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“Not a true Englishman”: Ivan Maisky with Winston Churchill in 1943 (photo copyright the Scheffer-Vosskenski Family)

It may seem odd in retrospect, but most historians eagerly anticipated the publication of The Hitler Diaries. Had they been genuine, they would have been revealing. Europe’s “Civil War” of the 1930s and 1940s was vast in scope. It was executed more by machines than men. And its immediate effects were frequently unfathomable.  Yet the specific dynamics of conflict — what actually happened, where and when — were often determined by an astonishingly small number of individuals. Those men were only too willing to put their thoughts on these matters to paper. Their memoirs were invariably self-serving. De Gaulle was magnificent in this respect, Eisenhower merely tedious, Speer duplicitous.

However, the contemporaneous diaries of protagonists, especially those composed without obvious intention of publication, have proved to be of quite different value.  These often displayed a complexity of motive, even a confusion of purpose (let alone effect), that have served serious study well. No one better exposed the utter cynicism of the Nazi regime than Goebbels. Mussolini’s fake grandiosity was seldom more graphically described than by Ciano. And Britain’s grim determination to prevail still lives in the words of Alanbrooke. But nothing of comparable quality emerged from the ex-Soviet Union. This was scarcely surprising. Stalin’s Terror discouraged all but the most foolhardy from writing much down. Only the suicidal contemplated anything so self-incriminating as a diary. That, at least, is what we thought until now. 

Gabriel Gorodetsky is one of the leading historians of 20th-century Soviet foreign policy. In 1993, seeking information on Ivan Maisky’s involvement in the Soviet decision to support the Palestinian partition plan of 1947, he discovered The Maisky Diaries. He has devoted much of the last 20 years to collating, editing and interpreting what may turn out to be the most important contribution of 21st-century historical scholarship to our understanding of the causes, course and consequences of the Second World War.  The full, unexpurgated, text runs to about 500,000 words. It will eventually be published in three volumes. This is an abridged edition, reproducing about one-quarter of the original. It is a revelation. It will be read — it will be metaphorically devoured — by anyone remotely interested in understanding the history of humanity’s darkest century. 

Maisky was a Soviet diplomat of the old school. He was intelligent, educated and fluent in several languages. He travelled widely before the Revolution. He began as a Menshevik, later shifting his allegiance to the Bolsheviks. He was appointed Soviet Ambassador to London in 1932, remaining there for 11 years. During that time, he set about systematically courting and manipulating anyone who mattered in Britain to Russian advantage. That involved cultivating around 500 of the most influential men and women of the time, beginning with the Foreign Office, then working his way through Parliament and the press. His method, beautifully set out in a nine-page “lecture” to Fedor Gusev, one of Molotov’s moronic yes men, is admirably summarised in this book. It repays the most careful scrutiny. 

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September 25th, 2015
5:09 AM
"Legend has it that Talleyrand, on being asked what he had done during the French Revolution, simply replied, “J’ai survécu.” That quote is usually attributed to Sieyès.

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