British Witnesses To Lenin’s Revolution
Five British writers were in Russia in 1917. Each one had his own story, but all were overwhelmed by the powerful tide of history
In the years leading up to the Russian Revolution — perhaps the most important historical event of the 20th century — five British writers were on the scene and sucked into the violence. Closely watched by the secret police, who did not respect judicial niceties once a suspect was arrested, these significant eye-witnesses were exposed to danger and risked their lives. They wrote about their exciting experiences in letters, diaries, dispatches, articles, memoirs and novels. Somerset Maugham was in his forties; Arthur Ransome, Hugh Walpole and Robert Bruce Lockhart were in their thirties; William Gerhardie was in his twenties. Gerhardie went to Russia as a soldier, Ransome as a foreign correspondent, Walpole as a Red Cross volunteer, Lockhart as a diplomat, Maugham as a spy.
In the hermetic foreign community of Russia the five writers knew each other and had various degrees of experience and expertise. Gerhardie was a native speaker of Russian; Lockhart spoke it fluently, with an excellent accent, and was sometimes mistaken for a Russian; Ransome, Walpole and Maugham learned to read and speak the language. In their different ways, they were supposed to carry out the official policy of the British government: support the moderate socialist regime of Alexander Kerensky and keep Russia in the war against Germany; oppose Lenin and the Bolsheviks and prevent them making a separate peace that would free massive numbers of German troops to fight against Britain and France on the Western front. Ransome and Lockhart eventually contravened British policy by supporting the Bolsheviks and opposing British military intervention in the civil war that followed the Revolution.
The pre-revolutionary situation was complex and volatile. In the spring of 1917 Joseph Stalin had arrived in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) from Siberia, Leon Trotsky from America and Vladimir Lenin (courtesy of the Germans) in a sealed train from Switzerland to the Finland Station. Lockhart slyly called Nicholas II a “man of all the domestic virtues, but of no vices and no will-power,” and said he wasn’t fit to run a village post office. After the strikes, riots and mutinies during the first revolution in March, the Tsar abdicated, ending three hundred years of the Romanov dynasty.
The problems facing the new government were overwhelming, indeed insoluble; the masses angry and violent. A biographer wrote, “A war with millions dead, food and supplies on a downward spiral, a people expecting, now that [the March] revolution had come, either the immediate transformation of their lives or an outlet for all their accumulated hatred and envy — these were the circumstances the Provisional Government had to master, and without constitutional authority, a secure basis of power or popular support, or strong, unified leadership.”
On November 7, the Revolution — provoked by cold winters, insufficient fuel, poor transport, inflated prices, food shortages and starvation as well as propaganda, strikes, barricades, civil and foreign wars, and terror — broke out in Petrograd. With Lockhart’s help, Kerensky fled the country. Lenin became Chief Commissar, Trotsky Commissar for Foreign Affairs. In March 1918 the Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, on the Russian-Polish border, which took Russia out of the war. In July the Tsar — first cousin of King George V, who refused to give him refuge in England — was murdered with his family in Yekaterinburg. That month the German ambassador, Count Wilhelm von Mirbach, was assassinated. This was intended to sabotage Brest-Litovsk, but his death failed to provoke a German attack and bring Russia back into the war. In August a weak and insufficient Allied force landed at the north-western port of Archangel to fight the Reds. At the end of that month the socialist revolutionary Dora Kaplan shot and wounded Lenin. The “Red Terror” then rounded up and killed a thousand political opponents. Lenin’s persuasive slogans were “bread, land, peace” but the people did not get bread, the peasants did not get land and there was no peace during the next five years of civil war.
William Gerhardie (1895-1977) was born and spent his childhood in St Petersburg, where his father was a British cotton manufacturer. In the First World War he was posted to the British Embassy in Petrograd as military attaché and given the notably undemanding tasks of receiving visitors, writing letters and deciphering telegrams. Lockhart disdained Gerhardie as “a kind of office-boy in military uniform”. But he praised Gerhardie’s commanding officer, Major Alfred Knox, the liaison officer with the Russian army: “Up to the Revolution no man took a saner view of the military situation on the Eastern front and no foreign observer supplied his Government with more reliable information.” Gerhardie’s biographer, countering Lockhart’s biased opinion, maintained that Knox valued him highly as “the most practically useful officer” on an important mission to Vladivostok.
