“The Maisky Diaries” – edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky
Gabriel Gorodetsky, ed., The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2015, 634 pages, $28.80, Kindle $19.99, audiobook $36.32.
A striking work of scholarship (actually an abridgement of a three-volume complete work coming in 2016), this book will inspire fresh scholarship on Churchill and World War II. Ivan Maisky was a penetrating observer of 1932-43 Britain, and his editor, Gabriel Gorodetsky, connects every long gap in his diaries with informed accounts of what was happening. The book links nicely with Hillsdale’s Churchill Documents, volume 18, offering vast new primary source material on the World War II “grand alliance.”
Gorodetsky’s interview with Geraldine Doogue of ABC (Australia) is worth hearing for his description of Maisky, who, “like Samuel Pepys, combined personal observation, psychological insights, and impetuous curiosity.” Few ambassadors in those days dealt with other than high government officials; Maisky met with everyone, socially or officially, including press and opposition, and wrote with keen perception. In the late 1930s he said the Chamberlain government was “infected to the core with the poison of compromise and balance of power politics.” As early as March 1936, he forecast that “a terrible storm is approaching at full speed!” (68).
Maisky’s English, at least as translated, is polished and lyrical. Who would expect a Russian to write that bagpipes have “a strange, exciting effect on me, drawing me off somewhere far away, to broad fields and boundless steppes, where there are neither people nor animals, and where one feels oneself young and brave”? (87)
When Gorodetsky first encountered the diary, he was staggered by its depth: “Churchill in his first volume of war memoirs has two references to Maisky. In Maisky’s diary there were close to 250 references to Churchill.” Wasn’t it dangerous in the age of Stalin to keep a diary? “It was like signing your death sentence,” the editor says. “Despite the danger he could not stop himself. But [perhaps for self-preservation] there are long moments of silence. It was my job to fill in the context.” He does so masterfully.
Maisky survived Stalin’s firing squads because he was valuable. An American contemporary praised “his practical grasp of day-by-day changes in thought and emotion, his genial but unruffled contemplation of the whole war in all its details,” describing him as “one of the most thoroughly competent observers I had the fortune to meet in England” (299).
A converted Menshevik—the worst kind?—Maisky was prone to repeat the Bolshevik line about communism’s ultimate triumph. Yet his tastes were high-bourgeois. He enjoyed fine food and wine, luxury travel and aristocratic comany (though intensely loyal to his plain and Bolshy wife). An English country house weekend was his delight. He reminds us of the story about Leonid Brezhnev’s mother who, when shown her son’s palatial Kremlin accommodations asks: “But Leonie, what will you do when the communists come?”
Maisky’s observations of the good and the great (and the not so good) are revealing. During the 1938 Czech crisis he found Neville Chamberlain “almost weeping, his voice trembled, and he couldn’t reconcile himself to the thought that war could begin any moment now. That’s bad. A speech like that augurs ill….the PM considers himself a ‘man of destiny’! He was born into this world to perform a ‘sacred mission.’ A dangerous state of mind…” (139-41, 161). On Stanley Baldwin’s search for a defense minister he quoted Churchill: “Baldwin is looking for a man smaller than himself….such a man is not easy to find” (70).
Sir Thomas Inskip, Baldwin’s eventual choice, “had me in hysterics with his sudden complaints about his inability to grasp military terminology: ‘What is a division?…in every division there is a different number of men….How many vessels are there in a flotilla? I’m completely lost in all these terms’” (147). Sir Samuel Hoare, Chamberlain’s Home Secretary, was “dry, elegant and quite short. His face is sharp, intelligent and guardedly attentive. He is very courteous and considerate, but cautious….He is a novice, he underestimates the difficulties, and is prone to experimentation” (50-51). Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador to London, was “a coarse, dull-witted maniac, with the outlook and manners of a Prussian N.C.O. It has always remained a mystery to me how Hitler could have made such a dolt his chief adviser on foreign affairs” (75).
Churchill and Appeasement
The statesman who would have “strangled Bolshevism in its cradle” maintained frequent contacts with the Soviet ambassador, who often visited Chartwell. “Not a bad life for the British bourgeoisie!,” Maisky mused. “There’s plenty for them to protect.” Churchill “must have guessed my thoughts,” saying: “You can observe all this with an untroubled soul! My estate is not a product of man’s exploitation by man: it was bought entirely on my literary royalties.” (124)
Churchill’s “favorable references to the devil” (no doubt relayed to Stalin) were unabashed: “We would be complete idiots were we to deny help to the Soviet Union at present out of a hypothetical danger of socialism” (April 1936). “We need a strong Russia….[We must] stick together. Otherwise we are ruined” (November 1937). But Maisky correctly predicted that “the English elite will grant Churchill power only on the day after war is declared” (July 1939).
