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. Then an Allied-friendly dictator would be installed to get Russia back into the World War against the Central Powers.
Who were the spies and politicians trying to have Lenin removed from power, alive or dead?
The US State Department
American Secretary of State Robert Lansing, a bored pacifist who doodled and daydreamed in White House cabinet meetings, became alarmed after Lenin seized power in October 1917 and proceeded to remove Russia from the war in a secret money deal struck with Germany.
Speaking of Berlin’s offer, Lenin later told a comrade: “We would have been idiots not to have taken advantage of it.” This “separate peace” allowed Germany to move army divisions over to the Western Front, the main battleground of the war. As a result, the Allies feared defeat in France.
Lansing decided to hire a Cossack army to march on Moscow and turn out the Bolsheviks, then install a Western “military dictatorship.” But the Western nations had not declared war on Russia. And Russia was a former ally in the war. This was politically dangerous territory.
A deal was worked out in which U.S. dollars would be sent to London and Paris as war aid, then laundered to finance the conspiracy. President Wilson, publicly an opponent of interfering in the affairs of other nations, privately told Lansing that this had his “entire approval.”
The Cossacks – along with the Socialist Revolutionaries – were the Bolsheviks’ main enemies, and there’s little doubt that Lenin would be executed by whatever general was hired. After all, the Bolsheviks were doing the same thing – killing their enemies, often without a trial.
Still, in its goal to eliminate Comrade Chairman, the Lenin Plot did exude a certain odour of international terrorism on the part of the Allies.
In December 1917, a U.S. consul in Moscow, DeWitt Clinton Poole, travelled down to the Don on a secret mission to interview several Cossack generals. But the generals were antagonistic toward one another and could not be counted on to mount a unified attack against the Bolsheviks.
The plot segued into 1918, still under direction of the U.S. State Department.
At the top of the plot was American ambassador David Francis, a bourbon-sipping old Confederate gentleman who once faced down a Bolshevik mob armed only with a shotgun. He sent reports to the State Department’s Bureau of Secret Intelligence, a predecessor to the CIA and NSA.
Immediately under Francis was Poole, a tennis player from the University of Wisconsin nicknamed Poodles. Poole was control officer for Xenophon Kalamatiano, Kal, a University of Chicago track star who had sold tractors in Russia before the war.
Kal ran Russian and Latvian agents, including a mole inside the Red Army’s communications headquarters. William Chapin Huntington, a U.S. commercial attaché, doled out millions of dollars to anti-Soviet sources in Russia.
British agent Bruce Lockhart, a dedicated footballer and a dyed-in-the-tartan Scot who didn’t particularly like the English, joined the plot in 1918.
Lockhart had been first sent to Moscow in 1912 as a vice consul but his penchant for exotic women had seen him recalled to London in 1917. His lover was identified only as a beautiful “Jewess” named “Madame Vermelle.” She might have been wife of a Bolshevik official, which could have posed a security threat to British interests.
The Foreign Office also recalled their disinterested ambassador, Sir George Buchanan.
Prime Minister David Lloyd George and King George V were, however, aghast at the lack of a coherent British response to the Bolshevik reign of terror in Russia, and Lockhart was soon called in for a briefing. “Our people are wrong,” Lloyd George told Lockhart. “They have missed the situation.”
Lockhart was sent back to Moscow in January 1918 as a “special commissioner” for the Foreign Office. He was instructed to contact American Red Cross Colonel Raymond Robins, head of a very successful U.S. spy operation in Russia.
A new British ambassador was not posted to Russia, so Lockhart became England’s top diplomatic official in the country. At first, Lockhart and Robins tried to convince Lenin and commissar for war, Leon Trotsky, to get Russia back in the war. When those efforts failed, they called for direct Allied intervention in Russia.
Another key British agent was Sidney Reilly, who arrived in Moscow in May 1918. Reilly was a Russian adventurer and profiteer hired as a freelance spy by the Secret Intelligence Service. He was also a drug addict who saw himself as Napoléon reincarnated; at other times he thought he was Jesus Christ.
Ian Fleming told a colleague at the Sunday Times in 1953 that Reilly was the inspiration for his fictional spy James Bond. But considering the fact that Sidney was a ruthless freelancer primarily in service to himself, he probably qualifies more as one of Fleming’s SPECTRE agents.
Reilly was instructed to just pop in, take a look-see, then get out. But he immediately saw opportunities to overthrow the Communists (the Bolsheviks’ new name). He envisioned himself as Bonaparte leading the charge.
“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?”
The British and American agents in the Lenin Plot worked closely with a number of French plotters. Ambassador Joseph Noulens, a grandiose monarchist who traveled like a rajah, set the pace by going on a crusade to collect 13 billion francs the Soviets had stolen from French investors.
Consul General Joseph-Fernand Grenard, an author and former explorer, dispatched agents across Russia to recruit resistance armies to support the Allied coup.
Henri de Verthamon – a saboteur who wore a black trench coat and cap and slept with explosives under his bed – blew up Soviet bridges, oil wells, and ammo dumps.
Finally, there was the impressively named Charles Adolphe Faux-Pas Bidet, a former Paris cop who had worked the French case against Mata Hari.
This was the stuff of classic European intrigue.
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 for 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.