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The Lockhart Plot · LRB 5 November 2020

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from London Review of Books.

Most​ successful conspiracies are home-cooked – designed and carried out by men and women in their own nation (that leaves aside mere assassinations or terror bombings, which are frequently committed by intruders). It’s rare to come across a full-dress conspiracy, a planned scheme to overthrow and replace a government by violence, successfully mounted by one country against another. There are examples, of course. The Anglo-American conspiracy in 1953 to oust Mossadegh’s government in Iran came off in the short term, leaving behind it hatreds and fears that still torture the region seventy years later. The Soviet Union engineered ‘regime changes’ in Eastern Europe in the 1940s, but most of them weren’t so much conspiracies as conquests: political collapses as a gigantic army approached, followed by the secret police. The record of success for the US in destabilising Latin American governments is very long, but not unbroken. Remember the Bay of Pigs.

It’s not enough to have enormous sums of cash, or weapons ready to ferry in, or satellite images of military airports and barracks, or some plausible exile who can be hurried into the presidential palace. All those are helpful. But they come second to two basic forms of knowledge. The first is self-knowledge: what the hell do you think you are doing? Are you clear about your aim, are you just getting rid of the current rulers, or installing a regime you have designed to be your obedient servant for years to come (in which case invasion might be simpler than conspiracy)? Having settled on what you want, how much blood are you willing to shed for it, and how much chaos can you handle? The second form of knowledge is about people. Secret emissaries promise that a certain army general will bring ten thousand soldiers across to you. Émigré ‘experts’ assure you that the peasantry of a certain province is itching to rise in arms as soon as you land and raise the rebel standard. How confident are you that any of this is true – or is it at best greedy con-men’s patter, at worst a trap?

The Lockhart Plot is a book – not the first – about a very famous conspiracy by several nations against another. In 1918, Britain and France, with some American support, covertly sponsored a military plot to overthrow the Bolshevik regime in Russia, not yet a year old. The organisers accepted that this would mean eliminating its leaders, Lenin and Trotsky. Only one of the conditions for a successful external conspiracy was present. The agents on the spot in Petrograd and Moscow had quite unbelievable sums of cash to spend as bribes or to use to purchase food and weapons for the troops their Russian co-conspirators claimed to command. It was basic intelligence, above all, that was lacking. The British and French agents had no reliable information about the numbers and whereabouts of the Allied forces that were supposed to march in and support them, let alone any intelligence about the new Red Army. Their notions of levels of popular morale in different parts of Russia and Siberia were hopeful guesswork. Finally, they were never quite sure what their masters in London and Paris wanted from them. The politicians were desperately anxious not to be seen to be involved, and they also suspected that the Bolsheviks had broken their codes. Direct communication with their men ‘in the field’ amounted to mutters out of the corner of the mouth. The result was that when the plotters put some dangerous proposal to London or Paris, they came to assume that silence meant approval. That wasn’t always the case.

To Jonathan Schneer, who has taught modern history in several American universities, ‘the Lockhart Plot seemed an important subject; also, dramatic, romantic, intrinsically gripping.’ Dramatic and romantic it certainly was, and Schneer has made not one but several gripping narratives out of what he has been able to discover. This makes the book a bit disjointed. There is the story of the plot itself, as far as he can reconstruct it, and its failure. There is the Russian context of surreal confusion and bloodshed, as the Bolsheviks fought to survive and impose their authority, while their enemies – and sometimes their supposed allies – responded with local uprisings and assassination attempts (like the pistol attack on Lenin by Fanny Kaplan). And then there are the personalities. Schneer gives four of them almost lurid prominence. These are Lockhart himself; his brilliant and tempestuous mistress Moura von Benckendorff (better remembered in Britain as Moura Budberg); Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, the first version of the Soviet secret police; and Dzerzhinsky’s Latvian lieutenant, Jacov Peters. He also gives a chapter to the ungraspable rogue he calls the ‘Ace of Spies’, the man known to the Special Intelligence Service in London as Sidney Reilly. Born – maybe – as Shlomo Rozenbluim in Russian Poland, Reilly operated in a fog of rapidly changing identities and through platoons of willing girlfriends and wives (some of them bigamous).

