IN THE SPRING OF 1917, after three years of fighting a war on two fronts, Germany came up with a daring and unlikely plan to destabilize Russia. It made a backroom deal to transport Vladimir Lenin and a small group of exiled radicals from Switzerland to Petrograd in the hope of fomenting a revolution that would take its eastern enemy out of the war. The plan worked better than the Germans could have imagined. In October, the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government in a coup that plunged Russia into a cauldron of state terror, revolts, civil war, pestilence, famine, and foreign intervention. By the time the violence subsided in the early 1920s, over 20 million were dead and the country lay in ruins.
As the chaos metastasized during these years, the world took advantage of Russia’s weakness. Over a dozen countries, most notably Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Romania, and Japan (which sent the most troops — over 60,000 — and stayed the longest — until 1922 in the Far East), invaded from all directions along the periphery of the vast former empire of the tsars and seized enormous amounts of territory.
The story of American intervention in the Russian Civil War is well known and has been told many times before. Journalist and author Barnes Carr would have us believe, however, that there is much we still don’t know about this history, which he purports to reveal in The Lenin Plot: The Untold Story of America’s Midnight War Against Russia. The administration of President Woodrow Wilson, he writes, launched a secret operation together with Britain and France to topple the fledgling Soviet state and then assassinate Lenin and other top officials. The story Carr recounts is dramatic, but it’s not new. David S. Foglesong, for example, covered the same ground with greater accuracy and insight in his impressively researched America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism: U.S. Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1920 (1995).
As Carr rightly states, officials within the United States’s government were concerned from the start about the threat posed by the Bolsheviks, and some, most notably Secretary of State Robert Lansing, soon began lobbying for an Allied campaign to topple Lenin. Their motivation was largely twofold: first, to install a friendly government that would continue the war effort against Germany; and second, “to strangle Bolshevism in the cradle,” as Churchill put it, before it had a chance to spread revolution across the globe.
Throughout The Lenin Plot, Carr tries to paint the United States as the main driver for intervention in Russia, but again and again his argument founders on evidence that points to Britain and France as the key actors. As late as April 1918, for example, Washington was “still reluctant,” in Carr’s words, to support French appeals to remove Lenin. When President Wilson did agree to send the USS Olympia to Murmansk, Carr admits this was done “under French and British pressure.” Carr remarks that as late as July of that year, Wilson wanted American troops in northern Russia “to guard Allied stores and help the Russians raise a defense force but [he] had ‘no expectation’ of allowing U.S. forces to take part in combat.”
Carr suggests at numerous points that the United States provided financial support to the anti-Bolshevik Russian armies only to admit later that “official documents do not indicate how many, if any, dollars were actually disbursed.” This pattern recurs throughout the book: tantalizing hints of grand and nefarious American plots are dropped along the way to keep the reader in suspense, only later to be dispelled as mirages. In short, there’s a good deal of heat in Carr’s book, but precious little light.
What’s more, The Lenin Plot is littered with errors, inaccuracies, and misstatements. Tsar Nicholas II did not take over supreme command of the Russian army in September 1915 from his brother Grand Duke Michael, but from Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, one of his cousins. It would not have taken “an alert observer” in 1915, as Carr remarks, to “have heard the first rumblings of a coming upheaval in Russia.” These rumblings had been disturbing Russia for over a decade by then; anyone noticing them for the first time in 1915 would have had to have been in a coma since before the Revolution of 1905. The idea that “German agents in the palace during the war [were] trying to influence Rasputin and the tsarina to persuade Nicholas to sign a separate peace with Germany” is a thoroughly discredited myth. Valenki are not “popular Russian fur boots”; they’re made of felt. Russian speakers will scratch their heads to read that “ufa” is a derisive Russian word for Jew, that Lenin is pronounced “L’neen,” or that Empress Alexandra “was derisively called Nemka, a Slovenian word meaning ‘German woman.’” One could go on and on.
