- - Sunday, November 15, 2015


By Ivan Maisky

Edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky

Yale University Press, $40, 584 pages

Ivan Maisky surely ranks among the bravest — and luckiest — of all the officials who served mercurial dictator Joseph Stalin. Recording personal thoughts during the period of show trials risked handing prosecutors gallows evidence, and few Soviets ran such a risk.

But during his decade as ambassador to London, Maisky recorded more than a million words in a diary that Gabriel Gorodetsky, an Oxford academic, obtained from Soviet archives. The diary provides a valuable — and highly readable — insight into the Soviet view of events leading up to World War II.

Among the more striking passages are Maisky’s descriptions of Britain’s appeasement of Hitler, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s notorious “peace in our times” deals with the German dictator. Even those of us who still recoil at the Hitler-Stalin Pact can better understand the Soviet motive for the agreement.

Maisky was stunned by speeches in the House of Lords following Hitler’s deal with Chamberlain approving Germany occupation of Austria. One approving speaker called for publishing Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” — which he admired — in an English translation priced at no more than a shilling per copy to insure wide circulation. Other lords claimed the deals saved the world from war. Maisky wrote, “The men sitting on these red benches are historically blind, like moles, and are ready to lick the Nazi dictator’s boots like a beaten dog. They’ll pay for this.”

Appeasement continued when Hitler ceased Czechoslovakia, with only mild protests by Britain and France: Maisky wrote, “their voices are so soft that Hitler pays no heed to them . Weakness of the western democracies was encouraging aggression.”

Maisky and other Soviets begged that the USSR be included in the talks on a European settlement to prevent war; their pleas were rejected. The Soviets were prepared to carry out their treaty obligations to protect the Czechs, but not alone. “The baseness of the English knows no bounds!” Maisky exclaimed. Czech President Jan Masaryk was in tears when he told Maisky, “They’ve sold me into slavery to the Germans, just like they used to sell Negroes into slavery in America.”

Maisky bearded Foreign Secretary Edward Halifax, demanding, “Should I understand that the British prime minister has become an errand boy for that killer and brigand, Hitler?” The “embarrassed” Halifax replied, “Yes, if you so wish.” Disgusted, Maisky deplored the “cowardly Brits.” The Soviets wanted an agreement with Britain and France to assist other states threatened by German aggression. But Britain claimed that such a pact “may push Hitler to unleash war straight away.”

Stalin, for his part, was convinced that Britain and France intended to “divert Hitler eastward,” toward the USSR. He feared being left on his own. In the end, the Hitler-Stalin pact amounted to a “division of spheres of influence.” Maisky wrote, “In his sleep, Chamberlain dreams of a deal with Hitler at the expense of third countries.” Maisky felt the deal with Hitler would enable Stalin to avoid war altogether — an opinion that editor Gorodetsky finds “startling.” Maisky wrote off U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy as a wealthy, orthodox Irish Catholic who “would like to live in harmony with fascist dictators.”

As war loomed, Britain warned Stalin of German mobilization. Prime Minister Winston Churchill even revealed that Britain’s secret Enigma program that intercepted radio traffic is giving Maisky “a map that depicted in minute detail” German deployments. Stalin ignored many such warnings.

But once war came, and the bombings of London commenced, Maisky admired British bravery. He observed, “When an Englishman is driven to frenzy, he becomes a very dangerous animal.” He describes constant pleas for the Allies to open a second front to relieve Russia’s military misery, and for America to ignore deadly convoy losses and provide more arms aid.

Maisky took a broad view of his role. To be effective, he wrote, an ambassador must cultivate “intimate relations with all the live wires in the country to which he is accredited — among all parties or circle of influential opinion, instead of shutting himself up with the other diplomats.” He was friends with intellectuals, opposition figures, backbenchers, and unionists. He met prominent editors to expound Soviet positions.

He also saw the nasty side of persons who were Soviet friends, notably the prominent socialist couple Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Ms. Webb offered Maisky an especially nutty view of Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “Churchill is not a true Englishman, you know. He had negro blood. You can tell even from his appearance.”

He could be acerbic. The German ambassador, Joachin von Ribbentrop was “a coarse, dull-witted maniac, with the outlook and manners of a Prussian N.C.O.” He considered Chamberlain to be “a narrow, limited and fruitless individual. A fish with a cold head.”

Although Maisky’s brief called for him to maintain tight relations with the British, these ties brought grief. His work on securing a treaty of alliance with Britain in June 1942 led to suspicions in Moscow that he was making the London embassy “the centre of world affairs.” Paradoxically, his access to high officials and popularity “heralded his downfall.” Churchill unintentionally harmed Maisky by calling him “a good ambassador.”

Maisky was recalled in 1943 and given menial jobs. In 1953, he was charged with being a British spy. Only Stalin’s death two weeks later saved him from being shot. “Rehabilitation” followed.

A splendid addition to the diplomatic history of war, compiled by a man who was both a dedicated communist and a skilled writer and observer.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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