Sunday, 17 February 2013

Penguin no. 538: Memoirs of a British Agent
by Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart

The revolution took place because the patience of the Russian people broke down under a system of unparalleled inefficiency and corruption. No other nation would have stood the privations which Russia stood, for anything like the same length of time. As instances of the inefficiency, I give the disgraceful mishandling of food supplies, the complete breakdown of transport, and the senseless mobilisation of millions of unwanted and unemployable troops ... Obviously, the Emperor himself, as a supreme autocrat, must bear the responsibility for a system which failed mainly because of the men (Sturmer, Protopopoff, Rasputin) whom he appointed to control it. If he had acted differently, if he had been a different man ... These arguments are childish.

Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart lived in Moscow during the tumultuous second decade of the 20th Century. He was a witness to the final years of the pre-war Tsarist Russia, the start of the First World War, the short-lived Kerensky regime, and life following the Bolshevik revolution of October/November 1917. Memoirs of a British Agent is largely his account of these years, together with his views on the factors which led to the events of this important period in Russian history. It is a fascinating though detailed and complex book, written assuming the reader's familiarity with contemporary events and personalities, much of which I lacked. It deserves a more thorough consideration than is feasible after a single reading.

In addition to describing the events of importance and analysing their causes, Lockhart discusses the leading figures he met or observed during his time in Moscow, sketching out their personalities. He knew Trotsky, for example, meeting with him daily for many months during 1918, and he describes an eloquent man with a volatile and changeable nature, and a bellicose temper. He met with Lenin less frequently, but noted the reverence with which he was always treated. In contrast with Trotsky, Lenin was invariably calm, confident, and controlled. He met Stalin only once, and found him unremarkable. And he describes being present in a restaurant when Rasputin made a scene which could not be controlled, as there was no one willing to intervene. Djunkowsky, the Assistant Minister of the Interior and head of the police, eventually authorised his arrest, and found himself relieved of his post the following day.

Lockhart was clearly a man of exceptional abilities, but good luck seems to have played a considerable part in his life as well: he often found himself in the right place at the right time, or made a random comment on which his fortune turned, or took a gamble which paid off, or at least that is the story he tells. He was sent to Moscow as British Vice-Consul in 1912, after finishing first in the Consular Service examinations, despite having only weeks to prepare and competing against others who had been studying for years. He was made Acting British Consul-General a few years later, at the age of 28, as it was evident to the Ambassador that he knew more about Russia than any alternative candidate. He was removed from his position and returned to Britain a few weeks before the Bolshevik revolution on account of an extra-marital affair, but was sent back to Russia shortly afterwards by Lloyd George heading an informal diplomatic mission to encourage the Bolsheviks not to sign an independent peace treaty with Germany.

He suggests that this pressure on Russia from the Allies to remain in the war, and therefore maintain an eastern front, was perhaps the most important amongst several reasons for the failure of the democratic first Russian revolution of 1917. The Russians were a war-weary population by that time, and the Bolsheviks were promising immediate peace. He argues throughout the book that the Russian temperament (of the time) was an integral factor in all that occurred. He observed the elation and pride of the Russian population in response to their army's early wartime victories, and their later disaffection when the losses and inconveniences started to mount, and notwithstanding the observations quoted in the passage above, he believed that it was the national character to think only in extremes. In his opinion the Russians, the great majority of whom were illiterate, felt only exhilaration or despair, and there was little hope of them enduring the ongoing privations of the war stoically. He also places much of the blame for the ensuing events with the Empress, believing that her principal concern throughout the war was to maintain the autocracy in an undiminished form for the benefit of her son. From late in 1915, Lockhart believed revolution was probable if the war continued.

Lockhart spent his final weeks in Moscow as a political prisoner detained in the Kremlin, suspected of instigating what came to be known as The Lockhart Plot which allegedly had as its aims the assassinations of Lenin and Trotsky, and the destruction of the Russian railways. His confinement was at the start of the Terror, and at a time when no one held in the Kremlin by the Bolsheviks had ever been released. But he was lucky in this as well, finding himself returned to London in exchange for Litvinoff, the unofficial Soviet representative in Britain.


  1. Anyone who would like to read this wonderful book (this book, published in 1933 was among the non-fiction best sellers) can get a text version here --

  2. Fascinating - I have this on my TBR in a reprint and I'm looking forward to it. Interesting what you say about Litvinoff, as he was married to Ivy Low whose work under her married name is published by Virago ("She Knew She Was Right" and "His Master's Voice")and she also produced a couple of lost works under her maiden name ("The Questing Beast" and "Growing Pains"))

  3. This is great, thank you to Sujith also for posting the link. I definitely am going to read this next weekend!

  4. Quelle glorious find!

    we adore Cold War agents behind enemy lines with British Accents.

    love your blog *sighs*

    see you on instagram, lady.

    _tg x



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