The "Zinoviev Letter" was a controversial document published by the British press four days before the general election in 1924. It purported to be a directive from the Communist International in Moscow to the Communist Party of Great Britain. It said the resumption of diplomatic relations (by a Labour government) would hasten the radicalization of the British working class. The letter took its name from the apparent signature of a senior Soviet official Grigory Zinoviev. The letter seemed authentic at the time but historians now believe it was a forgery. It called for intensified communist agitation in Britain. Historians now agree that the letter had little impact on the Labour vote—which held up in 1924. However, it aided the Conservative Party in hastening the collapse of the Liberal party that led to the Conservative landslide. A.J.P. Taylor argues that the most important impact was on the psychology of Labourites, who for years blamed their defeat on foul play, thereby misunderstanding the political forces at work and postponing needed reforms in the Labour Party.
In 1924, the moderate socialist Labour Party formed a government for the first time. However, it was a minority government, and was liable to fall if the Conservatives and Liberals combined against it. In foreign policy, the government recognized the Soviet Union in February 1924, and proposed to lend it money. On 8 October 1924, the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald suffered defeat in the House of Commons on a motion of no confidence, forcing MacDonald to go to the King to seek a dissolution of Parliament and new elections. The immediate cause of the parliamentary defeat had been the government's decision to drop the prosecution of communist editor John Ross Campbell under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797 for publication of an open letter in Workers Weekly calling on soldiers to "let it be known that, neither in the class war nor in a military war, will you turn your guns on your fellow workers." New national elections were scheduled for 29 October.
Near the end of the short election campaign, there appeared in the press the text of a letter purporting to have originated from Grigory Zinoviev, head of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (Comintern) and Arthur MacManus, the British representative to ECCI, and addressed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
One particularly damaging section of this letter read:
A settlement of relations between the two countries will assist in the revolutionizing of the international and British proletariat not less than a successful rising in any of the working districts of England, as the establishment of close contact between the British and Russian proletariat, the exchange of delegations and workers, etc. will make it possible for us to extend and develop the propaganda of ideas of Leninism in England and the Colonies.
The damning document was published in the conservative British Daily Mail newspaper four days before the election. The letter came at a sensitive time in relations between Britain and the Soviet Union, due to Conservative opposition to the parliamentary ratification of the Anglo-Soviet trade agreement of 8 August.
The publication of the letter was severely embarrassing to Prime Minister MacDonald and his Labour Party. Although his party faced long odds in the voting booth, MacDonald had not given up hope in the campaign. Any chance of an upset victory was dashed as the spectre of internal revolution and a government oblivious to the peril dominated the public consciousness. MacDonald's attempts to cast doubt as to the authenticity of the letter were in vain, hampered by the document's widespread acceptance among government officials. MacDonald told his Cabinet he "felt like a man sewn in a sack and thrown into the sea."
The Conservative Party garnered a decisive victory in the October 1924 election. This ended the country's first Labour government. After the Conservatives formed a government with Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister, a cabinet committee investigated the letter and concluded that it was genuine. The Conservative government did not undertake any further investigation despite continuing allegations that the letter was forged. On 21 November 1924 Britain's new Conservative government cancelled the unratified trade agreement with the Soviet Union. However at the same time MI5 decided the letter was a forgery. In order to protect its reputation, it did not inform the government, which continued to believe it was genuine.
Denial by Zinoviev
The Comintern and Soviet government vehemently and consistently denied the authenticity of the document. Grigorii Zinoviev issued a denial on 27 October 1924 (two days before the election), which was finally published in the December 1924 issue of The Communist Review, the monthly theoretical magazine of the CPGB, well after the MacDonald government had fallen. Zinoviev declared:
The letter of 15th September, 1924, which has been attributed to me, is from the first to the last word, a forgery. Let us take the heading. The organisation of which I am the president never describes itself officially as the "Executive Committee of the Third Communist International"; the official name is "Executive Committee of the Communist International." Equally incorrect is the signature, "The Chairman of the Presidium." The forger has shown himself to be very stupid in his choice of the date. On the 15th of September, 1924, I was taking a holiday in Kislovodsk, and, therefore, could not have signed any official letter. [...]
