"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Maisky Diaries

For those interested in political diaries, and for those who want glimpses inside the mind of Soviet diplomacy before and during the Second World War, then I commend to you The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James's, 1932-1943 by Ivan Maisky and edited by‎ Gabriel Gorodetsky. Published by Yale University Press in 2015 in this condensed version (the fuller three volumes are also available), they offer revealing insights into all the largely unsuccessful diplomatic maneuvers between Britain, the USSR, and France, inter alia, in trying to prevent what everyone seems to have regarded as inevitable: another war with Germany. And then of course once war was underway, we see renewed attempts at building an alliance to defeat Hitler.

Though he says almost nothing about the plight of Eastern Christians in the USSR, he does on a couple of occasions very off-handedly dismiss Christianity in unsurprising terms as a silly bourgeois tradition--until he meets the so-called red dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson. Maisky seems to find Johnson's unflagging support of the USSR useful and encouraging if at times a little de trop. But Maisky seems almost unnerved by Johnson's desire for justice for the poor, suggesting that if more Christians were like this then they might not justify dismissal everywhere as guilty of so much middle-class twaddle and superstition.

Maisky was a clever and cunning figure to survive the purges of the late 30s in the Soviet Union, and also in knowing what information to reveal and what to conceal in official communications between London and Moscow. He also developed the neat trick of reporting to Stalin confidential conversations with British cabinet ministers and Foreign Office officials in London in which Maisky put his own plans into the mouths of British officials and then reported these back to Stalin as a way of encouraging him to think about some idea or other that Maisky would not openly advocate lest he fall afoul of the regime and wind up dead.

He would survive, and then, like Churchill, go on to write (also in a semi-official capacity) some of the history in which he was himself a participant. As David Reynolds revealed in his splendid and deeply fascinating In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, both sides used the writings of their statesmen after the war to retouch (to put it mildly in some cases) parts of the historical record in view of the politics of the immediate postwar and early Cold War periods. What they left out was often as revealing, and often more so, than what they put in.

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