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.
There are several reasons why it has proved such a lasting conspiracy theory, regurgitated almost a century on. Firstly, perceptions of its political effect mean that it is still seen as having cost Labour the election. In fact, it’s most unlikely to have been decisive, though it probably had some influence. Secondly, it fits neatly into the Labour party’s image of itself as a radical reforming movement that always has to struggle against a reluctant conservative (big and small c) establishment; this was evident in the suspicion with which Blair’s 1997 government regarded the civil service. Thirdly, the assumption of conspiracy fits some — not all — of the known facts. There were many such forgeries floating around, some sponsored by the Soviet regime, others by gifted fraudsters making money from whichever intelligence service or news-paper would pay them. There were also intelligence officers, civil servants, newspaper editors and proprietors who saw Labour as the thin end of the communist wedge and for whom the letter would have been the perfect political gift. Fourthly, in the absence of further information, it is impossible to show that it wasn’t a conspiracy. The question is, by whom?
Fortunately, we have in Gill Bennett the world’s greatest authority on the letter. Formerly the Foreign Office’s chief historian, she wrote the 1999 official report on it at the request of the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, with access to some Russian and all British archives. Her book accords pretty much with the report’s conclusions, albeit usefully fleshed out with further information and with insightful descriptions of the officials involved. It also elegantly surveys the many earlier reports, books and inquiries, giving credit where due and quietly dismissing the more sensational claims.
There is, she concludes, no smoking gun, no body in the library and no evidence of an SIS, MI5 or Foreign Office conspiracy. But the letter is unlikely to have been genuine, there is a prime suspect, there were individuals within SIS Riga who may have known it for a forgery but kept quiet, as well as others in the French, German, Polish and Russian intelligence services, and there were individuals in London
who neither knew nor cared that it was a forgery, but were willing to make the letter available to right-wing interests opposed to the Labour government and its Russian policies.
In the end, does it matter who wrote it, she asks. Not really. It was important because it accurately reflected Russian aspirations and because of its contemporary and enduring political effect. Appropriately, Bennett leaves the last word to the man most affected, Ramsay MacDonald: ‘The important point was not the authenticity of the document but the use to which the document was put.’
In the absence of further new evidence, this book is as close as we’re likely to get to a definitive account.