Was the red plot let­ter that helped kick out Labour GEN­UINE af­ter all?

The Left’s al­ways in­sisted the in­fa­mous Zi­noviev let­ter ex­posed by the Daily Mail was a forgery. Now, 95 years on, a new book poses a tan­ta­lis­ing ques­tion . . .

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - News - by Guy Wal­ters

THE mo­ments that change the course of his­tory don’t al­ways come with a big bang. Take the morn­ing of Thurs­day, Oc­to­ber 23, 1924, when the ed­i­tor of the Daily Mail, Thomas Mar­lowe, walked into his of­fice at the news­pa­per. There, on a writ­ing ta­ble, was a tele­phone mes­sage taken down by a sec­re­tary late the pre­vi­ous evening.

The 56-year-old no­ticed that phone call had been made by some­one he would later de­scribe as ‘an old and trusted friend’.

‘There is a doc­u­ment in Lon­don which you ought to have,’ the note be­gan.

Mar­lowe’s at­ten­tion was im­me­di­ately grabbed. He had been ed­i­tor of the pa­per for a quar­ter of a cen­tury, and he could sniff a good story.

To­day, we can­not know if Mar­lowe’s jaw dropped as he read on, but it is hard to imag­ine that he did not show some vis­i­ble ex­cite­ment be­cause the note stated that the con­tents of the doc­u­ment were ex­plo­sive.

The fol­low­ing day, Mar­lowe went to the of­fices of some ‘per­sonal friends’, where he was given two copies of a typed let­ter. Ri­val news­pa­pers would later state he paid £5,000 for the doc­u­ment – the equiv­a­lent of £280,000 to­day. Mar­lowe stren­u­ously de­nied it.

‘The men I dealt with were gen­tle­men to whom I could not have of­fered money and would have been gravely af­fronted had I done so,’ Mar­lowe protested, in­sist­ing that he had not handed over ‘a sin­gle penny’.

‘May I add that in 40 years of jour­nal­ism,’ he said, ‘all the im­por­tant news I have ob­tained has been on the same terms.’

Ei­ther way, Mar­lowe had got his hands on what he was con­vinced was one of the scoops of the cen­tury.

On the morn­ing of Sat­ur­day, Oc­to­ber 25, Mar­lowe pub­lished a front page story with a ban­ner head­line that read, ‘CIVIL WAR PLOT BY SOCIALISTS’ MASTERS’.

Un­der­neath were fur­ther head­ings read­ing ‘MOSCOW OR­DERS TO OUR REDS’ and ‘GREAT PLOT DIS­CLOSED YES­TER­DAY’.

OVER sev­eral col­umns, the Daily Mail re­vealed the ex­is­tence of a let­ter pur­port­ing to come from Grig­ory Zi­noviev, the Rus­sian chair­man of the So­viet Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion (also known as the Com­intern) and sent the pre­vi­ous month to the Bri­tish Com­mu­nist Party.

In the let­ter, Zi­noviev urged his Bri­tish com­rades to in­fil­trate and to gain power over the Labour Party – then in gov­ern­ment – and to make it truly revo­lu­tion­ary, rather than al­low it to re­main ‘un­der the thumb of the bour­geoisie’.

This re­ally was dy­na­mite, not least be­cause the coun­try was four days from a Gen­eral Elec­tion, in which the Labour Prime Min­is­ter, Ram­say Mac­Don­ald, was hop­ing to re­tain power. The idea that the Com­mu­nist Party – and there­fore Moscow – was, as the Mail put it, ‘the masters’ of the Labour Party, would doubtlessl­y shock the pa­tri­otic elec­torate into aban­don­ing Mac­Don­ald.

Worse still, the let­ter also spoke in a sin­is­ter fash­ion of ‘armed in­sur­rec­tion’ and the es­tab­lish­ment of pro­pa­ganda and ag­i­ta­tion cells in the Army, Navy and in mu­ni­tions fac­to­ries, which would even­tu­ally con­sti­tute a fu­ture ‘Bri­tish Red Army’.

