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 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.
While Captain Brian Horrocks and the other prisoners-of-war captured in Siberia were languishing in Ivanovsky, a British lady was suffering the same fate on the other side of the Bolshevik capital in August 1920.
Mrs Constance Harding travelled officially to Moscow as a correspondent of the New York World with letters of introduction from Maxim Litvinov. Soon after she arrived, a secret policemen posing as a Russian journalist, named Mogilevsky, deceived her and took her to the headquarters of the V-Tcheka at Lubjanka 2. In this fearsome jail she was stripped, searched and then placed in a solitary lice-infested cell with a wooden bed.
Mogilevsky had interrogated Francis McCullough on Easter Sunday and now he accused Constance of being the Head of the British Secret Service in Russia. He told her that Mrs Marguerite Harrison of the Baltimore Sun was responsible for her arrest and tried to coerce her to work for the Soviet Government, but she refused. After a torrid nine weeks in Lubjanka, she was transferred to Butyrka Prison where she joined Miss Maxwell and other “grave offenders” excluded from the Treaty of Copenhagen prisoner exchanges.
Constance was finally released as part of David Lloyd George’s trade negotiations on 26th November 1920.
Further details of Mrs Stan Harding and Mrs Marguerite Harrison are in Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners and British Parliamentary Report (Russia No 1 1922 HMSO Cmd 1602).
Russia again dominated the headlines in London one hundred years ago. After the Cabinet Secretary visited Poland, Winston Churchill raised the prospect of British troops fighting Russia again. As the Red Army approached the gates of Warsaw, The Times declared the situation was “tragically serious”. Meanwhile, the Labour Party, with Soviet funding, held anti-war rallies and Lenin’s deputy, Lev Kamenev arrived in London with a trade delegation. In Moscow, 16 soldiers languished in the Ivanovsky prison and in Baku 31 sailors were suffering in an even worse jail.
Hansard records the resulting debate in the House of Commons on 9th August. Viscount Curzon, MP for Battersea South, who had commanded a Royal Navy battalion at Gallipoli, neatly summarized the conflicting Government policies when he asked the Prime Minister: “How the Soviet delegation to this country is composed; whether any further news has come through with regard to our officers and men retained as prisoners at Baku; whether the Government have any information as to whether Bolshevik money is being spent in revolutionary interests in Great Britain and if so, what steps are being taken to deal with it and with those who are responsible; and whether it is proposed to continue negotiations irrespective of the Polish question while such a state of affairs exists?
It is not surprising that Leon Trotsky said: “Lloyd George is like a man playing roulette and scattering chips on every number”.
The Ivanovsky Prison where 16 British prisoners were held in August 1920
Congratulations to the British Red Cross for their magnificent humanitarian deeds since 1870.
Many Red Cross volunteers served abroad in World War I after permission was granted by the War Office for them to work with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Some of these courageous medics journeyed to Russia with the British Military Missions, or to the two Anglo-Russian hospitals in Petrograd.
Lady Muriel Paget and Lady Sybil Grey opened a hospital on Nevski Prospekt in 1916 for severely wounded soldiers and followed this up with field hospitals in the Ukraine, where British nurses witnessed the misery of the Eastern Front. Across the Neva river, the British Colony Hospital continued to look after patients when the Dmitri closed down after the revolution. The matron, Mrs Violet Froom was described as Ambassador, Parson and everything combined in a Government report. It is certainly true that Captain Brian Horrocks and the last British prisoners-of-war were extremely grateful for the care and comforts that she provided when they passed through in October 1920.
See chapters 1, 4, 5, 9, 12, 15 & 16 for VAD, Red Cross and medical stories in Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.
The British Colony Hospital on the Vassily Ostroff in 2019