An envoy extraordinary

Print edition : November 10, 2017

Ivan Maisky with Winston Churchill.

With his wife, Agniya Maisky, and the Russian Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov.

The past stays relevant, as the publication of the diaries of Ivan Maisky, who was the Soviet Ambassador to Britain from 1932 to 1943, shows.

There is the rare book whose publication is itself an important event. This book is just that. Ivan Maisky was Soviet Ambassador to Britain from 1932 to 1943. It was the period that saw the collapse of efforts by his mentor, Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, to forge against Hitler a collective security system principally among Britain, Russia and France; the civil war in Spain; the infamous Munich pact (1939); the equally infamous Soviet-German pact (1939; ostensibly a non-aggression treaty but in reality a deal to partition Poland); the outbreak of the Second World War and the beginnings of strain in the relationship between the West and the Soviet Union, which victory over Hitlerite Germany did not ease.

Maisky enjoyed extraordinary access to the British elite. He had been a Menshevik exile in London between 1912 and 1917 and established friendships with Sydney and Beatrice Webb, G.D.H. Cole and George Bernard Shaw. Upon becoming Ambassador in 1932, he consolidated these friendships and forged more besides.

Gabriel Gorodetsky consulted the Soviet archives, which are far more readily accessible than those of India. “While seeking information on Maisky’s involvement in the Soviet decision to support the partition plan for Palestine in 1947, the archivist at the Russian Foreign Ministry emerged from the stacks with Maisky’s voluminous diary for the eventful year of 1941. No personal document of such breadth, value and size had emerged from the Soviet archives to throw fresh light on the Second World War and its origins. Flipping through the volume, I was struck by its immediacy and frankness, by Maisky’s astute and penetrating insights, and by his superb prose. The diary comprises over half a million words, minutely and candidly depicting the observations, activities and conversations of the ubiquitous Soviet ambassador in London.”

The Yale University Press deserves our thanks for agreeing to publish the lot in three volumes with Gorodetsky’s commentary. This volume is an abridged edition of those three, a quarter of the whole. He also gained access to Maisky’s photo album. Maisky was not a typical Soviet Ambassador, and the diary is not the usual self-exculpatory exercise. He can be self-critical. The volume provides one of the best accounts of British politics, English society and generally life in London.

A born writer and diplomat

Maisky was obviously conscious of his own central role in shaping history. Describing a crucial meeting with Winston Churchill in September 1941, when the fate of Moscow hung in the air, he 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 [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] and for all mankind?’” He was a born writer and a born diplomat.

“You used to look down upon us from the Gallery in Parliament,” recalled 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.” The intimacy Maisky enjoyed with the top echelons of British politicians and officials, as well as with intellectuals and artists, gave him a perfect vantage point. Records of his conversations cover inter alia five British Prime Ministers—Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill—as well as King George V, Edward VIII and an impressive array of prominent figures such as Anthony Eden, Lord Halifax, Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Simon, Nancy Astor, Samuel Hoare, Herbert Morrison, Clement Attlee, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Hugh Dalton, Stafford Cripps, John Maynard Keynes, John Strachey, Robert Vansittart, Joe Kennedy, Harry Hopkins, Jan Christian Smuts, Jan Masaryk, Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, to name just a few. “It is stunning to discover the extent to which British politicians and officials such as Beaverbrook, Lloyd George, Eden and Vansittart spoke candidly and openly with the Soviet ambassador, at times with more sympathy for the Soviet cause than has been conceived so far. …Eden reacted to Maisky’s passing remark that capitalism was ‘a spent force’ thus: ‘Yes, you are right. The capitalist system in its present form has had its day. What will replace it? I can’t say exactly, but it will certainly be a different system. State socialism? Semi-socialism? Three-quarter socialism? Complete socialism? I don’t know. May be it will be a particularly pure British form of “Conservative socialism’’.’”

In Moscow, Maisky wrote five volumes of memoirs. They have the benefit of hindsight and are also tinged with a desire to please the rulers during the Cold War. Gorodetsky does a service by pinpointing the divergences and even contradictions between the diaries, the memoirs and the state papers from the archives.

He does a grave disservice by projecting his own prejudices and perceptions, grossly misreading situations to allege plotting and subversion. The nadir is reached in his jibe at Maisky’s charming wife, Agniya, after his fall: “her pretentiousness and self-importance vanished without trace”. This is cheap: he reproduces no such comment by anyone who met her in London. It is of a piece with his comments on Maisky himself. Industry is not backed either by insight or fairness. Hostility towards the Soviet Union and, at one remove, towards Maisky is very apparent. Both Donald C. Watt, author of the magisterial How War Came, and Fraser J. Harbutt, author of The Iron Curtain, record that the British courted Maisky. The Ambassador’s presents of caviar and vodka were and are, more so now, par for the course. Which is why an editor of The Times sent a note rejecting a gift of oranges from the Israeli Ambassador with the stern admonition: never again.

