The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s 1932-43 
edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky, translated by Tatiana Sorokina and Oliver Ready.
Yale, 584 pp., £25, September 2015, 978 0 300 18067 1
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There​ is a striking photograph of Ambassador Maisky, elegantly dressed in a three-piece suit, balding on top as distinguished diplomats often are, standing in front of a life-size portrait of Stalin, who is wearing a simple army jacket. The photo is from the late 1930s, probably taken after Maisky was rebuked by Moscow for not keeping enough Stalin icons in his London embassy. Maisky is looking up, but away from Stalin, with an uneasy smile on his normally friendly face. It was not a warm relationship.

Ivan Maisky was the epitome of the cosmopolitan intellectual whom Stalin and his team both despised and envied, and on top of that, a former Menshevik. A gregarious man, once in London he quickly grasped the mores of the English upper classes and established an extraordinary network of contacts. Indeed, he was on easier personal terms with Churchill and Beaverbrook than with Stalin, who responded unenthusiastically when, in personal meetings during the war, Churchill and Beaverbrook extolled Maisky’s performance as ambassador. Praise from capitalist ruling circles was a dubious benefit for a Soviet diplomat, suggesting as it did that the diplomat had gone native. In a way this was true of Maisky, although the diaries confirm that he was a tireless worker for Soviet interests as he saw them, strengthening the Soviet-British alliance and pushing for a Second Front in Western Europe. If Maisky’s interpretation of Soviet interests was not always the same as Stalin’s and Molotov’s, he was still an enormous asset for the Soviet Union as ambassador to Britain, something Stalin must have realised, since he not only failed to recall him on several occasions when, given Maisky’s deviations from Moscow’s line, he might have done, but didn’t eliminate him along with the majority of Soviet diplomats in the Great Purges of the late 1930s.

Maisky’s memoir of his life as a diplomat was first published in Russian in 1964 and quickly translated into English in three volumes: Who Helped Hitler?, Spanish Notebooks and Memoirs of a Soviet Ambassador: The War 1939-43. The diaries that he kept from 1932 to 1943 were found by the Israeli historian Gabriel Gorodetsky in the archives of the Russian Foreign Ministry in 1993. This one-volume edition, with an editorial introduction and commentary, is said to contain about a quarter of the diaries, and is the forerunner of a complete three-volume English edition with full scholarly apparatus which Gorodetsky is currently preparing. (A three-volume Russian edition, independently edited by Russian scholars, was published in 2006-9.)

Gorodetsky is dismissive of the Maisky memoirs, which he calls ‘apologetic’, ‘misleading and tendentious’ and ‘compromised by the severe censorship they were subjected to’ in the Soviet Union. This may be a bit harsh: when I went back to the memoirs after reading the diaries, they struck me as rather less misleading and tendentious than you might expect; the concessions to Soviet orthodoxy (on such matters as the Non-Aggression Pact, the Finnish War and the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941) are easy enough to identify. In addition, they remain good to read, since Maisky was not only an interesting character living in interesting times, but also knew how to write.

These same qualities are evident in the diaries, where his personality comes across as even more engaging than in the memoirs (helped by the photographs, many of them unfamiliar ones from Maisky’s personal album). It would be a mistake, however, to see the diaries, in contrast to the memoirs, as giving unmediated access to Maisky’s inner thoughts. The diaries were typed, or typed up, and Maisky kept at least three copies. They are written, therefore, for the eye of history – and probably, for the eyes of the NKVD, since Maisky’s embassy had the usual complement of watchers. Had he been arrested in the 1930s, as he might well have been, his diaries would have been the first thing taken for scrutiny. The censorship in the diaries is different in kind from that of the memoirs, but no less rigorous, and in some respects probably even more so, since the diaries were self-censored within a Stalinist frame of reference, while the memoirs emerged in the milder climate of the Thaw. Gorodetsky compares Maisky’s diaries to Pepys’s in their ‘astute observation of the British political and social scene, spiced with anecdotes and gossip’. For the anglophile and well-read Maisky, Pepys may even have been a model for the amusing description of the little princesses giggling at a reception given by their father, George VI, or the anecdotes about George Bernard Shaw’s marriage. The vignettes of the men of power he knew are artful in a different way.

