Stalin’s Man In London

The newly-published diaries of Ivan Maisky are an extraordinarily important 21st-century contribution to our understanding of the Second World War

It may seem odd in retrospect, but most historians eagerly anticipated the publication of The Hitler Diaries. Had they been genuine, they would have been revealing. Europe’s “Civil War” of the 1930s and 1940s was vast in scope. It was executed more by machines than men. And its immediate effects were frequently unfathomable.  Yet the specific dynamics of conflict — what actually happened, where and when — were often determined by an astonishingly small number of individuals. Those men were only too willing to put their thoughts on these matters to paper. Their memoirs were invariably self-serving. De Gaulle was magnificent in this respect, Eisenhower merely tedious, Speer duplicitous.

However, the contemporaneous diaries of protagonists, especially those composed without obvious intention of publication, have proved to be of quite different value.  These often displayed a complexity of motive, even a confusion of purpose (let alone effect), that have served serious study well. No one better exposed the utter cynicism of the Nazi regime than Goebbels. Mussolini’s fake grandiosity was seldom more graphically described than by Ciano. And Britain’s grim determination to prevail still lives in the words of Alanbrooke. But nothing of comparable quality emerged from the ex-Soviet Union. This was scarcely surprising. Stalin’s Terror discouraged all but the most foolhardy from writing much down. Only the suicidal contemplated anything so self-incriminating as a diary. That, at least, is what we thought until now. 

Gabriel Gorodetsky is one of the leading historians of 20th-century Soviet foreign policy. In 1993, seeking information on Ivan Maisky’s involvement in the Soviet decision to support the Palestinian partition plan of 1947, he discovered The Maisky Diaries. He has devoted much of the last 20 years to collating, editing and interpreting what may turn out to be the most important contribution of 21st-century historical scholarship to our understanding of the causes, course and consequences of the Second World War.  The full, unexpurgated, text runs to about 500,000 words. It will eventually be published in three volumes. This is an abridged edition, reproducing about one-quarter of the original. It is a revelation. It will be read — it will be metaphorically devoured — by anyone remotely interested in understanding the history of humanity’s darkest century. 

Maisky was a Soviet diplomat of the old school. He was intelligent, educated and fluent in several languages. He travelled widely before the Revolution. He began as a Menshevik, later shifting his allegiance to the Bolsheviks. He was appointed Soviet Ambassador to London in 1932, remaining there for 11 years. During that time, he set about systematically courting and manipulating anyone who mattered in Britain to Russian advantage. That involved cultivating around 500 of the most influential men and women of the time, beginning with the Foreign Office, then working his way through Parliament and the press. His method, beautifully set out in a nine-page “lecture” to Fedor Gusev, one of Molotov’s moronic yes men, is admirably summarised in this book. It repays the most careful scrutiny. 

Maisky was a Marxist. But he never doubted the significance of the individual in history. Thus he took careful stock of its most important specimens in inter-war England. He despised Simon and distrusted Halifax. He loathed, but also feared, Chamberlain. He continually rated Lloyd-George (an “astonishing man”) highest of all, at least before 1941. He did his best to bully lesser political fry, like Butler (with little effect), and to influence sympathetic officials, like Vansittart (with rather more success).  He exploited the credulity of indigenous fellow-travellers for all they were worth. Their value varied. Even Maisky was surprised by quite how idiotically Dr Hewlett Johnson interpreted his duty to be useful (“I consider . . . Stalin’s Russia . . . to be the only truly Christian country in our day”). In contrast, the Webbs’ commendable socialist orthodoxy was hampered by their residual “snobbery” (his word). Hence Beatrice’s efforts to hinder his cultivation of Churchill (“He is not a true Englishman, you know. He has negro blood . . . inherited from his mother. You can tell [by] his appearance”).

In these, as in so many other respects, Maisky’s Diaries are endlessly illuminating.  But they cannot be taken at face value.  There are long gaps in the narrative, witness to those moments when even Maisky felt too frightened to write. The instinct for self-preservation also persuaded him to ascribe his own ideas to others, sometimes to a degree wholly at odds with reality. He was invariably disingenuous in his descriptions of Stalin. That was, no doubt, wise. So what remains must be carefully interpreted. Gorodetsky has achieved this feat by continually placing Maisky’s words in the context of other contemporary documents, both Soviet and foreign. He has also compared Maisky’s private and public accounts of events — his were perhaps the most self-serving of memoirs. The editor’s frequent but discreet commentaries give voice to the silences and correct the misapprehensions.  They allow the reader not simply to follow the story but comprehend the text. It is a magnificent editorial achievement.

What The Maisky Diaries, rightly read, reveal is not simply the Soviet perspective but the Soviet dimension to European relations during the decade after Hitler’s rise to power. This has the effect of changing our view on seemingly well-understood events, again and again. We long knew that Hitler was dissatisfied by Munich. We can now appreciate why Stalin regarded that agreement as a disaster. Conversely, the Polish guarantees had the unanticipated effect of making Soviet Russia the pivot of Europe’s balance of power. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was not Stalin’s desperate response to allied procrastination over a Russian agreement.  He and Molotov had long since contemplated the greater advantage to be gained from a rapprochement with Hitler. This became their long-term plan. That, rather than asinine self-deception, better explains Stalin’s seemingly craven appeasement of Hitler up to the summer of 1941. By the same token, the Japanese neutrality treaty was not an inspired, last-minute, defence of Russia’s eastern flank. It was part of a premeditated effort “to collaborate extensively with [our] Tripartite Pact Partners”.  It took two years hard slog — down to Stalingrad — to reverse the impact of that misjudgement. No wonder Stalin took such pains to conquer Eastern Europe after 1944.

Maisky’s Diaries, for all their observational panache, are in many ways a record of professional failure. He did not succeed in persuading the Western allies to join a Soviet-sponsored policy of “collective security” after 1935. He did not succeed in securing Anglo-Soviet military cooperation in the summer of 1939. He did not succeed in cajoling Britain and America to open a second front in Europe, either in 1942 or 1943. Yet he was eventually recalled less for his shortcomings than for his success. Stalin could not abide the possibility of so popular an envoy in London. This could have been disastrous for Maisky. But he survived. He even survived his subsequent disgrace, in 1955.  He died in his bed, aged 91, in 1975. Maisky was not a nice, still less a good, man. Read his account of the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939 and feel your blood run cold. Yet one cannot help but admire him.  Legend has it that Talleyrand, on being asked what he had done during the French Revolution, simply replied, “J’ai survécu.”  Maisky might have said much the same. And his was surely the tougher task.

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