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21 October 2015

A Menshevik for all seasons: the diaries of Stalin’s ambassador

Ivan Maisky's diaries from his time as ambassador are important historical documents. If only this new book wasn't so indulgent.

By George Walden

Diplomacy is about ambiguity, and Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, was a highly ambivalent figure. Of Polish extraction, he enjoyed a fine, bourgeois education, had a love of Heinrich Heine, Immanuel Kant and Mikhail Lermontov, and was admired by the secret police chief Lavrenti Beria. As an early Menshevik, Maisky never forgot his vulnerability, and as a Jew (born Jan Lacho­wiecki) who enjoyed foreign travel and who signed himself Jean rather than the Polish Jan or Russian Ivan, he fitted the profile of the “rootless cosmopolitan” neatly.

With their dramatised accounts of British policy and society in the pre-war world and later, his diaries are a feast, whether for the student of history, the war freak, or the incorrigibly credulous. Plausible, cultivated, sharp-witted, and free with his handouts of vodka and caviar, Maisky sold himself to Chamberlain, Beaverbrook, Eden, Churchill and others as their man in Moscow, as well as Stalin’s here.

Influence, however, was something else. Years of combating appeasement and pleading for a mutual security pact with Britain and France culminated in failure, first with the Munich Agreement, then the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. And after he downplayed British warnings, often based on Enigma intercepts, that Hitler was about to pounce on his Russian friends – thereby reinforcing Stalin’s crazy assumption that the Germans never would – Maisky campaigned indefatigably for a second front. By the time he was recalled in 1943 that, too, hadn’t happened.

Yet his highly informed analyses could be convincing. “Weak, vacillating, zigzagging, and retreating before the aggressor,” he reports in 1937, though moral disgust with the British seems strange, coming from a man in fear of a bullet to the head. “How can I or [his fellow Soviet diplomat Maksim] Litvinov conduct foreign policy with the Lubyanka across the way?” he later wrote, after Stalin began posting secret policemen to embassies to oversee their work. As policy was monopolised by Stalin and by Stalin’s protégé Vyacheslav Molotov, Maisky, trying to ingratiate himself, inflamed their suspicions by suggesting Neville Chamberlain was deliberately promoting “the Ukrainian direction” of Nazi aggression.

In explanatory passages, the editor of the diaries, Gabriel Gorodetsky, picks Maisky up on over-glossed conversations, switched dates and the like, though he praises him for his “subversive” methods of conveying his own ideas to Moscow for improved Anglo-Soviet relations by placing them in the mouths of the British.

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An intimate of Tory governments, lionised by the intellectual left and delighting in the limelight and the comforts of capitalist life, both before and after 1939, Maisky enjoyed an excellent war era. His entries betray a tiresome interest in royalty and society, recording with satisfaction, for instance, Nancy Astor’s insistence that “you bloody Bolsheviks are good people”.

The entries here about British Stalin apologists, though occasionally revealing, are also over-frequent. We have H G Wells (“a fount of wisdom”) struggling to decide whether Lenin or Stalin was the greater, Lloyd George insisting that Soviet victories could “revolutionise the whole prospect of European democracy”, Bernard Shaw contributing similar fatuities, and a surfeit of Maisky’s close friends Sidney and Beatrice Webb, founders of the New Statesman. An editorial reminder that their 1937 book Soviet Communism: a New Civilisation, overtaken by the Moscow Trials, contained a hasty endnote suggesting that the Soviet judicial system, in which miscreants honestly confessed, was superior to our own, where the guilty dissembled, would add context.

From Gorodetsky’s commentary, it never quite emerges that, together with covert sympathisers with Hitler, self-deluded admirers of Uncle Joe were also part of the low, dishonest decade. Yet Maisky boasts about steadying his leftist clientele over the show trials, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Katyn Massacre or the shooting of up to 100 people after the murder of Sergei Kirov (“unpleasant”, but “better than to risk the lives of millions of workers and peasants”.) Soviet policies were examined by the “men of Munich”, Gorodetsky writes, “through an ideologically tinted prism.” Against this background, and with the Communist International still active, why wouldn’t they be?

Who is Maisky’s audience, you often wonder? Himself, posterity, or the Kremlin? His wife was instructed to send his diaries to Stalin if anything happened to him, which may account for some formulaic passages about our great communist future, or the loyal curses: “The potion was brewing in the imperialists’ infernal kitchen.”

Little point in asking who “the real Mais­ky” was. Among Bolshevik careerists, why would there be one? Certainly he was attached to his vision of a grand alliance with Britain with himself at its centre, and of a far-left postwar UK inclined towards Moscow. Churchill often told him that communism was preferable to the Nazis, although, as his celebrated 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, later showed, the implication was “one thing at a time”. How little about Britain, for all his fashionable contacts – and often because of them – Maisky actually understood.

Andrei Gromyko, the cold war-era minister of foreign affairs, whose own terse and colourless manner I recall all too well, complained in his memoirs that Maisky’s reports of conversations were “drowned in his own description of the situation”, and became “irritating to the leadership”. For the western reader, too.

For Maisky the 1952 denouement – arrest, torture and confession to being an English spy – was the sordid downside of his double life. He was saved by Stalin’s death but implicated in Beria’s bid for power, and it was 1960 before he was rehabilitated.

“How tragic for Maisky to go on paying a heavy price for his survival,” Gorodetsky writes. More tragic, surely, was the murder of 20,000 fellow Poles at Katyn, orchestrated by his admirer Beria, and which Maisky helped sell to credulous Britons as “a provocation by Goebbels that exceeded all bounds”. His diaries, an important historical document, would benefit from a less indulgent presentation.

George Walden is a former diplomat and MP. His latest novel, “The Oligarch”, written under the pen name Joseph Clyde, is published by Gibson Square

The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, 1932-1943 by Ivan Maisky, ed. Gabriel Gorodetsky, is published by Yale University Press (£25, 584pp)

This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy