H-Diplo Review Essay 174- Haslam on Gorodetsky, ed. The Maisky Diaries. Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s 1932-1943

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H-Diplo Essay No. 174

An H-Diplo Book Review Essay


Published on 7 June 2019




Review Editor:  Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor:  George Fujii


Gabriel Gorodetsky, ed.  The Maisky Diaries.  Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s 1932-1943.  trans. T. Sorokina and O. Ready.  New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 2015.  ISBN:  9780300180671 (cloth, $40.00); 9780300221701 (paper, $25.00).

URL: http://tiny.cc/E174


Reviewed by Jonathan Haslam, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton




This abbreviated translation of the diaries of the Soviet Ambassador to Britain in the period of appeasement is a splendid production fully amplified by Gabriel Gorodetsky’s background commentary. Its value is to those historians of international relations who cannot read the Russian original that has been available to us for a decade. So for the historian of the 1930s with an interest in the origins of the Second World War, and who may even have read Ivan Maisky’s polemical history of the period, Who Helped Hitler?,[1] but who has no knowledge of Russian, these diaries are an essential source.

No Soviet diplomat of the first generation arrived in post trained for the job. With the exception of the head of the treaty and legal department, the entire Russian Foreign Ministry resigned en masse when Commissar for Foreign Affairs Leon Trotsky took over the building in November 1917. The advantage that Maisky possessed was that he had lived in Britain as a Menshevik in exile before the Russian revolution. And his first boss as Ambassador to Britain, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov, had also lived the life of an exile in Hampstead. So the prospects were unusually good, added to the fact that the bad days of confrontation between London and Moscow that led to the British breaking off diplomatic relations in 1927 were now a distant memory when Maisky returned to London in 1932 under a National Government led by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.

But this was the year before Nazi leader Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, something which obviously appalled Jews like Maisky and Litvinov. Litvinov had warned Soviet leader Iosif Stalin and the Politburo in 1932 of the dangers the Nazis represented, and those warnings were more than confirmed in the years ahead. It was not long before MacDonald’s health gave way and the balance of power within the governing coalition shifted to the Conservatives. This resulted in the return of Stanley Baldwin to No 10 Downing Street, with Neville Chamberlain next door as Chancellor of the Exchequer. There was no real interest in the politics of the European continent. The initial hostility to Hitler’s régime gave way to a strong desire to come to terms with it, which meant acceptance that the Paris Peace of 1919 would be undone, if possible without the use of force. While Hitler rearmed Germany at a frenetic pace, the Bank of England under Montagu Norman and the Treasury under Chamberlain ensured that, though strengthening the armed forces, Britain fell significantly behind in what would be needed to match a threat from Germany. And while Litvinov had the ear of Stalin, the unrivalled dictator of the Soviet Union, British policy inevitably diverged from the thrust of Russian policy, which aimed at the containment of German power through alliances and rearmament. Once Chamberlain supplanted Baldwin in February 1937 that divergence more closely resembled a confrontation.

Maisky thus found himself reliving the Anglo-Soviet tension that he had experienced as counsellor in the Soviet mission during the mid-twenties; a story with which Gorodetsky, the editor of these diaries as well as the author of a history of Anglo-Soviet diplomatic relations in that period, is only too familiar.[2]

But what are these dairies? They are not personal diaries in the manner of an entirely private record, they are an extended version of the day-book that every Soviet ambassador was obliged to keep as an archive of his embassy’s contacts with the host country. And Maisky knew that Soviet intelligence monitored what he wrote. So one should not expect from them the kind of indiscretion that we can find, for example, in the unpublished diaries of Alexander Cadogan, quondam Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office, which one can consult at the Churchill College archives in Cambridge. Instead one will find records of conversations with foreign officials and politicians through the orthodox lens of the Ambassador, towing the Party line with strict consistency. Provided they are consulted with these limitations in mind, the reader will benefit accordingly. Moreover, Gorodetsky has had further, unique access to the Maisky family papers to supplement the material by giving further insight into Maisky’s state of mind through the thirties, though steering clear of political reflections that would get him into severe trouble with Stalin.

