Meet Ivan Maisky: The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact

In part two of our blog series celebrating publication of The Maisky Diaries, Gabriel Gorodetsky shares an excerpt that provides unique insight into events surrounding the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact – the non-aggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed on 23 August 1939.

Bar the occasional lapse, right up until the very day the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact was concluded, Ivan Maisky maintained that an agreement with the Western powers was inevitable. In his apologetic memoirs, he puts a misleading gloss on the narrative, whereby Halifax’s refusal to proceed to Moscow and the bizarre episode of the military mission startled and convinced him that an agreement was doomed. This narrative, meticulously constructed and widely disseminated by Maisky to justify the pact, was later adopted by Stalin. Maisky’s retrospective narrative is refuted by the following diary entry – a telling exposition of his inner thoughts at the time. Indeed, visiting the Webbs at their cottage two days later he was certain that ‘Great Britain will be forced to come into alliance’ with the Soviet Union.

 Extract from The Maisky Diaries 

4 August 1939

… The members of the military mission to Moscow – Admiral Drax (head), Air Marshal Burnett and Major General Heywood – came for lunch. The guests were highly reserved in conversation and preferred to discuss such innocuous topics as partridge hunting, the season for which they will clearly have to spend in Moscow.

During lunch, however, I did learn one thing which seriously alarmed me. When I asked Drax, who was sitting on my right, why the delegation was not flying to Moscow by plane to save time, Drax drew in his lips and said: ‘You see, there are nearly 20 of us and a lot of luggage… It would be uncomfortable in the plane…’

I can hardly say that I found his response convincing. I continued: ‘In that case, why not travel by warship… On a fast cruiser, for example… It would look impressive and it would hasten your arrival in Leningrad.’

Drax sucked his lips again and said, deep in thought: ‘But that would mean kicking 20 officers out of their cabins… That would be awkward…’

I couldn’t believe my ears. Such tender feelings and such tactful manners!

The admiral hastened to gladden me, though, with the news that the military delegation had chartered a special vessel, The City of Exeter, which would take them and the French mission to Leningrad. At this point Korzh [first secretary of the embassy] intervened in the conversation, remarking pointedly that he had heard from the owner of this ship earlier today that her maximum speed was 13 knots an hour. I cast a look of surprise at Drax and exclaimed: ‘Is that possible?’

Drax was embarrassed and mumbled: ‘The Board of Trade chartered the ship. I don’t know the particulars.’

So, the English and the French military missions are travelling to Moscow by freight steamer! It must be a freighter, to judge by its speed! And this comes at a time in Europe when the ground is beginning to burn beneath our feet! Incredible! Does the British Government really want an agreement? I’m becoming more and more convinced that Chamberlain is pursuing his own game regardless: it’s not a tripartite pact that he needs, but talks about a pact, as a trump card for cutting a deal with Hitler. …

5 August 1939

Went to St Pancras railway station to see off the British and French military missions. Lots of people, reporters, photographers, ladies and young girls. I met General Doumenc, head of the French mission, and a few of his companions. The heads of the British mission – Admiral Drax (head), Air Marshal Burnett and Major General Heywood – were my guests for lunch yesterday and we greeted one another like old acquaintances.

On my way home, I couldn’t help smiling at history’s mischievous sense of humour.

In subjective terms, it is difficult to imagine a situation more favourable for an Anglo-German bloc against the USSR and less favourable for an Anglo-Soviet bloc against Germany. Indeed, the spontaneous preferences of the British ‘upper ten thousand’ most definitely lie with Germany. In his sleep, Chamberlain dreams of a deal with Hitler at the expense of third countries, i.e. ultimately at the expense of the USSR. Even now the PM still dreams of ‘appeasement’. On the other side, in Berlin, Hitler has always advocated a bloc with Britain. He wrote about this fervently back in Mein Kampf. Highly influential groups among the German fascists, bankers and industrialists also support closer relations with England. I repeat: the subjective factor is not only 100%, but a full 150% behind an Anglo-German bloc.

And yet, the bloc fails to materialize. Slowly but unstoppably, Anglo-German relations are deteriorating and becoming increasingly strained. Regardless of Chamberlain’s many attempts to ‘forget’, to ‘forgive’, to ‘reconcile’, to ‘come to terms’, something fateful always occurs to widen further the abyss between London and Berlin. Why? Because the vital interests of the two powers – the objective factor – prove diametrically opposed. And this fundamental conflict of interests easily overrides the influence of the subjective factor. Repulsion is stronger than attraction.

The reverse scenario holds for Anglo-Soviet relations. Here the subjective factor is sharply opposed to an Anglo-Soviet bloc. The bourgeoisie and the Court dislike, even loathe, ‘Soviet communism’. Chamberlain has always been eager to cut the USSR’s throat with a feather. And we, on the Soviet side, have no great liking for the ‘upper ten thousand’ of Great Britain. The burden of the past, the recent experience of the Soviet period, and ideological practice have all combined to poison our subjective attitude towards the ruling elite in England, and especially the prime minister, with the venom of fully justified suspicion and mistrust. I repeat: the subjective factor in this case is not only 100%, but a full 150% against an Anglo-Soviet bloc.

And yet the bloc is gradually taking shape. When I look back over the seven years of my time in London, the overall picture is very instructive. Slowly but steadily, via zigzags, setbacks and failures, Anglo-Soviet relations are improving. From the Metro-Vickers case to the military mission’s trip to Moscow! This is the distance we have covered! The abyss between London and Moscow keeps narrowing. Field engineers are successfully fixing beams and rafters to support the bridge over the remaining distance. Why? Because the vital interests of the two powers – the objective factor – coincide. And this fundamental coincidence overrides the influence of the subjective factor. Attraction proves stronger than repulsion.

The military mission’s journey to Moscow is a historical landmark. It testifies to the fact that the process of attraction has reached a very high level of development.

But what an irony that it should fall to Chamberlain to build the Anglo-Soviet bloc against Germany!

Yes, mischievous history really does have a vicious sense of humour.

However, everything flows. The balance of forces described above corresponds to the present historical period. The picture would change dramatically if and when the question of a proletarian revolution outside the USSR becomes the order of the day.

Gabriel Gorodetsky is a Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and emeritus professor of history at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of several books including Russia Between East and West: Russian Foreign policy on the Threshold of the 21st Century, Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia and most recently, The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s 1923-1943 published by Yale University Press.

The Maisky Diaries is translated by Tatiana Sorokina and Oliver Ready

Read the full Maisky Diaries blog series

The Maisky Diaries

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