A hundred years ago yesterday a disgruntled Russian socialist, Fanya ‘Dora’ Kaplan, tried and failed to assassinate Lenin in Moscow. She regarded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk as a betrayal of the ideals behind Russia’s latest revolution, and sought a change of direction through a change of leadership. The attempt came shortly after the assassination in Petrograd of the city’s Cheka (secret police) commander, Moisei Uritsky, as an act of personal revenge.
Neither of these gestures made much difference to the stability or otherwise of Russia’s fledgling Bolshevik government, although Lenin was critically ill for a time and spent the rest of his life with two bullets inside him, but between them they were to have an enormous effect on that government’s relations with Western Europe, and with Britain in particular. I’ll try to explain, and because I’ve been AWOL for a while I’ll do it the long way.
The War for dominance of a fading imperial world was almost done, and the result, broadly speaking, was no longer in doubt. France would survive and Britain abide. The USA had arrived, Japan was on the rise, three empires – the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian – were already dead or terminally sick, and the German Empire’s fate would be decided, not by the men responsible for its brief, bombastic history, but by Allied armies, the furies of its own population or both.
The other result recognised by all but the most diehard conservatives among the world’s informed observers was that the age of simple imperial dominance had come to an end. This was most obviously expressed to the world by US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which were still being quoted as the basis for future peace six months after their creation, and which envisaged an international structure of sovereign states very different from that destroyed in 1914 (11 February, 1918: Daydream Believer). Almost as obviously – at least to those with the luxury of viewing the world in geopolitical terms – the British Empire was busily, you might say nervously, planning the postwar security and extension of its massive global portfolio.
Hardly a day went by during the summer of 1918 without some indication of this from the British government. The British parliament positively rang with vague promises to India and Ireland of future political reform, with reassurances to the ‘white dominions’ of tariff-free trade within the postwar Empire (a concept known as ‘imperial preference’, and one that is still being touted under various names by some Brexiteers), and with excuses for attempting to expand imperial control over the Middle East and parts of the Caucasus. On a more regional scale, the Japanese government and military were engaged in the same kind of planning for postwar empire, while the political classes in Serbia and Italy – both destined for a place among the victors at the peace table – harboured visions of their own local empires.
Amid all this jostling for future clout at or near the top of the geopolitical food chain, and the clamour of smaller nations demanding their sovereignty, one piece of planning for the postwar world united pretty much everyone on the planet with anything much to lose. Everybody running every other state agreed that the Bolshevik regime in Russia, the living epitome of everything ruling classes had ever feared about the pre-War rise of socialism, had to be stopped.
On one hand, no matter how much of the world desired it, bringing down the Soviet regime looked a very tricky proposition. Russia is a big country. Conquest was an obviously dangerous long shot, and even in the unlikely event that the world’s surviving military powers could agree to undertake such a vast enterprise in concert, there was no chance of selling the idea to war-weary populations. In any case none of the Allied powers was at war with Russia, although the USA severed diplomatic relations with the Bolsheviks on 15 August, and most of them were engaged in talks with Russian officials about maintaining economic and even military relations – so the legality of any full-scale invasion would be extremely dubious.
The Allies could agree to cooperate for minor operations, and propaganda could turn protection of northern Russian supplies or rescue of the Czech Legion into a reasonable case for action, at least as far as popular opinion and legality were concerned. But expeditions to Archangelsk and Vladivostok were no more likely to force regime change in Moscow than were British squabbles with Bolsheviks in Baku or German clashes with would-be Bolshevik regimes in Eastern Europe.
It was also possible, though at times logistically difficult, to provide material and financial support for the varied and fluctuating collection of anti-Bolshevik, or ‘White’, forces at large all over Russia, but that was another very long shot. Not only was it almost impossible for outside agencies to make intelligent choices about which forces to help, but none of those forces had so far shown much sign of efficiency, coherence or stability.
One option remained. It had the advantages of being cheap, potentially effective, hidden from the public eye and deniable. It involved employing an industry that had been growing steadily since the beginning of the twentieth century, had boomed during four years of world war and seemed likely to flourish amid the violent political volatility that followed the October Revolution of 1917. It was espionage.
Most national intelligence agencies were a product of the late nineteenth century, and most were developed as military departments charged with coordinating and acting upon intelligence gathered. Most soon sprouted useful connections and subdivisions within their national diplomatic and police services, reflecting their twin responsibilities for collecting intelligence about potential enemies and blocking foreign attempts to do the same on home territory, otherwise known as counterintelligence. This sprouting of agencies created a nebulous working environment in which multiple right hands didn’t know what multiple left hands were doing, or why, a problem that plagued the espionage trade as the century grew old and has never quite gone away.