It is not difficult to understand why some of the leaders of the Liberal-Conservative bloc had recourse to such methods as the forging of documents. Apparently they seriously thought they would be able, at the last minute before the elections, to create confusion in the ranks of those electors who sincerely sympathise with the Treaty between England and the Soviet Union. It is much more difficult to understand why the English Foreign Office, which is still under the control of the Prime Minister, MacDonald, did not refrain from making use of such a white-guardist forgery.
Historians now agree that the letter had little impact on the Labour vote—which held up. It aided the Conservative Party in hastening the collapse of the Liberal party, which led to the Conservative landslide. James says the Letter provided Labour "with a magnificent excuse for failure and defeat. The inadequacies that had been exposed in the Government in its brief existence could be ignored." Indeed, many Labourites for years blamed their defeat on the Letter, thereby, as Taylor notes, misunderstanding the political forces at work and postponing needed reforms in the Labour Party.
The result of the election was not disastrous to Labour. The Conservatives were returned decisively, gaining 155 seats for a total of 413 members of parliament. Labour lost 40 seats, but held on to 151. The Liberals lost 118 seats (leaving them with only 40) and their vote count fell by over a million. The real significance of the election was that the Liberals – whom Labour had displaced as the second largest political party in 1922 – were now clearly a minor party.
A 1967 British study deemed that the Labour Party was destined for defeat in October 1924 in any event, and argues that the primary effect of the purported Comintern communication was upon Anglo-Soviet relations:
Under Baldwin, the British Government led the diplomatic retreat from Moscow. Soviet Russia became more isolated, and, of necessity, more isolationist. [...]
The Zinoviev letter hardened attitudes, and hardened them at a time when the Soviet Union was becoming more amenable to diplomatic contact with the capitalist world. The proponents of world revolution were being superseded by more pliant subscribers to the Stalinist philosophy of "Building Socialism in One Country". Thus, after successfully weathering all the early contradictions in Soviet Diplomacy, Britain gave up when the going was about to become much easier. And it gave up largely because the two middle-class parties suddenly perceived that their short-term electoral advantage was best served by a violent anti-Bolshevik campaign.
Contemporary scholarship on the so-called "Zinoviev letter" dates to a 1967 monograph published by three British journalists working for The Sunday Times. The trio – Lewis Chester, Steven Fay, and Hugo Young – asserted that two members of a Russian monarchist organisation called the Brotherhood of St. George composed the document in question in Berlin. The widow of one of the two men said to have authored the document, Irina Bellegarde, provided the authors with direct testimony that she had witnessed the forgery as it was performed. The authors are said to have studied Bolshevik documents extensively before creating a sensational document in an effort to undermine the Soviet regime's relations with Great Britain. The British Foreign Office had received the forgery on 10 October 1924, two days after the defeat of the MacDonald government on a confidence motion put forward by the Liberals. Despite the dubious nature of the document, wheels were set in motion for its publication; members of the Conservative Party combining with Foreign Office officials in what Chester, Fay, and Young characterised as a "conspiracy."
This book motivated the British Foreign Office to initiate a study of their own. For three years Milicent Bagot of MI5 delved into the archives and conducted interviews with surviving witnesses. She produced a long account of the affair, but the paper ultimately proved unpublishable because of its containing sensitive operational and personnel information. nevertheless, Bagot's work would prove important as a secondary source when the Foreign Office revisited the matter nearly three decades later.
Early in 1998, reports of a forthcoming book allegedly containing revelations about the origins of the so-called "Zinoviev letter," based on information from Soviet archives, led to renewed press speculation and parliamentary questions. In response, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook announced on 12 February 1998 that in the interests of openness, he had commissioned the historians of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to prepare a historical memorandum on the Zinoviev Letter, drawing upon archival documents.
