Russia has always been a mystery for many westerners. The Americans, British and French have always misunderstood or underestimate the Russians and their allies. And because of that they have fallen for Russian deception and treachery for many times. One of the must particular victims for this deception were and are Western secret services. Despite the professionalism and valiance of the CIA and MI6 these agencies have been many times roughly beaten by their most strongest nemesis – the KGB. The secret fight between Western secret services and the KGB has a long history of failed missions, captured and executed agents and betrayal. In many events the Soviet secret service was more clever and sinister than Americans and British. This is a story of first of such events the so-called Lockhart Plot that involved the Red Latvian riflemen and the British most famous agent Sidney Rielly The Ace of Spies the inspiration model for James Bond.
In 1918. the Bolsheviks had seized the power in Russia. The new government brought great inconvenience and fear for the Entente powers. The separate truce with Germany and calls for international communist revolution left two options for the west – either to try to cooperate with Bolsheviks or to get rid of them. But getting inside the war-torn Russia and the Bolshevik inner circles was the toughest part.
After all attempts of bribing the Bolsheviks to get them back in war Germany failed, the new objective was to topple the new regime. British intelligence officers raised the alarm and called Russia the new main enemy. British Naval Intelligence director Sir William Hall said: “Hard and bitter as the battle has been, we now have to face a far more ruthless foe, a foe that is hydra headed and whose evil power will spread all over the whole world, and that foe is Russia”. The chief of MI6 (British intelligence service) Mansfeild Cumming also was convinced that the new enemy are the Bolsheviks.
At August 1918, Bolsheviks controlled only small part of Russia, no bigger than 16, century Muscovy. Bolsheviks moved their capitol from Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to Moscow. From all sides they were surrounded by various anti-bolshevik forces the so-called white guards. Brits had landed a large expeditionary force in Arkhangelsk to supply and lead the white forces. It seemed from the start that the victory over Bolsheviks are certain.
However, the ruthless and brutal Bolshevik tactics and lack of unity among the white forces prevented Bolsheviks from fast collapse. Also the support from western society for anti-Bolshevik struggle was lacking. There were sense of leftist radicalization among British working classes, and many intellectuals had sympathetic views towards the Bolsheviks. The knowledge about the Red Terror in early 1918, was minimal and not everyone was convinced that the Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky were all too serious about the international revolution and struggle with west.
In summer of 1918, Lenin decided that the western powers are trying to overthrow him so it would be great effort to catch the plotters red-handed and expose them. This task was given to Felix Dzerzhinsky the head of Extraordinary Commission ( ЧК – чрезвыча́йная коми́ссия – in short Cheka) Cheka was the new Bolshevik secret police designed to combat contra-revolutionary efforts and impose the Bolshevik power. Cheka was the mother of KGB and Dzerzhinsky its ideological father and heroine.
The Cheka started the plot by approaching British Naval attaché Commander Leslie Cromie (also a MI6 agent).. On 7 August the Cheka agent introduced Cromie with his friend – colonel Eduards Bērziņš the senior officer of the Latvian rifleman. He wanted to cooperate with the British and promised the support from Latvian rifleman. This is what the British wanted and they were too wiling to believe it.
A week later the two man appeared in Moscow apartment of the the British envoy Robert Bruce Lockhart. Lockhart was extravagant, brainy and moody gentleman. Bērziņš explained to Lockhart that the Latvians are not intending to fight for Bolsheviks forever and wished go home to Latvia. They told if they would be sent to fight the British forces in the north they would surrender. They also asked four million rubles to work on his fellow Latvian sympathies. Lockhart responded that it will be better than two Latvian regiments would switch sides on the provincial town of Vologda, opening a second front against the Bolsheviks, while those who are remaining in Moscow would assassinate the Lenin and his government. But he wrote lassiez-passer to help Latvians reach the British forces and provided 900 000 rubles as the down payment.
Lockhart incriminated himself and his fellow Cromei and confirmed the Bolshevik suspicions. He went further by putting two visitors in touch with Sidney Reilly the spy from British consulate. Born Sigismund Rosenblum near Odessa later nicknamed the “Ace of Spies” was a complex, unpredictable and widely overconfident.
As a womanizer Reilly arranged the meeting with Bērziņš at apartment of one of his mistress, but turned up late. While waiting the Latvian noticed an envelope that gave an address of the actress Elizabeth Otten who had allowed her apartment for spy meetings. The Cheka begun arresting all who visited it. One of them was Maria Friede, sister of a colonel in the Red Army General Staff who was carrying secret documents from him, destined for Reilly. Her brother was arrested and confessed his cooperation with American intelligence officer who was also arrested but later released in exchange.
The Brits exposed them further by believing that the French reporter of the Le Figaro Rene Marchand is spy of their government. Marchand posed as hostile to the Bolsheviks, but in reality he informed Dzerzhinsky about the British plans. He learned that the supposed coup would happen in 28 August at the time of the party meeting at the Great Theater. The Latvian rifleman should arrest and execute the Bolshevik leadership on spot. Reilly promised Latvian conspirators senior positions in the future Latvian state under Allied protection.
Why Latvian rifleman were so important in the British plans and why they believed them? Latvian rifleman regiments were one of the best Russian formations during the war with Germans. Their intentions were to defend and liberate their homeland from Germans, however because of many pointless military defeats and pointless casualties under Czarist leadership exposed them to the Bolshevik ideology. After the Bolshevik coup the majority of Latvian rifleman went to Russia to protect the revolution and became the Red Army elite guard. They played the most important role in the Red Army victories and Lenin trusted them. However, the British regarded that the Latvians would switch sides on promise of independent Latvian state and bigger money offer since they regarded Latvians as Bolshevik mercenaries. That was a grave mistake – ironically the Latvian rifleman were the most devout defenders of the Bolsheviks at that time.
Dzerzhinsky went straight to Lenin to inform about this plot. The problem was how to use the Marchand’s material. Lenin came with ingenious solution. The French journalist Marchand wrote a letter to French president Raymond Poincare where he warned the president about his countries spies involvement in the plot. It’s a duty of journalist to inform his head of state about ludicrous actions of the secret service. Then the letter would be “found” by the Cheka during the search at the Marchand’s home.
Cheka waited few days to see the plot developing. But the assassination on 30 August of the head Petrograd Cheka Mosei Uritsky and later in the evening the assassination attempt of Lenin himself prompted the communist leaders to spring the trap. On 31 August eight officers of the Cheka raided the British embassy. Officer Cromie was shot dead while trying to delay the intruders and allowing his two officers to escape. The Lockhart, his assistant and the French consul general was arrested, interrogated and later deported.Reilly escaped but was sentenced to death in absentee. In 1925 he again fell for Dzerzhinsky trap and was arrested in Soviet Union. He and others fell for guise of so-called anti-Bolshevik resistance organization the Trust that in reality was made out by the Cheka to lure western agents and Russian monarchist agents in to hands of the Cheka.
The so-called Lockhart plot was the first Soviet counterintelligence operation, many others would come. The next crushing failure by British and American intelligence that involved Latvians was Operation Jungle. The ill-fated attempt of supporting the Latvian anti-soviet partisans after the World War II will be discussed in the future.