Book Review 401: The Maisky Diaries

THE MAISKY DIARIES: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky. 584 pages, illustrated. Yale

No insurance underwriter in the late ’30s would have considered a policy on Ivan Maisky, a half-Jew Menshevik with bourgeois tastes who worked for Joe Stalin as ambassador in London.

Yet Maisky survived to live to 91. His was one of the most improbable careers of the 20th century.

His diaries do not provide any startling revelations about “the low, dishonest decade,” but they do offer another perspective to that terrible time. Probably their most interesting aspect is the personal and psychological.

At the beginning, Maisky seems like an attractive fellow, especially compared to the people around him. Arriving in London even before Hitler became chancellor, Maisky already understood what nazism meant for aggression and peace, and he (in alliance with Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov) worked tirelessly to put some skeletal structure into collective security. One of the few others in England who shared his alarm was Churchill.

Neither man had any sympathy for the underlying politics of the other. Fear of German militarism was their only bond.

It is still unclear, at least to me, whether it should have been obvious at the time that both sides were so mistrustful of the other that this effort was hopeless. Maisky knew he had to persuade not only the bourgeois states of France and Britain but the Bolshevik one in Moscow. Much of his maneuvering involved putting ideas into the heads of English ministers, then passing them along to Moscow.

A fundamental difference between Churchill and Maisky was that Churchill never attempted to trick his government into an alliance. Of course, Churchill was never a member of government, unlike Maisky.

The diaries are, understandably, circumspect, so not much is said about the purges. Editor Gabriel Gorodetsky, using other documents, asserts that Maisky was distressed to see colleagues disappear, which seems likely, although from what is available in this abridged volume, it seems he agreed that the accusations in Moscow were legitimate.

Did he really think so? It seems hard to believe from a man of his discernment, but then he spent much time hanging out with the Webbs and similar Stalinist dupes. This is why the psychological question is so interesting, though there is not enough material to venture a judgment.

Maisky had a high opinion of his discernment, and often enough his predictions turned out to be correct, and his plots worked, but he also reveals some odd blind spots.

Perhaps the oddest was his belief that landlords controlled British government and politics. Apparently he never heard of the repeal of the Corn Laws.

By the ’30s, most English landlords were hanging on by thread, but Maisky seems to have thought they were no different from the Polish-Lithuanian landlords he had known in his youth.

As an old Menshevik, Maisky had reason to be terrified during the purges, but he seems not to have thought very deeply about the direction of communism. Many times he asserts his belief that the restructuring after the war would be done in an almost entirely communist milieu. He appears to have forgotten what collective security was supposed to preserve.

Thus, he looks less and less attractive as he justifies the war against the Finns and drops any pretense of defending anything more universal than Russian imperialism when he blandly refers to “Soviet Karelia.”

After June 1941, Stalin presented himself more and more as a Russian imperialist and less and less as a revolutionary. Maisky arrived at that position much earlier, at least by 1939.

The diary ends with his recall in 1943. Gorodetsky provides a thumbnail history of his last 30 years, in which he narrowly escaped being shot but was (at age 70) brutally tortured, perhaps even by Beria personally.

There is no suggestion that he ever wavered in his devotion to communism.

Some of Gorodetsky’s commentary seems to contradict what the diaries say, but his interpretation of the low, dishonest decade it sharply different from what American and British historians have understood it to be. I found him unpersuasive.

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