In general, the most that can be said for European espionage during the twenty years before 1914 was that it provided some information towards quantifying the capabilities of potential enemies – but you would have had a hard time convincing most ordinary citizens of that. Popular fiction, newspaper sensationalism and an atmosphere of hostile suspicion towards foreign powers made it a well-known fact that, wherever you came from, foreign spies were everywhere, plotting to bring down society as you knew it. Meanwhile your own security services, wherever you lived, were pitifully underfunded and understaffed, not to mention awash with cunningly concealed traitors. A few well-placed traitors across the continent were indeed selling secrets, or at least information, to hostile powers, but otherwise the continent-wide explosion of spy mania was created out of thin air.
Spy mania did generate a little more government funding during the early twentieth century, and certainly contributed to the belated formation of a British secret service in 1909, but intelligence services in and before 1914 were not the big bureaucracies of Cold War spy movies, or Le Carré’s clever collectives of highly trained spooks. They were tiny departments run by a handful of military or diplomatic appointees. Their few agents were employed on an ad hoc, often temporary basis, usually because they offered their services to diplomats or military men in contact with intelligence agencies. The work carried out by these essentially private agents was sporadic, banal and on the whole of marginal strategic significance, in that most of them hung around foreign ports, military areas and political centres picking up gossip or counting things.
I mention all of this because although the outbreak and continuation of world war brought a relative flood of funding to the spy trade, massively expanded its pool of potential agents and added enormously to the immediate importance of their work, its way of going about things didn’t really change much. Intelligence flowed around the war from diplomatic sources, from various military sources and occasionally from spies infiltrated behind enemy lines, but the trade was still dominated by gossip across the War’s many frontlines. Intelligence services were also charged with providing support for populations seeking freedom from military occupation or imperial control, and with promoting sabotage and other disruptive activities in enemy states or neutral countries suspected of aiding an enemy, but they were still basically tin-pot organisations, short of resources and specifically trained personnel, hampered by the ongoing plague of inter-agency vagueness.
This was still essentially the case in 1918, when the British secret service (known as C after its first and wartime chief, naval Captain George Mansfield Cumming, as opposed to K, the counterintelligence service run by army officer Vernon Kell) responded in spectacularly vague fashion to its government’s perceived desire – not yet clearly stated – to promote regime change in Russia.
Much of the vagueness around the story that follows can be traced to a shortage of contemporary documentation, understandable where ‘secret’ organisations are concerned but also a reflection of the amateurish atmosphere around the wartime British service. For the period between the October Revolution and the Armistice, only three written reports from inside Russia to Cumming’s department survive, and they amount to little more than casual observations from British citizens on the spot. All the other evidence of British espionage activity during the period derives from memoirs, recorded gossip or propaganda, none of which can generally be regarded as reliable sources. So…
It would seem that Cumming was making active efforts to recruit and finance a new network of agents inside Russia from the start of 1918. At that point he had access to no more than a dozen sources of information about the new regime, most if not all of them reporting as a sideline to their day jobs, and none of them trained or organised for the business of political intrigue. Those sources included a number of British embassy staff, left behind when Britain removed its diplomats from Russia at the start of the year, as well as military liaison officers forced to take refuge in the embassy after Russia withdrew from the War. Their presence made the embassy a natural (and obvious) centre for future espionage activity, but none of them were directly employed or controlled by Cumming.
The nearest thing to a professional British spy in Russia in early 1918 was Bruce Lockhart, a young diplomat with five years’ experience of Russian conditions, who was sent to Moscow by the government in January, nominally as a special envoy to negotiate with Lenin’s regime in place of withdrawn diplomats, but with orders to stimulate and coordinate political opposition to the Bolsheviks. While considering appeals from exiled Tsarist officers and officials for employment as anti-Bolshevik agents in Russia, Cumming sent another Russian-speaking naval officer, Commander Ernest Boyce, to work with Lockhart and naval attaché Captain Francis Cromie (who had been in Petrograd since mid-1917), and to organise a network of anti-Bolshevik agents.
By March, these steps appeared to have achieved little or nothing beyond the recruitment of amateur agents in Moscow, Petrograd and Kiev. Lockhart and Cromie were in contact with anti-Bolshevik officers from apparently disaffected Latvian units stationed in Moscow and Petrograd, and a coup d’état was discussed, but nothing more concrete than talk, rumours and evidence of mutual mistrust had yet emerged.
Encouraged by the one constant refrain discernible among the chaos of his intelligence sources – that the Bolshevik regime was fragile, perched atop a powder keg of popular discontent and could be overthrown with one well-timed push – Cumming meanwhile sent another half dozen or so selected agents into Russia, given a few hundred pounds (usually in cash or diamonds) and charged with doing whatever they could to bring down the regime. By August these included the musician Paul Dukes and the timber merchant George Alexander Hill – both fairly well known figures in the early history of British state espionage – as well as the altogether bolder and rather more effective figure of Sidney George Reilly.
