Diary extracts, and letters, show that the fear of Russian influence is nothing newby Ian Irvine / March 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
After the election of 1923, Labour formed its first ever government under Ramsay MacDonald, though with no majority in the Commons. In February 1924 it had recognised the USSR and was attempting to normalise relations between the two countries.
Four days before the election in October 1924—which Labour went on to lose—the Daily Mail published what became known as the Zinoviev Letter.
Apparently sent by Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Communist International to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain, it read:
“A settlement of relations between the two countries will assist in the revolutionising of the international and British proletariat not less than a successful rising in any of the working districts of England, as the establishment of close contact between the British and Russian proletariat, the exchange of delegations and workers, etc. will make it possible for us to extend and develop the propaganda of ideas of Leninism in England and the Colonies.”
There was a outcry at this apparent Labour collusion with Moscow. A memo from the Foreign Office mandarin sent on 15th October to MacDonald said:
“We get nothing out of the Soviet government by any remonstrances simply because these quite shameless liars merely deny everything however clearly established. On the other hand, there is much force in the view that our best and only defence against these treacherous proceedings is publicity. It does not seem fair to our own people that our knowledge of these Russian machinations should forever remain concealed… I think therefore that we should… give full information to our press.”
MacDonald took no action until the Mail article appeared. He doubted the letter’s authenticity; MI5 and the Foreign Office seemed to believe the letter was genuine. The Kremlin denounced it as a forgery.
The origin of the letter has never been conclusively established, but it seems likely to have been the work of White Russians in Berlin. How it came into the hands of the Daily Mail is also still unclear.
In his memoirs John Cole, political correspondent of the Guardian, comments on Harold Wilson as prime minister in 1966:
“What interested me was his tendency to be over-impressed by reports he received from MI5. The willingness overcame his normally cautious political instincts. On one occasion he described a significant union figure to me as a communist. When I asked why he thought that, he replied that “think” was not the correct word. He knew.
Because Wilson, in his early days in Downing St, was so inclined to accept the security services at their own inflated reputation, I could never take seriously the allegations of treachery which their more corrupt members later peddled against him.”
The source of these rumours was Peter Wright, an assistant director of MI5, and author of the controversial “Spycatcher” book, and James Jesus Angleton, head of counter-intelligence at the CIA 1954-74. They believed Wilson had been recruited by the KGB in the 1940s. The explanation of the sudden and early death of Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, in 1963 shortly after a visit to the Soviet Embassy to collect his visa, seemed obvious—an assassination to clear Wilson’s path to No 10.
In 1974 Wilson became aware of rumours being spread about him by members of MI5. A guest at a Hampshire shooting party had been so outraged by the allegations made over lunch that he wrote to the PM. Wilson confided to two journalists, Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour:
“[The people at the lunch] were saying that I was tied up with the Communists and that MI5 knew. The arch link was my political secretary, Marcia [Williams, later Lady Falkender]. She was supposed to be a dedicated Communist!”
Wright’s paranoia didn’t stop with Wilson. He also suspected there was a Soviet agent in MI5—Roger Hollis, its former head. In Spycatcher, Wright recalled his own departure, in 1976, from MI5:
“I went into the old building. Here, in the teak-inlaid corridors and corniced offices, Philby, Burgess, Maclean, and Blunt were hunted down. And here too we had fought MI5’s most secret war over suspicions of an undiscovered mole at the heart of the Service. Our suspect was the former Director-General of MI5, Sir Roger Hollis, but we had never been able to prove it. Hollis’s friends had bitterly resented the accusation and for 10 long years both sides had feuded like medieval theologians, driven by instinct, passion, and prejudice.”
Georgi Markov was a Bulgarian novelist who defected to the west in 1969. He became a broadcaster for the Bulgarian section of the BBC World Service. On 7th September 1978, while at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge in London on his way to work, he was stabbed in the thigh with an umbrella. That evening he came down with a high fever and went to hospital. Dr Bernard Riley who treated him recalled:
“When I came in he was sitting up on the trolley. The first thing he said was ‘I was warned three months ago that they were out to get me and I’ve been poisoned by the KGB. I’m going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it’.”
Four days later he died of ricin poisoning and a tiny pellet was found discovered in his thigh during the autopsy.
In 1991 the KGB major-general Oleg Kalugin admitted in an interview that he had responded to a request for help from the Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov. He sent two KGB operatives to Sofia to provide the Bulgarian secret service with dissolving poison pellets, concealed in a sharp umbrella tip.