Mark Collins – A Red Diplomat Amongst British Toffs

Ah, the good old days of diplomacy:

The Maisky Diaries review – Britain’s high and mighty in conversation with Stalin’s man
Ivan Maisky was Soviet ambassador to the Court of St James. His recently unearthed diaries featuring meetings with Churchill, HG Wells and others are of great historical importance

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Unprecedented access to the power brokers … Ivan Maisky (left) with Winston Churchill

For a man who once told his friend Beatrice Webb that he “disliked the profession of diplomacy”, Ivan Maisky was an unusually brilliant practitioner of the art of being an ambassador. Spending 11 years as Stalin’s representative in London, between 1932 and 1943, Maisky not only had his hands full in trying to follow the twists and turns of the political battles between Chamberlain and Churchill over appeasement, he also had to explain and justify Stalin’s U-turns in Soviet relations with Nazi Germany [see also: “Staline ou pas d’ennemis à gauche“].

All along he also had to worry about his own survival, given the purges that destroyed the careers, and often the lives, of dozens of Soviet ambassadors and other senior officials in their prime. Yet Maisky found time to sit down most evenings in the study of the Soviet embassy in Kensington and type up his impressions of the day’s encounters. They were not just thumbnail aides-mémoire but wonderfully detailed accounts of confidential conversations with Britain’s high and mighty, laced with wit and subtle observations of character. He also recorded public events with the skill of an accomplished sketch writer, including key debates in parliament as well as state occasions, such as the funeral of George V (“a right old mess”) or bagpipes at a royal banquet (“semi-barbarian music. I like this music. There is something in it … of man’s primordial past”).

Rarely has a foreign diplomat written such lively reports of his professional meetings in London. And what a world they cover. As well as meeting the top politicians of the day, from Halifax to Eden to Churchill, for regular tete-a-tete talks, Maisky made friends with figures such as David Lloyd George, by 1932 an elder statesman but still hugely influential. He also lunched with Lord Beaverbrook, the Astors and newspaper editors, as well as City tycoons and luminaries of the left, from HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw to John Maynard Keynes.

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… and with David Lloyd George…

Do continue. It is curious that the pre-World War II Soviet foreign minister, Maksim Litvinov (Jewish like Maisky, replaced by Molotov in May 1939) nonetheless was also not liquidated and subsequently served as ambassador to the US, 1941-43.

Then there’s Canadian diplomacy today:

“The Irrelevant Diplomat: Do We Need Embassies Anymore?”

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

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