. He hoped to use the United States' strength to create a new international order free of war or revolution. It was one in which the United States would be the pre-eminent political and economic power.
Having the United States participate in what the president saw as an immoral undertaking would undermine that nation's image as a ‘shining city on a hill.’ Wilson firmly believed that the United States was divinely destined to lead the world to an orderly, liberal, and capitalist international society. Wilson's self-assurance in his own intellect, coupled with a belief in his own moral superiority, made him impervious to differing rational argument. Wilson didn't recognize his own intellectual limits or corrected his mistakes in Siberia. In one author's view, he had the mind of a country schoolmaster and the soul of an army mule. Wilson interpreted the First World War as a crusade to make the world safe for democracy but first viewed that conflict as caused by trade rivalries, which the United States was supposedly above. Yet the US president was averse to intervening in Siberia because of trade disagreements with Japan. Moreover, his antipathy towards the military intervention ensured that US troops involved would be inadequate for the purpose.
He was not alone. While Wilson was central to slowing down US participation in the intervention, Lloyd George almost single-handedly prevented the British from effectively supporting the Whites. Unlike Wilson, the British prime minister was the consummate politician who understood the need to keep his electorate happy while maintaining British prestige and pre-eminence internationally. Like Wilson, Lloyd George was naive about Bolshevism, seeing it solely as a Russian problem. He did not understand Lenin's avowed goal of worldwide revolution. However, he did understand the danger to domestic peace and the desire of Great Britain's war-weary populace to return quickly to a normal, peaceful regime. In Lloyd George's mind, British Labour's opposition to military intervention could have to endanger the whole domestic political system and Britain's domestic tranquility. Lloyd George knew that Britain could not afford nor would undertake another major war, especially in Russia, where the Bolshevik revolution at first seemed to dispose of a dictator and replace him with a popular government.
But early in the intervention debate, the British prime minister was supportive of military involvement when it appeared to be a way of easing pressure on the Western Front by re-establishing an Eastern Front. His acceptance increased dramatically in the spring of 1918 when it looked like the Germans' Michael Offensive would crush the Allies. And so Lloyd George accepted sending Allied troops to guard military stores at both Archangel and Vladivostok to prevent their capture by Germany. However, he became skeptical of intervention once the Armistice was achieved in November 1918. He actively opposed the scheme in both the British Cabinet and at the Paris Peace Conference. Lloyd George remained fully sensitive to the manpower limitations of the British Army and the unaffordable costs any intervention would entail. As the head of a coalition government dominated by Conservatives, but with strong-willed Liberals as well, Lloyd George could not afford a single political failure that could be laid at his feet personally. Fully aware of this, he governed accordingly.
Ever the pragmatist, Lloyd George's greatest fear was unrest among the British population. In Russia's view of the Labour Party and articulated by the Trades Union Congress, military intervention was cause for a General Strike. For this reason, Lloyd George could not risk openly supporting a full-scale intervention against the Bolsheviks. He maintained this stance despite overt pressure from Winston Churchill, the one man who consistently pushed for a military solution to the Russian problem. To add to the chaotic nature of British politics was the problem that Lloyd George never quite said "no" and never quite said "yes" perhaps to cause a delay in making any decision, thereby gaining time. But whatever the case, such overt inaction meant that ‘others’ like Churchill took action and were difficult to control. Nonetheless, it was British Prime Minister Lloyd George's actions and inactions that prevented adequate British support for the anti-Bolsheviks and, together with President Wilson, ensured the intervention's failure.
Of course, failure was also due to purely Russian issues and the Allied leader's ignorance of Bolshevik's goals. Lenin was a master at chaotic diplomacy. For instance, he kept the American Red Cross representative Robins and the United States convinced curing the Brest-Litovsk negotiations to accept Allied help against the Central Powers. This allowed the Bolsheviks to retain power in Moscow. He employed similar methods against Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders to bolster his personal power. He used diplomatic confusion to gain time against German negotiations to delay or stop them from a resumption of fighting. And he was willing to cede Russian territory to ensure the Bolsheviks retained power in Russia, convinced that world revolution would eventually return all that was lost.
Even before Lenin attained power, other Russians made decisions that ensured the Bolshevik triumph. Without the lies and machinations of Vladimir N. Lvov, it is possible that Kerensky and General Kornilov would not have had their violent falling-out. If Kerensky and Kornilov had not become open rivals, it is possible that the Bolshevik revolution would have failed. And it was personal distrust, inflated egos, and lies that caused the Kornilov-Kerensky schism.
Other White leaders also shared similar failings, given their widely divergent political views and egocentric personalities. Coupled with their personal ambition and frequent infighting, it also led to turmoil and the final Red success. Denikin, a believer in a Great Imperial Russia, refused to ally with the Ukraine Nationalist Petlyura to fight the Bolsheviks in South Russia. In the Baltic, Yudenitch was an arrogant reactionary who alienated regional allies vital to his access. Consequently, they denied him the support necessary for victory. In North Russia, Chaikovsky feared his own military leaders, continuously quarreled with Allied military commanders over political power and failed to persuade North Russia to support him. Finally, Admiral Kolchak could not control his own forces and lost the Czech Legion's confidence, the one capable military force on his side in Siberia. He also alienated the local population whose support he needed. Also, the Japanese-backed his Cossack opponents ensuring the White forces were divided.
