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The Maisky Diaries

Red Ambassador to the Court of St James's, 1932-1943


Edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky


London: Yale University Press, 2015

Hardcover. xlvii+584 pages. ISBN 978-0300180671. £25


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen



No-one interested in the Second World War and the ‘locust years’ which preceded it in Britain can have failed to come across the name of the Soviet Ambassador from 1932 to 1943, Ivan Mikhailovich Maisky. The flamboyant envoy and the charming Madame Maisky certainly dominated the London diplomatic corps (whose doyen he became in 1940), and allusions to their much-sought-after receptions or their presence at the parties given in high society abound in the writings of their contemporaries. His ancestors were Jewish Poles (he was born ‘Jan Lachowiecki’ [Polish spelling] or Lyakhovetsky [English transliteration of his russified name in Cyrillic] in 1884) who had assimilated into Russian society, so much so that his bookish atheist family insisted on his being proficient in the Orthodox catechism [xxviii], and he was a student at St. Petersburg University, from which he was expelled for his subversive activities in 1902, taking the name Maisky in 1909. He lived in London from 1912 to 1917, learning the language and building left-wing connections with British intellectuals like G.B. Shaw and Beatrice Webb (whose works he had read and admired as a student) – frequent visitors to the Embassy later. Returning to Russia in 1917, he joined the Mensheviks for a time, and then the Bolsheviks, who recruited him for their diplomatic service in 1922. After various postings in Europe, he became Ambassador in London in 1932.

All this – and much more – is most usefully developed in the thirty-six introductory pages by the editor, a noted specialist of Soviet foreign policy, and author of a well-known monograph on the Cripps Mission to Moscow. These pages also explain how the diaries survived after being confiscated by the Soviet authorities in 1953, when Maisky was arrested ‘on accusations of spying for Britain’ [xi] two months before Stalin’s death. After being released in 1955, he died in 1975 without ever getting them back. It is only in 1993 that they were discovered in the State archives and they were finally made public – as Maisky himself evidently always intended after protracted negotiations with the new Russian authorities.

The diaries actually start on 12 July 1934, with a record of a conversation with Vansittart, the first of many duly recorded ones. Naturally a footnote reminds us of Vansittart’s functions and career – as for every name mentioned by Maisky. As the Index reads like Who Was Who, we are thereby conveniently reminded of the numerous protagonists’ action at the time. This is especially welcome when he mentions Soviet personalities, many of whom were in fact eliminated by Stalin’s Moscow purges during his stay. Additionally, Professor Gorodetsky provides short essays to give context to the entries, and sometimes adds substantial comments to Maisky’s reflections in order to throw light on their significance for the modern reader. A useful device was adopted to distinguish Gorodetsky’s from Maisky’s writings: the former are given in sanserif type.

Maisky’s reflections are not all political, even though his observations on the ‘functions’ of London society always have a dimension of social comment. We have the marvellous example of the Royal Wedding of 1934, at Westminster Abbey, between the Duke of Kent and Marina – whose mother came from the Russian nobility. ‘It was the first time I had attended a church service since leaving school, 33 years ago… MacDonald zealously chanted psalms… Baldwin yawned wearily… Churchill looked deeply moved and at one point even seemed to wipe his eyes with a handkerchief’ [29 November 1934 : 22].

We learn how the Embassy came to receive more and more distinguished visitors during his stay: Churchill on 20 February 1939, Chamberlain – the first ever Prime Minister – on 1 March 1939. The volume is of course fascinating for Maisky’s vignettes on the people in high places he was led to meet. Three people recur in his diaries, because of the many conversations he had with them: Churchill, Eden and Lloyd George, whom he often went to see at Churt. He has only praise for Lloyd George, as on 11 February 1940: ‘Whenever you converse with Lloyd George, you immediately sense that you are dealing with a man of the highest calibre, a cut above all around him – ministers, parlementarians and public figures’ [255]. During the war, Lloyd George was extremely critical of Churchill in conversations with Maisky. In three 1935 entries, we have a comparison between Sir John Simon and his successor at the Foreign Office, Sir Samuel Hoare. ‘Simon, it seems, is obsessed with the quite fantastic idea of becoming prime minister after MacDonald’ [21 March : 43]. Hoare ‘is a novice, he underestimates the difficulties… This is dangerous. Simon, for all his negative traits, had some experience’ [12 June : 51]. Hoare ‘decided to show that he was not some Simon or other, capable only of babbling on. He could be an Alexander the Great of British foreign policy’ [14 December, on the Hoare-Laval Pact : 56]. On 20 November 1937, when it was clear that Eden disagreed with Chamberlain over Appeasement – but equally clear that Chamberlain was able to bend Eden to his will: ‘Eden is not made of iron, but rather of soft clay which yields easily to the fingers of a skilful artisan’ [92]. Over five years later, on the eve of Eden’s departure for talks in the USA: ‘He is not a very strong or firm man, and I’m rather afraid that the American surroundings may have a negative influence on him’ [11 March 1943 : 498].

