Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Lockhart Plot: Love, Murder, Betrayal, and Counter-Revolution in Lenin's Russia

by Jonathan Schneer
Oxford University Press, 2020
Michael P. Kihntopf, Reviewer

Robin Lockhart's Passport Photograph

The public has always found stories about spies, plots of intrigue, and betrayals, of great interest—especially when there are mysteries associated with them and there is a romantic intrigue on the side. There are three stories from the early 20th century which hold the most public fascination: the case of the Austro-Hungarian counterintelligence chief, Colonel Alfred Redl, the femme fatale Mata Hari, and the Lockhart Plot.

Each of these tales has a mystique to them that historians have tried to wade through. In the case of Redl, the question is, and will remain, who did he sell mountains of mobilization information to on the eve to the Great War? For Mata Hari, the enigma is just who did she work for? Was it the British, the Germans, or even the French? In either case, documentation is sparse to non-existent, although the events leading to their capture are quite clear. Redl was never questioned after being caught. His captors wanted to minimize the publicity of such an auspicious figure being associated with the very skulduggery that he had made a reputation in exposing. Moments after his capture, his former colleagues gave him a pistol and closed the door. In Mata Hari's case, a firing squad ended any speculation about which government was using her and for what purpose.

In the case of the Lockhart Plot of 1918, controversy has always existed about who hatched, coordinated, and bore blame for its failure and just how much did London know about Lockhart's dealings. The candidates have been Bruce Lockhart, for whom the plot is named, Sidney Reilly, a mysterious agent of British intelligence (and some would say the model for Ian Fleming's James Bond), or even the American consul Dewitt Clinton Poole—no relation to General Fredrick Cuthbert Poole, who commanded the Archangel Expedition. Whereas the first two cases will stand as deep, dark, and murky, the Lockhart Plot has met its match in Jonathan Schneer's new work.

This book is an excellent read which kept me riveted to its pages for what was going to happen next. There was a tribulation on my part when I found in the book's first few pages a list of people the author wanted me to be familiar with. I was reminded of that age-old tradition in Russian literature of listing characters in a separate glossary to avoid reader confusion during plot development, fearing that I would have to page back and forth to ascertain who a person was. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the first chapters were not confusing despite the comings and goings of hard-to-pronounce names. The pages succinctly laid out character analyses of Bruce Lockhart and the people he would encounter in devising a plot to overthrow Vladimir Lenin's government in its first few months of existence.

Felix Dzerzhinsky

One could adequately form an opinion of Lockhart, his lovers, and co-conspirators. There is even a chapter about Lockhart's nemeses, Secret Police (CHEKA) head Felix Dzerzhinsky and his assistant Jacov Peters, which outlined what their motivations were toward finding and eliminating enemies of the state. By the time the chapters about the intrigue started, I was thoroughly familiar with each side and I could sympathize with what each was trying to accomplish. I was a fly on the wall secretly watching the strokes and counter-strokes or an omni-knowledgeable entity. What became crystal clear was that the authorship of the plot belonged to Bruce Lockhart and that he hatched it without his superiors in London knowing what he was doing.

However, here's where the denial of involvement that Lockhart implied in his own book about his dealings in Russia come in. After successfully maneuvering the plan's elements he stepped aside and allowed his co-conspirators, a dizzying assortment of American, British, and French agents and political opponents to Lenin, to execute it. This calls to mind an equally dizzying number of Mother Goose adages. But I prefer Napoleon's maxim: all plans are worthless after the first shot is fired.

In a nutshell, Lockhart tried to coordinate the advance of the Allied Archangel Expedition into Russia for the purpose of reestablishing an Eastern Front. (Was that their purpose according to the Allied War Council?) Lockhart assumed that Lenin would send the Latvian Rifle Brigade, the most stalwart organization of the Bolsheviks beside the Kronstadt sailors, to meet the advance. Lockhart and the French consul successfully, in their opinion, bribed the Brigade's commanders to stand aside at the confrontation and support a march on either Petrograd or Moscow and facilitate Lenin's overthrow. He had hoped, by starving the people through acts of sabotage on their lines of supply from the interior, to enlist them in either city in the revolt.

As simple as the plot may appear, the intricacies of lining up the right people was delicate and extremely dangerous. Millions of pounds sterling moved from one fist to another. Schneer very clearly shows how Lockhart, during the clandestine meetings and positioning, lost sight of his environment. He fixated on the end goal to such an extent that he ignored bells and whistles which indicated that the CHEKA knew what was going on and had placed their agents in the spider web that Lockhart had woven. However, Lockhart had assumed too much from the beginning. He had recommended that the Archangel Expedition consist of two divisions. London had only managed a few hundred men. Either amount would never have been enough to mount a campaign to march into the Russian hinterland. The plot was doomed from the beginning.

Jonathan Schneer, professor emeritus of Georgia Institute of Technology, has given us an excellent source to understand the events of the early days of the Bolshevik regime. As the public becomes aware of this book, I'm sure Professor Schneer will receive as much acclaim for it as he did for his 2009 work The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of Arab-Israeli Conflict. I highly recommend this work as an excellently written tale of espionage, intrigue, and betrayal.

Michael P. Kihntopf

1 comment:

  1. This sounds intriguing. I had scarcely heard of it but now I see I'm going to have to get the book! Thanks for a great review. Michael.