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The secret diary of Stalin’s man in Churchill’s London

On Chamberlain as the ‘accountant of politics,’ Joe Kennedy’s ‘gloomy view’ of British prospects

Winston Churchill and Ivan Maisky dined in the observatory of the Russian Embassy in London in August 1941.Courtesy of the Scheffer-Voskressenski family

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?’ ”


Maisky’s diary entry of June, 12, 1941: An unheeded warning by Eden about the possible German attack on Russia.Courtesy of the Scheffer-Voskressenski family

Ivan Maisky was blessed with an extraordinary memory, which, enhanced by his penetrating psychological insight, piercing observation, and insatiable curiosity, turned him into one of the most astute witnesses of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. “You used to look down upon us from the Gallery in Parliament,” remembered Harold Nicolson — author, diplomat, and diarist — in a letter to Maisky, “with benevolent interest — rather like a biologist examines the habits of newts in a tank.” Maisky’s lifelong penchant for writing prose and poetry makes the diary a fascinating hybrid of literature and history.

As a diarist, Maisky possessed a discerning grasp of his interlocutors. Like a great painter, he was able to present a lively portrait in just a few brush strokes. The diary is laden with such gems. “[Foreign Secretary Anthony] Eden,” he writes in 1937, “is not made of iron, but rather of soft clay which yields easily to the fingers of a skillful artisan.” He nicknamed Eden’s successor, Lord Halifax, who was a devout member of the Church of England, “the Bishop, a man who retires to pray and comes out a worse hypocrite than before.” In Neville Chamberlain, whom after Munich he likened to “an old, leaky, faded umbrella,” he thought Britain was cursed with a leader who “is narrow-minded, dry, limited, lacking not only external brilliance but also any kind of political range; he is the accountant of politics: he views the whole world primarily through the prism of dividends and exchange quotations.”


He watched Chamberlain declaring war on Germany in Parliament on Sept. 3, 1939:

“Looking terribly depressed and speaking in a quiet, lifeless voice” at times eventrying to bang his fist on the famous ‘box’ on the Speaker’s table. But everything cost him such torment and was expressed with such despair in his eyes, voice, and gestures that it was sickening to watch him. And this is the head of the British Empire at the most critical moment in its history! He is not the head of the British Empire, but its grave-digger!”

Maisky was a keen listener when it came to gossip. It resulted in vignettes strewn throughout the more historically significant entries. In October 1939, Maisky was shocked by the “snobbery and racism” he encountered with his Socialist friends, Beatrice and Sidney Webb (who founded the London School of Economics):

“I mentioned what Churchill said to me the other day: ‘Better communism than Nazism!’ Beatrice shrugged her shoulders and noted that such a statement was not typical of the British ruling elite, and I would tend to agree. But then, for some reason, she found it necessary to add: ‘Churchill is not a true Englishman, you know. He has negro blood. You can tell even from his appearance.’

“Then Beatrice Webb told me a long story about Churchill’s mother coming from the South of the USA and there being some negro blood in her family. Her sister looked just like a ‘Negroid.’ ”

The diary defies the traditional view of Soviet policy makers and diplomats as anonymous at best, or as archetypal or caricature-like. It shows that even at the peak of the Stalinist terror and purges of the 1930s, Soviet society and politics were imbued with personal human interactions and emotions.

Historians of espionage, meanwhile, might be keen to discover how much of the information the Kremlin gleaned from London came not from spies, such as “the Cambridge five,” but was rather garnered by Maisky directly from the top British officials he befriended. They all spoke candidly with the Soviet ambassador, sharing with him at time, “heaps of cipher telegrams.”


The significance of his war diaries can hardly be overstated also for the singular account they provide of critical meetings. While it was the practice of the British foreign secretary to keep a record of his meetings with ambassadors, this did not apply to the prime ministers. No records exist in the British archives of the many crucial conversations between Maisky and Churchill before and during the war.

For all its historical value, the diary is also a record of a diplomat ahead of his time. Maisky’s unconventional but innovative style, which at the time irritated many of his interlocutors, has since become the norm for diplomats. He was certainly the first ambassador to systematically mold public opinion, mostly through the press. What an ambassador has to aim at, Maisky commented, “is intimate relations with all the livewires in the country to which he is accredited — among all parties or circles of influential opinion, instead of shutting himself up with the other diplomats.” He was a superb public relations man, at a time when the concept hardly existed, and did not hesitate to align himself with opposition groups, backbenchers, newspaper editors, trade unionists, writers, artists, bankers in the city, and intellectuals.

