Plight of the Grave Offenders

During the Anglo-Russian prisoner exchange negotiations in March 1920, Lenin’s envoy inserted a clause which allowed the Soviet Government to keep hold of anyone who had committed grave offences against the state. Chief among these were a group of ex-pats in the Committee for the Relief of the British Colony in Petrograd. This wealthy group of British subjects helped those less fortunate who were affected by the 1917 revolutions, but also provided funds for the MI6 network of agents, built up by Major John Scale and Captain Francis Cromie RN.

The leader of the committee was George Gibson, who worked for United Shipping. He was imprisoned following the successful British raid on the Soviet fleet at Kronstadt by the Royal Navy’s coastal motor boats on 18th August 1919. Another prominent member was Charles James Maxwell who ran John Hubbard & Co’s cotton mill. He was arrested with his niece and and cousin Miss MacPherson (his wife who died in 1907 was a member of the famous MacPherson family, who provided the first president of the Russian Football Federation).

When the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, heard that these “grave offenders” were still in their Moscow jail, he described the situation as “scandalous” and made sure their release was made a condition of the Prime Minister’s trade deal.

Mrs Sheridan’s Moscow Visit

Mrs Clara Sheridan was the widow of Captain William Sheridan, great grandson of the famous playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  Her husband was killed leading a Rifle Brigade assault at the Battle of Loos on 25th September 1915, five days after the birth of his son.  She became a renowned sculptress through her busts of Herbert Asquith and Winston Churchill, but her political sympathies lay with the Bolshevik cause, rather than the British government.

Clara was entranced by the head of the Soviet trade delegation, Lev Kamenev, when she met him in London and accepted his invitation to visit Moscow. Arriving after the Second World Congress of the Communist international on 11th September 1920, she was given privileged access to Russia’s magnificent art collections and completed busts of many Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin and Trotsky.

She did not visit Brian Horrocks and the other British soldiers in prison, who were appalled when they heard that she had sculpted a bust of the murderous head of the Secret Police, Felix Dzerzhinsky. They were even more shocked when they read her obsequious description of him: “one can see martyrdom crystallized in his eyes” and her feelings of “real sadness that I may never see him again” because they had witnessed the abject misery forced on millions of ordinary Russians by Dzerzhinsky’s Red Terror.

The French Connection

France was if anything closer to Imperial Russia than the United Kingdom during the First World War and continued to support the fight against the Bolsheviks after the British Army withdrew in summer 1920.

In Moscow, Madame Charpentier ran the French Red Cross mission after all the other countries evacuated their teams.  Accompanied by her two daughters, she brought food twice a week to the British prisoners-of-war in Ivanovsky and these supplements prevented Brian Horrocks and his compatriots from starving.  Potatoes were most welcome, but the real treat was when they were given an egg, or a portion of sugar.  They were also grateful for the occasional bone for Teddy their dog.

When the British prisoners were moved to Andronovsky, they met the son and brother of Madame Charpentier, who were languishing in a nearby cell.   This gallant family was released in October and when they left Russia, Mrs Margueritte Harrison took over the job of bringing food to the foreigners in the Russian prisons, until she too was arrested and sent to Novinsky Prison for Women.

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