Back in 1980, Bernard Crick began his Life of George Orwell by imploring English biographers to be honest, to confess when they didn’t know something about their subject instead of veering off into fiction. They took little notice. Schneer is endearingly open about the holes in the exceedingly tattered and piecemeal record of the Lockhart plot, some the result of weeding and redaction by intelligence services, some the work of nervous letter-burners, some just missing. When he comes to a gap, he inserts a string of ‘perhapses’ or ‘he/she would haves’ before switching on his imagination. This at least warns the reader. But it can still go over the top. There’s a sustained fantasy about what Dzerzhinsky must have thought on one particular journey: ‘He would have stared out the window, his grey-blue eyes unseeing, his quick cold brain analysing Iron Felix, cold-blooded and pitiless had sat ruminating as his train hurtled through the black night from Petrograd towards Moscow. He knew now: discriminate terror must be supplemented by terror that was indiscriminate.’ In reality, all we know about that journey is that the train arrived in Moscow and Dzerzhinsky was on it. Schneer can do better than this.

Robert Hamilton Bruce Lockhart was born in 1887, into a well-off Scottish family in Fife. Charming and intense, he studied languages and culture in Germany and France before being recruited to manage rubber estates in Malaya (a very Scottish path). Illness, probably malaria, brought him back to Britain: he joined the consular service and in 1912 was posted to Moscow as vice-consul. He soon spoke Russian like a native, and swam blissfully in the city’s prewar nightlife of vodka, champagne, Gypsy music and gorgeous women. Given to falling violently in love, he had a disconcerting way of rapidly forgetting about a lover if she wasn’t present. Schneer connects this with another weakness: his ability to shelve his own principles when duty – and career – required.

The February Revolution overthrew the tsardom in 1917; the Bolshevik seizure of power followed in November. Unlike some stuffy colleagues, Lockhart welcomed both revolutions, and his well-informed, enthusiastic reports won him respect from the leaders of the war cabinet in London. He registered early that the ‘liberal’ regime in Russia was failing, and prophesied the second upheaval. But a scandalous love affair (he was newly married) induced his ambassador to send him back to Britain. There he argued that the Bolsheviks might provide Britain with a reliable ally in the war against Germany. After Lenin took power, Lloyd George, the prime minister, sent for Lockhart and entrusted him with an extraordinary, semi-secret mission: to return to Russia as Britain’s unofficial envoy to the Bolshevik regime. In his memoirs, he wrote of this moment: ‘Adventure tugs at the heart-strings of youth I had had a colossal stroke of luck.’

Lockhart returned to Russia in January 1918. His job was to keep Russia – even a Red Russia – in the war. In Moscow, he formed a close alliance with the American Raymond Robins and a young Arthur Ransome, far the best-informed foreign correspondent in the country. Robins, a personal envoy of Woodrow Wilson’s, urged full recognition of the Bolshevik regime. Ransome, who knew the team around Lenin and had won their trust, passionately supported them. He, at least, was well aware that collapsing morale in the army meant that Russia would no longer maintain the Eastern Front against Germany. All three ‘ridiculed the charge that Lenin and Trotsky were German puppets. They 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.

By now, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had taken Russia out of the war, and German troops were surging towards the outskirts of Petrograd. In February 1918, Lockhart met Trotsky, then commissar for foreign affairs. He reported excitedly that Trotsky would accept Allied aid against the Germans and might even invite the British to occupy the ports – on condition that they renounced all co-operation with counter-revolutionary elements. ‘My policy,’ Lockhart told London, ‘promises you in a short time recommencement of war on this front.’ His cables to London became perilously big-headed for an unofficial diplomat aged only thirty: ‘If His Majesty’s government consider suppression of Bolsheviks is more important than complete domination of Russia by Germany I should be grateful to be informed.’

This cocksureness made him enemies, and events soon undermined him. Concentrating forces for Ludendorff’s final, vain offensive in the west, Germany began to withdraw troops from Russia, and the Bolshevik leaders lost interest in gaining Allied support. At the same time, the priorities of the British and French intervention plan changed. Dragging Russia back into the war gave way to the hope of overthrowing Bolshevism in co-operation with local counter-revolutionaries. A small British force landed in Murmansk, preparing to occupy Archangel; Japanese and then American troops took over Vladivostok; efforts were made to enlist the formidable Czech Legion, ex-prisoners of war who now controlled the Trans-Siberian Railway Lockhart, who at heart still felt that Russia’s future lay with Lenin and Trotsky, reluctantly admitted to himself that opposing London’s policy would cost him his career.

