Stalin’s Man in London

Review: Gabriel Gorodetsky, ‘The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James's, 1932-1943’

Ivan Maisky, left, with Molotov and Winston Churchill / Wikimedia Commons

In 1937, London was swept by rumors of Stalin’s brutal purges. English politicians, already reluctant to form a united front with the Soviet Union, became even more hesitant upon hearing of the systematic murder taking place in the USSR.

"So that’s what the English are like!" the Soviet ambassador Ivan Maisky wrote with fury in a secret diary the writing of which, under Stalin, could have gotten him killed. "Chamberlain wants to tear France away from its Eastern allies and to that end he is exploiting our recent trials. That won’t work."

Maisky devoted 11 years to forcing Britain and the Soviet Union together, whether they wanted to be together or not. From 1932 to 1943 he managed to achieve something like celebrity status in England, befriending members of the press, artists, and politicians.

The diary, unearthed in 1993 and recently translated by Gabriel Gorodetsky, a professor at Tel Aviv University, features appearances from men such as George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill, as well as discussions of the scene in Britain after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

One entry from 1937 reveals how Maisky allayed British fears of Russia’s domestic turmoil. When Winston Churchill asked Maisky whether the purges had "shaken [the USSR’s] ability to withstand pressure from Japan and Germany," Maisky replied: "If a disloyal general commanding a corps or an army is replaced by an honest and reliable general, is this weakening or strengthening an army?" In his report back to the Kremlin, Maisky used the exchange to simultaneously depict the harm done by the show trials and to praise Stalin, apparently working to influence the Kremlin’s policies as well.

Maisky’s entries from the pre-war years show how he devoted his efforts to battling the influence of Hitler, a man he despised. It took years, however, for public and elite opinion to conform to Maisky’s perspective. Hitler enchanted influential figures, among them Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, who ran articles praising the "blackshirts." As Bernard Wasserstein notes, Hitler’s ideology attracted members of all classes, from proletarians to aristocrats. Thus, in 1936, Maisky was not entirely wrong to sense a creeping ‘Germanophilia’ in the British public and foreign policy—a phenomenon related to Neville Chamberlain’s later policy of appeasement.

Maisky condemned the appeasers, calling them "historically blind, like moles," and writing that they were "ready to lick the Nazi dictator’s boots like a beaten dog." He denounced Chamberlain and linked the prime minister’s ignorance to his hyper-scientific way of doing politics.

"He is narrow-minded, dry, limited, lacking not only external brilliance, but also any kind of political range," he observed. "Here, he is often called the ‘accountant of politics:’ he views the whole world primarily through the prism of dividends and exchange quotations."

Maisky believed that Chamberlain was unable to put aside his hatred for communism and was therefore unable to see the Soviet Union as an ally. Churchill, on the other hand, whom Maisky liked, saw fascism as the greater threat, and, though a capitalist and a democrat, appeared more willing to cooperate with the Soviet Union.

Churchill often reassured Maisky of his support. As early as 1937, Maisky recorded Churchill as saying, "‘The main task for all of us who defend the cause of peace […] is to stick together. Otherwise we are ruined. A weak Russia presents the greatest danger for the cause of peace and for the inviolability of our Empire.’"

After Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement in September 1938, Maisky persisted in attempting to persuade both Stalin and British politicians of the threat of Nazism and the need to form a common front. Yet, Russia pulled further into isolation.

As the year went on, Maisky was gradually ostracized from British society as well as from Russian diplomatic circles. In May 1939, the Kremlin replaced Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs and Maisky’s ally, with Vyacheslav Molotov. The switch marked a turn toward Germany in Russian foreign policy.

Molotov stifled Maisky’s diplomatic free rein, telling him that the role of the ambassador would now be "simply to transmit what [he is] told to pass on." Maisky was kept in the dark during the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. The pact (albeit temporarily) shattered Maisky’s dreams of a united English-Soviet-French front. By 1941, Maisky was kept out of the decision-making process altogether.

Still, he persevered, exercising the little autonomy he had left. After the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, Maisky initiated a meeting between Churchill and Stalin in Moscow, which the Kremlin did not allow him to attend. Then, in June 1943, when tensions were still high between the Soviet Union and England, Maisky was recalled to Moscow.

Upon his return to the USSR, Maisky cut himself off from his contacts in England. Ten years later, he was arrested for ‘high treason:’ the Soviet government accused him of being a British spy. Maisky was jailed and interrogated by Soviet authorities 36 times before the death of Stalin. Under Khrushchev, his charge was eventually downgraded to abuse of ambassadorial power, an "administrative" rather than political crime. When Maisky was rehabilitated in 1960, he spent the rest of his life writing volumes of memoirs, reminiscing about his life in England.

It seems Maisky kept the manifold horrors of his time at arm's length during and after his ambassadorship. He could explain the purges away in part because, for him, doing so was a necessary part of the greater cause of fighting Hitler, and the cause of fighting Hitler was important, at least overtly, because Nazi Germany was a threat to the Soviet Union. Yet Maisky was Jewish: he had a personal stake in the affairs of the Third Reich.

On February 3, 1941, Maisky met with Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the President of the World Zionist Organization. Weizmann appealed to Maisky in an attempt to garner the Soviet Union’s support for the creation of a Jewish state.

"I may not like this, but I’m ready to accept it: at least Soviet Jews are on firm ground, and their fate does not make me shudder. But I cannot think without horror about the fate of the 6-7 million Jews who live in Central or South-East Europe," Weizmann said. "What’s going to happen to them? Where will they go?’"

While he was open to the idea of a Jewish state, Maisky, born Jan Lachowiecki, rejected his Jewish identity, as it was not aligned with the universalism and atheism of communist ideology. And yet, in one entry in 1942, Maisky describes his vision of communism in the future, rejecting the undesirable conception of a completely unified humanity that most communists advocated for.

"Let there be diversity in the world. Let there be different characters, different faces, different songs, different tastes," he wrote. "It will be necessary to create forms of life whereby national distinctions enrich the common life of mankind, instead of dividing it into mutually hostile elements."

In June 1941, Maisky was able to rest outside and relish the heat of the summer sun. "I lay on the grass, resting my head on my hands, and gazed into the deep blue skies," he wrote. "I lay and wondered: ‘Will there really be war?’" Meanwhile, the Jewish people were being exterminated. In Maisky’s diaries, what is left unsaid seems as important, if not more important, than what is written.