The Lockhart Plot by Jonathan Schneer review – the British government v Lenin

Jonathan Steele
Photograph: Malcolm Dunbar/Getty Images

What if the bullets that Fanny Kaplan fired at Lenin on 30 August 1918 had taken his life and not just wounded him? Whether the Bolshevik regime, then still in its infancy, would have crumbled without its supreme leader is one of the more intriguing counterfactuals of the early 20th century. But would the revolution have been in greater danger if Fanny Kaplan had not shot at all?

The question may seem surprising but an answer can be found in Jonathan Schneer’s well-researched and lively book. Kaplan’s assassination attempt prompted the Bolsheviks’ security police, the Cheka, to swoop on a clutch of British and French diplomats who had long been suspected of plotting counter-revolution. Although none of them knew Kaplan or her plans (she was a left-wing Socialist Revolutionary, considered even more radical than Lenin), they had been preparing a series of anti-Bolshevik moves that could have dealt a more drastic blow to the revolutionary regime than Lenin’s death. They were due to be launched a week later, but the Cheka unknowingly thwarted them in the hours after Kaplan’s murder attempt.

One of those arrested was Robert Bruce Lockhart, a colourful 30-year-old who had been appointed by Prime Minister David Lloyd George as Britain’s unofficial envoy to the Bolshevik regime. Lockhart was a headstrong adventurer and bon viveur who often went off-piste in defiance of London and had similarities with his contemporary, TE Lawrence (of Arabia). He supported the Bolsheviks initially and developed close relations with Lenin and Trotsky. The British establishment was split. Some wanted to overthrow the Bolsheviks. Others, like Lockhart, saw German militarism as the bigger issue and were dismayed at the negotiations between Germany and the Bolsheviks, which demanded Russia surrender and give up large chunks of the tsarist empire. They campaigned for British aid to Lenin so as to restore Russia as an ally in the war and prevent the Kaiser from moving troops from the eastern front to reinforce his struggling armies in France and Belgium.

Even after March 1918 when their hopes were dashed and the Bolsheviks signed the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, Lockhart remained loyal to his desire to keep amicable relations with them. A major issue was whether British and French troops should occupy the northern ports of Murmansk and Archangel. At the least they would deny these ports to Germany. At best they could move closer to Petrograd, ignore Brest-Litovsk, re-enthuse Russian troops and deserters and head west to confront the Germans. Lockhart wanted the Bolsheviks to ask the British and French to occupy the ports and in his almost daily contacts with the Russian Foreign Office kept urging them to issue an invitation.

First he decided to support the idea of an allied intervention without a Bolshevik invitation but still with an anti-German thrust. Then he went further and backed the line, pushed by a majority in the British government, of a hostile anti-Bolshevik intervention in co-ordination with Russian counter-revolutionary forces. This was the start of the Lockhart plot. Lockhart hid his new stance from the Bolsheviks, of course, but also from his friend Arthur Ransome, the other Moscow-based maverick Brit with good Kremlin contacts, who later became the Manchester Guardian’s correspondent.

Why the switch? Schneer is an academic historian and his style is not to produce definitive answers if there is no clear evidence. He prefers to lay out potential explanations and leave open the question as to which is the most plausible. The furthest he will go is to describe Lockhart as an idealist who sympathised with the Bolsheviks’ aspiration to renew Russia but ultimately succumbed to career pressure because he wanted to return to London, if possible after the hoped-for triumph of removing the Bolsheviks. In his autobiography Lockhart called the accusation of careerism “nearer the mark”, and wrote that once the British government rejected his advice and embarked on anti-Bolshevik intervention “I lacked the moral courage to resign and to take a stand which would have exposed me to the odium of the vast majority of my countrymen”. Sex also played a role, Lockhart admitted. His rich and imperious Ukrainian lover, Moura von Benckendorff, wanted to stay in Russia and make a life with him there, not in Britain.

How significant was the Lockhart plot? Schneer says most historians have dismissed it as of minor importance and doomed to fail, even if the Cheka had not pounced before it came to fruition. He believes they are wrong. “In the summer of 1918 Bolshevism hung by a thread and the Bolsheviks knew it. The new government had failed to end famine, disease and general breakdown. It depended upon increasingly brutal measures to maintain power. No wonder it had grown unpopular,” he writes.

In addition, the Red Army had not yet been properly organised. For security, the Bolsheviks relied on the Latvian Rifle Brigade, which was shot through with defeatism and mainly wanted to go home to a newly independent Latvia. Lockhart was in contact with senior Latvians who, he hoped, would storm the Kremlin and arrest Lenin and Trotsky. This would coincide with a move south by the British forces in the northern ports as well as a move north to Moscow by Russian counter-revolutionaries.

Thanks in unintended part to Kaplan, it was not to be. Lockhart was arrested and taken to the Cheka headquarters in the Lubyanka and interrogated. As a diplomat, he got VIP treatment and was even moved to detention in comfortable rooms in the Kremlin, where his lover Moura was allowed to visit him.

The British government also behaved in unorthodox fashion. They broke all diplomatic conventions and arrested Maxim Litvinov, the Bolsheviks’ ambassador in London and his assistants. With hostages in hand, they successfully bargained for Lockhart’s release in a two-way exchange. When Lockhart reached Stockholm on his way home, Ransome met him at the railway station. “The first words I heard from Lockhart,” Ransome recalled later, “were ‘You know, in spite of everything I am still against intervention.”

Dither or deceit? Schneer has written a rollicking and thriller-like narrative that captures the chaos and turbulence of post-revolutionary Petrograd and Moscow but leaves it to the reader to decide.

The Lockhart Plot: Love, Betrayal, Assassination and Counter-revolution in Lenin’s Russia is published by Oxford (RRP £25). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.