The newly published diary of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London between , runs to some half a million words. Maisky was blessed with an extraordinary memory which, enhanced by penetrating psychological insight, powerful observation and insatiable curiosity, turned him into one of the most astute witnesses of the dramatic events and personalities of the 1930s.
“You used to look down upon us from the Gallery in Parliament,” remembered 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”. His lifelong penchant for writing prose and poetry betray a compulsive urge for self-expression. The result is a hybrid of literature and history, as is well reflected in the excerpts below.
The king’s speech
On March 4 1937, all heads of diplomatic missions submitted their credentials to the new king, George VI:
The king devoted two or three minutes to each diplomat. Eden was present at the ceremony and gave some assistance, as the king is taciturn and easily embarrassed. He also stammers. The entire ceremony went smoothly. The only shock, which caused quite a stir in the press and in society, was Ribbentrop’s “Nazi salute”. When the German ambassador entered the room to meet the king, he raised his right hand in greeting, rather than making the usual bow. This “novelty” offended the English deeply and triggered an adverse reaction in conservative circles. Ribbentrop was accused of tactlessness and was compared with me – a “good boy” who greets the king properly, without raising a clenched fist above his head.
To meet the diplomats’ wives, the king and queen also gave a five o’clock tea party today, inviting the heads of missions and their spouses. Ribbentrop again saluted the king with a raised hand, but he bowed to the queen in the normal manner. The little princesses were also present: Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, both wearing light pink dresses and, it was clear, terribly excited to be present at such an “important” ceremony. But they were also curious in a childish way about everything around them. They shifted from one foot to the other, then they began to giggle, and then to misbehave, to the considerable embarrassment of the queen. (12 March, 1937)
Churchill at home
In September 1938, on the eve of the meeting between Chamberlain and Hitler which would decide the fate of Czechoslovakia, Maisky courted Churchill in an attempt to exert pressure through him on the Prime Minister to forge a united front against Hitler. This was was his first of many visits to Churchill’s home.
I visited Churchill on his country estate.
A wonderful place! Eighty-four acres of land. A huge green hollow. On one hillock stands the host’s two-storey stone house – large and tastefully presented. The terrace affords a breath-taking view of Kent’s hilly landscape, all clothed in a truly English dark-blue haze.
[…] Churchill took me to a pavilion-cum-studio with dozens of paintings – his own creations – hanging on the walls. I liked some of them very much. Finally he showed me his pride and joy: a small brick cottage, still under construction, which he was building with his own hands in his free time.
“I’m a bricklayer, you know,” Churchill said with a grin. “I lay up to 500 bricks a day. Today I worked half the day and, look, I’ve put up a wall.”
He slapped the damp and unfinished brickwork with affection and pleasure.
It’s not a bad life for the leaders of the British bourgeoisie! There’s plenty for them to protect in their capitalist system!
Churchill must have guessed my thoughts because, taking in his flourishing estate with one sweeping gesture, he said with a laugh: “You can observe all this with an untroubled soul! My estate is not a product of man’s exploitation by man: it was bought entirely on my literary royalties.”
Churchill’s literary royalties must be pretty decent!
Then the three of us had tea – Churchill, his wife and I. On the table, apart from the tea, lay a whole battery of diverse alcoholic drinks. Why, could Churchill ever do without them? He drank a whisky-soda and offered me a Russian vodka from before the war. He has somehow managed to preserve this rarity. I expressed my sincere astonishment, but Churchill interrupted me: “That’s far from being all! In my cellar I have a bottle of wine from 1793! Not bad, eh? I’m keeping it for a very special, truly exceptional occasion.”
“Which exactly, may I ask you?”
Churchill grinned cunningly, paused, then suddenly declared: “We’ll drink this bottle together when Great Britain and Russia beat Hitler’s Germany!”
I was almost dumbstruck. Churchill’s hatred of Berlin really has gone beyond all limits! (4 September, 1938).
Churchill’s American roots
Maisky’s political revelations are highlighted by penetrating – at times amusing – observations and anecdotes on British society, politicians, royalty, writers and artists which enliven the historical narrative. Such for instance is the racism he encountered among his socialist friends in Britain, including the Fabian Beatrice Webb, the founder of London School of Economics:
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”. (10 October, 1939)
Like Churchill, Maisky, notwithstanding his Marxist beliefs, hails the role of “great men”, fully conscious of his own central role in shaping history. Referring to a crucial meeting with Churchill in September 1941, when the fate of Moscow hung in the air, Maisky entered in his diary:
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 and for all mankind?”
The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, 1932-1943, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky and translated by Tatiana Sorokina and Oliver Ready, is published by Yale University Press.