Strange and disturbing is Carr’s love for the old American South. Woodrow Wilson, he tells us, was “charming and courtly” and a “Southern gentleman” — this about a man who praised the Ku Klux Klan and used the power of his office to roll back Black progress. Carr recounts how tensions between Black and white soldiers in 1918 at Camp Custer outside Detroit “settled down” after the former “were given their own barracks, recreation rooms, and latrines.” It’s rare to find books nowadays still endorsing segregation. And in an especially striking passage, Carr writes: “Peter the Great had used slave labor to build the city [i.e., St. Petersburg] out of swamps in the early 1700s, at almost the exact time that New Orleans was built, also out of swampland.” Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of another, more significant similarity overlooked by Carr: slave labor, which was used to build both cities. New Orleans, to cite the title of Rashauna Johnson’s 2016 history of the city, was “Slavery’s Metropolis,” so great was the role of enslaved people in its construction and daily life.
The conservative — or, rather, reactionary — mindset behind such ideas animates Carr’s entire project. Between 1994 and 2000, he points out in his preface, the United States interfered in foreign elections more than twice as often as Russia did. The remark seems irrelevant, until one realizes that what Carr is really talking about is Russian meddling on behalf of the Trump campaign in 2016. If, he appears to be saying, Russia plotted to help get Trump elected (a fact that is now beyond dispute), then who are we to object, given our track record and what we did in Russia in 1918? According to this logic, Russia has the right to interfere in the electoral politics of Germany, Britain, France, Romania, and Japan as well. The Lenin Plot is sure to be a welcome addition to Vladimir Putin’s fall reading list.
Thankfully, for the rest of us, there’s Jonathan Schneer’s The Lockhart Plot: Love, Betrayal, Assassination and Counter-Revolution in Lenin’s Russia. Like Carr, Schneer is neither a Russian scholar nor speaker, but he has done his homework and immersed himself in the sources. He knows enough to know what he doesn’t know, which should be the guiding motto for every historian and especially for one attempting to make sense of a story as confusing as this.
At the center of Schneer’s account are the French and British, and in particular the Scotsman Bruce Lockhart, whom he describes as “charming, formidably intelligent, adventurous beyond common sense, determined and competitive.” Lockhart had served in Russia as a diplomat for the British government since before the revolution. He knew the country, its people, and its language exceptionally well, and when the Bolsheviks seized power, he thought Britain and the new Soviet government might find a way to work together. His hopes for cooperation soon faded, however, and sensing that his superiors back at Whitehall would rather overthrow than work together with Lenin and Trotsky, Lockhart changed his tune and began organizing a plot to do just that.
Schneer does an excellent job of untangling the thick mass of contradictory testimony, false leads, dubious sources, fake identities, double-dealing, and skullduggery to present the most complete and reliable history of Allied plotting in the first year of Soviet power, with the exception of Robert Service’s masterful Spies and Commissars: The Early Years of the Russian Revolution (2012). He proves it was Lockhart, together with Sidney Reilly (a.k.a. the “Ace of Spies”), who brought together a group of French, British, and American diplomats and agents in the spring of 1918 and came up with a covert plan to use Allied troops and local foes of the Bolsheviks to capture Lenin and the rest of the top Soviet leadership. As the planning progressed, it grew more sinister: Reilly suggested it wouldn’t be enough to arrest their enemies; they had to be executed.
It didn’t take long, however, for the Cheka, the dreaded Soviet secret police, to infiltrate the band and break up the plot. All the key figures — with the exception of Reilly, who managed to escape Russia — were arrested. There’s no denying that an air of amateurism hung over the entire affair. Lenin apparently just let out a hearty laugh when he learned of the plot. “Just like in the novels,” he exclaimed.
Schneer, like Carr, casts Allied interference in early Soviet Russia as the original sin that pushed Lenin’s regime to embrace mass terror in order to survive and that also soured relations with the West, laying the foundations of the Cold War. “A friendly Britain,” he writes, might have tempered “the Bolshevik sense of beleaguerment and help[ed] to moderate Bolshevik policies.” There is an element of truth in this, but only a small one. Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed they were igniting the spark of global revolution when they seized power in Petrograd. They did not seek to make peace with Britain, or with anyone else, but to unleash a civil war along class lines that would destroy capitalism as the prerequisite for a brighter future. Violence and terror were the order of the day. It is difficult to know just how much power the Allies ever had to influence Soviet leaders’ thinking, much less their actions.