'The Zinoviev Letter: The Conspiracy That Never Dies', by Gill Bennett - Review

By Judd, Alan | The Spectator, August 18, 2018 | Go to article overview

'The Zinoviev Letter: The Conspiracy That Never Dies', by Gill Bennett - Review


Judd, Alan, The Spectator


This is a well-written, scrupulously researched and argued account of an enduring mystery that neatly illustrates the haphazard interactions of politics, bureaucracy and history.

In 1924 Grigori Zinoviev was head of the Communist International, the propaganda arm of the Soviet regime. A letter in his name, dated 15 September and addressed to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), urged comrades to foment insurrection in the armed forces and among munitions workers while publicly supporting the ratification of an Anglo-Soviet trade treaty and a large loan to Russia. Both were controversial issues for Ramsay MacDonald's first-ever Labour government, elected in January of that year.

On 2 October a translated copy of Zinoviev's letter was sent to London by the Riga station of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6), its source a still-unidentified agent. The letter reached SIS's London headquarters on 9 October, the day after MacDonald's government was defeated and another general election called. SIS sent the letter to the Foreign Office and during subsequent days it was circulated more widely throughout Whitehall and among senior ranks of the armed forces. Copies were leaked to the Daily Mail and then other papers. On 24 October the Foreign Office sent a note of protest in MacDonald's name (not signed by him as he was away) to the Soviet embassy in London, releasing it and its own copy of the letter to the press two hours later. The next day the Mail led with 'Civil War Plot by Socialists' Masters: Moscow orders to our Reds'. The impression given was that MacDonald had seen the letter weeks before and had protested reluctantly under the pressure of imminent publication.

Five days later, Labour lost the election. They blamed it on the Zinoviev letter, which has featured ever since in Labour folklore as an example of what we now call fake news, promulgated by a conspiracy of the intelligence services, the wider civil service, the Conservative party and the right-wing press. It rankles still, surfacing most recently in comment on the EU referendum and the 2017 election.

The problem is, no one has ever seen the letter, and we cannot even be sure it existed. All we have are copies of copies. Zinoviev claimed he never saw or signed it, nobody knows who wrote it, the CPGB claimed it never received it, SIS doesn't know how its Riga station got it, nobody knows who leaked it. In itself it wasn't very remarkable, being very much of a piece with Zinoviev's validated correspondence. Similar letters were also produced by the prolific Red (Soviet) and White (anti-Soviet) Russian forgery networks; SIS was in touch with some of those involved. The copy received was on the correct writing paper and the text demonstrates a thorough grasp of Soviet phrasing and methods as well as an understanding of British politics. The Foreign Office and SIS at first took it to be genuine but soon began privately questioning its authenticity, although -- unlike MacDonald when defending his loss of the election -- they were very slow to admit it. …

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