On the day when the new Foreign Secretary, Halifax, received all the diplomatic corps: ‘Halifax’s manners are those of a well-bred English lord. He is polite, almost friendly. Talks little and uses platitudes. Likes to appeal to exalted feelings and noble principles, in which he half believes and, playing the hypocrite, half pretends to believe. He is always mindful of his own interests’ [1 March 1938 : 102]. A week later, on Chamberlain: ‘He is narrow-minded, dry, limited, lacking not only external brilliance but also any kind of political range… not a man of great stature… a consumate reactionary, with a sharply defined anti-Soviet position… Such is the prime minister we have to deal with now in England’ [8 March 1938 : 103]. On 5 August 1939, during the ill-fated negotiations between Britain, France and the Soviet Union: ‘Chamberlain has always been eager to cut the USSR’s throat with a feather’ [213]. Seen from the diplomatic gallery at the House of Commons on 1 September 1939: ‘Everything cost him such torment and was expressed with such despair in his eyes, voice and gestures that it was sickening to watch him’ [223]. Two days later, from the same vantage point, after Chamberlain had announced that Britain was at war with Germany: ‘A darkened, emaciated face. A tearful, broken voice. Bitter, despairing gestures. A shattered, washed-up man. However, to do him justice, the prime minister did not hide the fact that catastrophe had befallen him’ [223].

But of course pride of place goes to Churchill, whom he last met at Potsdam, after Yalta: both men were by then in the doldrums, each in his own way. One superb passage will suffice here, among the many copious entries which allude to him. When Churchill was in difficulty after the failures in Greece, Maisky went to listen to the brilliant speech which he gave in the Commons in defence of his policy:

The prime minister was undoubtedly born too late. By nature he is an adventurist on a historical scale, strong willed and resolute, a romantic of British imperialism and war. Had he lived in previous centuries, he would have been a match for Cortes or Admiral Drake, a conqueror of new lands or a celebrated pirate… It is not without reason that Churchill reveres his ancestor, the duke of Marlborough, who lived at the turn of the seventeenth century and was a brilliant military leader, a political chameleon, and protagonist of the most shameless love affairs… Churchill has told me more than once over the years, and I have no grounds not to believe him, that the British Empire is his alpha and omega…

Churchill is totally engrossed in the war. Fortune has smiled on him at last. He has ‘his own’ war, a gigantic war in which he, like a fanatical chess player, swears to checkmate Hitler. In this war, Churchill is commander-in-chief, chief of the general staff, and leader of the troops. He won’t surrender ‘his’ war to anyone. And now, when the British bourgeoisie wants to continue the war, he has become its godsend. But he may become an obstacle if and when it desires peace. [7 May 1941 : 352]

At the end of March 1938, Maisky met the new US Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy: ‘He is quite a character: tall, strong, with red hair, energetic features, a loud voice, and booming infectious laughter – a real embodiment of the healthy and vigorous business man that is so abundant in the USA, a man without psychological complications and lofty dreams’ [22 March 1938 : 105-106]. But when they last meet, before Kennedy leaves London, he notes : ‘Roosevelt, Churchill and the English political world – all are dissatisfied with him’ [19 November 1940 : 322]. His description of Kennedy in March 1938 has to be contrasted with the portrait of his successor three years later: ‘Winant makes a strange impression. Tall, dark-haired, with slow, demure manners, a listless, barely audible voice, and a pensive, introspective look, he is the polar opposite of his predecessor, the vociferous, jaunty, loquacious and flighty Joe Kennedy’ [13 March 1941 : 339].