Despite his military training and lifelong experience in Russia, Gerhardie was an unreliable witness who seriously misjudged the leaders, gravity and consequences of the revolution. He mistakenly called the humane but weak Kerensky a first-rate prime minister. (When I heard the dignified, white-haired Kerensky speak in Berkeley in the early 1960s it seemed clear that he would have been helpless against the completely ruthless Lenin.) Gerhardie also failed to understand Lenin, a fierce and fiery orator, asserting that nothing in his “speech or looks gave an inkling of his future career”. Though Lenin proclaimed “through Red terror to peace” and wiped out the opposition, Gerhardie welcomed the Revolution that overthrew the old regime and promised to give power to the long-suffering underdogs. Unaware of the impending disaster, he treated the entire historical episode as a kind of joke and declared that the Bolsheviks “behave like real gentlemen and there is really no actual danger living in this place. The whole thing is a Gilbert and Sullivan Comic Opera.”
By a strange twist of fate the rather obtuse Gerhardie was the only one of the five writers who actually witnessed both the March and November 1917 revolutions in Petrograd. In March he reported the events in a series of terse bulletins that resembled newsreel flashes: “The revolution had already broken out. The [British] Admiral had just witnessed the sacking of the Arsenal by a disorderly crowd. Regiment after regiment was going over to the revolution. Solitary shots, and now and then machine-gun fire, were heard from various quarters of the city.” In a mixture of pointless riot and deliberate destruction, the rebels “all seemed drunk with the revolution. Shots were heard every now and then, mostly fired in the air, while the law courts had gone up in flames.” When the real revolution exploded in November, Gerhardie still refused to take it seriously and merely noted, “Barricades appeared in the streets. Bridges were being suspended. Lorries of joy-riding proletarians became familiarly conspicuous.”
After the revolution, the crucial question was whether the British government should intervene in the Russian civil war and help the pro-Tsarist Whites defeat Lenin’s Reds. Here again, Gerhardie got it all wrong and had no idea of how disastrous the Bolshevik regime would be both to the Russians and the British. He believed that Bolshevik rule would be short-lived and that a foreign invasion would only arouse popular support for the Reds. According to Gerhardie’s biographer, he thought that “intervention was a waste of time, effort and money, and, if anything, only served to prolong the misery of the Russian people. He believed that Bolshevism in its militant and objectionable form would last only as long as there was military opposition to it. It was impossible to beat the Bolsheviks, and therefore intervention was nothing short of ‘insanity.’” But the newly established Red army, fighting a war against experienced Tsarist generals on several fronts, was perilously weak and could have been defeated by strong Allied invasion.
The British ambassador Sir George Buchanan was courteous and gentle, and had a kind of baffling simplicity that often caused adversaries to consider him stupid. Like Kerensky, he was not capable of dealing with these apocalyptic events. Early in March 1918, Gerhardie and Buchanan returned to England with most of the British officials. In August Captain Francis Crombie, the British naval attaché, was killed while defending the embassy from invaders.
Arthur Ransome (1884-1967), fleeing an unhappy marriage in England, first arrived in St Petersburg in 1913 to study folklore. He became fluent in Russian by reading children’s books and published a collection of legends and fairy stories, Old Peter’s Russian Tales (1916). He also wrote a guide to St Petersburg, which could not be published after the war broke out in August 1914. He became the correspondent of the liberal Daily News, provided valuable information to British intelligence and when the war started he saw the Tsar greet the people from the balcony of the Winter Palace. Ransome attended many sessions of the parliament, the Duma, which soon became powerless. He made three trips to observe the armies at the Russian front, getting as far as Bucharest, and saw the great disparity between the army’s enormous potential and its actual weakness. After witnessing the disastrous Russian defeats in 1914 and 1915, he watched the Russian autocracy disintegrating before his eyes and thought only a miracle could prevent a complete military and political collapse. Like Lockhart, he believed the country was heading for a revolution and accurately predicted that Russia would leave the war by the end of 1917.