Ambassadors meet politicians in the opposition and journalists critical of the government. Maisky did cross the line. He tried to manipulate them, such was his zeal for a front against Hitler. In doing so he violated the great Charles Maurice de Talleyrand’s sound advice: do not be zealous. There are some fine insights which have a contemporary relevance such as Anthony Eden’s remarks on the influence of Members of Parliament on foreign policy: “The trouble is that the power of the party machine has increased immensely and terrorises many MPs. Some 25 years ago there were many Conservative MPs with their own private means, who felt independent and paid little attention to the instructions given by the chief whip. They spoke and voted as they wished. Nowadays the overwhelming majority of Tory MPs are subsidised from party funds at election time, so they seek to ingratiate themselves with the chief whip.”

There are some interesting bits. Beatrice Webb ended Bernard Shaw’s philanderings by getting him married. There is the bit about the “Red Dean”, Dr Hewlett Johnson. “His 65 years notwithstanding, the dean recently married a young artist aged 35, his student. True, the dean is still full of life, energy and panache, even though he is nearly bald and the hair that remains (down the sides) is the bright colour of senile silver. But the English take a different view of such things from us Russians. Just the other day I read in a newspaper that an 89-year-old lord has married a widow of 45. And such an occurrence is no exception. The deans of English cathedrals don’t do too badly! Dr Johnson has a splendid house, servants, a car, a wonderful garden and, of course, a quite ‘decent’ income.”

The Webbs were Leftists. Yet Beatrice was racist. “How much snobbery there is even in the best English people? In conversation with the Webbs, 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’.”

Gandhi and Tagore

Indians come in two places. “I have Fulop-Miller’s book Lenin and Gandhi, published in Vienna in 1927. The author sketches the two leaders with considerable talent, juxtaposing them as the two equal ‘peaks’ of our time. Seven years ago this comparison seemed absurd only to communists, and perhaps to a few of the more perspicacious representatives of the European bourgeoisie. But now? Who, even among the ranks of bourgeois intellectuals, would dare equate Lenin and Gandhi? Today, any man, even an enemy, can see that Lenin is a historical Mont Blanc, who will forever remain 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 rapidly disintegrating, to be forgotten just a few years later in the dustbin of history. This is how time and events separate authentically precious metal from its cheap imitation.” This was written on November 4, 1934.

The famous sculptor Jacob Epstein’s impression of Tagore bears quotation in extenso: “Tagore used to arrive at Epstein’s studio escorted by a group of young Hindus, his pupils. He would seat himself on the chair and not utter a word during the sitting. He behaved as if he were a saint. He maintained a meaningful silence and gazed into space with an air of profundity. Tagore’s haughty treatment of his ‘pupils’ bordered on cruelty, while they looked at him in ecstasy, anticipated his every desire, and marvelled at his every gesture. Tagore paid not the slightest attention to them: he did not seem to notice them at all, looked over their heads and gave abrupt orders in a sharp dictatorial tone. He would, for instance, descend from the studio to the reception room where his pupils were waiting and bark in vexation: ‘Taxi!’. The ‘pupils’ would rush to the door and scatter through the neighbouring streets to hail a car for him.

“Once the following incident occurred. It so happened that a small Indian boy was living in Epstein’s house at the time when he was doing Tagore’s bust. He was the son of Epstein’s friend and model (she sat for some of Epstein’s best sculptures, such as Mother and Child). A brave and progressive woman, she left her husband and went to England, despite being a Muslim! Subsequently she returned to India and died in peculiar circumstances. Epstein suspects something tragic. Anyway, that small boy, the son of Epstein’s friend, came running cheerfully into the studio one day when Tagore was there. Epstein patted the boy’s head and said to his guest: ‘let me introduce a little compatriot’.

“Tagore looked at the boy with a kind smile, but then, as if he had suddenly recalled something, asked curtly: ‘Is he a Hindu or a Muslim?’

“‘He is a Muslim,’ Epstein replied. ‘Does it matter?’

“Tagore stiffened. The smile instantly left his face. He turned away and fell into his saintly pose and displayed no further interest in the boy. He simply did not see him. The boy had ceased to exist for him. Epstein was shocked. Tagore had revealed his true face.”

Allies and Russia

As early as October 22, 1940, Britain outlined its policy towards the Soviet Union in three points. “(1) The British government announces its readiness to recognise ‘ de facto’ the changes in the Baltics so as to settle ‘ de jure’ the whole issue later, probably after the war. (2) The British government declares itself prepared to ensure the participation of the USSR, on an equal basis, in the settlement of European affairs after the war. (3) The British government promises not to participate in any military actions against the USSR.” In 2017, this is precisely the problem between the West and Russia: expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to Russia’s borders and refusal to treat it as an equal.

War pacts

As early as November 11, 1941, Stalin asked Britain to indicate its post-War plans. Eden asked the Foreign Office to draft the “Volga Charter” to be woven into the Atlantic Charter “ recognising the Soviet demand for a buffer zone in the Baltic and East Poland. This, they insisted, did not reflect expansionist ambitions, but was a legitimate security claim”. (Emphasis added, throughout.)