Maisky was born Jan Mikhailovich Lyakhovetsky in 1884 in a small Russian town near Nizhny Novgorod, and grew up in the Siberian city of Omsk, where his Russified Polish father was serving as a military doctor. In his likeable memoir of childhood, Before the Storm (published in London in 1943), Maisky gives a vivid description of a close, earnest, socially-conscious family, atheist but within an Orthodox cultural tradition, an epitome of the progressive intelligentsia that read Shakespeare and Schiller as well as Herzen and Chernyshevsky and, as teachers, doctors and sometimes revolutionaries, dedicated their lives to ‘the people’. Gorodetsky says that Maisky’s father was ‘of Jewish-Polish descent, a fact which Maisky preferred to conceal’, but perhaps for young Lyakhovetsky, growing up in a totally non-religious household in a non-Jewish community, it wasn’t a ‘fact’ in any meaningful sense. Certainly it doesn’t seem to have impeded his access first to gymnasium in Omsk and then to St Petersburg University, despite the existence of Jewish quotas.

Although Maisky never identified as a Jew, that was how he was generally seen in English upper-class circles. Even Beatrice Webb, Maisky’s close friend, wondered at one point how Ribbentrop and the Nazis ‘felt towards the stocky, ugly Jew-tartar Soviet emissary, who compares more to a shrewd businessman negotiating in a world market than to a professional diplomatist’. Gorodetsky treats the Jewish label as natural, but I find it a bit odd. Was Maisky being equated with the overtly Jewish Maxim Litvinov, his old friend and patron, who was Soviet foreign minister throughout the 1930s? Or did the British simply assume, like the Nazis, that all Soviet leaders not from the Caucasus were Jewish?

Maisky’s remarkable network of British friends and acquaintances ran the gamut of statesmen (Churchill, Eden, Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald), Foreign Office types (Vansittart), newspaper magnates (Beaverbrook), politicians on both sides of the House, writers and intellectuals (Shaw, H.G. Wells, Sidney and Beatrice Webb), trade-unionists, bankers and that uncategorisable original, Lady Astor. ‘An ambassador without excellent personal contacts is not worthy of the name,’ Maisky wrote to Fedor Gusev, one of the ‘new men’ who came into the Soviet diplomatic service after the Great Purges. It was important not only to know people but to know them well enough to meet and chat informally and call them up on the phone. This had been Maisky’s conscious strategy from his appointment to Britain in 1932, when he wrote to Litvinov that his aim was ‘extending as widely as possible the series of visits which diplomatic etiquette imposes on a newly appointed ambassador, and in doing so to include not only the narrow circle of persons connected with the Foreign Office but also a number of members of the government, prominent politicians, people of the City and representatives of the cultural world’.

Maisky came in with unusual advantages in terms of acquaintances. Having been expelled from St Petersburg University for revolutionary activity in the 1900s, he was allowed to go into European exile, first in Germany, where he acquired a masters degree in economics at the University of Munich, and then from 1912 to 1917 in London. There he became friendly with Litvinov and his English wife, Ivy, and through Ivy met members of the Fabians, including Shaw and Wells, with whom he maintained friendly contacts up to the Second World War. Fabian socialism – non-Marxist and non-revolutionary, stressing intellectual input and gradualism – was always congenial to Maisky, even after he joined the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s.

