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Home > Reviews > The Lockhart Plot: Love, Betrayal, Assassination and Counter-Revolution in Lenin’s Russia

The Lockhart Plot: Love, Betrayal, Assassination and Counter-Revolution in Lenin’s Russia

Author Jonathan Schneer

ISBN No 9780198852988

Review date 13/08/2022

No of pages 368

Publisher Oxford University Press

Publisher URL

Year of publication 29/07/2020


Our Review


£ 25 hardback

To be an author, like a spy, it is not enough to find the right story, and to tell it well; you have to do it at the right time. Jonathan Schneer, an American historian, has done all that with this cracking book, on The Lockhart Plot; an 1918 attempt by the World War One Allies France, Britain and the US to kill Lenin and Trotsky and scupper the infant Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

It's an adventure story, of one man, Bruce Lockhart, a pre-1914 diplomat, 'charming, formidably intelligent, adventurous beyond common sense, determined and competitive (not merely on the playing fields), strong-willed but only to the penultimate point'; and 'remarkably industrious, knowledgeable and literate'; and a 'charmer and a rogue'. Back in Britain by the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, PM David Lloyd George in person asked him to return as an 'unofficial envoy to the Bolsheviks'; but Lockhart also had an unofficial and secret mission 'that is still difficult to penetrate'.

While the author has not been able to learn from Soviet, now Russian archives, it's remarkable, at this distance, how full and intimate a story he has been able to tell. Not only of the British and other anti- or at least non-Bolsheviks seeking to bring down or at least use or cooperate with the Russian Communists, but the likes of Lenin and Trotsky and their then quite sparse numbers of revolutionaries.

Bolshevism had already turned Russia upside down by the time Lockhart arrived in what was then the newly renamed Petrograd in January 1918. We're introduced to other characters - in every sense, for such a chaotic, exciting and uncertain place drew men. And the stakes were high; the Allies were in their fifth year of grappling with Germany and its allies. Russia, having dropped out of the war in 1917, mattered, quite apart from the revolutionary ideals of the new regime.

The narrative well puts across how extraordinary, even thrilling, the first months of the Russian Revolution were; and how everything seemed 'hung in the balance', at the time; whereas it's tempting after the event to regard the Soviets as bound to survive. It's hardly giving away the plot (pardon the pun) to say that the Bolsheviks did make it through 1918; and the book fully lives up to its breathless sub-title, of 'Love, Betrayal, Assassination and Counter-Revolution'.

Having set the stage with Lockhart, the author then gives us a pen-portrait of the first head of the Bolshevik anti-spy service, the Cheka; the thin and austere Felix Dzerzhinsky, 'the Revolution’s chief inquisitor'; and his second-in-command, Jacov Peters, who was among left-wing revolutionaries at large in London before and indeed during the 1914-18 war. We're also introduced to Sidney Reilly (not his real name), the celebrated 'Ace of Spies'.

Briefly, with bribes, plotters led by Lockhart planned a coup; using the Latvian Rifles (a unit of soldiers) to capture the Bolshevik leaders by force (by then in Moscow) and most likely kill them; win over the people or at least make them turn against the Bolsheviks by interrupting food supplies; and squaring with the Orthodox Church (also bribed) to give support with public prayers and sermons. By August 1918 the conspiracies in Moscow and Petrograd (now St Petersburg again) had unravelled, without Lockhart and Reilly and the rest knowing.

To his credit, Schneer acknowledges that the affair has already been written about, and the trail of events is dubious or unknown. What also scuppered the 'Lockhart Plot' was the assassination of the head of the Petrograd Cheka on August 30, 1918 by a young man who made off on a bicycle; though he was soon arrested - and an attempted, unconnected, assassination in Moscow of Lenin. That was enough to prompt the regime to reel in the 'counter-revolutionary conspirators' it knew about. One died in a shoot-out in the British Embassy in Moscow - as the author points out, the 'Bolsheviks had committed a breach of international law' by entering the embassy, except that the dead Brit had also breached the law by plotting for months.

Lockhart was arrested in his flat, interrogated by the Cheka; but let out and allowed to leave Russia. A 'Red Terror' began, 'a decisive step in the development of what would become the Soviet police state', including hostage-taking and shootings.

Who betrayed who, if anyone, and why? That we can't tell; although the author suggests that Lockhart's Russian lover was offered a deal by Peters and Dzerzhinsky; 'a chance to free herself for a price' and that 'she agreed to pay the price to save herself and her lover'.

The upshot? The 'prospect of effective Allied counter-revolutionary intervention in Russia lapsed forever. Perhaps it had always been a pipedream'. Lockhart and Reilly were safe and away from Russia when their agents went on trial in November 1918. Peters was one of many victims of Stalin's Terror; by then Dzerzhinsky had died a natural death. Reilly was tricked back into Russia and shot in 1925. Spies and Bolsheviks seldom had to worry about their pensions.

As it's real life, the book doesn't have a happy ending. Lockhart - presumably like so many after thrilling deeds - found it hard to pick up a career again. He became a journalist, including writing the “Londoner’s Diary” column in the Evening Standard, and his marriage went sour. He drank, and divorced, married again, and died in 1970. Likewise no happy ending for Dzerzhinsky and Peters. Schneer suggests in the conclusion that those secret policemen 'personified the degeneration of Bolshevism' from its idealism, although that does imply the movement wasn't violent and amoral from the start.

Only at the very end does the author point to a consequence for the present; that the Lockhart Plot has an echo, causing 'most obviously long-lasting Soviet distrust of the Western powers and a siege mentality that helped to justify creation of the Soviet police state'. The perfect timing for the publication of this book is due to the publishing of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee long-held-back report on Russian influence on the UK. Two wrongs don't make a right.