This was clearly a blue­print for a Bri­tish So­viet Rev­o­lu­tion, and in the Elec­tion, vot­ers did in­deed aban­don the Labour Party. The Con­ser­va­tives were swept into power with a mas­sive ma­jor­ity of more than 200 seats. Many his­to­ri­ans be­lieve a Tory vic­tory was as­sured be­fore the let­ter’s pub­li­ca­tion. But there can be no doubt that the Mail’s scoop not only had an ef­fect on the Elec­tion, but more cru­cially still, it was to have a last­ing in­flu­ence on the pub­lic per­cep­tion of the Labour Party, with many – even to­day – that it is lit­tle more than a front for Com­mu­nism.

IN THE days, weeks and even decades that fol­lowed, it be­came an ar­ti­cle of faith for the Left that the Zi­noviev let­ter was a forgery, cooked up by dark forces in the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices, the City, the Con­ser­va­tive Party and White Rus­sians to be­smirch the Labour Party. Thomas Mar­lowe, so the the­ory goes, was an un­wit­ting dupe. And there is good rea­son to be­lieve that it re­ally was a fake, not least be­cause no orig­i­nal Rus­sian ver­sion has ever emerged. The Sovi­ets, who were stren­u­ous in their de­nials, had ev­ery rea­son not to send such a let­ter, as its rev­e­la­tion im­per­illed mil­lions of pounds of des­per­ately needed loans Mac­Don­ald had promised Moscow. In­deed, it ap­pears the Rus­sian lead­er­ship was livid with Zi­noviev, who in turn ut­terly de­nied all knowl­edge to his fel­low So­viet big­wigs. The first en­quiry into the au­then­tic­ity of the let­ter was set up by the new Con­ser­va­tive Prime Min­is­ter, Stan­ley Bald­win, and, by Novem­ber 1924, a Cabi­net com­mit­tee re­ported that it was ‘unan­i­mously of opin­ion that there was no doubt as to the au­then­tic­ity of the Let­ter’.

This judg­ment was a smoke­screen be­cause, in pri­vate, many in MI6 thought, in the words of one in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, that ‘this ac­tual thing is a forgery’. Sus­pi­cion that the let­ter was a fake in­ten­si­fied as the years passed, and a con­sen­sus grad­u­ally emerged that the doc­u­ment was the prod­uct of some fiendish plot that had duped not only the Mail, but also the elec­torate.

But with­out a smok­ing gun, it has been im­pos­si­ble to prove it con­clu­sively and the con­tro­versy has lin­gered to this day. Now, 95 years on, there has been an­other twist in this re­mark­able story thanks to a new book by a Bri­tish au­thor mak­ing the bold claim that the let­ter re­ally did have its ori­gins in So­viet Rus­sia.

In The Zi­noviev Con­tro­versy Re­solved, John Sy­mons states that he ‘turns on its head the his­tory of the Zi­noviev let­ter’, and puts to rest ‘a na­tional tragedy af­ter a cen­tury’. So can this be true? Is it re­ally pos­si­ble that Sy­mons has been able to solve a mys­tery that has stymied and in­trigued his­to­ri­ans for 95 years (to this very month)?

Such ques­tions to­day could hardly be more timely. The Rus­sians have al­ready been caught at­tempt­ing to ma­nip­u­late for­eign elec­tions and it would be en­tirely ra­tio­nal to imag­ine that some­where in Moscow, plans are afoot to in­flu­ence the forth­com­ing Bri­tish Gen­eral Elec­tion, when­ever it takes place. And with a hard Left Labour leader pos­si­bly close to tak­ing power, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween our pol­i­tics and the Rus­sian bear has rarely been so prob­lem­atic.

IN ESSENCE, Sy­mons presents two pieces of ev­i­dence to sup­port his claim. Both come from long­for­got­ten books pub­lished by two So­viet de­fec­tors in the 1930s, and which Sy­mons ob­tained from a shop in Helsinki which spe­cialises in old Rus­sian books.

Sy­mons had taken up study­ing these ob­scure vol­umes when he was car­ing for his late wife, Judy, who was suf­fer­ing from the blood can­cer, myeloma. In­deed, it is only thanks to her sup­port and en­cour

age­ment, he says, that the book came to be writ­ten at all.

‘I de­voted my­self to the mem­oirs of So­viet cit­i­zens who, from the 1920s, had man­aged to escape to the West from the tyranny Lenin and Trot­sky had cre­ated and that they had of­ten loy­ally served, to their later re­gret and shame,’ Sy­mons recalls.

