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Tracing a story of survival in Second World War London: Prof. Gabriel Gorodetsky on Ivan Maisky’s Diaries

Gabriel Gorodetsky, former FRIAS Fellow, Emeritus Professor of History at Tel Aviv University and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, has just published the German edition of his commented selection of the diaries kept by Ivan Maisky during his time as Russian ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943.

As the only Russian diplomat among those with close connections to Stalin’s inner circle at that time, Maisky kept a detailed, sharp witted and insightful diary of his life in London during the Second World War.

On the occasion of the publication of “The Maisky Diaries” – “Die Maiski Tagebücher” in German with C.H. Beck, FRIAS publishes an interview with Prof. Gabriel Gorodetsky, which took place during his last stay at FRIAS in May 2015. Prof. Gorodetsky will present the German edition at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in October 2016.

More information about Gabriel Gorodetsky

More information about the book

Reviews of the book in Der Spiegel and Die Welt


FRIAS: Prof. Gorodetsky, when did you start to work on your book “The Maisky Diaries”?

Gabriel Gorodetsky: Well, I have been working on this book already for twelve years – and these were really years of dedicated academic work. In the beginning, I thought there would be nothing simpler than publishing a diary, but in the end it was quite a long process because I juxtaposed all entry diaries with available material from Russian archives, private archives of Maisky’s interlocutors, American and British archives. Considering the fact that the diary contains 1600 pages and the he mentions around 1000 people, you can imagine the amount of hours I have spent on the research part only. I tried to trace as many of the private papers as possible, because I was interested in the other side of the story – how people perceived Maisky. I soon realized that his diary forces us to revise major issues in history, for example concerning the appeasement politics, the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, the emergence of the grand alliance etc. In fact, almost every topic that Maisky touched in his writings adds interesting aspects to existing narratives of historical incidents, particularly concerning the Soviet Union. Thus, my commentary actually comprises about one third of the book.

FRIAS: Was it difficult to access Maisky’s diary?

Gorodetsky: First I should say that very few people wrote diaries at that time – in fact, this is the only diary by a diplomat that had been written at that time. The reason is that this was a time in the Soveit Union when the likelihood of being arrested was quite high. In that case, everything you had, all of your writings, were confiscated and if you fell from graces the state would try to find incriminating evidence against you. A diary would be the obvious sort of choice. Maisky was a master in avoiding arrests, but when he was finally detained at the age of seventy – two weeks before Stalin’s death – the first thing they did was to confiscate his diary and papers. When Maisky was released from prison after two years, all his papers were returned to him, except for the diary, because it was claimed by the foreign ministry that it held to many state secrets, and therefore they held on to it.

FRIAS: What was Maisky like? Did he enjoy his time as a diplomat in Europe?

Gorodetsky:  Maisky, like many of his generation, belonged to the Russian intelligentsia at the end of the 19th century and was brought up with Western culture. When you read Maisky’s writings you can see his tremendous literacy and talent. He learned foreign languages at an early stage, particularly German, and Heine and Goethe were his heroes – he would have their photos at home and knew their poems by heart. He was exiled from Russia during the First World War and lived among the Bohemians in Hampstead, close to London. At that time, he became very close friends with the famous Irish playwright Bernard Shaw, with Jacob Epstein, who was a leading sculpturer at the time, and with the Austrian artist Oscar Kokoschka.

But, of course, he was also influenced by his Russian upbringing. He understood Russia just as well as he understood Europe. People like him or Maxim Litvinov, who was the Foreign Secretary at that time, were able to immerse themselves in European affairs – contrary to the group around Stalin and Molotov, who grew up in Russia, could not speak foreign languages and never really understood Europe. Therefore, Maisky acted as a sort of agent or translator of the West for the Soviet leadership. In my commentary, I have pointed out that this obviously led to some tensions between those semi-cosmopolitan revolutionaries and the very nationalistic ones. During Maisky’s time at the Russian embassy in London in the 1930s, Stalin began his authoritarian rule. This period was called the time of the great terror, and the Soviet leadership took over foreign policy, pushing aside people like Maisky. I think, in many ways Maisky and Litvinov represent the road not taken by Russia back then.


Maiski TagebuecherFRIAS: Nevertheless, Maisky managed to survive this anti-cosmopolitan backlash.

