Going Native

Sheila Fitzpatrick

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.

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