Thursday, September 24, 2015

An old, leaky, faded umbrella!

Yale University Press has just published an abridged version of the diaries of Ivan Maisky (Maiskii), the Soviet Union’s highly educated and very social ambassador in London during the 1930s and the early 1940s. The diaries, never before available in English, are beautifully written (and translated), and provide a very observant and colourful view of London’s political and intellectual life - such as, for example, when Maisky writes of Neville Chamberlain in 1939: ‘This is the leader of a great Empire on a crucial day of its existence! An old, leaky, faded umbrella! Whom can he save?’. The publisher also claims that Maisky’s narrative provides ‘a fascinating revision of the events surrounding the Second World War’.

Ivan Maisky was born in 1884 in Kirillov to a Polish family living in Imperial Russia. Apparently, early revolutionary activities led to him being expelled from St. Petersburg University in 1902. Following a period of exile in Siberia, he travelled to western Europe, where he learned English and French, and took a degree in economics at Munich university. He remained in London between 1912 and 1917, where he became friends with Georgii Chicherin and Maxim Litvinov, as well as with writers, such as G. B. Shaw, H. G. Wells and Beatrice Webb. He returned to Russia in February 1917, shortly after the tsar was overthrown, but it was only in 1919 that he renounced an association with the fading Menshevik party and joined the Bolsheviks. His command of foreign languages and familiarity with the international scene, bolstered by his friendship with Litvinov, secured a rapid rise in the Soviet diplomatic service.

Following various postings, during which time he also edited the new Petrograd literary magazine Zvezda, he was appointed Soviet ambassador to Finland in 1929, and, in 1932, official Soviet envoy to the UK, a position he then held until 1943. This was an important role, since Stalin considered Britain to be the Soviet Union’s main rival in the European power struggle. Maisky’s efforts to unify a security agreement against Nazi Germany through the League of Nations, however, collapsed in the face of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, a non-aggression treaty between Moscow and Berlin. For two years, thereafter, Maisky struggled to cope with tense relations between London and Moscow. Only with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 did Stalin switch allegiance to the Allies.

During the later years of his London posting, Maisky maintained close contact with Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, personally visiting the Foreign Office every day to get the latest news. In 1943, Maisky (and Litvinov, ambassador to Washington) were recalled to Moscow and entrusted with the preparation of the Soviet agenda for the peace settlement. Maisky advocated the continuation of collaboration with the Western Allies, and, as chief adviser to Stalin at the Yalta and Potsdam summits, he helped formulate Soviet strategy calling for a division of Europe into spheres of interest. With the onset of the cold war, Maisky retired to the Russian Academy of Sciences, where he took up historical research, and wrote his memoirs.

In 1953, shortly before Stalin’s death, Maisky was arrested and charged with espionage, treason, and involvement in a Zionist conspiracy. It would be two years before he was pardoned and released, and re-instated at the Academy of Sciences where he continued with his historical research, and with writing his memoirs. He died in 1975. Further biographical information is available online through Wikipedia or the Yivo Encyclopaedia.

During his term as ambassador to the UK, Maisky kept a detailed and personal diary, typing his entries each evening. This was frowned on by Stalin who discouraged his staff from keeping any written notes. Indeed, later, when he was arrested, his diaries and personal archive were confiscated, and they remained inaccessible to researchers for many years. Only in 1993, did Gabriel Gorodetsky uncover them in the Russian Foreign Ministry. The process, Gorodetsky says, of having the diaries declassified and then published in Russia (a prerequisite for publication in the West) was ‘long and arduous’. Translation of the diary entries has been undertaken by Tatiana Sorokina and Olivery Ready. The final result will be a three volume edition of the full diaries, to be published by Yale University Press, with commentary and annotations.

However, in the meantime, Gorodetsky says, he was encouraged to produce an abridged version to make the diary accessible to a wider audience. Publication of this single volume edition - The Maisky Diaries - Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s 1932-1943 - took place in the UK on 1 September, but is not scheduled until 27 October in the US. Parts of the book can be read online at Googlebooks or Amazon; and several articles by Gorodetsky himself, with generous extracts from the diaries, can be read at the Yale Books blog (part 1, part 2, part 3). Reviews of the book can be read at The Conversation, The Telegraph, and The Spectator.