Coupled with the White Russian leadership's incompetence was the individual actions of Allied personnel on the spot in Russia. Whether it was L-S General Graves in Siberia refusing to cooperate with the Japanese Allied Commander-in-Chief Otani or British diplomatic representative Bruce Lockhart in Moscow striving to prevent Japanese intervention against his own wishes government, individuals enhanced the diplomatic uncertainty by their actions. Ironside and Maynard in North Russia worked from a necessity to maintain a strong force and defeat the Reds. In the case of Ironside, it links the North Russian army with Kolchak's Siberian army while being bombarded with contradictory orders from Churchill and Lloyd George over the Allied withdrawal. Both strove for offensive victory while trying to plan the evacuation of all Allies from North Russia. In Mesopotamia, General Sir W. R. Marshall interfered with General Dunsterville's Caucasus intervention by first trying to divert Dunsterforce to face the Turks in Mesopotamia and then delaying the necessary support for Dunsterville in Baku until it was too late. General Gough overstepped his authority by bullying Yudenitch into creating another White Russian Government for North-Western Russia and recognizing Estonian independence, which added to London and Paris's diplomatic chaos. And General Knox wholeheartedly supported Admiral Kolchak up to the latter's ignominious rout from Omsk despite the blatant incompetence of the Russian military in the fight against the Reds and the complete inability of the White administration to govern the Siberian region. These individuals, while not the cause of the chaos, helped perpetuate and enhance it.
Complicating this was the vast distance between combat areas in Russia.
This mixture of internal divisions and space prevented concentrated Allied military aid. Providing needed material to these diverse and distant areas was exacerbated by the Allies' chronic logistics and communications problem -lack of sufficient shipping, a single railway, and the impediments of troops and politicians who had no desire to fight so far from home.
The revolutions in Russia caused international turmoil. No one knew where events were leading or what would occur next. Utter confusion reigned. From the end of 1917, events often forced governments and leaders to react even though they lacked both the time and the information to develop a comprehensive strategy. The various events in Russia stretched the already inadequate Allied resources beyond effective utility and created the illusion that they were separate and independent. In reality, they all impacted politically and militarily on each other.
Not to mention that the American military phase carried its own fatal flaws. The first of those was the inadequate size of the invasion army. The Allies might have been able to take Petrograd and Moscow with a couple of hundred thousand troops, as Ambassador Francis suggested, but not with the puny forces they landed at Archangel and Murmansk. The invasion force at Siberia was larger but still inadequate for a major offensive.
A second flaw was animosity between French and American troops and their British commanders. The inevitable result was a compromise in battlefield cooperation. In his analysis of the Archangel campaign, U.S. Army historian Peter Sittenauer wrote that the Western invaders lost the “tempo” of the war as early as October 1918. (He defined “tempo” as the “speed and rhythm of military operations.”) Sittenauer said forces should never operate under foreign command. They should remain “homogeneous,” with their own officers.7 Blackjack Pershing had found that out on the western front. It’s a mystery why President Wilson didn’t learn it from Pershing.
A third flaw was underestimating the Red Army. Too many British officers were convinced that Trotsky’s ragtag force was hopelessly incompetent, no matter how large it got. However, the most damaging flaw was undoubtedly the tactic of sending inadequate Allied forces too far into hostile territory without adequate supplies and reserves. And when General Ironside ordered the Allied columns to stop advancing and dig in until a new Russian army could be raised, his orders were ignored by some of his own field commanders. The result was the defeat at Shenkursk.
The fight at Shenkursk began after local British commanders ordered the Americans to go out and “stir up the enemy” above Shenkursk. That violated General Ironside’s orders to cease offensive action. Nevertheless, two patrols of Americans and SBAL Russians went out “seeking contact.” They were ambushed, and only one man came back.8
On the night of the Shenkursk disaster DeWitt Poole wired the dire news to Washington:
“We are more and more put on the defensive, subjected to more and more frequent attacks and bombardment, suffering many casualties. We have no reserves. Our men are often called upon to remain on duty for long periods without relief.”9
There was also the folly of trying to defeat Russians in a Russian winter in the first place. Russians were accustomed to fighting in a deep freeze. They knew how to acclimate themselves and turn the weather against their enemies. Napoléon had learned that. Why didn’t America and the Allies profit from the lessons of history?
After all the bodies were counted, the Russians saw the Plot as proof that the West was out to destroy the Soviet state. Russia was a former ally in the war. She had never invaded America, France, Italy, or Britain. Russia had not plotted to assassinate Wilson, Clemenceau, Victor Emmanuel, or George V.
The American prisoners that were taken in the end were freed by future President Herbert Clark Hoover, who graduated as an engineer and married his Stanford sweetheart, Lou Henry, whom he had met, over rocks, in the geology club.