With his wife’s chemo­ther­apy ses­sions, house­work, shop­ping, cook­ing and wash­ing, Sy­mons only had 30 min­utes a day to fit in some read­ing. ‘Any­one in my po­si­tion must take strength from the words of a great scholar, Arch­bishop Michael Ram­sey, that what mat­ters is not how much one reads but how one reads,’ he says.

And it seems as if Sy­mons did read the books well, be­cause what he found in the vol­umes writ­ten by the two of these de­fec­tors amounted, in his view, to a star­tling dis­cov­ery about the Zi­noviev let­ter. The first of these two de­fec­tors was a So­viet diplo­mat called Grig­ory Bese­dovsky, who pub­lished in 1931 a book called Rev­e­la­tions Of A So­viet Diplo­mat. In this mem­oir, Bese­dovsky re­counts that it re­ally was So­viet pol­icy to fos­ter rev­o­lu­tion in Bri­tain, and that the Labour Party was the front for it. In his book, the diplo­mat wrote:

‘They [the Com­intern] saw the or­gan­i­sa­tional ex­pres­sion of this revo­lu­tion­ary devel­op­ment in the strength­en­ing of the left wing of the English Labour Party and in the trade union move­ment.

‘In the Com­intern it was reck­oned this left wing was crys­tallis­ing into a sep­a­rate party… which in its turn would be­come a good nour­ish­ing en­vi­ron­ment for the growth of the English Com­mu­nist Party.’

This is clearly a vi­tal pas­sage, as it shows that the Zi­noviev let­ter did in­deed tally with So­viet pol­icy.

In ad­di­tion, Sy­mons also points to an in­ter­view that Bese­dovsky gave to French news­pa­per Le Matin in Oc­to­ber 1929, in which the former diplo­mat claimed that Felix Dz­erzhin­sky, the head of OGPU – a fore­run­ner to the KGB – thought Zi­noviev had signed the let­ter with­out read­ing it, and that three clerks in the Com­intern had been shot as pun­ish­ment. The sec­ond piece of ev­i­dence pre­sented by Sy­mons comes in the form of a de­fec­tor from OGPU called Ge­orgy Agabekov, who wrote two books about his ex­pe­ri­ences in the 1930s.

In these mem­oirs, Agabekov men­tions the Zi­noviev let­ter on at least four oc­ca­sions, and at no time does he in­di­cate it is a fab­ri­ca­tion. In­deed, at one point he talks of ‘Zi­noviev’s cel­e­brated let­ter’.

For Sy­mons, all this ev­i­dence in­di­cates that ‘OGPU and Agabekov were fully con­fi­dent Zi­noviev had writ­ten the let­ter’. As he says, the case is now ‘re­solved’.

NOT ev­ery­one agrees how­ever. Take, for ex­am­ple, Bese­dovsky’s claim there was a So­viet pol­icy of fo­ment­ing rev­o­lu­tion in Bri­tain. Does that amount to proof the let­ter was gen­uine? Per­haps not. Af­ter all, one could eas­ily draw up a let­ter to­day pur­port­ing to come from a se­nior Putin crony ad­vo­cat­ing Rus­sian pen­e­tra­tion of Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal par­ties. It is just as likely a forger was man­u­fac­tur­ing ev­i­dence of some­thing that was gen­er­ally thought to be true at the time.

Then there is the ar­ti­cle in Le Matin. Can a sin­gle news­pa­per in­ter­view con­sti­tute wa­ter­tight ev­i­dence the let­ter was not fab­ri­cated?

His­to­ri­ans know Bese­dovsky to be prob­lem­atic, more­over. The former Chief His­to­rian of the For­eign Of­fice, Gill Ben­nett states that he was an ‘in­ter­est­ing but un­re­li­able in­for­mant’ in her own book on the con­tro­versy, The Zi­noviev Let­ter: The Con­spir­acy That Never Dies, pub­lished last year.

Then there is the is­sue of Ge­orgy Agabekov. His men­tions of the let­ter do not of­fer any def­i­nite opin­ion as to its ve­rac­ity and on one oc­ca­sion he even places the words ‘Zi­noviev Let­ter’ in in­verted com­mas, as if there were doubt about its sta­tus. A still greater prob­lem is Sy­mons’s sug­ges­tion that Agabekov was un­der­rated by the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices such as MI6 and MI5. This is sim­ply not true.

