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The Zinoviev letter was a fraudulent document published by the British Daily Mail newspaper four days before the general election in 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 said the resumption of diplomatic relations (by a Labour government) would hasten the radicalisation of the British working class. This would have constituted a significant interference in British politics, and as a result it was deeply offensive to British voters, turning them against the Labour Party. The letter seemed authentic at the time, but historians now agree it was a forgery.[1] The letter aided the Conservative Party, by hastening the collapse of the Liberal Party vote that produced a Conservative landslide.[2] A. J. P. Taylor argued that the most important impact was on the psychology of Labourites, who for years afterward blamed their defeat on foul play, thereby misunderstanding the political forces at work and postponing necessary reforms in the Labour Party.[3]


In 1924, the 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 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." A general election was scheduled for 29 October.[4][5]

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:

The damning document was published in the conservative Daily Mail newspaper four days before the election.[7] 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.[8] 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 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.[9] The Conservative government did not undertake any further investigation, despite continuing allegations that the letter was forged.[10] On 21 November 1924, the government cancelled the unratified trade agreement with the Soviet Union.[11] 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.[12]

The Comintern and the Soviet government vehemently and consistently denied the authenticity of the document.[13] 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:

Historians now agree that the letter had little impact on the Labour vote—which held up. It aided the Conservatives by inducing a collapse in the Liberal vote; this led to a Conservative landslide. Robert Rhodes 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."[15] Indeed, many Labourites for years blamed their defeat on the letter, thereby, as Taylor notes, misunderstanding the political forces at work and postponing necessary reforms in the Labour Party.[16][17][18]

The result of the election was not disastrous to Labour. The Conservatives were returned decisively, gaining 155 seats, making a total of 413 Members of Parliament. Labour lost 40 seats, retaining 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:

Current scholarship

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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[21]

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.[22] 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."[23]

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.[13] 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.[24] 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.[25] 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.

In 2006, Bennett incorporated some of her findings on the Zinoviev letter into chapter four of her biography of SIS agent Desmond Morton.[26] Another 2006 book on spycraft attributes authorship to Vladimir Orlov, a former intelligence agent of Baron Wrangel during the Russian Civil War.[27]

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.[28]

In 2017, the British government said that they had lost a file on the Zinoviev letter scandal.[29] The government was unable to say whether or not copies of the material had been made.[29]

In 2018, Bennett published her book The Zinoviev Letter: The Conspiracy that Never Dies.[30]

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