United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt vetoed this as he did the Churchill-Stalin “Percentages Agreement” in 1944 on their respective spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and Greece. In March 1942, Churchill cabled to Roosevelt: “‘The increasing gravity of the war has led me to feel that the principles of the Atlantic Charter ought not to be construed so as to deny Russia the frontiers she occupied when Germany attacked her (in 1941)— hope therefore that you will be able to give us a free hand to sign the treaty which Stalin desires as soon as possible’. Heeding the warning of his military planners that keeping Russia at war was ‘of primary importance’, Roosevelt left Churchill in no doubt that he was eager to see the establishment of a new front in Europe ‘this summer’. ‘Nothing,’ he insisted, ‘would be worse than to have the Russians collapse …I would rather lose New Zealand, Australia or anything else than have the Russians collapse.’

“The Soviet Ambassador Litvinov was accordingly summoned to the White House on 12 March and bluntly told by the President that as ‘it was difficult to do business with the English and the Foreign Office’, he preferred to discuss the Baltic issue directly with Litvinov. Indeed, within a couple of days, Roosevelt introduced a coup in relations with Russia. While appearing to woo Churchill, he mercilessly hammered home the repercussions of the military disasters on Churchill’s political standing, in order to justify his independent approach to the Russians: ‘ I know you will not mind my being brutally frank when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.’

“Roosevelt summoned Litvinov and spoke about the Baltics. He agrees in essence, but is against any open or secret agreement because of public opinion. R. said bluntly that if the British government were to conclude a secret agreement of which he was not informed, he would not object.” So much for the U.S.-U.K. “special relationship” by which the British set so much store. It also reveals Roosevelt’s inordinate vanity.

By 1942 Britain accepted Russia’s 1941 borders (after its pact with Hitler) as against those of 1939, and Moscow was so informed when the Russian Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov visited Britain in June 1942. The Soviet aim was consistent. “In April 1939, in a handwritten enclosure to the entry of 28 April, Maisky scribbled a rough outline of the directives handed to him in Moscow, which continued to give priority to a grand alliance with France and Britain, for a duration of at least five years, on condition that there was a clear definition of aggression; a right for Soviet troops to transit through foreign territory (Poland); the conclusion of a simultaneous political and military agreement, a settlement regarding spheres of influence on the Black Sea littoral; and an undertaking not to conclude separate negotiations once an agreement is reached.”

When the Congress adopted the “Quit India” resolution on August 8, 1942, at Gandhi’s instance, the tide had already turned in favour of the Allies. Only three months later, the defeat of the Axis became certain, to the chagrin of Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who had calculated that Britain would lose and then hand over power to the Congress. Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad were opposed to this tactic but did not break rank. The wise Rajaji had predicted the Congress’ failure, well in advance. He was attacked for this.

The Palestine Question

There are two other diary entries of contemporary relevance. Maisky was interested in Palestine and not only because he was a Jew. The Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann met him on February 3, 1941, and did not conceal his contempt for Palestinians or his plans to get rid of them forcibly.

“Taking all these circumstances into account, Weizmann anxiously asks himself: ‘What has a British victory to offer the Jews?’ The question leads him to some uncomfortable conclusions. For the only ‘plan’ which Weizmann can think of to save Central Europe Jewry (and in the first place Polish Jewry) is this: to move a million Arabs now living in Palestine to Iraq, and to settle four or five million Jews from Poland and other countries on the land which the Arabs had been occupying. The British are hardly likely to agree to this. And if they don’t agree, what will happen?

“I expressed some surprise about how Weizmann hoped to settle 5 million Jews on territory occupied by 1 million Arabs. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ Weizmann burst out laughing. ‘The Arab is often called the son of the desert. It would be truer to call him the father of the desert. His laziness and primitivism turn a flourishing garden into a desert. Give me the land occupied by a million Arabs, and I will easily settle five times that number of Jews on it.’ Weizmann shook his head sadly and concluded: ‘The only thing is, how do we obtain this land?’”

The Zionists had and still have no compassion for the Arabs. Seven years later the fiendish plan was accomplished. Palestine saw the ethnic cleansing of Arabs, so meticulously documented by the honest and fearless Israeli scholar Ilan Pappe.

Scholars, Israeli and others, agree that the Holocaust did not trigger moves to establish Israel on Arab soil. The Zionist movement got a fillip during the First World War with the Balfour Declaration. But Israelis have freely cashed in on the Holocaust to secure sympathy. The record shows that they consistently withheld compassion for others and were utterly cruel in outlook and deeds.

As for Maisky, he had incurred Molotov’s hostility. His very success proved to be his undoing. He was recalled in 1943, stripped of his membership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, humiliated and imprisoned on false charges. Stalin’s death in 1953 saved him. He was released from prison on July 22, 1955. Maisky and his devoted wife repaired to their dacha, where he died on September 3, 1975. He kept writing and remained lucid right to the end. He was 91 when he died. One awaits the full three volumes of his rich diary eagerly.

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