It is clear from the diaries themselves that even before Chamberlain arrived at No 10 Downing Street, 1936 was a turning point for the worse, notably after the Germans reoccupied the Rhineland in March. The British had anticipated that this would happen and had decided to do nothing, even though it breached the Locarno Treaty – bad enough – but also it meant that France could not so easily come to the support of its allies in Eastern Europe, notably Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania, if Germany attacked them. Thereafter the key events of that year are not covered in the diary, which rather suggests that Maisky was not in receipt of up to date news from Moscow. And this brings us to a core element in the Kremlin’s international relations that has no place in the diary, namely the activities of the Communist International (Comintern) which had bedeviled Soviet relations with the West since its foundation in 1919. From the onset of the Great Depression in October 1929, the revolutionary impulse had ironically lessened but it was building up momentum for the future.

The events of 1936 passed over by Maisky and that had ultimately destroyed the policy he executed had everything to do with Comintern: the unexpected victory of the Popular Front government in Spain in February and the more predictable victory of the Popular Front government in France in May. Yet Gorodetsky gives short weight to these developments and rushes over Stalin’s dramatic and sustained military commitment to the Spanish Republic after civil war broke out on 17 July (71). 

In fact these problems were deep seated and extensive in that the victory of the Popular Front led immediately to a revolution on the ground in Spain that the government could not, and in some respects would not, control. Seizing their chance in an atmosphere heavy with intimidation reminiscent of the rebellion of September 1934, encouraged by the revolutionary left, peasants seized land, burned down churches, attacked priests, and launched strikes in the industrial areas. The assassination of the leader of the monarchists, Calvo Sotelo, was the last straw. More seriously for the British, the elections in France led almost immediately to the occupation of the factories led by the metal workers in the Paris region and beyond, which came as an unpleasant surprise even to the French Communist Party. Thereafter France was irreparably destabilized and remained so through to 1940 with disastrous consequences for the whole of Europe, including the Soviet Union.

Revolution was back on the European agenda and stoked pre-existing hostility to Bolshevism and the Soviet Union. The whole thrust of Litvinov’s policy of collective security, which was entirely statist and for which Maisky was an even more committed advocate than his boss, was thus demonstrably impractical while it ignored the factor of revolution and the real fears it generated. This was something that Hitler clearly understood, as Gorodetsky indicates; but it was a factor entirely independent of Hitler’s thinking. It had its own roots in society. Europe was riven vertically—between classes—as well as horizontally—between states.

None of this is in Maisky’s diary, of course, and until 1939 not even the subject of personal reflection; a matter we must return to later. Collective security was itself always a reluctant Soviet response to Hitler’s hostility. In this Stalin was entirely pragmatic, just as he had been in acceding to the Popular Front policy of Comintern led by Georgi Dimitrov that supplanted the failed policy of refusing collaboration with Social Democracy against Fascism. Everything was ultimately reversible.

The Russians had since 1933 intermittently probed the puzzlingly amorphous Nazi régime to find a point of contact favourable to themselves, notably in 1935 and 1937. Field Marshal Hermann Göring invariably sent out misleading signals that deals could be done, as he did to the British, every now and again. Soviet probes to Germany had invariably failed until the spring of 1939. At this point the Russians were at their most receptive. Neville Chamberlain’s hostility and his continued dominance over his colleagues and rivals had become absolutely clear when he forced through the Munich settlement in October 1938 that dismembered Czechoslovakia and then shrugged with indifference when the Germans seized the rest of the country in March 1939. Soviet secret intelligence, not least through spy Guy Burgess in MI6, supplied sufficient material to convince the Kremlin of the government’s undying hostility.

The sacking of Litvinov in early May was a clear signal to both London and Berlin that Moscow was ready for a shift in line. But the British never believed Hitler could overcome his ideological differences with the Bolsheviks that had long been sustained and fiercely expressed. The British, including the smartest in the Foreign Office who opposed appeasement like ‘Moley’ Sargent, therefore consistently ignored or dismissed rumours that the Germans were seriously seeking a modus vivendi with the Russians.

Of all this poor Maisky knew nothing. He had been told nothing. His entry for the day after signature of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact on 23 August gives us a good sense of the manner in which he was very much more stranded on the periphery of thinking back home: “Our policy is obviously undergoing a sharp change of direction, the meaning and consequences of which are not yet entirely clear to me. I must wait for further information from Moscow…” (219). No new entry enlightens us as to what happened next. But that was down to Maisky, not to Gorodetsky as editor.

