The Communist and the King

Ivan Maisky (second from left), the Soviet ambassador to London between 1932 and 1943, with Winston Churchill at the Allied ambassadors’ lunch at the Soviet embassy, September 1941. General Władysław Sikorski, prime minister of the Polish government in exile, is second from right.

Stalin’s terror and purges of the 1930s discouraged high Soviet officials from putting a pen to paper let alone keeping personal records and above all diaries. The following excerpts are taken from the rare and unique diary assiduously kept by Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London between 1932 and 1943. The diary, which contains close to 1,600 pages of dense handwritten and typed entries, minutely and candidly records his observations, conversations, and activities while in London.

A former Menshevik with Jewish ancestors, Maisky survived the terror until two weeks before Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953. At the height of the anticosmopolitan campaign he was arrested and charged with espionage, treason, and involvement in Zionist conspiracy and sentenced to six years in prison. Following his arrest, his private papers and diary were confiscated and deposited at the archives of the Russian Foreign Ministry, where I found them. Released in 1955 and cleared of all charges, he died in 1975.

Maisky was born in 1884. His early revolutionary activities led in 1902 to his expulsion from St. Petersburg University and exile first to Siberia and then to London, where he spent the years between 1912 and 1917. There he established close relations with the future commissars for foreign affairs, Georgii Chicherin and Maxim Litvinov. It was during his years in exile that Maisky mastered the English language, as well as British history and culture, and established a wide circle of friends from political, intellectual, and literary circles, among them George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Beatrice Webb. His command of foreign languages, and his familiarity with the international scene, bolstered by his friendship with Litvinov, accounted for his swift rise in the Soviet diplomatic service after the revolution. Following short stretches in junior positions in London, Tokyo, and Helsinki, he returned to London as an ambassador in late 1932.

Maisky wrote his highly personal diary with an eye for posterity. He recorded conversations with five British prime ministers, including Ramsay MacDonald, Lloyd George, Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill, as well as with other prominent British political figures such as Lord Halifax, Anthony Eden, Lord Beaverbrook, and John Maynard Keynes. The diary bears witness to the drift toward war throughout the 1930s, including the appeasement at Munich, the negotiations culminating in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Churchill’s rise to power, the Battle of Britain, and the events leading to the wartime alliance following Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941.

Gabriel Gorodetsky

12 March 1937

On 4 March all heads of diplomatic missions submitted their credentials to the new king, George VI. The procedure was simplified and carried…

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