This is not the place to tell the full story of Reilly, ‘Ace of Spies’ – it’s been told, or perhaps invented, at great length and through various media – but a little background on the man seems in order. Born Schlomo Rosenblum, at or near Odessa in the early 1870s, he had moved to England at the end of the nineteenth century, married an Irishwoman and changed his name. Since then he had, in the words of Cumming, ‘been everywhere and done everything’, travelled the world as something between a con man and a businessman, lived in France, England, Russia and the USA, and specialised in intrigue wherever he went. Acting on a recommendation from the US, Cumming employed Reilly for the first time in March 1918. He shared the general view of Reilly as highly effective and very clever but utterly untrustworthy, but was convinced of his anti-Bolshevik sentiments and dispatched him, with £500 in cash, £750 in diamonds and orders to bring down Lenin, to northern Russia at the end of the month.
Arriving in Petrograd in mid-April, Reilly embarked on a much-storied adventure that may or may not have involved attempts to get close to Lenin and remove him from power in person, and may or may not have involved detailed plans for a coup with counter-revolutionaries in Moscow and Petrograd, to be spearheaded by the aforementioned Latvian units. Reilly probably did recruit agents and use the homes of his several Russian lovers as safe houses, and was certainly in contact with Lockhart, Boyce and Cromie as they flailed around, vainly seeking some kind of consistent or coherent policy to pursue. He also, none too surprisingly, came to the attention of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka.
The Bolshevik regime and its secret police had spent the summer of 1918 in a state of advanced paranoia concerning the actions of Russia’s former allies – and they were entitled to. With the streets of Petrograd and Moscow apparently teeming with foreign agents and counter-revolutionary conspirators, the arrival of allied armed forces in Archangelsk and Vladivostok fuelled rumours of an imminent Allied invasion, to be timed to coincide with a coup d’état. There is some evidence, though most of it derives from the realms of self-serving memoir or literary speculation, that Reilly was on the point of triggering his plan for a coup in late August, and much more evidence that Bolshevik attitudes to the Allies, and the British in particular, had by then hardened to the point of undeclared war.
In the event, and whatever the truth about Reilly’s game-changing plans, Soviet attitudes were the key to what happened next. On 31 August, the day after Kaplan’s attack and with Lenin still fighting for his life, Cheka agents raided the British embassy, shooting and killing Cromie when he resisted, while the Soviet press ran screaming headlines about a foiled ‘Anglo-French plot’ to overthrow the government by killing Lenin. Lockhart was named as the chief conspirator and Reilly as his prime executive, although the former definitely and the latter almost certainly had nothing to do with the assassination attempt.
Lockhart was imprisoned (as were a couple of dozen minor British agents, including most of Reilly’s lovers), but was subsequently exchanged for Bolshevik envoy ML Litvinov, who had been arrested in London as a retaliatory measure. Reilly meanwhile escaped Russia via Estonia and Finland, despite a dead-or-alive reward offered for his capture, and lived to spy another day.
British spies had failed in their scattergun, largely notional attempt to promote regime change in Russia, but the actions of Cumming, Reilly and their less focused colleagues did provoke, or at least provide an excuse to cement, the final breakdown of relations between Britain and the Bolshevik regime. Until the storming of the British embassy, a century ago today, debate about the two states’ future relations was still possible, and was still in progress around the fringes of both governments. From that day until its fall, despite a brief and uneasy period of alliance during the Second World War, the Soviet Union would regard Britain as an enemy, and the British, drawing on a folklore history of fear and suspicion where the mysterious power to the east was concerned, would justify Moscow’s view time and again.
I know that’s been a long ramble, but the story here seems worth telling. The growth and eventual redefinition of international ‘political’ espionage was in some ways a byproduct of the First World War, albeit through a process of what amounted to blindfolded blundering on all sides. Wartime outbreaks of political chaos all over the world provided the platforms and test beds for techniques, tactics and strategies that would become the standard blueprint for future spies, turning them into something resembling the dark forces portrayed by pre-War spy fiction. The Russian Revolution, above all, provided intelligence communities in every other country with an unprecedented opportunity to make a real and almost universally popular difference to the world through political espionage, and the small but ambitious British Secret Service did what it could to seize the chance.
The British effort’s only ‘success’ lay in helping to trigger a long-term escalation of international spy wars, thus ensuring the importance and future funding of the espionage trade, but British spies reversed into even that dubious achievement, merely creating enough suspicion to provoke convincing allegations of conspiracy. Those outcomes said something about the ecological difficulties attached to external regime management, and even more about the intrinsic value of political espionage, messages that are still being ignored, at great cost to all of us, by intelligence agencies around the world.