In his introduction, Gorodetsky says: ’For non-experts, with limited access to the rich and fascinating documents published by the Russians on the events leading up to the war, the diary provides a rare glimpse into the inner state of the Soviet mind: its entries question many of the prevailing, often tendentious, interpretations of both Russian and Western historiography.’ Apart from their political importance, though, Maisky’s diaries offer an intriguing, intelligent, vibrant and often humourous portrait of London, as well of many of its important characters and famous places. Here are several extracts.

15 November 1934
‘Today I attended the dinner given by the ancient guild, the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers (already 600 years old). I had expected the dinner to be accompanied by some very old customs, but I was disappointed. It was a dinner like all others, right down to the inescapable turtle soup, and only the painted arched windows of the dining hall suggested the past. I tell a lie: there was also ‘The loving cup’, but I had seen that already at the lord mayor’s banquets. The guests, though - they really did bring the odd whiff of medieval times. To my right sat Lord Marshall (a big publisher and former lord mayor of London), who proudly declared that he had been in the guild for 55 years!

‘Is membership hereditary?’ I asked in some perplexity. ‘No,’ answered Lord Marshall, ‘it is not. I joined the guild as soon as I became an apprentice in my profession.’

It turned out that my neighbour was already 70. To my left sat Lord Wakefield, a major oil industrialist, prominent philanthropist and London alderman. He’s also about 70 years old (a schoolmate of Marshall’s!). This venerable notable of the British Empire told me that about 30 years ago (a truly English time span!) he had planned to visit St Petersburg and had even the tickets when suddenly, at the last moment, he received a telegram claiming ‘plague in Russia’. Naturally, he decided not to travel. Perhaps now was the time to go? . . . I seconded his intention.

‘Tell me,’ he continued, wiping his brow and appearing to remember something, ‘You seem to have a man . . . Lenin . . . Is he really terribly clever?’

‘I can assure you he was,’ I answered, smiling, ‘but unfortunately he died back in 1924.’

‘’Died?’ Wakefield sounded disappointed. ‘Really? . . . I wasn’t aware of that.’

See how well the cream of the English bourgeoisie is informed about Soviet affairs! Truly it smacks of the Middle Ages!’

29 November 1934
‘The royal wedding finally took place today. From first light, and even from the previous night, London seemed to be overflowing its banks. Up to half a million people descended on the capital from all over the country. Many foreigners arrived from the Continent. The streets along which the wedding procession would pass were filled to bursting by an immense crowd that had gathered on the previous evening to occupy the best places. Typically the crowd consisted almost entirely of women. I, at least, noticed barely a single man on my way from the embassy to the Westminster Abbey. [. . .]

On this occasion I was obliged to attend the wedding ceremony itself, in Westminster Abbey. That’s what Moscow decided. It was the first time I had attended a church service since leaving school, 33 years ago! That’s quite a stretch.

The diplomatic corps sat to the right of the entrance, and members of the government on the left. Simon was my partner on the opposite side. MacDonald zealously chanted psalms during the service. Baldwin yawned wearily, while [Walter] Elliot [minister for agriculture] simply dozed. Churchill looked deeply moved and at one point even seemed to wipe his eyes with a handkerchief.’

5 August 1939
‘Went to St Pancras railway station to see off the British and French military missions. Lots of people, reporters, photographers, ladies and young girls. I met General Doumenc, head of the French mission, and a few of his companions. The heads of the British mission - Admiral Drax (head), Air Marshal Burnett and Major General Heywood - were my guests for lunch yesterday and we greeted one another like old acquaintances.

On my way home, I couldn’t help smiling at history’s mischievous sense of humour.