A paper by the Chief Historian of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Gill Bennett, was published in January 1999 and contains the results of this inquiry. Bennett had free and unfettered access to the archives of the Foreign Office, as well as those of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), MI5, and MI6. She also visited Moscow in the course of her research, working in the archives of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Comintern archive of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Although not every operational detail could be published because of British secrecy laws, Bennett's paper remains the definitive account of the "Zinoviev letter" affair. Her report showed that the letter contained statements similar to those made by Zinoviev to other communist parties and at other times to the CPGB, but at the time of the letter (when Anglo-Soviet trade talks were taking place and a general election was impending) Zinoviev and the Soviet State was being more restrained towards the British. Despite her extensive research, she concluded "it is impossible to say who wrote the Zinoviev Letter", though her best guess was that it was commissioned by White Russian intelligence circles from forgers in Berlin or the Baltic states, most likely in Riga.
In 2006, FCO historian Gill Bennett incorporated some of her findings on the Zinoviev letter into chapter four of her biography of SIS agent Desmond Morton. Another 2006 book on spycraft attributes authorship to Vladimir Orlov (1882–1941), a former intelligence agent of Baron Wrangel during the Russian Civil War.
- Charles Loch Mowat, Britain between the wars 1918-1940 (1955) 188-94
- A.J.P. Taylor English History 1914-1945 (1965) p.219
- A.J.P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965), pp 218, 225
- Keith Jeffery (2010). The Secret History of MI6. Penguin. pp. 195–96.
- The National Archives, "The Zinoviev Letter.", retrieved Aug. 27, 2009.
- Gill Bennett, "'A Most Extraordinary and Mysterious Business': The Zinoviev Letter of 1924," Historians LRD No. 14. London: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Jan. 1999. Page 1.
- Mowatt, Charles Loch (1955). Britain between the wars:1918-1940. Cambridge University Press. p. 193.
- Mowatt, Charles Loch (1955). Britain between the wars:1918-1940. Cambridge University Press. p. 194.
- Neilson, Keith (2006). Britain, Soviet Russia and the collapse of the Versailles order, 1919-1939. Cambridge University Press. p. 49.
- Christopher Andrew (2009). Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 151.
- Bennett, "'A Most Extraordinary and Mysterious Business,'" pg. 2.
- Grigorii Zinoviev, "Declaration of Zinoviev on the Alleged 'Red Plot'", The Communist Review, vol. 5, no. 8 (Dec. 1924), pp. 365-366.
- Robert Rhodes James (1977). The British Revolution. p. 194.
- Taylor, English History: 1914-1945, pp 219-20, 226-7
- Charles Loch Mowat (1955). Britain Between the Wars, 1918-1940. Taylor & Francis. pp. 188–94.
- Andrew J Williams (1989). Labour and Russia: The Attitude of the Labour Party to the USSR, 1924-1934. Manchester U.P. p. 18.
- Lewis Chester, Steven Fay, and Hugo Young, The Zinoviev Letter: A Political Intrigue. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1968. Page xvii.
- Chester, Fay, and Young, The Zinoviev Letter, pp. 51-52.
- Chester, Fay, and Young, The Zinoviev Letter, pg. 65.
- Chester, Fay, and Young, The Zinoviev Letter, pp. 65-81.
- Bennett, "'A Most Extraordinary and Mysterious Business,'" pg. 2.
- The book in question was Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev's The Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of the KGB Archives, published by HarperCollins in 1998.
- Bennett, "'A Most Extraordinary and Mysterious Business,'" pp. 2-3.
- Gill Bennett, Churchill's Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence. London: Taylor & Francis, 2006.
- Nigel West, At Her Majesty's Secret Service: The Chiefs of Britain's Intelligence Agency, MI6. London: Greenhill Books, 2006. Pages 34-39.
- The National Archives of Britain has made available the complete text of the Zinoviev Letter.
- Gill Bennett, "'A Most Extraordinary and Mysterious Business': The Zinoviev Letter of 1924." Historians, LRD History Note No. 14. London: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, February 1999. Part 1 (pdf), Part 2 (pdf), Part 3 (pdf), Part 4 (pdf), Photos (pdf).
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