He was already involved with Moura von Benckendorff. It was for both of them the great love of their lives and Schneer makes a splendid story out of it, avoiding most of the conventional rubbish that gets piled up around the lives of women like her. She is supposed to have been a sexy spy for Britain, for Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka, for the Germans, for the Ukrainians No real evidence exists for any of this, though it seems that she did make some sort of bargain with the Cheka to save Lockhart’s life when he was finally arrested. In a letter to Lockhart, she described herself as a ‘big, strapping, noisy, gay creature’. But Schneer shows his readers a charming and sharply intelligent woman, better educated than Lockhart and with a wider outlook, who loved being at the centre of political intrigue and gossip and who – wherever she found herself – sailed effortlessly into the circles of ‘people who mattered’. Especially after Lockhart, she had some interesting lovers – Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells among them. Many people told her secrets, some of which she passed on. But she had nothing in common with the code-stealing tarts of spy fiction.

Born​ into a landowning family in Ukraine, Budberg was married to a Russian diplomat when she met Lockhart in February 1918. In April, they became lovers, and soon were living together openly in Moscow. These were the weeks in which Lockhart began very discreetly to change sides, and to work for the Allied plan of military intervention – even if there was no invitation from Lenin’s government, and even if seizing the ports and advancing across Russia meant armed conflict with the Bolshevik regime. ‘It would be advantageous to support an anti-Bolshevik movement,’ he wrote. As Schneer remarks, he knew counter-revolution would be a by-product of this policy. There’s some evidence that his conscience troubled him. But ‘idealism warred with deceit, for every day he was smilingly and charmingly meeting with, and seeming to agree with, not only Bolsheviks but also with his friends Ransome and Robins, unreconstructed champions of Allied-Bolshevik understanding.’ Many years later, Robins described Lockhart as a ‘rat’. Schneer rather agrees.

At this point, Schneer pauses his tale to insert a sequence of profiles: Moura Budberg, of course, then Reilly, Dzerzhinsky and Peters, his Latvian deputy in the Cheka. The most interesting figure, unexpectedly, turns out to be Peters, a stocky, affable farmer’s son with (according to Bessie Beatty, an American journalist) ‘a pair of blue eyes full of human tenderness’. He seemed utterly unlike his boss, the gaunt and unsmiling Dzerzhinsky. Foreigners found that Peters enjoyed clever conversation and could be persuaded to do favours for people he liked. Before the revolution he had been married to an English banker’s daughter and lived (concealing his revolutionary views) in Islington. Peters was seen as the ‘civilised one’ among the Cheka leaders – he told Lockhart that ‘he suffered physical pain every time he signed a death sentence’ – and yet within months of the failure of the Lockhart plot, he was ‘signing away daily the lives of scores of men he never saw’. He was largely responsible for both penetrating and disabling the plot and (probably) for sparing Lockhart’s life afterwards, though Budberg’s entreaties and promises, whatever they were, clearly helped. He was a Latvian, a Lett, and kept in touch with his own small, trodden-down nation, where German occupation had replaced the Russian Empire, and he was intimate with the men of the famous Latvian Rifle Brigade, the praetorian guard of the Bolshevik revolution. A survivor of tsarist torture and imprisonment, he was above all a loyal and battle-hardened Bolshevik. But somewhere in his complicated head, the fate of Latvia also mattered. Twenty years later, Stalin’s henchmen thought so, and appear to have shot him for it.

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. It wasn’t long before Dzerzhinsky knew that Lockhart was trying to subvert the Latvians. When Lenin was told about it, he ‘laughed heartily and exclaimed: “Just like in the novels!”’ Dzerzhinsky was not known for laughter, and in fact he and Peters had already set up a simple penetration scheme that soon rendered Lockhart’s operations harmless. The Lockhart Plot was from that moment doomed.