In subjective terms, it is difficult to imagine a situation more favourable for an Anglo-German bloc against the USSR and less favourable for an Anglo-Soviet bloc against Germany. Indeed, the spontaneous preferences of the British ‘upper ten thousand’ most definitely lie with Germany. In his sleep, Chamberlain dreams of a deal with Hitler at the expense of third countries, i.e. ultimately at the expense of the USSR. Even now the PM still dreams of ‘appeasement’. On the other side, in Berlin, Hitler has always advocated a bloc with Britain. He wrote about this fervently back in Mein Kampf. Highly influential groups among the German fascists, bankers and industrialists also support closer relations with England. I repeat: the subjective factor is not only 100%, but a full 150% behind an Anglo-German bloc.

And yet, the bloc fails to materialize. Slowly but unstoppably, Anglo-German relations are deteriorating and becoming increasingly strained. Regardless of Chamberlain’s many attempts to ‘forget’, to ‘forgive’, to ‘reconcile’, to ‘come to terms’, something fateful always occurs to widen further the abyss between London and Berlin. Why? Because the vital interests of the two powers - the objective factor - prove diametrically opposed. And this fundamental conflict of interests easily overrides the influence of the subjective factor. Repulsion is stronger than attraction.

The reverse scenario holds for Anglo-Soviet relations. Here the subjective factor is sharply opposed to an Anglo-Soviet bloc. The bourgeoisie and the Court dislike, even loathe, ‘Soviet communism’. Chamberlain has always been eager to cut the USSR’s throat with a feather. And we, on the Soviet side, have no great liking for the ‘upper ten thousand’ of Great Britain. The burden of the past, the recent experience of the Soviet period, and ideological practice have all combined to poison our subjective attitude towards the ruling elite in England, and especially the prime minister, with the venom of fully justified suspicion and mistrust. I repeat: the subjective factor in this case is not only 100%, but a full 150% against an Anglo-Soviet bloc.

And yet the bloc is gradually taking shape. When I look back over the seven years of my time in London, the overall picture is very instructive. Slowly but steadily, via zigzags, setbacks and failures, Anglo-Soviet relations are improving. From the Metro-Vickers case to the military mission’s trip to Moscow! This is the distance we have covered! The abyss between London and Moscow keeps narrowing. Field engineers are successfully fixing beams and rafters to support the bridge over the remaining distance. Why? Because the vital interests of the two powers - the objective factor - coincide. And this fundamental coincidence overrides the influence of the subjective factor. Attraction proves stronger than repulsion.

The military mission’s journey to Moscow is a historical landmark. It testifies to the fact that the process of attraction has reached a very high level of development.

But what an irony that it should fall to Chamberlain to build the Anglo-Soviet bloc against Germany!

Yes, mischievous history really does have a vicious sense of humour.

However, everything flows. The balance of forces described above corresponds to the present historical period. The picture would change dramatically if and when the question of a proletarian revolution outside the USSR becomes the order of the day.’

31 August 1939
‘Another day of tension and suspense. . . . At about five o’clock, Agniya and I got into a small car and drove around town to see what was going on. It was the end of the working day. The usual hustle and bustle in the streets, on the underground, and on the buses and trams. But no more than usual. All the shops are trading. The caf├ęs are open. The newspaper vendors shout out the headlines. In general, the city looks normal. Only the sandbags under the windows and the yellow signs with arrows pointing to the nearest bomb shelters indicate that England is on the verge of war.

In the evening, Agniya and I went to the Globe to see Oscar Wilde’s delicious comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. The actors were superb. An image of the ‘good old times’ - without automobiles, radio, airplanes, air raids, Hitlers and Mussolinis - seemed to come alive. People were funny and naive then, to judge by today’s standards. We laughed for two hours. That’s something to be grateful for.

When we got back from the theatre, the radio brought sensational news: the 16 points which Hitler demands from Poland. The immediate return of Danzig, a plebiscite in the ‘Corridor’, an international committee made up of Italian, British, French and Soviet representatives, a vote in 1940, and so on and so forth.

What’s this? A step back? Slowing down?

I doubt it. It’s too late for Hitler to retreat. It’s almost certainly a manoeuvre. Is it an attempt to hoodwink the world’s public and perhaps the German people as well before a decisive ‘leap’?’

1 September 1939
‘Yesterday’s doubts have been fully justified. Today, early in the morning, Germany attacked Poland without any prior warning and began bombing Polish cities. The Polish army and air force are putting up strong resistance everywhere.