Gorodetsky: Yes, as one of the few. What is so special about his diary is the fact that it really has a theme, a long narrative. Maisky was appointed as an ambassador to England already at the end of 1932, before Hitler came to power. But the moment he came to England, and especially once Hitler got into power, he realized that Europe was at a historical crossroads. Since he had kept a diary since the age of five or six, he could not stop himself from writing. He knew he was writing for posterity, being a witness of these important historical events. So his diary actually really has a political narrative, from the first attempts to form a coalition against Hitler, the failure of this coalition, the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact and then the creation of the Grand Alliance.

But the diary also has a personal narrative of survival. This is a fascinating story, because Maisky was a very moderate socialist, he belonged to the so-called Mensheviks, which were sort of an opposition group to the Bolsheviks. Thus, his starting point was already quite bad, because he was the kind of person Stalin would be chasing in the 1930s. Yet, he managed to survive by making himself indispensable because of his great intimate knowledge of the leaders in England, his ability to manipulate the press and to create a safety net for himself. In the 1930s so many other ambassadors were recalled to Moscow, never to return. At one point there were only three Russian ambassadors left in all of Europe – Alexandra Kollontai in Sweden, Yakov Suritz in France, and Ivan Maisky in England.

: Have you already had reactions to your book, specifically from Russian historians?

Gorodetsky: Yes, I’ve had quite a lot of reactions. To start with, my previous book “The Grand Delusion” was written within the context of a major debate in Russia, which is similar to the “Historikerstreit” in Germany. In Russia, the debate focused on the idea of a preemptive war: a defector of the Russian military intelligence called Alexander W. Suworow claimed that Stalin had planned to invade Germany on July 7, 1941 but that Hitler had preempted it. Suworows book appeared in Germany in 1989 under the title “Eisbrecher”, and was very popular. Only later, in 1992, it was published in Russia and became one of the most popular books after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, none of the Russian historians responded to him, which is a strange thing, because it shows the Russian not as victims but rather as aggressors. But the Russian historians could not respond to him because any historian who would have contended with his theses would have been accused of being a Stalinist.

Therefore, I published a book in Russia with the title “The Icebreaker Myth”, which was a rebuttal to Soworow. As a result of this, Suworow wrote a rather personal book against me, ending with words in the general line of “brothers, if the pride of the nation means anything to you, I hope you know what to do when Gorodetsky next comes to Moscow.” Since then I have been very much in the frontline.

Apart from that, Russian historians were excited about my edition of the Maisky diary, because there is another version of the diary in Russia, but it is incomplete, with a rather apologetic commentary and little understanding of the complexities at that time. So yes, quite a number of historians in Russia have now seen my manuscript and I got very positive responses from them.

FRIAS: What about Maisky’s writing style: Did he express his personal opinions about people?

Gorodetsky: Oh, very much so, but it was done very carefully. This is exactly the reason why I spent so many years on this book. I wanted to get the viewpoints of the people he wrote about – also in order to add stories that were missing in his diaries. For instance, when you read the passages about the time when he was recalled to Moscow, you do not really know what he went through during this period. But in the writings of other people around him, I was able to reconstruct the events at that time. Furthermore, I got access to his own private papers and to all of his private photo albums, allowing me to include visual aspects as well.

FRIAS: How did your fellowship at FRIAS come into play while you were working on the diary? 

Gorodetsky: Well, I was planning on publishing a German edition of the diary, so I was grateful for the opportunity to come to Freiburg and use the military archives and other sources here. I knew Professor Leonhard and Professor Neutatz already, so there was really a nucleus of people working on my topics, which was very useful. I met some incredible historians with whom I became very close friends, for instance Professor Baberowski, who wrote a book about Stalin and the time of the great terror.

FRIAS: What is your view on the current relationship between Europe and Russia?

Gorodetsky: I am a historian and I cannot predict the future. One thing which I very much regret is the politicization of history both in Russia and Europe, which I think is unprecedented. Actually, a lot of the views held about Russia are based on pseudo-historical observations and rather amateurish. For example, there has been a great interest, obviously, in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, but the narrative of the pact today is dictated entirely by the Poles and Baltic states and others. I recently read a long article by a leading historian in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, which did not mention even once the Munich agreement in 1938, the role of Chamberlain, or the Russian attempt to reach an agreement with the West between 1933 and 1939. I am appalled really by the coverage of Russia in European media – it is all tremendously politicized and unhistorical. My view is that, for example, what happened in Ukraine should be looked at in the context of the Cold War, in a very serious, historical way. But the current discourse is dominated by either politicized historians or by politicians who misuse history.  

FRIAS: Professor Gorodetsky, thank you very much for this interview.