Friday, October 23, 2015

Gabriel Gorodetsky: The secret diary of Stalin’s man in Churchill’s London

STALIN’S BLOODY TERROR of the 1930s discouraged any Soviet official from putting pen to paper, let alone keeping a personal diary. The only significant exception is the fascinating, rich journal kept by Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London between 1932 and 1943.
Serendipity often lies at the heart of discovery. One can easily imagine how thrilled I was when, by sheer chance, I came across the original, uncensored diary while working in the archives of the Russian Foreign Ministry. 

It was immediately obvious to me that no personal manuscript of such breadth, value, and size has ever emerged from the Russian archives. It would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that this diary rewrites history that we thought we knew. At its most intimate, the diary contains personal reflections and impressions about people who decided the fate of nations — Winston Churchill, US Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, Neville Chamberlain, and a host of others, including H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. At its most substantive, it contains tantalizing revelations about what might have been had the course of the war been different.

Ivan Mikhailovich Lyakhovetsky — who adopted the revolutionary nickname Maisky or “Man of May” — was the son of a Jewish doctor from Poland and a Russian Orthodox schoolteacher. He grew up in a rather bourgeois environment in Tomsk, and was introduced to socialism while studying at the University of St. Petersburg. His early revolutionary activities led to his expulsion from the university and exile to Siberia, where he gravitated toward the Mensheviks — the more moderate faction of the Russian Social Democrats.

In 1908, he went into exile abroad and later joined the large community of Russian political exiles in London. He spent five years there, fostering a close friendship with Maxim Litvinov, who, for two decades was to help steer Soviet foreign policy. Maisky’s outstanding linguistic and intellectual capabilities earned for him the post of a counselor at the London embassy in the mid-1920s, followed two years later by a similar appointment to Tokyo and then a meteoric rise to the ambassadorial post in Helsinki.

The hasty decision to appoint Maisky as ambassador to London at the end of 1932 reflected Litvinov’s very early recognition that Weimar Germany was on her last leg and that the advance of Nazism required a dramatic turnabout in relations with Great Britain and the West. Maisky was instructed to court the Conservatives who were “the real bosses in Britain!” There he remained for an unprecedented 11 eventful years.

Like Churchill, Maisky (regardless of his Marxist beliefs) was fascinated by the role of great men in shaping history. Describing a crucial meeting he had with Churchill in September 1941, when Leningrad was besieged by the German army and the fate of Moscow hung in the air, Maisky wrote:

“I left home a quarter of an hour before the appointed time. The moon shone brightly. Fantastically shaped clouds raced from west to east. When they blotted the moon and their edges were touched with red and black, the whole picture appeared gloomy and ominous. As if the world was on the eve of its destruction. I drove along the familiar streets and thought: ‘A few more minutes, and an important, perhaps decisive historical moment, fraught with the gravest consequences, will be upon us. Will I rise to the occasion? Do I possess sufficient strength, energy, cunning, agility and wit to play my role with maximum success for the USSR and for all mankind?’ ”

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See also
Book review: new biography of Stalin Reviewed by Donald Rayfield