On October 25, 1924, the so-called Zinoviev Letter was published in the United Kingdom, which was then in the midst of a snap general election campaign. The letter, which was purportedly signed by Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Moscow-based executive committee of the Communist International, and a Jew, was addressed to the British Communist Party. It urged the party to continue its subversive work in the United Kingdom, so as hasten the day when the working class there would be primed to participate in a class war.
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The letter, which was published in the conservative-leaning Daily Mail, appeared there four days before the election, which had been called following an October 8 parliamentary vote of no-confidence in the Labor government of Ramsay MacDonald. That first Labor-led government had been formed only months earlier, and it fell when it lost the support of the Liberal Party. That happened after accusations were made against MacDonald’s cabinet that it had interfered in the investigation of an English Communist paper suspected of publishing an article encouraging insurrection among British troops. Charges had been brought against the paper and then dropped, leading Liberals and Conservatives in Parliament to accuse MacDonald’s government of political meddling in the case.
All of the fear of Communist sabotage came against the background of the MacDonald government’s decision to recognize the Soviet Union in February 1924. That was followed by an announcement that Britain would negotiate treaties with the Bolshevik government in Moscow with the goal of normalizing trade between the countries. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives were opposed to these moves, and highly suspicious of Communist intentions vis-a-vis the United Kingdom.
Grigory Zinoviev, the son of a Jewish-Ukrainian dairy farmer, had been a member of the Bolshevik party, and a close associate of Vladimir Lenin since the party was founded in 1903. On October 27, two days after the publication of the letter that was attributed to him, he issued a statement insisting that it was a forgery. He pointed out that he had been on vacation when the letter was supposedly written, and that the reference it made to the Comintern, which he headed, had used the wrong full name for the body. He said that the letter had even erred in the title it ascribed to him, under his signature.
In fact, two historical studies of the letter, both undertaken by the Foreign Office, one in 1967, the other in 1998, concluded that it was indeed a forgery, although neither could determine conclusively who was behind it. In 1924, however, the letter caused quite a scandal, and a government investigation undertaken at the time concluded that it was genuine. The government that ordered that investigation, however, was led Stanley Baldwin's Conservatives who had won the election of October 29.
Although Labor politicians long blamed the Zinoviev Letter for their defeat, the truth is that they drew more votes in the election than they had in the election of January 1924; the Conservative gains were almost all at the expense of the Liberal party.
As for Zinoviev, who had been born as Ovsei-Gershon Aronovich Radomyslsky Apfelbaum in 1883, the remainder of his career was dramatic. In 1924, following the death of Lenin, he had been part of a triumvirate, together with Stalin and Lev Kaminev, that joined forces to eliminate the challenge of Trotsky and take power. Stalin soon began maneuvering to eliminate Zinoviev and Kaminev, and part of his plan was to push them into the arms of Trotsky, so that he could portray the three Jews as the enemy of the party.
In 1935, Zinoviev was sentenced to 10 years in prison after admitting his “moral complicity” in the murder of Leningrad Communist leader Sergei Kirov. By the following summer, he was arrested again, and this time charged with being part of a conspiracy to kill Stalin and other treasonous crimes. Stalin promised to spare him the death penalty if he pleaded guilty, and in what was the first of the Moscow Show Trials, Zinoviev and his fellow defendants (who also included Kaminev) were convicted of espionage, sabotage and other crimes. That same night, on August 25, 1936, he was executed. It was another four years before Stalin succeeded in having Trotsky killed.