So, war has begun. A great historical knot has been loosened. The first stone has rolled down the slope. Many more will follow. Today, the world has crossed the threshold of a new epoch. It will emerge from it much changed. The time of great transformations in the life of humankind is nigh. I think I’ll live to see them unless, of course, some crazy incident cuts my days short. . .

Parliament met at six in the evening. As I drove up to Westminster, photographers began snapping away. And why not? What a sensation: the Soviet ambassador at a parliamentary session on the matter of war. And this directly after the signing of the Soviet-German pact!

A nervous and panicky mood reigned in the Parliament corridors. A motley crowd of every age and status had gathered. There were many rather young women and girls, gesticulating frantically and speaking in raised voices. I walked down the corridors, saluted in the usual manner by the Parliament policemen, and approached the entrance to the diplomatic gallery. It was quite jammed with ambassadors, envoys, high commissioners and other ‘notables’. As soon as the door attendant caught sight of me, he pushed back a few ‘ministers’ to clear a narrow path for me to the staircase.

. . . I looked down. The small chamber of the Commons was full to bursting with agitated, tense MPs. They were packed in like sardines. The Government bench was just the same. All the stars - if there are any - were present: Chamberlain, Simon, Hore-Belisha, Kingsley Wood, and the rest. The atmosphere was heavy, menacing and oppressive. The galleries of the Lords, the press and guests were jam-packed. Near the ‘clock’, wearing plain grey suits, sat the duke of Gloucester and the duke of Kent. A few MPs were in khaki . . . All eyes were trained on me. The mood was the same: restrained hostility, but with a hint of deference. I calmly endured this bombardment of glances. Then I began to make out individual faces. Lady Astor, as is her custom, seemed to be sitting on needles, and looked at me as if she meant to grab me by the hair. Mander, Nicolson and Ellen Wilkinson looked at me with friendly, sparkling eyes. I had the impression that Eden also cast a quick, and not remotely hostile, glance at me, but I can’t say for sure.

Chamberlain, looking terribly depressed and speaking in a quiet, lifeless voice, confessed that 18 months ago (when Eden retired!) he prayed not to have to take upon himself the responsibility for declaring war, but now he fears that he will not be able to avoid it. But the true responsibility for the unleashing of war lies not with the prime minister, but ‘on the shoulders of one man - the German Chancellor’, who has not hesitated to hurl mankind into the abyss of immense suffering ‘to serve his senseless ambitions’. . . . At times, Chamberlain even tried to bang his fist on the famous ‘box’ on the Speaker’s table. But everything cost him such torment and was expressed with such despair in his eyes, voice and gestures that it was sickening to watch him. And this is the head of the British Empire at the most critical moment in its history! He is not the head of the British Empire, but its grave-digger! . . .

Unless an extraordinary miracle happens at the very last moment, Britain will find itself at war with Germany within the next 48 hours.’

3 September 1939
‘Today, the denouement really did take place . . . the prime minister went on air at 11.15 a.m. and declared that, as of then, Britain was at war with Germany.

Half an hour later the air filled with the bellowing sounds of the siren. People scampered off to their houses, the streets emptied, and cars stopped in the road. What was it? A drill? Or a genuine raid by German bombers?

Fifteen minutes of tension and anxiety - then we heard the prolonged siren wail: ‘all clear’! It had been just a drill. There were no enemy planes.

I got to Parliament by midday. I was a couple of minutes late because of the alarm. I took the first available seat in the second row. Chamberlain was already speaking. A darkened, emaciated face. A tearful, broken voice. Bitter, despairing gestures. A shattered, washed-up man. However, to do him justice, the prime minister did not hide the fact that catastrophe had befallen him.

‘This is a sad day for all of us,’ he said, ‘and to none is it sadder than to me. Everything that I have worked for, everything that I hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life - has crashed into ruins.’

I sat, listened and thought: ‘This is the leader of a great Empire on a crucial day of its existence! An old, leaky, faded umbrella! Whom can he save? If Chamberlain remains prime minister for much longer, the Empire is ruined.’ . . .’

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