In 1920, the Secret Police in Moscow were actively recruiting British citizens as spies against their government. A black wine trader, Benjamin Jeffers, revealed how he resisted their approaches when he was interviewed by Lord Emmot’s Committee to Collect Information on Russia in London on 15th June 1920.
Jeffers had been imprisoned for several months when he was offered freedom if he would work for the Soviet Government. His interrogators explained: “If you catch a gentleman the first time we will give you 1,000 Roubles and the next time we will give you 15,000 Roubles…” To ensure he understood the consequences of failure, they added bluntly: “If you do not catch anybody, we will shoot you.”
When the last British prisoners-of-war were sent to Ivanovsky, the Secret Police tried to recruit them as spies and they gave Emerson MacMillan and the other soldiers a “pamphlet telling them to shoot their officers and join the Bolsheviks”. This fell on stony ground because Leonard Vining and Brian Horrocks were regarded so highly by everyone under their command. See Chapters 11 and 15 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners for further details.
On Thursday 22nd July 1920, fourteen British soldiers were taken under guard to the V-Tcheka headquarters at 2 Lubjanka in Moscow. The Russian dissident George Popov distinguished this from its neighbour the M-Tcheka when he wrote: “If there was any difference between them, Lubjanka 14 had the reputation of being a medieval torture chamber and scene of mass murders in an even higher degree than Lubjanka 2”.
The search of the soldiers’ belongings took five hours and many precious items were confiscated. Captain Brian Horrocks MC, who later earned fame in World War II, managed to read a piece of paper written by the vindictive Omsk commissar that stated the British had enormous sums of money hidden in their belongings. As a result, they were herded into a single cell and spent a torrid night as the officers were interrogated individually by the secret police.
The next morning, they put on their smartest uniforms as they were marched across Moscow to the notorious Ivanovsky monastery, which the Bolsheviks had converted into a political jail. There were 457 prisoners in Ivanovsky, of whom 45 were women. There was no hope here and some of the inmates who had been imprisoned without trial since 1918 had gone quite mad.
See Chapter 15 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.
In July 1920, no one was allowed to traffic a commodity in the new communist country and to reinforce the rules, the authorities imposed the death penalty on anyone suspected of “speculating”. Tons of fish rotted in Tobolsk and at Omsk, there was a mountain of salt and yet across the Ural Mountains there was none and people were starving.
The quartermaster of the British prisoners, Emerson MacMillan secretly stowed about 40 pounds of salt in a kit bag when they departed under guard for Moscow on 14th July. At the evening halt, a woman in rags stepped up to him and whispered Salee? While the guards were distracted, a handful of salt was traded for a pound of prized butter and the woman seemed to think she had the best of the deal.