Spies, slush funds and a failed British coup

In 1918, Britain was suspicious of the new Russian government, who wanted peace with the Germans. They had to be stopped, so step forward, young Mr Lockhart.

As our missiles attack Libya today in an attempt to cripple the power of the country's leader, new evidence suggests that our intent was the same nearly 100 years ago in Russia.

The year was 1918, and in the final months of World War I, Russia's new Bolshevik government, led by Lenin, was negotiating a peace deal with Germany and withdrawing its troops from the battlefront.

This did not please London. The move would enable the Germans – who had been fighting a war on two fronts – to strengthen its forces in the West. Something had to be done.

It's here that the first of two colourful characters enters the story. Robert Bruce Lockhart, a young Scot, was sent by the British government to be 'their man in Moscow'.

Known for his love of wine, women and sport, he also revealed a taste for subterfuge. Once it was clear he couldn't stop the peace treaty being signed, his goal became the internal overthrow of the Bolshevik government.

To this end, he asked for money from London to fund anti-Bolshevik organisations in Moscow. The Foreign Office sent his letter, marked 'urgent', to the Treasury with the Foreign Secretary's recommendation:

'Mr. Balfour is of the opinion that the moment has arrived when it has become necessary to take this action.'

By this time, Lockhart had linked up with another adventurer, the Russian Sidney Reilly, 'Ace of Spies'. Real name Rosenbloom, he was a man of mystery working for the British Secret Services to bring about political change. He's even credited with inspiring Alexander Fleming's spy, James Bond.

But both Lockhart and Reilly were stung by circumstances, when in the late summer of 1918, a young Russian woman tried to assassinate Lenin.

Lockhart was immediately arrested by the Cheka, the Bolshevik Secret police, and although Reilly managed to escape the country, the organisation's cover was blown.

The British government denied any involvement, while Lockhart now claimed that he barely knew Reilly.

But a recently discovered letter from his son Robin calls this into questions. 'My father,' he writes, 'has himself made it clear to me that he worked much more closely with Reilly than he has publicly indicated.'

The British government always denies subverting foreign governments or aiding assassination attempts of political leaders.

But Professor Robert Service, who found the letter, doesn't believe this. 'The British haven't always been clean,' he says. 'They have been as dirty as anyone else.'

You Decide

  1. 'No government should ever interfere in the internal affairs of another.' Do you agree?
  2. Is it ever right for a citizen to spy on their own country - and sell their secrets?


  1. Consider the skills necessary for a spy, and then organise a panel to interview potential spies. Panellists and spy applicants can swap roles. Who'd be the best spy in your class?
  2. There have been countless revolutions down the years, each different. The English revolution of 1642; the French, 1789; the Russian 1917; the Iranian, 1979 and more recently those in Tunisia and Egypt to name but a few. Research a single revolution, whether one of these or another of your choice. And then answer the question: 'Revolution – good or bad?'

Some People Say...

“Who'd be a spy?”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who were the Bolsheviks?
They were formed by Lenin in 1905 to be a party for the workers, and came to power in the October revolution in 1917.
Who did the Russian revolution overthrow?
Tsar Nicholas 2nd. He was deposed in February, 1917 and a provisional government installed. But in October, the more radical Bolsheviks replaced them and went on to become the Communist party.
Why did the woman shoot Lenin?
Fanya Kaplan was one of many Russians unhappy with the Bolsheviks. It's probable a coup was close, before the Cheka used the assassination attempt to round up and execute 1000's of government opponents.A Only for a time. He was lured back to Russia in 1925, interrogated and then shot in a forest outside Moscow. A lonely death with the British denying all knowledge of his activity.

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