Ransome, who actually came under fire in March, felt like “a horribly observant warder in a lunatic asylum who cannot help imitating the grimaces of the patients”. He vividly reported some surrealistic scenes: “a machine-gun brought up in a hired sledge and planted on the snow” and “soldiers handing over their rifles to anybody who would take them, and small boys and youths shooting with army rifles at pigeons”. The March revolution, which Ransome welcomed, was easily suppressed. But since the new government made no significant reforms and remained in the war, the November revolution was inevitable.
Ransome saw Lenin arrive and be welcomed by the crowd at the Finland Station in Petrograd. Thus far Russia had sacrificed two million men dead, five million wounded and two-and-a-half million taken prisoner, and Lenin urged an immediate peace treaty with Germany. Three months later, in June 1917 — with the economy ruined, no prospect of peace and Kerensky weak and futile — several Russian leaders told Ransome that “no power on earth will keep the Russian army in the trenches this winter”. Ransome predicted that a Bolshevik revolution would take place in January 1918. In October 1917 he made a serious error by returning to England to advocate his political views and missed the long-awaited revolt.
Returning to Russia in December, Ransome saw Trotsky every day and began an affair with the Commisar’s secretary, Evgenia Shelepina. He eventually left Russia with her as his common-law wife, and after obtaining a divorce from his estranged wife, married her in 1924. Ignoring Trotsky’s brutal tactics and attempts to eliminate the political opposition, Ransome praised him as a high-minded idealist. He declared, “I do not think he is the man to do anything except from the conviction that it is the best thing to be done for the revolutionary cause” — though this gave Trotsky plenty of leeway to justify his atrocities.
Constrained by his official position, Gerhardie had to suppress his political views and later expressed them in his books. Ransome was free to oppose British policy in his newspaper reports and confidential advice. In January 1918 he advised the government to establish diplomatic relations with the Bolsheviks and use them to defeat the Germans instead of invading the country and trying to overthrow them. He was then considered a dangerous Red and suspected of disloyalty by the British intelligence services.
The New Zealand-born polyglot and Russian expert Harold Williams, also on the scene, opposed Ransome’s views and accurately predicted: “They want external peace for internal war. Remember my words, the Bolsheviks will fight no one except the Russians.” Dogmatically following Marxist theory, the Bolsheviks mistakenly believed that their revolution would spread to the industrial workers of Germany. When that uprising failed to take place, Lenin continued to argue that further military resistance was hopeless and that the Western allies would not rescue Russia. In March 1918, when Russia finally withdrew from the war, Germany imposed extremely harsh conditions at Brest-Litovsk. Russia was forced to cede the Baltic states to Germany and part of the South Caucasus to Turkey, recognise the independence of Ukraine and pay reparations of six billion German gold marks.
Ransome began to shift his allegiance from Trotsky and became a close friend of the powerful Polish-born leader Karl Radek, who introduced him to the most influential Bolsheviks and gave him valuable inside information. Radek, who had been on the train with Lenin from Zurich to the Finland Station, was Vice-Commissar for Foreign Affairs and had been a leading negotiator at Brest-Litovsk. Even after Russia signed the treaty, Ransome remained adamant and insisted that it was only an expedient measure: “Every step taken against the Soviets helps Germany. Russia is temporarily concluding a separate peace. If the Soviet power is overthrown, that peace may be permanent.” He even blamed Britain rather than Russia for the crippling agreement signed by the Russian dictators: “The old fools who governed England had rejected the friendship of democratic Russia and driven her to make peace with Germany.” Denying reality, Ransome saw only the Lenin he wanted to see.