In terms of geopolitics, the diary sheds light on the degree to which Russia was left out in the cold during the 1938 Munich Agreement — and how it might have been possible to prevent the Russians from signing the neutrality pact with Nazi Germany in 1939. It suggests that if the alliance that was forged between Great Britain and the Soviet Union in July 1941 had been in place two years earlier, World War II might have been averted.

These revelations throw fresh light on the grand alliance between the United States, Britain, and the USSR in the wake of the German invasion of Russia. It was Maisky who engineered the dangerous flight of Franklin Roosevelt’s influential adviser Harry Hopkins to Moscow to meet Stalin, a mere month after the invasion.

Following the entry of the United States into the war, Maisky spent most of his time trying to dispel mutual mistrust among the Allies while urging the necessity of opening a second front in northern France. Instead of heeding this advice, however, Churchill persuaded Roosevelt to attack Europe’s “soft underbelly” in North Africa and Italy, telling Maisky that “The Germans wage war better than we do. Especially tank wars. . . . also we lack the ‘Russian spirit’: die but don’t surrender!”

Maisky always maintained an ambivalent attitude towards the United States, even though he recognized Washington as the major force in world politics long before the British would admit it. “The Americans,” he intimated to a friend, “had no civilization of their own: they were first rate at mechanics, good organizers, open and alert minded; but fundamentally without a national culture or traditional background, in the sense that these are present in Great Britain, France, Germany and Scandinavia.” Among his circle was the American ambassador in London, Joseph P. Kennedy — father of John F. Kennedy — whom he described as “quite a character: tall, strong, with red hair, energetic gestures, a loud voice and booming, infectious laughter — a real embodiment of the type of healthy and vigorous business man that is so abundant in the USA, a man without psychological complications and lofty dreams.”

During the battle of Britain, according to Maisky, Kennedy “took a gloomy view of British prospects. He doubts that England will be able to wage a long war single-handedly. He accepts the possibility of a German invasion of the Isles. He thinks it utterly inevitable that England will be almost completely destroyed by air raids. . . . Kennedy scolded the British Government for failing to come to an agreement with the Soviet Union last year and said that the upper classes of British society are ‘completely rotten.’ A rather unexpected judgment from a man of his status!”

When asked by Maisky about the possibility of American entry into the war “Kennedy ducked the question. . . . He personally thinks that the United States should not enter the war and that direct US participation in military operations would be less advantageous to the British than US non-interference.” His impression of John Winant, Kennedy’s successor, was somewhat more benign: “Winant makes a somewhat strange impression. Tall, dark-haired, with slow, demure manners, a listless, barely audible voice, and a pensive, introspective look, he is the polar opposite of his predecessor, the vociferous, jaunty, loquacious and flighty Joe Kennedy. I had to strain my ears to catch Winant’s words.”

Accused of not hanging enough photos of Stalin, Maisky cabled the Kremlin: “In the very reception room . . . there is a large, life-size, well-executed portrait of Stalin, so displayed as to dominate the room.”Courtesy of the Scheffer-Voskressenski family

A cosmopolitan, polyglot, independent-minded, and former Menshevik with Jewish roots, Maisky lived a vulnerable and dangerous life. Although he succeeded in walking a tightrope, Churchill’s praise of him as a first-rate ambassador in 1942 drew from Stalin the snippy comment that Maisky “spoke too much and could not keep his tongue between his teeth.” The mini personality cult that surrounded Maisky and the fact that he had gone perhaps a little too native (he was even observed to wipe a tearful eye during the funeral of the Tsar’s cousin, King George V.) were hardly received with equanimity in the Kremlin.

In 1942 a senior Soviet leader returned from London with a devastating critique of Maisky’s residency: “I felt that my presence had disrupted the English daily routine of my hosts.” No wonder that in June 1943 he was recalled to the USSR despite unprecedented appeals from British officials to keep him in London.

In 1953, at the age of 70, he was finally arrested, accused of treason, having “lost his feelings for the motherland.” He was scarcely saved by the bell when Stalin died two weeks later. Maisky nonetheless spent another two years in prison, having been caught up in a web of Kremlin intrigues. Rehabilitated in 1960, he was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences and died in 1975 at the ripe age of 91.

Gabriel Gorodetsky is a quondam fellow of All Souls, Oxford, and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University. He’s the editor of the new book “The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s 1932-1943.”

Read: Ivan Maisky’s retrospective

In 1971, The Boston Globe published a three-part series by Maisky on the start of World War II.