We also have descriptions of long-forgotten Continental Ambassadors, many fearful of the German-Soviet entente between 1939 and 1941. One unusual visit is that of Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, on 3 February 1941 both were of course Russian Jews of the same generation, and Maisky observes: ‘He speaks excellent Russian, although he left Russia 45 years ago’ [329]. During the Czechoslovak crisis: ‘Bonnet!... A despicable individual’ [19 September 1938 : 133] – a judgement which finds its parallel after spending New Year’s Day in Paris: ‘ a wonderful city! What a shame it is that it is the capital of a country in deep decay’ [10 January 1939 : 154]. On the ‘Red Dean’, who invited him to Canterbury: ‘His 65 years notwithstanding, the dean recently married a young artist aged 35, his student. True, the dean is still full of life, energy and panache, even though he is nearly bald and the hair that remains (down the sides) is the bright colour of senile silver. But the English take a different view of such things from us Russians’ [1 July 1939 : 203].

Sometimes, he has funny anecdotes which reflect on the tastes of the people he meets. During Litvinov’s visit for the King’s funeral in January 1936, Eden invites them for lunch at his home: ‘An ordinary middle-class English  house, rather cold, with second-hand furniture’. ‘We [Litivinov and Maisky] went to the cinema in the evening’, he continues. ‘A bad idea. We saw Top Hat – a very silly comedy, which [Litivinov] did not enjoy’ [29 January 1936 : 63-65]. On 16 November 1937, after a State banquet at the Palace: ‘The dinner, unlike most English dinners, was tasty (the king is said to have a French cook)’ [87]. Maisky also devotes one page to his description of Chartwell, Churchill’s manor, where he was invited for the first time on 4 September 1938, at the time of the Czechoslovak crisis, ‘A wonderful place!’ [124]. At tea time, Churchill tells him: ‘I have a bottle of wine from 1793! Not bad, eh? I’m keeping it for a very special, truly exceptional occasion – What exactly, may I ask you?  … We’ll drink this bottle together when Great Britain and Russia beat Hitler’s Germany!’ [125].

A fascinating aspect of the Diaries is the constant mixture of high politics and the lure of London and its pleasures, as on 31 August 1939:

In the evening Agniya [Madame Maisky] and I went to the Globe to see Oscar Wilde’s delicious comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. The actors were superb. An image of the ‘good old times’ without automobiles, radio, aeroplanes, air raids, Hitlers and Mussolinis – seemed to come alive. People were funny and naïve then, to judge by today’s standards. We laughed for two hours. That’s something to be grateful for.

When we got back from the theatre, the radio brought sensational news: the 16 points which Hitler demands from Poland. [220]

On 3 March 1943 he reminisces about the recent evening spent with the Crippses listening at Myra Hess playing the piano at her house: ‘Myra played us Beethoven’s “Appassionata”. A wonderful interpretation! I told Myra Hess that this was Ilyich’s [Lenin’s] favourite piece. Myra was greatly impressed by this fact, and the the Crippses even more so’ [494].

Gorodetsky underlines that Maisky always knew that his diaries might be read by Stalin’s associates or their successors, and that he therefore made a point of reaffirming his Communist faith whenever possible. On his friendship with the Chinese Ambassador: ‘Relations of trust have been established between us (as far as trust is possible, of course, between a Soviet and a bourgeois diplomat)' [11 April 1941 : 346]. Another good illustration is provided by the last paragraph of his entry for 17 March 1935, after Hitler had announced the reintroduction of conscription:

The seal of death shows through ever more clearly on the face of the capitalist world. The cruel and idiotic Versailles treaty, the idiotic post-war policy of France and Britain towards Germany, Hitler’s idiotically provocative behaviour… As a result, the world rushes ever faster and more uncontrollably towards a military catastrophe, in the womb of which is borne the proletarian revolution! [42]

And four years later: ‘It took Britain and France seven years to recognise the Soviet Government. And it took them barely seven days to recognise Franco. These facts reflect the true essence of “capitalist democracies” just as a drop of water reflects the sun’ [27 February 1939 : 157]. The entry for 20 May 1940 is of exceptional interest, as it neatly adumbrates what was to become the post-war Communist creed:

The Anglo-French bourgeois élite is getting what it deserves. If one reflects on what has happened in the European arena over the last 20 years, it becomes entirely clear that the main cause of the Allies’ plight is the bourgeois élite’s mortal hatred of ‘communism ’.

