The Zinoviev letter was a fake document published and sensationalised by the British Daily Mail newspaper four days before the general election of October 1924. The letter purported to be a directive from Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow, to the Communist Party of Great Britain, ordering it to engage in seditious activities. It claimed that the resumption of UK diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union under a Labour government would radicalise the British working class. The right-wing press depicted these falsified remarks as a grave foreign interference in and subversion of British politics, and as a result it offended some British voters, turning them against the Labour Party.
The letter seemed authentic to some at the time, but historians now agree it was a forgery. The letter aided the Conservative Party by hastening the collapse of the Liberal Party vote, which, in turn, produced a Conservative landslide. A. J. P. Taylor argued that the most important impact was on the mindset of Labourites, who in his estimation for years afterwards blamed foul play for their defeat, thereby misunderstanding the political forces at work and postponing what he regarded as necessary reforms in the Labour Party. Many others have disagreed and cited the letter as a truly decisive contribution to the party's loss of seats and fall from government.
On 22 January 1924, the nominally socialist but practically social-democratic-trade unionist Labour Party formed a UK 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 recognised 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; this forced MacDonald to go to King George V to seek a dissolution of Parliament and a new election. 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, but instead will line up with your fellow workers in an attack upon the exploiters and capitalists, and will use your arms on the side of your own class." A general election was scheduled for 29 October.
Near the end of the short election campaign, there appeared in the Daily Mail newspaper the text of a letter purporting to have originated from Grigory Zinoviev, head of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (Comintern) and Secretary of the Comintern Otto Wille Kuusinen and Arthur MacManus, a British representative at a conference of the Executive Committee, and addressed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).
One particularly damaging section of this letter read:
A settlement of relations between the two countries will assist in the revolutionising 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 Daily Mail newspaper four days before the election. The letter appeared at a sensitive time in relations between Britain and the Soviet Union, owing 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 the likelihood of losing office, MacDonald had not given up hope in the campaign. Following the letter's publication, any chance of an upset victory was dashed, as the spectre of internal revolution and a government oblivious to the alleged 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. He told his Cabinet that he "felt like a man sewn in a sack and thrown into the sea."
The Conservatives decisively won the October 1924 election, ending 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, the government cancelled the unratified trade agreement with the Soviet Union. However, MI5 decided at the same time that the letter was a forgery. In order to protect its reputation, it did not inform the government, which continued to believe it was genuine. The probability or improbability of the Comintern's writing so explicitly to a non-Soviet member party so overtly, canvassing the possibility of fomenting an uprising in a non-Soviet state, would at that juncture have been difficult to judge reliably.
Denial by Zinoviev
The Comintern and the Soviet government vehemently and consistently denied the authenticity of the document. Grigory 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 not only held up but, in fact, increased slightly in terms of share of the popular vote. However, it aided the Conservatives by inducing a collapse in the Liberal vote, which led to a Conservative landslide. The Conservative politician Robert Rhodes James claimed that 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 the letter, at least in part, for the defeat of the party. Figures such as Taylor believed that some of them misunderstood the political forces at work and learned the wrong lessons. Many others, however, have held up the letter as a chief factor in the election outcome.
The result of the election was not disastrous to Labour. The Conservatives were returned decisively and gained 155 seats, for a total of 413 seats. Labour lost 40 seats, retaining 151. The Liberals lost 118 seats, were left with only 40, and lost over a million votes. The real significance of the election was that the Liberal Party, whom Labour had displaced as the second-largest political party in 1922, became clearly only a minor party.
A 1967 British study deemed that the Labour Party was destined for defeat in October 1924 in any event and argues the primary effect of the purported Comintern communication to be 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 Stalin's 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 Zinoviev letter dates from a 1967 monograph published by three British journalists working for The Sunday Times. The authors, 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 Berlin. Irina Bellegarde, the widow of Alexis Bellegarde, one of the two men said to have written the document, provided the authors with direct testimony that she had witnessed the forgery as it was performed. She said that her husband had drafted the letter after fellow-émigré Alexander Gumansky told him that a request to forge the letter had come from "a person in authority in London". Gurmansky and Bellegarde were later sentenced to death in absentia by a Soviet court. Bellegarde was later forced to work during the Second World War for the Russian section of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) in Berlin; there is evidence that he was the very effective British double agent known as "Outcast". He had been an important source on Soviet matters for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS; known as MI6) before the war, raising the possibility that he already had links to British intelligence when involved with the Zinoviev letter.
The authors are said to have studied Bolshevik documents and signatures extensively before creating a sensational document in an effort to undermine the Soviet regime's relations with the United Kingdom. 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 examined 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 proved 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 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) and MI5. 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 was a detailed 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 were 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. It was then leaked to the papers probably by SIS and that "I have my doubts as to whether [Desmond Morton] thought it was genuine but he treated it as if it was."
In 2006, 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, a former intelligence agent of Baron Wrangel during the Russian Civil War. The British historian Nigel West wrote that the OPGU (Soviet secret police) always initiated investigations into leaks of Soviet documents, and the fact no investigation was opened after the publication of the Zinoviev letter indicates it was almost certainly a forgery.
In 2011, Jonathan Pile published his book Churchill's Secret Enemy, detailing the mysterious career of Sir George Joseph Ball. Pile accessed Ball's papers (most of which Ball had attempted to destroy) from the Bodleian Library, along with other newly available sources. Pile's thesis, explained in the book, is that the Zinoviev letter was likely composed by Ball (at the time a long-serving MI5 officer) and his cohorts.
In 2017, the British government said that they had 'lost' a file on the Zinoviev letter scandal. The government added that they were unable to say whether or not copies of the material had been made.
In 2018, Bennett published her book The Zinoviev Letter: The Conspiracy that Never Dies.
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- Gill Bennett, "'A Most Extraordinary and Mysterious Business': The Zinoviev Letter of 1924," Historians LRD No. 14. London: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Jan. 1999. p. 1.
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- 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.
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- Norton-Taylor, Richard (4 February 1999). "Zinoviev letter was dirty trick by MI6". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 17 October 2019.
- Bennett, Gill (18 October 2006). Churchill's Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence. London: Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-415-39430-7.
- Nigel West, At Her Majesty's Secret Service: The Chiefs of Britain's Intelligence Agency, MI6. London: Greenhill Books, 2006. pp. 34–39.
- West, Nigel; Tsarev, Oleg; Carev, Oleg N. (1999). The Crown Jewels The British Secrets at the Heart of the KGB Archives. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-300-07806-0.
- "Government admits 'losing' thousands of papers from National Archives". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 December 2017.
- Gill Bennett, The Zinoviev Letter: The Conspiracy that Never Dies. Oxford University Press, 2018.
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- The National Archives of Britain has made available the complete text of the Zinoviev Letter.
- Russia and the British voter: the 'Zinoviev Letter', 'Red Scare' and 1924 general election: digitised archives from the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, including the original Daily Mail article and a telegraphed denial of responsibility from Zinoviev.
- Bennett, Gill (1999). 'A most extraordinary and mysterious business': The Zinoviev Letter of 1924. Historians, LRD. Vol. 14. London: Foreign and Commonwealth Office. ISBN 0-903359-77-4.