As a plotter, back in 1918, Lockhart had been smart about protecting his own security (the Cheka found almost nothing on paper that compromised him). But the conspiracy was hopelessly amateurish and leaky. More significantly, the Bolsheviks were stronger than Lockhart and his colleagues thought. Cold War histories represent them as a small, unpopular gang who carried out a coup d’état and then kept control by terror. But it’s clearer now that the internal support they had was massive and reliable, albeit nothing like a majority. Schneer writes that ‘the Lockhart Plot might have succeeded.’ It’s hard to accept he seriously believes this. Nothing in his industriously researched and usually shrewd book suggests it stood a chance. As he himself concludes, ‘Lockhart and his colleagues hoped their plot would represent a turning point in Russian, and even world history, but it was a turning point that failed to turn.’
Was Lockhart’s conspiracy more than just a bizarre sideshow? Yes, says Schneer, who sees it as a key moment in destroying the fragile trust between the Bolsheviks and the capitalist West. That seems a bit dubious to me, since the two sides were never likely to get on. Even so, The Lockhart Plot is terrifically entertaining. Schneer does an excellent job of evoking the paranoid atmosphere of Russia in 1918, and his book teems with colourful characters, such as Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka chief, whose eyes, Lockhart wrote, “never twitched” but “blazed with a steady fire of fanaticism”.
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 book is worth reading for its character portraits alone. Lockhart is a flawed hero: magnetic, quick-witted but never quite brave enough to follow through on his political or romantic convictions. The author’s clear sympathies are with his lover, the mysterious Moura. She is presented as a woman wronged but resilient, a survivor and a force of nature. Her letters to Lockhart, quoted throughout the book, testify to pure love – or deep deviousness. Yet, like Dante’s devil, it is the Cheka – the Bolshevik secret police – who steal the show and, ultimately, win out. Their chief, Felix Dzerzhinsky, had learned his revolutionary craft opposing the tsar’s regime, which imprisoned him many times and subjected him to beatings so hard that he lost the ability to smile. ‘Iron’ Felix epitomised the Bolsheviks’ ruthlessness, brutality and fanaticism. This fascinating figure proves, in Schneer’s telling, to have been Lockhart’s nemesis, thwarting the British plot to overthrow Lenin in a series of masterly countermoves.