On 14 August, two Latvians – Jan Sprogis and Captain Berzin of the Rifle Brigade – called on Lockhart. The brigade was disaffected from Bolshevism, they said, and ready to help its overthrow. As Schneer writes, this seemed to Lockhart and later to Reilly like the answer to a prayer. Lockhart promised money, as well as Allied support to establish a free and independent Latvia, and wrote the visitors safe-conduct passes to reach Poole. But both men, well primed by Peters, were Cheka double-agents.

Captain Cromie in Petrograd had already been fooled by them. Now Lockhart and Reilly, with their French and American co-conspirators, fell headlong into the trap. The plot went into top gear. The Latvian Rifle Brigade would seize Vologda, opening the way for Poole and his brass band to march south. Reilly was preparing a simultaneous rising in Moscow by the White Guard, anti-Bolshevik Russian forces. From Petrograd, Cromie would fix the sabotage of Russia’s Baltic fleet. Lenin and Trotsky would be arrested, paraded through the streets in their underwear and then probably shot. Nothing that Schneer was allowed to see proves that London knew all these details, but Lockhart was obviously confident he was doing what his government wanted.

On 25 August, the plotters called a full meeting in the American consulate. More than a dozen conspirators turned up, among them (it’s not clear how he got in) the radical French journalist René Marchand. When he heard what was planned, he went straight to Lenin and Dzerzhinsky and told them everything. The Cheka was alerted that the counter-revolution was about to begin. But then events suddenly burst out of control. On the morning of 30 August, the head of the Petrograd Cheka, Moisei Uritsky, was murdered by a young poet; that evening in Moscow, Lenin himself was shot and desperately wounded by Fanny Kaplan. Neither shooting, it now seems, had any connection to Lockhart. But Dzerzhinsky and his staff assumed they did. He rushed to Petrograd; Peters ordered arrests in Moscow.

In Petrograd the next day, Cromie was persuaded by two other fake conspirators to hold a plotters’ meeting in the British Embassy. The Cheka stormed in, and Cromie (‘Clear out, you swine!’) died gun in hand. British and French diplomats and citizens were hunted down; executions began. ‘Let the iron hand of the rising proletariat fall on the vipers of expiring capitalism,’ proclaimed Jakov Sverdlov, chairman of the Central Committee.

Lockhart and Budberg were arrested the next day. Reilly vanished, resurfacing a month or so later in Sweden. Nothing was left of the plot except for General Poole, who continued to skirmish with Bolshevik forces in the Arctic north. Surprisingly, the iron hand of the proletariat treated the leading vipers quite mildly. Lockhart was transferred to a comfortable detention suite in the Kremlin and enjoyed interesting chats with Peters, during which he admitted his part in the conspiracy. Budberg, after spending a few horrible days in the Butyrka prison, brought him books and lavish supplies bought on the black market. But then the British government, terrified of what Lockhart might reveal when put on trial, did a most un-British thing: it arrested the Soviet ambassador, Maxim Litvinov, and held him with his staff as a hostage for Lockhart’s release. It worked. Lockhart was expelled, after a tearful railway-station farewell from Budberg – whom he then dumped. She recovered, and lived a long and exciting life in Russia, Italy and finally London, at the centre of a circle of ‘writers, poets, musicians, actors, directors, composers, journalists, important politicians, spies: she fascinated them all.’

Back in Britain, Lockhart drifted, drank and remarried. He wrote some bestselling books of memoir, and edited the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary. There was a brief return to old skills in the Second World War; he became liaison officer to Jan Masaryk and the Czech government in exile, and then director of the Political Warfare Executive. Budberg met him again in London, after some years, and accepted a rather motherly role in a friendship that lasted until Lockhart died in 1970.

As a plotter, back in 1918, Lockhart had been smart about protecting his own security (the Cheka found almost nothing on paper that compromised him). But the conspiracy was hopelessly amateurish and leaky. More significantly, the Bolsheviks were stronger than Lockhart and his colleagues thought. Cold War histories represent them as a small, unpopular gang who carried out a coup d’état and then kept control by terror. But it’s clearer now that the internal support they had was massive and reliable, albeit nothing like a majority. Schneer writes that ‘the Lockhart Plot might have succeeded.’ It’s hard to accept he seriously believes this. Nothing in his industriously researched and usually shrewd book suggests it stood a chance. As he himself concludes, ‘Lockhart and his colleagues hoped their plot would represent a turning point in Russian, and even world history, but it was a turning point that failed to turn.’

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