Where the editor can be taken to task, however, is that he has cut out all references—those of Maisky and of his interlocutors—in the aftermath of the Pact to the prospects for socialist revolution. The reader with no access to the published, Russian language edition would have no way of knowing about this material. And this matters because the excisions distort what the Soviet Union was about, even under Stalin. And Maisky, the former Menshevik and long-term diplomat, was the last man one would have expected to be greeting the onset of another revolution (Litvinov had given up on it back in 1919.)

What did Stalin do when he took Eastern Poland in September 1939 and in June 1940 the Baltic states, Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina? They were immediately sovietised from top to bottom on the Russian model exactly as Finland’s fate was to have been had the Red Army won in fighting on behalf of Otto Wille Kuusinen’s “Finnish Democratic Republic” in the winter of 1939-40.

Why should Stalin have done this if world revolution were of no account? Trotsky felt that his own belief, despite the odds, that the Soviet Union was inherently revolutionary was entirely vindicated. Stalin was a revolutionary in spite of himself. This was not a matter of choice. He had acted as had Napoléon Bonaparte during the French revolutionary wars: obliged to spread the socio-economic system he had inherited throughout the lands he conquered in order to hold them more securely. In the French case, feudalism was abolished where his armies conquered; in the Russian case, capitalism. What did Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s right hand man for so many years, say? “Without international revolution neither the Soviet Union nor any other [socialist] country can triumph. Without international revolution no one can triumph. We have to increase the numbers of our friends.”[3]

The missing references are as follows:

1) On 13 September 1939 former Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who had in 1933 spoken out for the Nazi régime as the only means of blocking Communism in Germany, declared that “war in England will end in the triumph of socialism.” Maisky was unable to ascertain what kind of socialism he actually meant.[4]

2) Just over a week later, on 22 September, outlining the possibilities, Maisky speculated that a British blockade of Germany could “provoke within it internal convulsions, possibly even revolution.”[5]

3) On 14 October Maisky reflected that “for capitalism to survive the current war is immeasurably more difficult than in the last one. I even doubt that it can in general survive – at least in Europe.”[6]

4) On 31 October, Leslie Hore-Belisha, War Minister, said that peace with the existing régime in Germany was impossible. Britain would continue fighting until it changed: “let it even be a government of Communists, - I consider this possible, let us say, by the end of the first year of war – that it all the same to us. We could come to terms with the Communists more easily than with Hitler.”[7]

Hore-Belisha was by no means the only figure of importance open to the idea that the war would result in revolution. This was, after all, a critical motivation behind appeasement. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Lord Home, later Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who served as Chamberlain’s parliamentary private secretary in September 1938, recalled that “One of Neville Chamberlain’s motives in trying to dissuade Hitler from war and in so doing risk slipping over the edge of reconciliation into the pit of appeasement, was that he felt certain in his mind that if Europe weakened itself in another war, Russia would try to dominate the continent of Europe.” And Chamberlain himself wrote to King George VI of his intention to outline to Hitler “the prospect of Germany and England as the two pillars of European peace and buttresses against Communism.”[8]

The reader must therefore read the full edition of the diaries in order to complete the picture.


Jonathan Haslam is the George F. Kennan Professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. His most recent book is Near and Distant Neighbors. A New History of Soviet Intelligence (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). His next book, with Princeton University Press, is an archive-based history of Comintern and its role in distorting the contours of international relations in the run-up to World War II, due to appear in 2019.


© 2019 The Authors.

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[1] Ivan Maisky, Who Helped Hitler? (London: Hutchinson, 1964)

[2] Gabriel Gorodetsky, The Precarious Truce: Anglo-Soviet Relations, 1924-27 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

[3] 26 August 1979: Quoted in J. Haslam, Russia’s Cold War. From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, (2011), 1

[4] I. Maiskii, Dvevnik Diplomata, London. 1934-1943, vol. 2, part 1, A. Chubaryan et al., eds., (Moscow: Nauka, 2009), 15.

[5] Maiskii, 20.

[6] Maiskii, 37.

[7] Maiskii, 50.

[8] Quoted in Haslam, Russia’s Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), 6-7.