Maisky’s quest for collective security dominates the first half of the book. From early 1935 (apparently with Stalin’s approval), he worked for an Anglo-French-Soviet understanding. But he had his doubts. In July 1935 he wrote: “Can Britain and France find the requisite strength and determination?” (53). When Hitler occupied the Rhineland in March 1936, Maisky sensed “a new and very dangerous turn toward Germanophilia” (66). At Munich, he promised Chamberlain that the USSR would join the Anglo-French and threaten war if Hitler attacked Czechoslovakia (122). Privately, Gorodetsky wondered whether Stalin was testing their intentions, or just wanted to entangle them in a war with Germany.
Like others, Maisky threw up his hands over Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s chief foreign policy advisor: “a clever, cunning and somewhat cynical fellow…. I never saw him display an understanding of international politics, still less a desire to be engaged in those complex and sensitive matters” (114). In 1938 Wilson told him Britons “won’t understand a war over Czechoslovakia…the Dominions are against the interference…British rearmament programme is far from being completed…France is internally weak….’If only the conflict could be postponed…everything would be different’” (121). It was indeed postponed—and became worse.
By spring 1939 Maisky suspected that foot-dragging by Chamberlain on talks with Russia meant the Prime Minister really wished “Germany to expand eastward at Russian expense” (182). When in May 1939 Halifax told him Britain could not accept a Soviet “understanding,” Maisky fumed: “It took the British Government three weeks to consider our proposals, at the end of which the mountain has given birth to a mouse” (186). Yet he stubbornly maintained that Anglo-Soviet interests could be harmonized, right up to the outbreak of the war in September 1939 (71).
War and the Grand Alliance
As early as April 1939, Maisky and the Soviet ambassador in Berlin warned Stalin that eventually, Hitler would attack Russia. But they also argued for short-term rapprochement: “…as long as [Germany] was preoccupied with France and Poland the neutrality of the Soviet Union was indispensable” (179). Thus the infamous Russo-German non-aggression pact, which freed Hitler to attack Poland in September 1939, and Stalin to share the spoils.
Molotov signed another non-aggression pact in April 1941, with Yugoslavia, informing the German ambassador that it served German interests. “We have played our ‘German card,’” Maisky observed, “and will get little more from it” (342). They did get something out of it: Germany felt obliged to attack Yugoslavia, delaying its invasion of Russia until June—long enough to confront the Wehrmacht with the Russian winter, short of Moscow.
In a rare contradiction, on the same page, Gorodetsky says Churchill mistakenly believed German troop deployments on the Russian border in Spring 1941 signified Hitler’s plan to move the war to the Balkans; then he quotes Maisky that Churchill expected ”a German attack on the Soviet Union in the very near future” (345). The latter is of course the truth.
Stalin’s demands for a second front almost from the moment he was attacked are well known. But in March 1942, after America had joined the allies, the diaries disclose “startling instructions to Litvinov” (Maisky’s former boss, now Ambassador to Washington) to downplay the issue. “The puzzling shift,” Gorodetsky writes, “has been either overlooked or misconstrued by Western scholars, who have often attributed the rumors of a separate peace to Stalin’s attempts to scare and ‘blackmail’ the Western powers into further commitment [for] fear of a German-Soviet reconciliation….
“It is conceivable (and there are indeed indications of the fact) that in desperation Stalin…considered an approach to the Germans through Beria,” writes Gorodetsky. Ceasing hostilities with Germany might involve “the bait that Russia might join the war against the West in late 1943, in exchange for reinstatement of the territorial arrangements of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact [and] spheres of influence in the Balkans.” This seems improbable, given what the Germans had inflicted on Russia; yet Maisky and Litvinov were told that Moscow “did not consider it expedient” to push for a second front or “rush the British.” Gorodetsky footnotes: “It is indeed most telling that this document is not included in the official publication of the Soviet documents” (416-17).
