Ivan Maisky’s diaries offer a spying masterclass that is still relevant today

In the years leading up to World War II, Ivan Maisky and Winston Churchill developed a close friendship. Courtesy of the Voskressenski family, Author provided

The announcement of the return from the cold of John Le Carré’s George Smiley in a forthcoming new novel coincided with revelations that Sergei Kislyak, the veteran Russian ambassador in Washington, was accused by American intelligence of being Russia’s “master spy”. Meanwhile, Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, was dismissed for failing to report the content of conversations he held with the Russians.

This led to the striking dismissal of the FBI’s director, James Comey, in the midst of a probing into alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

The gripping diary of Ivan Maisky, Soviet ambassador to London from 1932-43, provides a startling history lesson – from which Trump, Flynn and senior White House advisor Jared Kushner might well have profited, avoiding the haunting accusations of clandestine dealings with the Russians and the embarrassment of the forthcoming congressional hearing by the former director of the FBI.

The lingering fascination with a romanticised cold war vision of espionage overlooks the far more mundane workings of both Western and Russian diplomacy. It also ignores the vital information which a diligent professional diplomat can gather by legitimate means. Assuming that an ambassador’s task is to penetrate the inner decision-making circles of his host government, then Maisky had few equals in the 20th century.

Arriving in London in autumn 1932 with the objective of thwarting the Nazi danger, Maisky followed to the letter the instructions of Maxim Litvinov, the commissar for foreign affairs, to court the Conservatives. At the time, there was a National Government in power – a coalition of all parties, with Ramsay MacDonald as the prime minister soon replaced by Stanley Baldwin. Nonetheless, Litvinov correctly realised that the true power lay with the Conservatives – whom Litvinov regarded as “the real bosses in Britain”.

Going native

In April 1940, in the wake of Stalin’s savage purge of the Soviet foreign ministry, Maisky was reproached for having “gone too native” in Britain and ordered to confine his work to a review of the British press and meeting his counterpart in the Foreign Office. Complying with such instructions would have robbed Maisky of his trump card – the prolific circle of contacts he had cultivated over the years. Finding himself up against the wall, he responded with a dense nine-page visionary plan of an innovative and modern style of diplomacy which is still very much in vogue.

Maisky considered the essence of diplomacy to be “direct contact with people”. He listed the wide range of close contacts he had forged in the foreign office as well as in the ministries of trade and defence. Attending parliament regularly and mingling with its members in the corridors or the restaurant, he argued, was most profitable in gauging the “accurate impression of the current mood of the country and the different nuances of domestic and foreign policy”.

He urged his colleagues to engage more with the media, regardless of the fact that it “is capricious and does not stand on ceremony”. He believed that if an ambassador wanted to “properly fulfil his duties” he had to maintain close contact with at least 500 people.

Exalted circles: Ivan Maisky developed friendships with many British establishment figures. Courtesy of the Voskressenski Family, Author provided

Most striking was the attention he paid to the nature of such contacts. He warned that it was:

… not enough to have a nodding acquaintance with a person, and to meet him once or twice a year at some official function or in the corridors of parliament. One must meet him on a regular basis, invite him to breakfast or dinner, visit him at home, invite him to the theatre occasionally, attend the wedding of his son or his daughter, wish him many happy returns on his birthday, sympathise with him when he is ill.

It is only when your acquaintance has come a little closer to you (and Englishmen need to scrutinise someone for quite a while before they count him among their “friends”) that his tongue starts to loosen, and only then may you start to glean things from him, or else start to put the necessary ideas into his head.

Prominent friends

A superb public relations man at a time when the concept hardly existed, Maisky did not hesitate to align himself with opposition groups, backbenchers, newspaper editors and bankers in the City. His embassy became a magnet for intellectuals and artists, among them John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. The intimate relations he cultivated with Robert Vansittart, the permanent under-secretary of state – an outspoken opponent of “appeasement” – helped him to set up a powerful lobby within Conservative circles.

He forged intimate relations with a significant segment of the British press, boasting that he could place a letter in The Times whenever he chose. It was Vansittart who introduced Maisky to the powerful Fleet Street magnate, Lord Beaverbrook, later minister in Churchill’s war cabinet. Courting him certainly paid off. In autumn 1936, Beaverbrook reminded Maisky of his newspapers’ “friendly attitude” towards Stalin and promised that “nothing shall be done or said by any newspaper controlled by me which is likely to disturb your tenure of office”.

Maisky’s circle of intimate friends included Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, who were both in the political wilderness at the time. He patiently groomed them for their role as the future leaders of Britain, notwithstanding the fact that both were actually at odds with the policies pursued by the incumbent prime minister, Neville Chamberlain.

Maisky and Anthony Eden en route to meet Stalin in Moscow, March 1935. Courtesy of the Voskressenski Family, Author provided

It was Beaverbrook who introduced Maisky and his wife to the Churchills, at a dinner en famille at his home. “I send you a very strong recommendation of that gentleman”, wrote Beaverbrook to Maisky. “In character he is without a rival in British politics. I know all about his prejudices. But a man of character who tells the truth is worth much to the nation.”

It did not take long for Maisky to become a frequent guest at Churchill’s home, who even at the peak of appeasement, during the Munich conference, told the ambassador he was abandoning his protracted struggle against the Soviet Union, which he no longer perceived as a threat to England.

On September 2, 1938, before the signing of the Munich Agreement between Chamberlain and Hitler and while Churchill was still very much out of favour with the then prime minister, Maisky records a friendly meeting with Churchill. Offering Maisky vodka from before World War I, Churchill told his dumbstruck guest that in his cellar he was keeping a bottle of wine from 1793 for “a very special, truly exceptional occasion … We’ll drink this bottle together when Great Britain and Russia beat Hitler’s Germany!”