Books

The second world war — according to Stalin’s ambassador to London

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

Ivan Maisky was the Russian ambassador in London from 1932 to 1943, and his knowledge of London, and affection for it, went back to his time there as a political exile from 1912 to 1917. Even after the multitude of books published on the subject, these diaries throw new light from a fresh angle on the lead-up to 1939, and the subsequent course of the war.

Maisky’s commitment to communism was total. On 4 November 1934 he writes:

Today, any man, even an enemy, can see that Lenin is an historical Mont Blanc… a radiant guiding peak in the thousand-year evolution of humanity, while Gandhi is just a cardboard mountain who shone with a dubious light for some ten years before disintegrating.

After a House of Commons debate in July of that year, during which both Churchill and Austen Chamberlain declared themselves ‘friends’ of the Soviet Union, Maisky considered that the

skill at facing the facts, whether pleasant or unpleasant, is characteristic of British politicians, and finally overcomes their enmity towards us on grounds of politics and class… and enables them to derive from us what profit they can.

Later, in March 1938, he attended a debate in the House of Lords:

They looked like flies in milk. The Archbishop of Canterbury… gave his full and unconditional backing to Chamberlain. Other lords claimed that Hitler was a wonderful man, who by occupying Austria saved the world from another civil war in Europe. The Labour leader, Lord Ponsonby, explained that England should not worry about the League of Nations, and why it was against her interests to assist Czechoslovakia… The mould of ages lies visibly on the House of Lords. Even the air is stale and yellow. The peers are historically blind, like moles, and ready to lick the Nazi leaders’ boots like a beaten dog. They’ll pay for this, and I’ll see it happen.

However, Maisky’s own judgment was sometimes faulty. In May 1938 he wrote: ‘I have no doubt that Germany will be less aggressive. Her empty stomach will be filled. She will grow heavy and calm down.’ Four months later, Churchill told him, on a visit to Chartwell: ‘We’ll drink this bottle together [a 1793 vintage] when Great Britain and Russia beat Hitler’s Germany!’ Incongruously, Maisky and his wife spent the evening before war was declared seeing The Importance of Being Earnest at the Globe: ‘An image of the good old times, without automobiles, radio, aeroplanes, Hitlers and Mussolinis. The actors were superb… we laughed for two hours.’


By December, Maisky heard from the Czech diplomat Jan Masaryk that the King had told him that ‘Hitler and Mussolini once united and inspired their nations, but everything they do now is directed against us and and against civilisation.’ Maisky described Neville Chamberlain at the outbeak of war ‘not as the head of the British Empire, but its gavedigger’. His style could also be elegant and charming. When the blackout came to London, ‘the traffic lights, like little crosses, red, yellow and green, hung pensively on the sombre garments of the night’.

When Ribbentrop went to Moscow to sign the notorious non-aggression pact, Maisky reveals that contrary to accepted belief, Stalin thought that he could thereby avoid war altogether, and peacefully right the wrongs he felt had been inflicted on Russia not only under the Treaty of Versailles, but by the Congress of Berlin and even the Treaty of Paris after the Crimean war.

Like many others Maisky believed that Lloyd George, whom he saw regularly, had ‘an exceptional brain, a sort of clot of high voltage intellectual energy’, and also ‘a supreme wisdom which sees through things’. (This was soon after Lloyd George had returned from a meeting with Hitler, describing him as ‘the George Washington of Germany’.) Maisky adds:

He does not lapse into indignation, does not shout, weep or become agitated … a man of the highest calibre, a cut above all around him … like Kreisler compared with a violinist from a provincial orchestra.

It is these vignettes which add such exceptional interest to the old story.

The wartime events are largely more familiar; but Maisky’s frequent conversations with Beaverbrook, Weizmann, the Chinese ambassador and above all Eden and Churchill are fascinating, and probably not recorded elsewhere. When Hitler attacked, and advanced deep into Russia, Stalin’s demands for a second front become monotonously but not surprisingly insistent, and were heavily supported by the large left-wing element in Britain. Luckily, Churchill knew that our resources were inadequate for such an operation, and we would have faced annihilation instead of the earlier partial escape at Dunkirk.

The familiar milestones follow. The dark days of the summer of 1942; Eden’s superb diplomatic gifts; Maisky’s desperate disappointment at not accompanying Eden and Churchill on their visit to Moscow, and his final (and almost fatal) loss of support from Stalin. Finally, the Casablanca Conference with Roosevelt, which excluded the Russians, and was to be the final curtain on Maisky’s career.

According to D.R. Thorpe’s excellent biography of Eden

Maisky enjoyed the trust and friendship of senior British politicians, including Churchill and Eden to an unprecedented extent, and he was recalled to Moscow in June 1943 because of Stalin’s suspicions that he was becoming too much of an Anglophile.

He made fond farewells to his English friends, chief of whom were the increasingly deluded and disappointed H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw and the somewhat ludicrous figure of Sidney Webb. On his return he was excluded from serious work except for acting as little more than an interpreter for Stalin at the Yalta Conference. With the new wave of purges at the time of the Doctors’ plot, he was eventually, absurdly, found guilty of spying for Churchill, and of high treason.

Maisky’s diary ends in July 1943, and the rest of his story is filled in by the editor Gabreil Gorodetsky, a Fellow of All Souls. Maisky narrowly escaped execution thanks to Stalin’s death, and after imprisonment was finally reinstated in 1960, and lived on, with his adored and devoted wife, until 1975.

Despite occasional longueurs, this is an exceptionally readable as well as important story.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £22.50 Tel: 08430 600033

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Show comments
  • bob visser

    Thank you. What a wonderful story. His description of the House of Lords, is one of the best have ever read. “The mould of ages” and also: “The air is stale and yellow” are so true.

  • John P Hughes

    Very interesting. We look back on the years up to 1939 as the good old days; Maisky, in 1939, saw the Edwardian era depicted in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ as the good old times. And he had been in exile in London in 1912-14, before World War One, so could judge the play accurately.

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