Roosevelt, at least, was extremely worried that Stalin might bolt. On February 9, 1943 Eden showed Churchill and Maisky an exchange of messages after FDR offered send 100 bombers to Vladivostok. Stalin had sarcastically replied: Where they were needed was on the German front. “How clumsy and naive the Americans are!” Eden said. But Churchill, whom many consider the pig-headed third of the alliance, played the diplomat: “Roosevelt was enraged by Stalin’s message and wanted to send an abusive reply. But I managed to talk him out of it. I told him: listen, who is really fighting today? Stalin alone!…If Stalin came to Casablanca, the first thing he would have asked [Eden] and me would have been: ‘How many Germans did you kill in 1942? And how many do you intend to kill in 1943?’ And what would the two of us have been able to say? We ourselves are not sure what we are going to do in 1943.”
Maisky concluded that FDR-Stalin relations were of real concern to Churchill: “He explained to me at length how important it is for good relations and mutual understanding to exist between the leaders of the USSR and the USA. ‘It is important now, and it will be even more important after the war.’” Eden told Maisky to inform Stalin there would be no British opt-out from the German war as long as he was foreign minister and Churchill was prime minister (479-81). This episode gives us a different impression than those laid down by historians of the era.
Overlord and Beyond
Much second front controversy surrounds the interesting things Maisky has Churchill saying. On 9 February 1943 the PM exclaimed: “Right now the Americans have only one division here! They have sent nothing since November.” How many more were coming? Maisky asked. Churchill: “I wish I knew. When I was in Moscow, I proceeded from the assumption that by spring 1943 the Americans would have dispatched twenty-seven divisions to England, just as they had promised….Now [they] promise to send only four-or five divisions by August.”
When Maisky asked what would happen if the Americans did not deliver the promised divisions, Churchill replied: “I’ll carry out this operation whatever happens. Do you know how many men there are in an American division?…50,000 if you count the entire attending personnel! I mean 50,000!….Of course there’s transport, medical staff, quartermaster service and so on. That’s normal. But they also have two laundry battalions, one battalion of milk sterilizers, one battalion of hairdressers, one battalion of tailors, one battalion for the uplift of the troops and what not! Ha-ha-ha. We’ve sent nearly half a million combatants to North Africa. But it actually amounts to a mere 10-11 divisions. We, the English, are poor in this respect, but the Americans are worse!”
In his Australian interview Gorodetsky drew an odd conclusion. One of Maisky’s faults, he said, was his admiration of Churchill: “He failed to see that Churchill had different objectives than defeating the Nazis.” His object to preserve the British Empire caused him to flirt over-long with Mediterranean strategies that delayed the second front. Launched earlier, it “could have prevented the Cold War?” Really? Given the postwar bankruptcy of Britain and the Empire, which Churchill had sacrificed in his single-minded determination to defeat Hitler, this is highly debatable. The invasion of France was postponed for sound military reasons. But this is a side issue, which does not detract from the brilliance and importance of this book.
The greatest sin of modern statesman, Maisky ruminated in 1936. “is vacillation and ambiguity of thought and action. This is the weakness which before long may land us into war” (67). His words can still be applied to certain modern statesmen.
Was Maisky really a committed communist? It doesn’t seem so from these pages. He did write, at least for the record, that state socialism was on the rise. But even Eden believed that. In 1938 Eden told him the capitalist system had had its day. What would replace it? Maisky asked. Eden: “It will certainly be a different system. State capitalism? Semi-socialism? Three-quarter socialism? Complete socialism? I don’t know. Maybe it will be a particularly pure British form of ‘Conservative socialism’” (150). He wasn’t far wrong there.
Maisky stated (also for the record?) that “the 20th century will, by all appearances, prove to be a century of transition from capitalism to socialism…the USSR represents the rising sun, and the USA the setting sun, a fact which does not exclude the possibility of the relatively lengthy continued existence of the USA as a mighty capitalist power.” Eden asked where the British fit in. Maisky: “You, as always, are trying to find a middle course of compromise between two extremes. Will you find it? I don’t know. That is your concern” (497). He was wrong about the rising sun—and, we trust, about the setting sun.
Maisky was fortunate. Though recalled from London in mid-1943 and retired in 1945, he did not suffer the fate of so many Soviet diplomats. He was arrested in 1953, and Stalin’s death may have saved his life. He was released from prison in 1955, and died in 1975 aged 91. He wrote five volumes of memoirs, discreet and judicious, of course. Now thanks to Gabriel Gorodetsky he gets full vindication: his every thought is revealed.