Cold War: The Zinoviev Letter Return to the gallery menu
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What does the controversy over the Zinoviev Letter tell historians about attitudes in Britain towards the USSR in 1924?

Britain got its first Labour government in 1924, although it only lasted a year. During the 1920s Britain was a deeply divided society. Trade unions and workers (friends of the Labour Party) clashed with employers and the government (friends of the Conservative Party) over many issues.

One of these issues was relations between Britain and Communist Russia (soon to be renamed the USSR). The Conservative government refused to have any contact with the USSR. The Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, changed this policy. He signed a number of business agreements with the USSR. He also proposed a treaty between Britain and the USSR that would establish official relations between the two countries. It would also give the Soviet Union a large loan to help it develop its economy.

Many of Labour's opponents tried to discredit Labour by claiming that it was full of Russian Communist agents. Late in 1924 it looked like Parliament might reject MacDonald's plans for a treaty with the USSR. MacDonald was so fed up with criticisms of his government that he called another election late in 1924.

During the election (in October 1924) there was a major controversy. The press got hold of a letter written by Zinoviev to the British Communist Party. Zinoviev was head of the Comintern. This was an organisation whose job was to spread Communism across the world. The letter was written to the British Communist Party. It seemed to suggest that Russian and British Communists were keen on MacDonald's treaty because it would help them get more agents into Britain.

Historians are not sure how much effect the letter had, but Labour lost the election and the Conservatives, who opposed MacDonald's treaty plans, won the election by a long way.

What does this tell us about attitudes towards Russia in Britain in the 1920s? Click on the sources to see for yourself.

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