It isn’t clear when he first encountered the Webbs, whose work on trade unionism had impressed him in his Russian student days. Beatrice’s 1932-33 diary entries assessed him favourably as a newly met ambassador: ‘not a fanatical Marxist’ but someone who takes ‘a broad view’ and sees ‘the fanatical metaphysics and repression of today’ as ‘temporary, brought about by past horrors and the low level of culture out of which the revolution started’. Maisky and his wife, Agniya, regularly went to the Webbs’ place at Passfield Corner for the weekend, and met them in London as well. We have no information on Stalin’s reaction to Maisky’s friendship with them, but he should have been grateful: one of Beatrice’s diary entries reports an afternoon in 1935 spent working with Maisky on the proofs of their very popular fellow-travelling book Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?, Maisky ‘giving us corrections and additions to our statements or criticising our conclusions’. Beatrice was not inclined to personal intimacy, but her diary makes clear that she was fond of both the Maiskys. Her death in April 1943, a month or so before his recall, was ‘a bitter loss’ to Maisky. Because of their ‘extremely close friendship’, he and Agniya were among the few outsiders invited to the family funeral.

Maisky was introduced to Churchill in the mid-1930s by Vansittart, permanent under-secretary for foreign affairs and a strong supporter of the British-Soviet alliance, although no sympathiser with communism. The detailed and lively reports in Maisky’s diaries of his many meetings with Churchill are particularly valuable, Gorodetsky points out, because they weren’t minuted in British archives. Churchill was frank with Maisky, telling him in March 1938 of his conviction that Hitler’s Germany, not the Soviet Union, represented ‘the greatest menace to the British Empire’, but adding that ‘if, one fine day, the German fascist threat to the Empire disappears and the communist menace raises its head again, then … I would raise the banner of struggle against you once more.’ Maisky wasn’t exaggerating when, on his departure, he wrote to Churchill that ‘from a personal and political point of view my associations with you … have been the highlight of my Ambassadorship here.’ But Churchill wasn’t the only statesman with whom Maisky was on easy terms. The ‘old wizard’ Lloyd George was another with whom he established a family friendship, writing affectionately of him as ‘a sort of clot of high-voltage intellectual energy … an astonishing person’.

Maisky reported back to Moscow in detail on his conversations with these highly placed interlocutors. Like all ambassadors, he listened carefully for hints of policy shifts, and dropped equivalent hints on Soviet intentions at the behest of his masters. But he did much more than that. One of the most interesting aspects of the diaries is that they show the remarkable extent to which Maisky was prepared to take his own initiatives, which he hoped his masters would follow up, but for which he had no authorisation from the Soviet Foreign Ministry or the Kremlin. In the late 1930s, with his nominal boss Litvinov ‘increasingly hamstrung by the vacillating and sceptical attitude of the Kremlin’ and ‘crippled by the purges in his ministry’, Maisky was the ‘sole driving force’ pushing collective security on the Soviet side, Gorodetsky argues, and the man who, when ‘paralysis struck the Kremlin’ after the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, was the prime mover in forging the British-US-Soviet alliance. He pushed at the British political establishment as well as at the Kremlin; and Gorodetsky marvels, with reason, at his ‘unabashed interference in British domestic politics’ when in the late 1930s he sought to encourage the ousting of the appeaser Chamberlain and replacing him with Churchill or Eden.

When it comes to his own diplomatic initiatives, the diaries are relatively discreet – not surprisingly, as this could have got Maisky into real trouble at home – while the 1960s memoirs make bolder claims. Of his quick decision after the German attack on the Soviet Union to do everything in his power to push the Allies to open a Second Front in Europe, Maisky wrote in his memoirs: ‘I did not think I had the right to sit with hands folded only because I had received no “tasks” from Moscow. Certainly not! … My conscience could not put up with this, and I decided to act independently, arising out of my own understanding of the situation and the most pressing needs of the Soviet Union.’ In contrast, his diary entries for 20 July and 10 August 1941 were careful to attribute any initiative on the Second Front question to Stalin.

One of Maisky’s standard modi operandi in trying to convince Moscow of something was to attribute his own ideas to interlocutors such as Eden. Gorodetsky, with his extensive reading of other archival sources, does a useful editorial service in alerting us to occasions when Maisky does this. On the other hand, he doesn’t point out that it was a game two could play: Eden and the rest were surely up to the same tricks. Sometimes it was even a joint effort, as in a discussion in February 1943 reported to their respective masters that Gorodetsky convincingly reads as a case of Eden and Maisky ‘plotting behind their leaders’ backs’.

