Maisky and Churchill: Hard to Put Down

Maisky and Churchill: Hard to Put Down


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.

Excerpt­ed from the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. To read in full, click here.


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.

High-Bourgeois Bolshy

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.

Read com­plete review.


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