Despite British policy, Ransome and Lockhart continued to work together to create a rapprochement with the Bolsheviks. Though he supported the Bolsheviks, Ransome also thought they would soon fall from power and told Lockhart that “the show was over”. The two colleagues got along well and became good friends. Ransome called the hedonistic Lockhart, who was three years younger, “a popular, cheerful young man with a taste for gypsies, wine and dancing, that much endeared him to the Moscow society of business men, landed proprietors and actors of the old regime”. When analysing Ransome’s genial character, Lockhart zeroed in on his crucial defect: his over-active imagination and poor grasp of reality, which cast doubt on the information he provided and the reports he sent back to his newspaper: “Ransome was a Don Quixote with a walrus moustache, a sentimentalist, who could always be relied upon to champion the under-dog, and a visionary, whose imagination had been fired by the revolution. He was on excellent terms with the Bolsheviks and frequently brought us information of the greatest value. An incorrigible romanticist, who could spin a fairy-tale out of nothing, he was an amusing and good-natured companion.” After returning to England, Ransome used his imagination more fruitfully and wrote the highly successful series of children’s books that began with Swallows and Amazons (1930).
Hugh Walpole (1884-1941), born in New Zealand and rejected by the army for poor eyesight, made his first trip to Russia in September 1914, a month after the start of the war. He despairingly wrote to his mentor and idol Henry James: “The streets swam in mud, I got no news of the war because I couldn’t read [Russian], the food was all sweets and cabbage, and I was lonely beyond belief. I felt too that I was utterly useless.” In the Kremlin cafeteria, even high Party officials had to dine on horse meat and turnips. Walpole used his Russian adventures in his novels The Dark Forest (1916) and The Secret City (1919).
While praising Walpole’s engaging character, Lockhart suggested that civilian life continued unchanged in the big cities while thousands of soldiers were being slaughtered on the Russian front. Walpole’s biographer wrote that “he and his wife entertained Hugh constantly at their flat, introduced him to the English colony, took him to the ballet, the opera, the circus, and altogether looked after him. Lockhart’s impression of him was of someone ‘entirely unspoilt, who could still blush from an overwhelming self-consciousness, and impressed me more as a great, clumsy schoolboy, bubbling over with kindness and enthusiasm, than as a dignified author, whose views were to be accepted with awe and respect’.”
Maugham (who, like Walpole, was homosexual) later satirised him in Cakes and Ale (1930) as Alroy Kear, a pushy mediocrity with a bogus reputation. But the boyish Walpole experienced more combat at the front than any of the other writers, including Gerhardie, a professional soldier. Describing the Polish front in December 1916 with a novelist’s eye, Walpole captured the almost cinematic beauty of the battlefield: “Wonderful views from the hill — the river, the fields of horses, the riding Cossacks, the regiments crossing the bridge, the cannon getting nearer and nearer, the endless lines of carts on the horizon, the smoke of the battle and the reflection of the shrapnel, the evening with the sky all red, the black village and all the army moving about silently, the graves, the wounded riding in bleeding, the dead coming in on carts, the burnt houses.”
In May 1915 Walpole, one of the rare Englishmen who became a Russian officer, joined a Red Cross medical unit in the Carpathian mountains of Romania. The following month he recorded an exciting and dangerous moment: “I had a most perilous adventure — shrapnel bursting very close to us, all amongst the lines, creeping in and out avoiding the moon, crossing the river, stumbling over hidden soldiers who didn’t cheer us by telling us to be quick as they were going to begin firing.” That year he was decorated by the Russian army for rescuing a wounded soldier under fire. After battle he seemed confident and energetic, and Lockhart was impressed by him: “Walpole, resplendent in a Red Cross uniform, was as tremendously enthusiastic and as refreshingly sentimental as ever. He had just returned from England, where the first of his Russian books, The Dark Forest, had had a great success.”
In February 1916, Walpole became head of British propaganda, with offices on the Admiralty Quay and a staff of 12. He predicted the murder of Rasputin two weeks before the event, and wrote influential articles for the leading Petrograd newspapers. Ransome admired Walpole’s speed as a writer, but they quarrelled bitterly when Ransome wrote articles that disagreed with official views. During the March revolution Walpole heard “a terrific noise of firing and shouting; went to our windows and saw whole revolutionary mob pass down our street. About two thousand soldiers, many civilians armed, motor lorries with flags. All orderly, picketing the streets as they passed.” November 7 brought the outbreak of the revolution and the ten days that shook the world. Walpole described the tumultuous scene in his diary: “The latest news that Kerensky has defied the Bolsheviks and arrested their committee . . . News in the morning that the Bolsheviks have the upper hand . . . Firing in the evening. Shelling of Winter Palace . . . Learn as I go to bed that the whole town in hands of Bolsheviks . . . Putting barricades up in the streets. Saw the damage shells had done to the Winter Palace.” Noting that he and Maugham (like Ransome and Lockhart) had worked together in the autumn of 1917, Walpole emphasised their swift change from high-minded hopes to bitter disillusionment: “Very depressing those months were, when the idealism of some of us got some hard knocks, and when all our preconceived notions of Russia and the Russians fell to the ground one after the other.”
