The following is an excerpt from On Distant Service: The Life of the First U.S. Foreign Service Officer to Be Assassinated (Potomac Books, 2020) by Susan M. Stein.
Four: Imbrie, Acting
At 3:00 o’clock on the morning of April 5, 1918, U.S. vice consul Robert Imbrie swung down from the train and edged through a throng of passengers with caps pulled low and mufflers knotted above their chins. Despite the crowd, the station was ominously silent. No welcoming shouts pierced the noise of hissing steam.
Imbrie headed toward the exit, intent on his assignment, to reopen the U.S. consulate in Petrograd that had closed in late February. Since then the American legation had been holed up in Vologda, 372 miles east, first living in train cars and later in a twenty-room clubhouse, rented by the enterprising ambassador, David Francis. Although Vologda was well located with rail lines connecting it to both Moscow and Petrograd, and news came in with each train, Francis needed someone on site. Too much was happening too quickly in the former capital of Imperial Russia, and he ordered Imbrie back to Petrograd. The United States was at war with Germany, Russia had made peace with Germany a month earlier, and the provisional government had been overthrown by the Bolsheviks, whom the United States regarded as anarchists. Imbrie’s consular status was a thin veneer for information gathering.
At the train station Red Guards were funneling passengers into lines to search for contraband, in particular food. During the previous year, even while the Allied embassies were still open, deprivation was rife at every level of Russian society. The diplomatic corps had watched as meat, sugar, buckwheat, and potatoes gradually disappeared. The cost of fish, fowl, milk, and cheese had soared. Despite promises by the Russian government, flour and butter no longer reached the legations. An American military attaché’s wife had rhapsodized at receiving eggs as “a gift that is beyond my power to return in kind or value.” The diplomatic colonies had hired servants to queue for food, kerosene, candles, tobacco, and other household goods. One hostess claimed that food at any price was cheap. The food shortages were chronic.
As Imbrie squeezed into the jostling line, waiting to present his pass, he eyed the Red Guards rifling through the passengers’ luggage, parcels, and coats. Then, as the line began moving, a peasant sprang loose and ran. A guard spun around, pulled his revolver, and, firing from the hip, killed him. Imbrie moved forward, his pass in his hand. The guard waved him on, and Imbrie emerged from the dimly lit station into nighttime Petrograd.
No trams were working. He flagged down a horse-drawn cart and climbed in, settling back for the twenty-minute drive to the Hotel l’Europe on Nevsky Prospect, but the image of the peasant’s last moments stayed with him, an image of desperation and danger. Contraband was a small price for a life.
Ostensibly Imbrie was in Petrograd to fulfill normal consular duties, but nothing was normal in Petrograd in April 1918. Five months earlier the ambassador’s top adviser had written of the “constant, wearing calls upon [the] Embassy. . . . Commissions, visits, commerce publicity, railroads, extraditions, land values, military preparations, naval statistics, finance, passports, prisoner relief, moving picture propaganda, capacity of printing presses, house furnishing and repairing, lost passports, censorship, mail inspection, wharf and port capacity and dues, relief ships, strikes, coal mining operations, couriers for mails, ocean cables, etc. etc. etc .” In the coming months, Imbrie would handle most of these duties and more.
The Great War had altered the consular service, involving it more deeply in information gathering. Its commercial interests, including help in developing business relations between American firms and foreign countries, were extensive and provided an opening for clandestine activities. During the first full year of the war, trade between Russia and the United States had almost doubled. Between 1916 and 1917, it had risen from $310 million to almost $560 million. Dreams of postwar investments enfolded visions of Russian water power, mining, and railroads. Every Allied country wanted Russia to form the “right” alliances, which meant not with Germany. In Moscow, U.S. consul general Maddin Summers thought Russia “the greatest of all markets” and strove to capitalize on this perception. Early on he asked for more consuls in Russia. Then, with the Russian revolutions of 1917, economic opportunity yielded to a greater need. Newspapers were heavily censored; reliable information was scarce. Summers intensified a long- term practice of supplementing consular reports with those from businessmen and aid workers, expanding reporting on political and economic conditions and, increasingly, on military developments. By late 1917 the consuls and quasi-official agents were reporting from across Russia. Still, Summers needed more help. In late October of that year Imbrie arrived in Petrograd to help fill the need.
Imbrie spent his first four months in Petrograd, learning the consular business well enough that in April, with the American staff having retreated to Vologda, he was assigned as the sole State Department official in a city of a little over a million. He quickly found an apartment on the Palace Quay and got to work. The pace was frenetic. The embassy, located in a fashionable district of Petrograd at 34 Furstatskaya Street, had only a skeleton staff of three Russian workers. Its furnishings were draped in sheets. Its gated courtyard, offices, and living quarters echoed only the occasional footfall. Formerly a festive venue, the embassy was now forsaken.
Besides overseeing the embassy, which warehoused official documents, Imbrie oversaw the American consulate’s offices situated on the third floor of the Singer Building at 18 Nevsky Prospect. It was the nearest thing to a skyscraper in the city whose code banned any building being taller than the Winter Palace, the official residence of Russian monarchs. When revolution broke out on November 7, 1917, the consular staff, including Imbrie, had gathered at the Singer Building. There they had watched as a cor-don of soldiers supporting the provisional government lined the bridge over the Catherine Canal. The embassy staff, expecting a pitched battle, had ordered the consulate evacuated, but Imbrie had baulked. They would carry on with their duties, even though they felt they were living “above several tons of dynamite with a live fuse attached.” In September when Consul Roger Tredwell arrived in Petrograd, the staff had greeted him wryly: “We have been promised no revolution for today, but these never come off according to schedule.” Then the day of revolution came, a definitive day in Russian history.