The Na­tional Ar­chives in Kew con­tains a thick MI5 file all about the former OGPU man, which proves they took him se­ri­ously. But in that file one in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer gives a with­er­ing as­sess­ment of Agabekov’s book as ‘a “blood and thun­der” thriller with very lit­tle se­ri­ous in­tel­li­gence in­ter­est’.

Gill Ben­nett this week told The Mail on Sun­day: ‘I am afraid John Sy­mons’ book has not con­vinced me that my judg­ment the Zi­noviev let­ter was al­most cer­tainly a forgery, is in­cor­rect. I have al­ways said it is im­pos­si­ble to be cat­e­goric about who wrote it, and why, and his book does not change that.’

For his part, mean­while, Sy­mons, re­mains con­vinced, say­ing: ‘I stand by my read­ing of the text and my un­der­stand­ing of Agabekov’s im­por­tance as a ne­glected, un­der­rated source of in­for­ma­tion about So­viet op­er­a­tions and Zi­noviev’s let­ter. Agabekov was the first in­tel­li­gence de­fec­tor to the West; the Western ser­vices were there­fore bound to be un­pre­pared, and they did not know which way to turn, and so they mis­han­dled him, which is only hu­man.’

AS TO the most likely source of the let­ter, it would be a shame not to spec­u­late. As Gill Ben­nett in­di­cates, there are no de­fin­i­tive an­swers – yet – but one of the most plau­si­ble cul­prits was a forger called Ivan Pokrovsky, whose con­nec­tion to the let­ter was re­vealed in a book called The Crown Jew­els, which was pub­lished in 1998 by a former KGB lieu­tenant colonel, Oleg Tsarev, with the Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence his­to­rian Nigel West.

In the book, Tsarev re­veals how the So­viet files point the fin­ger at Pokrovsky, who worked for the anti-So­viet White Guards, say­ing he forged the let­ter in Riga. The let­ter was then ap­par­ently sent through Pol­ish in­ter­me­di­aries, from Riga to Lon­don by post, and even­tu­ally to a Bri­tish Com­mu­nist called MacManus.

‘The Bri­tish po­lice, which keeps taps on the lat­ter’s cor­re­spon­dence, pho­tographed the let­ter and handed it over to the Bri­tish For­eign Of­fice as gen­uine,’ the So­viet file con­cludes.

It was this rev­e­la­tion that caused the then Bri­tish For­eign Sec­re­tary, Robin Cook, in 1998 to or­der a full re­port to be made into the let­ter. That en­quiry was car­ried out by Gill Ben­nett, and she has been work­ing on the case for at least two decades. With the ab­sence of any firm ev­i­dence to prove the let­ter was forged by Pokrovsky, Ben­nett is cau­tious, but it ap­pears he is the most likely au­thor.

What also ap­pears likely is that Thomas Mar­lowe be­lieved the let­ter to be gen­uine, and if he was hood­winked, it was by peo­ple in the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices who may well have been sim­i­larly fooled.

Ul­ti­mately, like the case of Jack the Rip­per, we may never know for cer­tain who was be­hind the Zi­noviev let­ter. Per­haps we should stop try­ing to seek the an­swer. As Gill Ben­nett says: ‘Fi­nally, in the end, as Ram­say Mac­Don­ald said, it did not much mat­ter whether or not the let­ter was gen­uine: it was the way it was used for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses that made it so dam­ag­ing.’

The Zi­noviev Con­tro­versy Re­solved, by John Sy­mons, is pub­lished by Shep­heard-Wal­wyn at £9.95. The Zi­noviev Let­ter: The Con­spir­acy That Never Dies, by Gill Ben­nett, is pub­lished by OUP at £25.

CON­TRO­VERSY: Grig­ory Zi­noviev, chair­man of the So­viet Com­intern, de­nied writ­ing the let­ter. In­set be­low left: A news­pa­per car­toon, on the day of the 1924 Gen­eral Elec­tion, re­flects on the fall­out from the Mail’s rev­e­la­tion SCOOP: Thomas Mar­lowe, the Daily Mail’s ed­i­tor in 1924, and his front page story, above

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