It seemed like a good idea at the time—invade Russia, defeat the Red Army, stage a coup in Moscow, and assassinate party boss Vladimir Ilych Lenin. An Allied-friendly dictator would then be installed to get Russia back into the World War against the Central Powers.
Lenin remained as leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, however, until his death in 1924. Following is an account of the plot formed by the American, British and French conspirators, and of why it did not succeed.
It’s been said that spy work is 90 percent preparation and 10 percent actually getting out of the car and doing something. After much frustration, the car doors were suddenly flung open for the Allied spies in August 1918.
Captain Francis Cromie, a naval attaché and saboteur at the nearly deserted British embassy in Petrograd, was approached by Jan Shmidkhen, a Latvian army officer stationed in Moscow.
Shmidkhen said that Latvian troops hired by the Soviets as executioners and palace guards could be persuaded to join an Allied coup. He offered to contact a Latvian commander, Colonel Eduard Berzin. This idea was approved by Cromie.
Shmidkhen then made the pitch to Berzin, who then reported the approach to Felix Dzerzhinsky, chief of the Soviet secret police, the Cheka. Felix instructed Berzin to proceed as an agent provocateur for the Cheka.
Berzin met with British agents Bruce Lockhart and Sidney Reilly, and French Consul General Grenard. Lockhart promised 5 million rubles to the Latvians. Reilly then gave Berzin initial payments totaling 1.2 million rubles.
To back up the planned Moscow coup, the Supreme War Council in Paris deputized the Czech Legion as an Allied army in Russia. Boris Savinkov, leader of an anti-Soviet independent Socialist Revolutionary army, was also recruited.
Like Reilly, Savinkov was a drug addict, and a superstitious one. He saw himself as a Nietzsean Superman and believed that wearing silk underwear made him impervious to bullets. The Allied plotters had discussed simply arresting Lenin and taking him to England to stand trial for treason against Russia, but Reilly and Savinkov advanced the conspiracy to an out-and-out assassination plot.
To back up the coup, Allied military forces invaded Murmansk and Archangel in North Russia, just below the Arctic Circle, and seized their port and railroad facilities. The local soviets in those cities feared invasion from Germans in neighboring Finland, and welcomed the Allied landings. The cities’ rail lines would have allowed the Allied invaders to push southward to Petrograd and Moscow.
The Allies began fighting the Red Army on seven fronts. But the invasion quickly turned sour. Most of the combat troops were American and French, commanded by “crocks,” British officers who were mental and physical rejects from the Western Front.
Backed up by 40,000 cases of Scotch whiskey, the crocks refused medical supplies, hot food, and warm clothing to the poilus and doughboys under their command. The drunkenness of the crocks caused a number of battlefield deaths.
American and French mutinies broke out. One doughboy confronted a British officer, told him to say his prayers, and shot him. Other British officers were beaten to death on the streets of Archangel.
The British commander in chief, Major General Frederick Poole, a vindictive man who ignored the needs of the American and French troops, stayed in his warm mansion in Archangel and refused to go out to the different fronts to check on the men.
Poole was sacked by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour and replaced by Brigadier General Edmund Ironside, a decorated commander from the Western Front. Ironside was a huge Scot, as wide as the River Clyde. Naturally, his nickname was Tiny. He put on furs and personally delivered supplies to his troops. They loved him. Sanity had arrived.
Lockhart’s new exotic lover at this time was Maria Benckendorff, his Russian “translator.” The Sûreté later identified her a triple agent for the British, Germans, and Soviets. She might have denounced Lockhart to Dzerzhinsky, causing his arrest.
The plot was blown in August 1918 as the Cheka rolled up the Allied spy networks. Lockhart was swapped for a Soviet diplomat jailed in London. Kalamatiano was sentenced to death. Most of the other main Western conspirators managed to flee the country.
The Soviets called the Lenin Plot the Lockhart Conspiracy because Bruce had promised money to the Latvians. Others have called it the Reilly Plot because Sidney actually paid the Latvians.
It could also be called the Cromie Conspiracy, since he first met with Shmidkhen. And why not the Poole Plot, since he first got the ball rolling in 1917? Or the Wilson Plot or the Lansing Plot, since they were the original architects of the conspiracy. Russians now call it the Conspiracy of the Ambassadors because of the Allied diplomats involved.
As it turned out, the roll-up which ended the plot was part of a sting operation developed by Lenin and Dzerzhinsky. That made it a “Lenin Plot” in more ways than one.
Details of the conspiracy are detailed in Barnes Carr’s new Cold War history, The Lenin Plot: The Unknown Story of America’s War Against Russia, to be published in October in the UK by Amberley Publishing and in North America by Pegasus Books. Carr is a former reporter and editor in Mississippi, Memphis, Boston, Montréal, New York, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. and was executive producer for WRNO Worldwide, providing New Orleans jazz and R&B to the USSR during the final years of Soviet rule.