Thursday, July 26, 2007

Lessons from history: "Zinoviev Letter" - USSR and Britain in 1924

Looking at Russo-British relations in the past one finds startling examples, often they are very close replicas of the current stand-off between the two sides. Whether or not appropriate conclusions can be drawn from historic lessons is a different question.

After the Conservative party in Britain lost the December 1923 elections, in January of the following year the Labor party for the first time in its history was granted the opportunity to form the cabinet under the new prime-minster Ramsey MacDonald. In February of that year, Britain formally recognized the young republic of USSR, and diplomatic relations were established on February 2, 1924.

In October of 1924, the British parliament was dissolved after the Labor party lost a crucial vote over the need for criminal persecution of the chief editor of "Workers Weekly" newspaper D.R. Campbell for inciting the military to mutiny if they were sent to counter the protesting workers. Shortly thereafter on October 25, just four days before the scheduled elections the British Foreign Office published in the "Daily Mail" a secret letter whose author was the head of the executive committee of the Comintern Grigoriy Zinoviev, the revolutionary-exporting arm of the new Communist republic.

The letter contained instructions to the British communists regarding tactics to increase socially-stirring propaganda within the army as well as plans to attract Labor party members into the revolutionary scheme. The letter had an effect of a media-bomb and made the biggest contribution to the Labor party's defeat in the elections to their Conservative rivals. They ended up being outnumbered in parliament by more than 3:1.

The new conservative government formed in November under Stanley Baldwin (including Winston Churchill in the spot of chancellor of the exchequer) informed the Soviet Union that bilateral agreements signed with the Soviet republic by the Labor government would not be fulfilled. Diplomatic relations were terminated for a long period.

When British archives for that period were being declassified in the late 1990-s, Jill Bennett one of the chief historians of the Foreign Office began an extensive research process into the "Zinoviev Letter". As was concluded the letter had probably been a concoction by elements of the SIS (MI6) based in Riga, Latvia to help the Conservatives defeat Labour in the 1924 election. In 2006, a new biography of Desmond Morton, Churchill's Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence by Gill Bennett, confirmed that it was a hoax perpetrated by Morton, then with the Secret Intelligence Service of the British government.

Whether or not this particular fact of history is a good lesson for current observes of the Litvinenko and Lugovoi scandals, one clear lesson is that neither side in the dispute should be given the benefit of the doubt; the "presumption of guilt" concept directed at Russia from the West is at best immature, at worst a big deteriorating factor to the scandal. Both sides have interested parties who reap benefits from the diplomatic stand-off; both have the ability to influence the conflict accelerators - the media, the "independent" branches of the state.


Colleen said...

This is a great tidbit of history that I had no idea of. Maybe something we can take-out of it is to look at "who benefits/has the most to gain" from events and happenings. I guess a modern-day equivalent is also the Niger dossier regarding Iraq's procurement of uranium.

Regarding Britain's relations with Russia, I agree with Putin that many in Britain have a "colonial mindset."

7/12/06: "If we go back 100 years and look through the newspapers, we see what arguments the colonial powers of that time advanced to justify their expansion into Africa and Asia. They cited arguments such as playing a civilising role, the particular role of the white man, the need to civilise ‘primitive peoples’. We all know what consequences this had. If we replace the term ‘civilising role’ with ‘democratisation’, then we can transpose practically word for word what the newspapers were writing 100 years ago to today’s world and the arguments we hear from some of our colleagues on issues such as democratisation and the need to ensure democratic freedoms."

nikolay i. said...

Thanks for the quote! Yes "democratization" is the Coca-Cola of the 21st century.