This Comintern directive, from the chairman of the Third International, Grigori Zinoviev, and addressed to the Executive Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in September 1924 created a political furor in London when it was published by the Daily Mail four days before the general election because it advocated sedition on a grand scale and agitation within the armed forces.
The document had been received in London by the Secret Intelligence Service’s chief of production, Maj. (Sir) Desmond Morton, and then had been circulated routinely to the services, MI5, and the Foreign Office, although as was customary there was no indication of how or where SIS had acquired it. As a consequence, Ramsay Mac-Donald’s first Labour administration, which had already lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons and was losing its Liberal support, was portrayed as having been willing to tolerate the Kremlin’s subversion, and Stanley Baldwin was swept into office in a landslide victory. The fact that Zinoviev protested that he had never sent any such letter, and the CPGB denied ever having received it, was dismissed as typically, predictably, duplicitous and spurious.
In 1998 an investigation was conducted by the Foreign Office’s chief historian, Gill Bennett, and her subsequent report, which drew on an earlier investigation conducted by Millicent Bagot of MI5, established the sequence of events that had followed safe receipt of the document from the SIS station in Riga. Bennett eventually concluded that the letter itself was undoubtedly a forgery, although its composition was sufficiently skillful to persuade those who read it of its intrinsic authenticity. No blame could be attached to Ronald Meiklejohn for acquiring this tantalizing item and sending it to headquarters, and Major Morton acted quite properly by circulating it to SIS’s clients.
As for who actually peddled the original Russian document in Riga, the Soviets, who were as interested as anyone else in who had been counterfeiting Comintern directives, concluded that it was a notorious White Russian forger, Vladimir Orlov, who had been Gen. Piotr Wrangel’s chief of intelligence. Orlov had made a good living fabricating ostensibly plausible Soviet documents, mainly for propaganda purposes, and when the SIS contacted Meiklejohn to conduct investigations into his source, yet more supporting evidence conveniently materialized, including a record of the minutes of an emergency meeting of the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom), convened on 25 October 1924 to discuss the crisis in Great Britain and supposedly chaired by Leo Kamenev. This second document, containing admissions that the Zinoviev directive was genuine, was sent to London on 6 November and was seized on by the SIS chief Adm. Sir Hugh Sinclair as empirical proof, but this too had been forged by Orlov.
The issue of the letter’s authenticity was to be decided by a Cabinet committee, chaired by Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain, who conducted a secret inquiry and issued no concluding report. Sinclair supplied a five-point memorandum to prove the case for authenticity and claimed that the source run by the Riga station worked for the Comintern secretariat in Moscow and had access to the Comintern’s secret files, whereas Meiklejohn had only ever claimed to have run an agent in Riga who was in touch with such an individual (whose identity was unknown to him). Sinclair also claimed that the letter’s content was entirely consistent with what was known to be the Comintern’s policies, but his fifth and final argument—that if the document had been a forgery, it would have been uncovered as such—seems bizarre and even desperate. Nevertheless, the committee reported to the full Cabinet on 19 November that they “were unanimously of the opinion that there was no doubt as to the authenticity of the Letter.”