Alistair Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His current researches and writing focus on Neville Chamberlain’s policies.
The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s 1932-1943. Edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky. Yale University Press, £25
This book carries on its cover an effusive endorsement by Professor Paul Kennedy, a leading authority on the history of international relations’. He hails it as “perhaps the greatest political diary of the twentieth century”. It is hard to see how such a claim could possibly be justified. This solid, lumbering work is almost entirely devoid of the sharply observed, wittily expressed comments on people and events that infuse all really important diaries of lasting value. Unimaginative translation makes matters worse. Nothing more unlike Alan Clark’s immortal contribution to the genre could possibly be imagined.
This is not surprising. During his eleven years as the Soviet ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky (1884-1975) had few opportunities to gather material for a work of absorbing historical interest. MI5 kept him under constant surveillance, tapping his telephone to ensure that no threat to national security went unrecorded. Members of the Tory-dominated national government treated him with great caution and so his laboured diary accounts of meetings with them hold little interest. At diplomatic receptions, where few people talked to him, he had to make do with charming diversions. At Buckingham Palace on 12 March 1937 “the little princesses were also present: Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, both wearing light pink dresses…They shifted from one foot to the other, then they began to giggle, and then to misbehave, to the considerable embarrassment of the queen.”
Though he yearned for the company of Tories, he found it hard to gain a welcome outside the left-wing circles where the exchange of predictable opinions about the coming triumph of the proletariat formed the staple of conversation. He did not light up a room. London hostesses argued about who was the most boring, Maisky or his wife, from whom he was inseparable. One great lady recalled that “he was a funny little man with a face like a rosy apple, and she looked like a man dressed as a woman. Indeed many people said she was a man”. The Brazilian ambassador was persuaded to extend his term to prevent Maisky becoming the senior foreign diplomat in London with the privileges that went with that position.
The diary’s chief interest lies in the full record it provides of Maisky’s conversations with Churchill which began towards the end of his wilderness years. In 1938 Churchill told him that “twenty years ago I strove with all the energy in my power against Communism, because at that time I considered Communism, with its idea of world revolution, the greatest danger to the British Empire…nowadays German Nazism, with its idea of the world hegemony of Berlin, constitutes the greatest danger for the British Empire… we and you share the same path. That is the reason why I am in favour of close co-operation between England, France and the USSR.” Earlier that year Churchill had told him, “Stalin is creating a strong Russia. We need a strong Russia and I wish Stalin every success.” The latter’s show trials and murderous purges of army officers went unmentioned.
Maisky longed above all to create an Anglo-Soviet alliance which would smash fascism and give Stalin a free hand in Northern and Eastern Europe (Finland and the Baltic states were at the top of the list). This was the exact mirror image of what Hitler wanted Britain to concede to him. Neville Chamberlain’s government was between the devil and the deep blue sea. Its predicament was laid bare in March 1939 when Hitler’s troops marched into Prague, an act of aggression that could not possibly be reconciled with the removal of Germany’s grievances under the harsh Versailles Treaty that was the guiding principle of Chamberlain’s foreign policy. His options narrowed sharply. Having set his face for years against a Soviet alliance, his government now embarked on prolonged negotiations to try and find a basis for agreement with Stalin which would not encourage his territorial ambitions.
Chamberlain, who detested the Soviet Union (just as he detested Nazi Germany), became the first British prime minister to set foot in its London Embassy, filled with grim bourgeois furniture. Maisky recorded proudly in his diary: “ It’s hard to describe the stir created among the guests by the prime minister’s arrival…People stopped in the middle of their sentences and rushed childishly to have a look at Chamberlain in the interior of the Soviet embassy.” But this great event in Maisky’s life was not the prelude to the alliance of which he dreamt. Under the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, Stalin got half of Poland and the Baltic states, a price that Chamberlain could not possibly have contemplated (though Churchill conceded it five years later). Like nearly everyone else Maisky was astonished by the devils’ bargain. He recorded his disbelief in his diary: “Involuntarily, I threw up my hands”.
He was again taken completely by surprise when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941. “To tell the truth”, he wrote the day before the invasion, “I am disinclined to believe that Hitler will attack us”. But that did not stop him giving himself the credit for the Anglo-Soviet alliance that followed Hitler’s attack. “Life has proved me right: the USSR and England are allies. They have joint forces to wage a deadly struggle against Germany”. Maisky did not distinguish himself as the alliance developed. He irritated Churchill, his pre-war friend, by constantly pestering him to send British troops to Russia and to prepare for the invasion of France. His recall to Moscow in September 1943 was greeted with relief.
None of Maisky’s experiences in England depressed him quite so much as a visit he made to the House of Lords on 29 March 1938. He was shocked to find no more than a hundred or so peers in their places, only to be told that he was lucky to find so many: “Normally no more than 30 or 40 peers are present, while the quorum amounts to 3!” He thought the standard of the speeches abysmally low. A Liberal peer “spoke so quietly that I couldn’t understand a thing”. The Archbishop of Canterbury who “resembled a large bird with a hooked beak” lavished praise on Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies. “Never in my life”, he moaned, “have I seen so reactionary a gathering as this House of Lords. The mould of the ages lies visibly upon it”. There could be no clearer evidence that Britain needed a revolution.
After his recall to Moscow he felt the effects of his own country’s revolution. Stalin accused him of spying for Churchill and locked him up. He was one of the lucky ones. He survived to write his memoirs drawing on his unexciting diaries with the assistance of the manly Mrs Maisky.