Maisky narrowly escaped big trouble in 1939 when a British draft White Book on the negotiations between Britain, France and the Soviet Union threatened to reveal discrepancies between his account of the meeting and that of Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, as well as evidence of his deviation from the line laid down by the newly appointed Molotov. Luckily, publication was dropped, but Maisky would get into trouble later for having illicitly obtained a microfilm of the text and concealed it from his superiors. No wonder, given that it included the British conclusion that Maisky and Molotov were trying to confuse them by appearing to disagree, which would have been news to Molotov.

A diplomat, so they say, is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country; Maisky had to do his share of that. The Great Purges of 1937-38 took a high toll among cosmopolitan diplomats like him; Agniya’s brother-in-law was sent to the Gulag. Maisky, recalled to Moscow in 1938 along with other ambassadors, had to make a written confession of political shortsightedness in failing to recognise ‘enemies of the people’ inside his embassy, before being brought in with Litvinov for a dressing down from Stalin, Molotov and Voroshilov, and sent back with a warning. ‘Poor Maiskys, what a life they must be leading!’ Beatrice Webb wrote (she wasn’t as innocent about what went on in the Soviet Union as is sometimes assumed) in March 1938. But even with her they had to keep up appearances: in December 1937 she recorded that he was more or less his usual self on a visit to Passfield Corner, though ‘reserved about the arrests and rumours of arrests; justifies some, denies the fact of others.’

The Nazi-Soviet Pact of September 1939 produced another ‘Poor Maiskys!’ entry, this time with the comment ‘we shall never see them again: if we did we should not know what to say to them, nor they to us. With their friend Litvinov they will disappear, let us hope safely, somewhere in the background of that enormous and enigmatic territory.’ She was wrong, but it was a reasonable guess: Maisky had put himself on the line by favouring a Soviet-British alliance, not a German one; he had been kept totally out of the loop on Soviet-German negotiations, and was lucky to escape punishment. His diaries are typically cautious on the subject of his reaction to the pact; ‘involuntarily, I threw up my hands,’ is as far as he goes in an entry of 22 August, adding two days later: ‘Our policy is obviously undergoing a sharp change of direction, the meaning and consequences of which are not yet entirely clear to me. I must wait for further information from Moscow.’ The diaries, all the more likely to be read by prying eyes in the new diplomatic regime instituted after Litvinov’s replacement by Molotov in 1939, provide little information about the Maiskys’ real reaction, of which we have only hints in other sources. In a confidential report, Eden reported Agniya’s rash admission over lunch of her ‘disappointment’ with the pact, while Maisky was later embarrassed by the publication of a report from another British diplomat of his comment that ‘we lived in a period of change … In the jungle the strangest of animals got together – if they felt their joint interests made this advisable.’

According to Gorodetsky, Maisky ‘successfully deluded historians’ in his memoirs by claiming that in the early summer of 1941 he consistently passed on information about an imminent German attack, emphasising its reliability and importance. His communications with Stalin and Molotov on the subject were actually more ambiguous, and the diaries make clear that Maisky was not sure whether to believe the information or not. Even four days before the attack, on 18 June, when Stafford Cripps tried to persuade him that, on the basis of British intelligence, a German attack was imminent, he maintained a position of scepticism, while wondering afterwards: ‘Is Cripps right? Will Hitler really attack us?’ He ‘did not want to believe it’, as he recorded three days later, on the eve of the attack. Stalin no doubt had the same response to the information. An interesting sidelight from the diaries is the discovery that had Maisky not had a security watchdog put on his tail, whose presence at all his meetings with British officials was obligatory, the Soviet Union might have received better intelligence. Eden, trying to convey the same information as Cripps and accustomed to a confidential relationship with Maisky, was furious when Maisky, under orders, insisted that his watchdog sit in on their meeting. Eden remained ‘red-faced and sulky during the whole conversation’, Maisky recorded in his diary, and he himself seems to have been too distracted to pay attention to the information he was being given.