Robert Bruce Lockhart (1887-1970) — the most colourful character among the writers — was born in Scotland, spent three years as a rubber planter in Malaya and was forced to leave the country after a scandalous affair with the daughter of a Malay prince. He recorded: “I arrived in Moscow early in January 1912, as a young Vice-Consul of 24 and, apart from two short visits to the United Kingdom in January 1913 and in the autumn of 1917 [when he was recalled to London and briefed King George V], I remained in Russia until October 1918.” In January 1918 he returned as a secret agent and first British envoy to the Bolsheviks, and became the lover of the flamboyant Moura Budberg. The widow of a murdered Tsarist diplomat, she was a heavy-drinking double-agent for Russia and Britain. Later on, she became the mistress of Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells.
The tough and daring Lockhart disingenuously noted that he was cursed with an ultra-sensitive nature that was responsible for his mistaken “reputation of calculated insolence”. But he gained considerable popularity by playing soccer for the British team in Moscow. Lockhart praised his own expertise in Russia by stating that “I had excellent sources of information . . . I had friendly relations not only with the leading lights of the Moscow intelligentsia, but also with the big industrialists. I knew intimately the editors of the Moscow newspapers, and I had immediate access to the Prefect of Moscow.” Moura Budberg confirmed his egoistic claims and thought he was perfect for his job: “Lockhart was intelligent, he spoke Russian, he was observant, he knew how to cultivate contacts, he had wit and vigour and a great many friends everywhere.” The French ambassador to Russia agreed that Lockhart “at once intelligent, energetic and clever, was one of those whom the English government employs, with rare felicity, for confidential missions, and whom it reserves, should the occasion arise, for disavowal.” Lockhart would soon provide excellent reasons for official disavowal.
In June 1915 Lockhart saw the first signs of the mob’s rampage against the enemy that would soon be directed against the government: “Every shop, every factory, every private house, owned by a German or bearing a German name, was sacked and looted . . . I went out into the streets to see the rioting with my own eyes.” In September, when the incompetent Tsar mistakenly assumed command of the army, Lockhart wrote that Nicholas “became personally responsible in the eyes of the people for the long succession of defeats” and intensified their desire to abandon the war. He accurately predicted the revolution in March 1917, and recorded that with no armed defenders of the old regime there was, strangely enough, no bloodshed in Moscow. He also gave a lucid account of the main causes of the revolution: “It took place because the patience of the Russian people broke down under a system of unparalleled inefficiency and corruption . . . the disgraceful mishandling of food-supplies, the complete break-down of transport, and the senseless mobilisation of millions of unwanted and unemployable troops . . . the shameless profiteering of nearly everyone engaged in the giving and taking of war contracts.”
Opposing the official view, Lockhart thought the only way to save Russia from the Bolsheviks was to allow them to make peace. He wrote that Kerensky’s “face has a sallow and almost deathly pallor. His eyes, narrow and Mongolian, are tired. He looks as if he were in pain, but the mouth is firm, and the hair, cropped close and worn en brosse, gives a general impression of energy.” But Kerensky — not energetic enough and out of touch with the Russian masses — was overthrown because he would not make peace and, unlike Lenin, would not shoot his political opponents.
In a dispatch to Ambassador Buchanan, Lockhart predicted the approaching November revolution and stated that it would cripple Russia’s ability to remain in the war: “It seems impossible that the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat can be liquidated without further bloodshed. When this clash will come no one knows, but the outlook for the war is full of foreboding.” After the November revolution, the city seemed eerily calm: “For some days life in Petrograd continued more or less normally. Shops and cinemas stayed open, and on the surface there was little indication that Russia had passed a decisive turning-point in her history.” Agreeing with Gerhardie and Ransome (Walpole had to propagate official policy), Lockhart opposed British military intervention in Russia.