This hatred has prevented this élite from establishing any sort of stable, friendly relations with the USSR over these 20 years. There have been ups and downs, but on the whole, our relations have been unsatisfactory throughout…

Owing to this very hatred, the ruling élite of England and France systematically supported the Japanese warmongers, Mussolini and Hitler. What’s more, it is the same élite which nurtured Hitler – in the hope that one day he would march east and wring the Bolsheviks’ necks. But the ‘Bolsheviks’ proved too strong and too skilful. Hitler headed not east but west. The ruling élite of England and France fell into the same trap they had set for us.

He was wrong, however, in his last sentence:

We are witnessing the fall of the great capitalist civilisation, a fall similar in importance to that of the Roman Empire. Or, perhaps, even more important [279].

But he was right again on 15 February 1942: ‘What is England’s reaction to the military successes of the USSR in the last ten weeks?... For as long as our successes remain relatively modest, the reserves of the ruling class will keep silent. But what if the Red Army starts approaching Berlin? And on their own to boot? A nightmare! Cold sweat!' [411]. And again, one year later, after Stalingrad: ‘The more success the Soviet military achieves, the deeper the concern in the hearts of the ruling élite’ [5 February 1943 : 475]. In a long conversation with Eden on 26 January 1943, he makes a remarkable forecast: since Hitler’s generals must be aware that the military war is now lost, he has become a liability for them. ‘That’s why I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, waking up one fine morning, we were to read in the papers that Hitler had committed suicide or died in a “car accident” ’. He then argues that a new government will be formed with ‘the same bloodthirsty German fascism in disguise’ by the generals – ‘but maybe some elements in England and the USA will swallow the bait! Especially if they present it, as they are sure to do, as a dish entitled “Bolshevik scarecrow” ’ [472]. He also shows foresight when writing, on 4 March 1943: ‘The Polish question will be one of the hardest “nuts” to crack at the end of the war’ [494]. But he was wrong again in yet another conversation with Eden when he told him: ‘There is a school of thought in America which asserts that the twentieth century will be the “American century”. I find such slogans to be mistaken in general. Yet, if we have to speak in these terms, I think one would be more justified in saying that the twentieth century will be the “Russian century” ’ [497].

There are moments of high drama, as when Maisky goes to the Czechoslovak Embassy on the morrow of the Munich agreements to see the Ambassador: ‘Immobility gave way to quivering. He rocked rather comically on his feet and fell all of a sudden on my breast, sobbing bitterly. I was taken aback and somewhat bewildered. Kissing me, Masaryk mumbled through his tears…’ [30 September 1938 : 143-144].

The Diaries are full of personal reflections, as an individual and as Ambassador, like ‘An ambassador, after all, is akin to a travelling salesman. When he sells good commodities, he will be successful even if his personal qualities are quite ordinary. When he sells bad commodities, he is doomed to fail even if his personal qualities are excellent’ [2 March 1941 : 338]. Or on 9 July 1942: ‘I have drawn the following conclusion from my life experience: “Never say never in politics” ’ [444]. Or again: ‘I turn 59 today….I have mixed feelings…My mind tells me: “You are nearing old age”. But my body replies: “You are still far from old” ’ [19 January 1943 : 469]. On 3 May 1943, shortly before Maisky was recalled, he and his wife attended Beatrice Webb’s funeral: ‘Returning from Woking, Agniya and I experienced profound sadness. Gone forever was a good person, a strong spirit, a heartfelt friend of the USSR, our own close personal friend, the only one perhaps, of all our English acquaintances that we truly loved’ [520].

Gone forever, too, were Maisky’s shining years, as he fell victim to that Soviet régime which he had so zealously served in London, weathering considerable storms like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the dispute over the Second Front and finally the Katyn massacre. All these storms take a new light seen from the Diaries, with the superb commentaries provided by the editor, to whom the reader can only be grateful for the meticulous care that he brought to his arduous task. The many photographs which illustrate the text are not to be found in any other books – and are therefore of the highest documentary value. One cannot recommend the volume too strongly to anyone interested in twentieth-century British cultural, social and political history, and it will be required reading for advanced students of international (not only Anglo-Soviet) relations, the Second World War and Soviet politics under Stalin.



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