Maisky’s diaries remind us of how remarkably popular the Soviet Union became in Britain during the war. Even during the Phoney War of 1940, Maisky reported receiving an ecstatic reception at an air-raid shelter in the East End, commenting that ‘this is how the East End greets the Soviet ambassador today. If the war lasts two more years, Piccadilly will greet him in a similar way.’ Indeed, by October 1941, with the Soviet Union and Britain unequivocally on the same side, he noted that ‘everything “Russian” is in vogue,’ and reported that he had been given an ovation at the City Livery Club, ‘the City’s holy of holies’, as well as being elected as an honorary member of the Athenaeum. But he was careful to make Stalin, not himself, the centre of attention, writing in his diary: ‘I shall just mention Stalin’s popularity. His appearance on the screen always elicits loud cheers, much louder cheers than those given to Churchill or the king.’

Maisky’s​ recall from London in 1943, after all his diplomatic success, was hard to take. Ever the optimist, he was reluctant to admit that it signified his removal from a central role in Soviet diplomacy, but the signs of waning status multiplied in the years after his return. Initially assigned an unimportant position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he successfully petitioned Stalin for a move to the Academy of Sciences and wrote his diplomatic memoirs at the Institute of History. He was elected as an academician in 1946, but after that it was all downhill. With the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign in full swing in the late 1940s, Maisky, as a person of known sympathy with the wartime Allies who was also a Jew, was in double jeopardy. In 1949, a colleague at the Institute of History came under criticism for writing a scholarly book on wartime international relations that was, allegedly under Maisky’s influence, too favourable to the Allies. The colleague denounced him in his own apologia.

On 19 February 1953, two weeks before Stalin’s death, Maisky and others who had worked with him in the London Embassy were arrested. ‘Anti-cosmopolitanism’ had by this time come to be more or less equivalent to anti-Semitism, and Maisky seems to have been arrested as a ‘Jewish nationalist’ (like the Jewish wife of Maisky’s nemesis and former boss, Molotov, a few years earlier), though he was subsequently unwilling to admit that being Jewish had anything to do it. Stalin’s timely death should have got him off the hook, as it had Molotov’s wife and other prominent Jews, but an unexpected complication intervened in the form of Lavrentiy Beria.

In the collective leadership that took over after Stalin’s death, Beria, head of the security police, was the most overtly ambitious, which ultimately led his colleagues to remove and a few months later execute him. But in the crucial months between Stalin’s death in March 1953 and Beria’s fall in July, Beria, disapproving of Molotov’s foreign policy as too ‘Stalinist’, is said to have proposed that Maisky replace him as foreign minister. This not only incensed Molotov but also tarred Maisky with the ‘Beria’ brush after the latter’s disgrace. As a result, instead of being released, Maisky was kept in prison and, in May 1955, tried before a military tribunal for acting in the service of British imperialist interests. The damaging 1939 report in the unpublished White Book and his concealment of it was brought up against him. He defended himself vigorously, and was convicted only on the lesser charge of having abused his power and privileges as ambassador.

His full rehabilitation had to wait until 1960. The Thaw allowed him to publish his memoirs, albeit under some censorship. This was both a major literary-historical achievement and an effective apologia, though it is said that Maisky never fully reconciled himself to his exclusion from the circles of Soviet foreign policy-makers. Scandal came close again in 1965 when Maisky’s sometime student, friend and colleague at the Institute of History, Aleksandr Nekrich, got into trouble for his book 22 June, 1941, which raised the issue of Stalin’s culpability in ignoring intelligence about the imminent German attack. Maisky supported Nekrich, but the book was withdrawn and its author left under a pall. Maisky’s last years were spent out of the public eye; he died in his 91st year in 1975.

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