In September 1918 Lockhart was accused of plotting to assassinate Lenin, arrested, imprisoned in the Kremlin and condemned to death. The following month he was fortunate enough to be exchanged for Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet representative in Britain, and permanently expelled from Russia.
Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was born in Paris, the son of a lawyer at the British Embassy. Orphaned at the age of ten and with a debilitating stammer, he was educated at the King’s School, Canterbury and at Heidelberg University before qualifying as a doctor. He was an extremely successful playwright, novelist and story writer as well as a restless traveler, and had served with the Red Cross in France during the war.
“I am going to Russia,” Maugham dramatically announced in June 1917, “and shall be occupied there presumably till the end of the war.” He had taken some Russian lessons on Capri in 1905 and in a few months knew enough to read the plays of Anton Chekhov. Once in Petrograd he continued to study the language and was soon fluent enough to conduct his business in Russian. Incredibly, the relatively inexperienced Maugham, who had been a spy in wartime Switzerland, was the principal agent in Russia for the British and American secret services during the crucial few months before the Bolshevik coup in November. Sir William Wiseman, director of British espionage in Russia, sent him there alone and with only $21,000 to pay his expenses, finance newspapers and buy arms. His task — like that of the other four writers — was to support the Kerensky government, prevent the Bolshevik revolution and keep Russia in the war against Germany. He had to work independently of the Allied embassies, and planned to blow up an Austrian-owned ammunition factory and sacrifice many civilian lives. He stayed in Russia for only two-and-a-half months, and his task, with hopelessly limited resources, was impossible.
Maugham received valuable help from two Russian friends: Alexandra (Sasha) Kropotkin and Boris Savinkov. The lively, dark-haired Sasha was the daughter of the notorious anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment and escaped from Siberia. She was born in England in 1887, during her father’s years of exile, and grew up in the socialist circles of William Morris and Bernard Shaw, who knew her as a child and called her a “most lovely girl”. In London in the early years of the century, Maugham had had a short but amiable affair with Sasha that concluded with friendly feelings on both sides. Intellectually as well as sexually attractive, she served Maugham Russian tea in glasses and talked for hours about Marx and Gorky, fate, passion and the brotherhood of man. Maugham found her extremely intelligent, with an alarming love of intrigue and a lust for power. Sasha returned to Russia in 1915. In a striking contrast to the dull, shabby life she had been forced to lead in London, she was soon on intimate terms with Kerensky, and became Maugham’s main liaison and translator. She knew and had access to every important official and, by an extraordinary change of fortune, was now a powerful figure in Russia.
Maugham’s other close colleague and source of inside information was the ruthless terrorist and underground man, Boris Savinkov. He had assassinated V. K. de Plehve, the reactionary Tsarist minister of the interior, in July 1904. In February 1905, Savinkov also blew up the Grand Duke Sergius, uncle of the Tsar. During Kerensky’s regime Savinkov — who had first fought the Tsarists, then the Bolsheviks — was minister of war and governor-general of Petrograd.
Through Sasha and Savinkov, Maugham saw a good deal of Kerensky and was astonished by his meteoric rise to fame and power. He thought Kerensky was a man of speech, not action, a leader whose vanity did not permit disagreement and whose colleagues were no more than toadies. Poorly educated and uncultured, without imagination or magnetism, he lacked physical and intellectual strength. He looked strangely haunted and nervous, completely exhausted, unable to act and crushed by the burden of power. When Lenin was in hiding in Petrograd, Kerensky supposedly knew where he was but didn’t dare to arrest him.
In his secret dispatches to London, Maugham stressed that it was impossible to combat German espionage and that the Bolsheviks would inevitably win: “Our agent reported the situation in Russia was entirely out of hand, and that no propaganda or organised support undertaken by the Allies could possibly stem the rising tide of Bolshevism.” During their personal meetings, Kerensky seemed bitter, desperate and defeated. He asked Maugham why The Times was so hostile to Russia, why the British kept their incompetent ambassador to Russia and why they had failed to send the promised military aid.