For a few years after graduation, Hoover worked around the world as a mining engineer. He and his wife achieved a measure of fame after they helped 120,000 U.S. citizens return to America from Europe when war broke out in 1914. President Wilson named Hoover head of the U.S. Food Administration during the war. Then after the peace treaty was signed, Hoover managed the American Relief Administration in Europe. He was given almost dictatorial powers to run railroads, docks, and telegraph systems as he delivered millions of tons of relief supplies to war refugees.
Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer who was also involved in relief work for European refugees, had warned Wilson in 1919 that “hundreds of thousands of Russians were dying monthly from sheer starvation disease” and that a Western relief operation should be organized on humanitarian, not political, grounds.9 In Paris, the Big Four agreed that supplies could be found, but the main problem would be transportation and distribution inside Russia. Until all fighting in Russia ended, a relief operation would be “futile” and “impossible to consider.”10
But by summer 1921, those hundreds of thousands dying had become millions. One estimate put it at 27 million from starvation alone, including some 9 million children.11 Photographs show butchers selling human arms and legs for food. As before, Lenin and his government seemed incapable of dealing with it. In Moscow, Patriarch Tikhon of the Russian Orthodox Church and a fervent anti-Soviet sent an appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury in England and the Archbishop of New York of the famine. “Great part of her population doomed to hunger death,” he said. Aid needed immediately. “The people are dying, the future is dying.”
Maxim Gorky, a Russian writer and independent Marxist who had been exiled by Lenin for opposing the Soviet dictatorship, sent his own appeal: “Gloomy days have come for the country of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Mendeleyev, Pavlov, Mussorgsky, Glinka, and other world-prized men,” he wrote. Russia’s misfortune offered a “splendid opportunity to demonstrate vitality for humanitarianism,” he added.12
Ten days later, Hoover replied to Gorky, saying certain conditions would have to be met before U.S. aid could be sent: All Americans had to be freed. American relief workers had to have complete freedom to do their jobs. Distribution would be on a non-political basis. The relief workers would need free transportation, storage, and offices.
Lenin stalled. He was convinced the aid workers, would-be spies.
Hoover then ignored Lenin and sent Walter L. Brown to represent the ARA in talks with MaximLitvinov, who was appointed Soviet plenipotentiary (a diplomat who could act with the full authority government behind him).
They met at the Latvian Foreign Department in Riga, and after tedious negotiations, struck a deal on August 20, 1921. The agreement had twenty-seven sections, all dictated by Brown. Litvinov signed it, and a hundred American prisoners were on their way home. “The number was a surprise, as our government knew the names of less than twenty,” Hoover wrote later. “We served the first meals from imported food in Kazan on September 21—just one month later.”13
Hoover’s relief workers issued fifty pounds of corn per month to each person in Russia, along with bread (real bread) and cans of milk and stew. The children got extra meals. The cost was one dollar per person per month. The ARA also issued wheat seeds to farmers. That helped end the famine since many starving Russian farmers had eaten their seeds. But the 200 American relief officers in Russia stayed into 1923 to be sure the Soviets didn’t steal food from the children. Lev Kamenev, chairman of the Moscow Soviet, sent Hoover an elaborate scroll of thanks, saying the USSR would “never forget the aid rendered to them by the American people…”14 Hoover’s successful management of post-war American aid to Europe, including Russia, made his reputation as a major U.S. political and humanitarian figure.
But Lenin was determined to have the last word. After the ARA completed its mission and the Americans went home, many Russians who had worked in the relief operation were arrested and thrown in prison. Hoover said they were never heard from again.
As for the Plot, this was forgotten or covered up in America for many years; it was studied and analyzed in the Russian spy school. And by many seen as the origin of the cold war, succeeding generations of Soviet bosses have used it to justify stealing thousands of Western military secrets.
1. Petrogradskaia Pravda, September 5, 1918.
2. The National Archives, London (TNA), FO 371/3326, Lindley to Foreign Office, September 6, 1918.
3. TNA, FO 371/3348, Bruce Lockhart, “Secret and Confidential Memorandum on the Alleged ‘Allied Conspiracy’ in Russia,” November 5, 1918.
4. TNA, ADM 137/1731, Cromie to Admiralty, August 5, 1918.
5. Lockhart, Diaries, 44–45.
6. Lockhart, Diaries, 44–45.
7. Sittenauer, “Lessons in Operational Art,” 43–48.
8. The Chargé in Russia (Poole) to the Acting Secretary of State, January 23, 1919, 861.00/3713, FRUS, 1919, Russia.
9. Dr. Fridtjof Nansen to President Wilson, April 3, 1919, 861.5018/9, FRUS, 1919, Russia. Nansen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1922 for his relief work.
10. Messrs. Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Orlando to Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, April 17, 1919, 861.48/15, FRUS, 1919, Russia.
11. Paxton Hibben, “Propaganda Against Relief,” Soviet Russia, vols. 5–6 (1921): 112.
12. The Minister in Norway (Schmedeman) to the Secretary of State, July 15, 1921, 861.48/1501, Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers, The Soviet Union, 1933–1939, 711.61/287a (FRUS), 1921, Russia, Volume II.
13. Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover (London: Hollis and Carter, 1952–1953), 23.
14. Hoover, 25–26.