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From the bookshelf: The Maisky Diaries

Posted By on July 20, 2016 @ 12:30

The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s 1932-1943, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky.

Fitzroy MacLean’s superb autobiography, Eastern Approaches [1], is most famously recalled for his exploits in the Balkans, during the Second World War, as a British military attaché working with Josip Broz Tito’s Partisans.

But MacLean had earlier served during the previous decade as a diplomat in the British Embassy in Moscow, a time during which he was an observer in The Trial of the Twenty One, the Stalinist show trial of 1938. Stalin’s principal target (and victim) was the gifted and influential Marxist theoretician, Nikolai Bukharin.

The trial was open to the diplomatic corps and to foreign media, and was filmed under lights. At one point, a technician moving a heavy lamp stumbled, revealing J. V. Stalin’s unmistakeable profile in the shadows of the court room. Stalin was personally observing Bukharin’s performance in evidence from an alcove.

This offers an illuminating backdrop to Ivan Maisky’s years in London as the Soviet Ambassador, over the landmark years 1932–43 in the Europe of the Dictators. He was constantly under close scrutiny, from Stalin and Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov in Moscow, through to NKVD [2] informants in the Embassy in London. At any time, a telegram could recall the Ambassador, as were so many of the Soviet diplomatic corps, during the purges from 1936–38. Most of those recalled ended their careers in the cellars of the Lubyanka Prison.

Maisky survived and left diaries of his time in the UK, arguing the Soviet Cause in peace and war, with figures as different as Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill; Anthony Eden and Lord Halifax; Lloyd George and Lord Beaverbrook; Nancy Astor, H.G. Wells and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. In so doing, he was highly successful and this engrossing account of his London mission explains why he survived. He became indispensable to Stalin, for his range of British contacts; for his effective advocacy and for his judgement, which was finely balanced, yet acute.

At any time Stalin could have recalled Maisky and had him liquidated, without trial. For Maisky’s revolutionary past wasn’t so much chequered, as seriously stained. He had been a Menshevik, who had had to make an obsequious peace with the Bolshevik victors of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Ivan Mikhailovich Maisky (‘Man of May’–his nom de plume) was born on 7 January 1884 into a comfortable bourgeois family of Polish/Jewish ancestry. His father became a medical officer in Omsk, Siberia, which was where the young and radical Maisky joined the Menshevik wing of the Russian Social Democrats. Exiled for his part in the failed 1905 Revolution, Maisky eventually landed in London, where he informed the Webbs that he had been inspired by their landmark History of Trade Unionism. This Fabian tendency never left Maisky’s politics. He would argue a view but he was also a good listener, receptive to ideas, born of an intellectual curiosity.

It was the growing friendship in this period with Georgy Chicherin and M.M. Litvinov that later shaped Maisky’s diplomatic life. Chicherin and Litvinov were both Soviet Commissars for Foreign Affairs. Both were to sponsor and shield Maisky over the years.

Gabriel Gorodetsky has achieved a first class historian’s result in bringing these insightful and engaging diaries to light. Maisky’s official memoirs are best described as dry. But these diaries are lively and brisk. The reader is carried along by Maisky’s powers of observation and analysis, which is persuasive testimony to what the editor has discarded.

Gorodetsky is a noted academic at Oxford and Tel Aviv Universities, who has written extensively on Soviet and Russian foreign policy, including the illuminating Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia [3].

Maisky’s diaries surfaced almost by accident, being given to Gorodetsky in 1991 while he was working on a book on Soviet–Israeli relations. The responsible archivist at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did a great service to our understanding of Anglo–Soviet relations through tense and difficult times, from the Spanish Civil War and the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact to Barbarossa and the Grand Alliance.

Maisky was a most unusual Soviet Ambassador. Unlike his unimpressive predecessor, Grigory Sokolnikov, who appears to have spent much of his Ambassadorial time in the Reading Room of the British Museum, Maisky was outgoing and determined to build as wide a British network of supporters and interlocutors, including Conservatives, as was possible.

To this end his affability, and the charming personality of his wife, Agniya, to whom Maisky was utterly devoted, proved decisive assets. Litvinov had convinced Stalin of the need for a plenipotentiary with such skills; the initiative worked.

The weakness in Maisky’s Diaries is that they were written, of course, to be read, in all probability by investigators from ‘The Organs’ (NKVD). So along with the anecdotes and amusing vignettes, there are the occasional lapses into the obligatory praise of Comrade Stalin as a great wartime leader, and the USSR as close to paradise.

Nonetheless, the joke Maisky was told by Jan Masaryk, a Czech diplomat, about Berlin in 1950 still produces a smile as do the Ambassador’s raised eyebrows at the idiosyncrasies of the British ruling class. And the tale of George Bernard Shaw’s May Day meeting with Friedrich Engels is marvellous.

This is a valuable book, saying much about the period 1932–43 which is both original and unique in its perspective. The surprise of the Nazi–Soviet pact; the tension of the Blitz on London; the pressure for a Second Front and the horrific crime at Katyn Wood all tested Maisky’s diplomatic skills to the limits of ingenuity and endurance.

Maisky knew he was at a great turning point in history. But the Ambassador understood his own role was actually to be part of shaping that history.



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URLs in this post:

[1] Eastern Approaches: mailto:http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/327742.Eastern_Approaches

[2] NKVD: https://www.aspistrategist.org.aumailto:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NKVD

[3] Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia: https://www.aspistrategist.org.aumailto:https://www.amazon.com/Grand-Delusion-Stalin-German-Invasion/dp/0300084595

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