Ivan Maisky: “The greatest sin of modern statesman is vacillation and ambiguity of thought and action.”
Gabriel Gorodetsky, ed., The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 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, Russia and World War II. Ivan Maisky was a penetrating observer of 1932-43 Britain, and 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 met with everyone, socially or officially, including press and opposition, and wrote with keen perception. In the late 1930s he said the British 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).
Wasn’t it dangerous in the age of Stalin to keep a diary? “It was like signing your death sentence,” Professor Gorodetsky 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.
While Maisky was prone to repeat the Bolshevik line about communism’s ultimate triumph, his tastes were high-bourgeois. He enjoyed fine food and wine, luxury travel and aristocratic company (though intensely loyal to his plain and Bolshy wife). An English country house weekend was his delight. He reminds me of an apparently apocryphal remark by Leonid Brezhnev’s mother who, on a visit from the country, is shown around her son’s palatial Kremlin accommodations: “But Leonie,” she asks, “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 Maisky “in hysterics with…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). Joachim von 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).
Maisky was fascinated with Churchill, no doubt relaying his remarks to Stalin: “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). From early 1935 (apparently with Stalin’s approval), Maisky worked for an Anglo-French-Soviet understanding. During the Munich crisis he promised Chamberlain that the USSR would join the Anglo-French and threaten war if Hitler attacked Czechoslovakia (122). But was Stalin testing their intentions, or just hoping to entangle them in a war with Germany? Maisky wondered (privately).
Maisky, War, and the Alliance
As early as April 1939, Maisky and the Soviet ambassador in Berlin warned Stalin that eventually, Hitler would turn on and invade 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.
After Russia joined the “Grand Alliance,” President Roosevelt worried that Stalin might bolt and do his own deal with Hitler. On 9 February 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. 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.”
Much second front controversy, and the long-postponed Operation Overlord (invasion of France) 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.”
Maisky and Churchill
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 invasion of France. Launched earlier, it “could have prevented the Cold War.” Given the postwar bankruptcy of Britain and the Empire, which Churchill had sacrificed in his single-minded determination to defeat Hitler, this is debatable. The invasion 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. Maisky told Anthony Eden, “…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 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. Serious scholars of World War II will find this book hard to put down.