Having published The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, 1932-1943, an abridged version of the Soviet Ambassador to London diaries, in 2015, Yale University Press has now published The Complete Maisky Diaries in three volumes. The set is edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky, emeritus professor of history at Tel Aviv University, and presents the entire original diary which is 500,000 words in length. The editor provides annotations, extensive commentary to contextualize the diaries and fill gaps in their keeping, and three biographical chapters on Ivan Maisky (“The Making of a Soviet Diplomat,” “End of an Era: Maisky’s Recall,” and “The Price of Fame: A Late Repression).
Maisky was appointed Soviet ambassador to London in 1932, despite his having a dubious background as a Menshevik and member of the anti-Bolshevik Komuch government in 1918 who only belatedly joined the Bolsheviks. His earlier associations always cast “a huge shadow” over Maisky’s life. He came to Britain as ambassador with a great familiarity with London, having lived there during his pre-revolution exile and been previously posted there as a diplomat. As ambassador, Maisky enjoyed very close relationships with politicians, Foreign Office officials, intellectuals, artists, and other prominent figures, most especially David Lloyd George, Lord Beaverbrook, and the Webbs. Despite being the representative of the Soviet state, Maisky very much enjoyed receiving the hospitality of London high society.
In mid-1934 he started writing a diary which he kept up until his departure from Britain in July 1943. As Gorodetsky notes keeping a diary was very dangerous; it was a time when people were “scared to death” and “burning papers and archives.” Ironically the only other Soviet ambassador who kept a diary during this time was Aleksandra Kollontay, the representative to Sweden, who with Maisky were the only ones to survive in their posts through the terror. Gorodetsky rightly comments that the diaries reveal “Maisky’s astute and penetrating insights.” However, not unexpectedly, throughout his diaries, Maisky always presents himself as thoroughly calm, composed, and in command of the situation in his dealings with the British. The editor notes that the diaries were “written with an eye to posterity.” Maisky also wrote them in the knowledge, no doubt, that they would one day probably be read by his NKVD interrogator (On August 24, 1939, after the announcement of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Maisky mildly writes “our policy is obviously undergoing a sharp change of course.”) Three copies of the diaries were kept by Maisky for fear that it would be confiscated. One of the copies was given to Stalin in December 1941, in what, the editor writes, “appears to have been an attempt to forestall possible arrest.”
During the Second World War, Maisky met regularly with Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. As foreign secretary Eden was expected to minute or note his meetings with foreign diplomats, while Churchill as prime minister had no such requirement. Nor did Churchill make notes of his meetings with Maisky in the 1930s when he was a mere backbench member of parliament. Thus, as Gorodetsky observes, the only records of these meetings and conversations are “Maisky’s detailed and intimate accounts in his diary and his more succinct telegrams to the Foreign Ministry.”
Recalled in 1943, Maisky employed his “survival instincts” to nearly outlast Stalin. Having avoided arrest for so long, Maisky was finally taken into custody and his diary seized in February 1953 just days before Stalin’s death. He remained imprisoned for two and a half years. After being released in 1955, Maisky campaigned unsuccessfully to obtain the return of his diary. He was only given limited access to it for a year while he wrote his memoirs. Thereafter the diary was denied to researchers until 1993 when Gorodetsky was undertaking research in Moscow and the “archivist at the Russian Foreign Ministry emerged from the stacks with Maisky’s voluminous diary for the eventful year of 1941.”
Yale University Press and Gorodetsky should receive great credit for bringing the complete diaries to publication. It is a major contribution to the history of Anglo-Russian relations as well as the Second World War.