Maugham, the secret agent of a democratic government, had always refused to treat with the Bolsheviks and was now a marked man. If captured by the Reds, who were shooting all their enemies, he would certainly have been executed. On November 5, two days before the revolution, he hastily left for London with an urgent personal message from Kerensky to the Prime Minister, Lloyd George. In January 1918 Maugham wrote that he had had an exciting time in Russia and was sorry to be recalled, but he had to deliver Kerensky’s message and get himself out of danger. He had planned to return after a week in London, but the revolution broke out while he was en route to England and everything he had been striving for came to naught. On December 5 Russia signed a preliminary armistice. Maugham believed, perhaps naively, that his mission might have succeeded. In 1933 he told Lockhart that if he had been sent to Russia sooner, and with greater resources and power, he could have made the “Bolshevik coup d’état impossible.”
Despite the considerable limitations imposed upon him, Maugham showed great insight into the chaotic political events in Russia and the precarious state of the provisional government. An expert on espionage has concluded that his reports, highly valued and seriously considered, were immediately sent to the highest authorities:
- Unlike other sources of intelligence, he gave due warning of Kerensky’s infirmity, of Bolshevik strength, and of Polish and Czech possibilities [against both Russia and the Habsburg Empire] . . . His findings were accurate compared with those of other contemporary reporters on the Russian scene; and, following Wiseman’s brief, Maugham sensibly advised the Allies on political and financial methods which might enable them to “guide the storm” in East Central Europe.
Maugham’s political activities and penetrating reports were so highly valued that the authorities wanted to send him back to Russia, but this plan had to be abandoned when his health broke down.
Despite their intelligence, experience and expertise, all five writers failed in their mission to support Kerensky and keep Russia in the war. Instead, the Bolsheviks seized power, repudiated the Tsarist treaty with the Allies and signed a separate peace. The Russian-born soldier Gerhardie took part in secret missions, but was the least perceptive. The fanciful Ransome, often at the battlefront, wound up writing children’s stories. The clumsy schoolboy Walpole was decorated for gallantry under fire. The crafty, self-assured Lockhart was almost executed. Maugham, the gentleman spy and shrewd observer, barely escaped with his life. They were amateurs and observers rather than men of action, and found it difficult to make accurate predictions under volatile and cataclysmic conditions. Ransom and Lockhart thought the Bolsheviks would be defeated and Russia would remain in the war. Both men were influenced by their romantic involvement with revolutionary Russian women: Ransome with Evgenia, Lockhart with Moura.
Through misjudgment, bad timing and threat of death all but Gerhardie left Russia shortly before or immediately after the revolution. Ransome did not expect an imminent revolt, and left for consultations in England on October 9. Walpole left to work in London on November 8. Lockhart was recalled to London in the autumn. Maugham escaped with his life two days before the Bolsheviks seized power.
British policy, conceived in distant London, was sound. The government — and especially Winston Churchill — recognised the Bolshevik danger and the possibility of overthrowing the revolutionaries by invading Russia. On the scene but too close to the action, the writers were strongly influenced by their dislike of the corrupt Tsarist regime and by their lack of faith in Kerensky’s weak government. They were impressed by Lenin’s powerful personality and effective propaganda, by their friendships with charismatic leaders like Trotsky and Radek, by the enjoyment of special privileges and access to confidential information.
The writers did not want to or were unable to advance British interests. Gerhardie, Ransome, Walpole and Lockhart were pro-Bolshevik, though the first two thought the regime would collapse and the last two became disillusioned with the murderous Reds. Gerhardie, Ransome and Lockhart were also opposed to military intervention. The shrewdest of all witnesses was Maugham, who opposed the Bolsheviks and urged a more powerful Allied invasion. He believed that with the help of the Cossacks and the Czech Legion fighting in Siberia the Allies could overthrow the Reds, who were struggling for survival on several fronts. An Allied victory in Russia would have prevented the inconceivable horrors that took place under Stalin: the Ukraine famine, the purge trials, the cruel domination of Eastern Europe and the millions of prisoners who died in the Gulag. But the writers were overwhelmed by the powerful tide of history.