What was Stalin's vision for the USSR

Shortly after Ivan Maiski took office as ambassador of the USSR in London in autumn 1932, the National Socialists came to power in Germany.

This established the factor that determined Soviet-British relations until his recall in the summer of 1943 and beyond. The British Kingdom was then still a world power, the USSR not yet. The relationship between the two wing powers was decisive for the fate of Europe.

Maiski was in a key position, even if he was not a key figure as a diplomat who was bound by instructions. But he was anything but a mere postman for the Soviet People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.

He quickly built up a wide-ranging network - an accountability report from 1940 mentions 500 regularly contacted people - and exhausted all of his possibilities to promote a merger between London and Moscow against the fascist powers. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 destroyed his bridge-building activities, but this role was highly topical again after the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941.

A translation of a translation creates blurring

Since the summer of 1934 Maiski has kept a regular diary about his work, his encounters and occasionally also about private matters - typewritten, maybe he was already keeping an eye on future readers.

His entries read like a "Who's who?" of British political prominence of the time: Former, active and future Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers such as Lloyd George, Chamberlain, Churchill, Eden and Halifax populate it as well as kings, journalists, publishers and prominent intellectuals such as H. G. Wells or Bernhard Shaw.

Maiski wrote lively and vividly. In the end, 1,800 pages came together, a fascinating source that the Israeli Russia historian Gabriel Gorodetsky came across in 1993 in the archives of the Russian Foreign Ministry. The selection edition published in the USA in 2015, which comprises around a quarter of the text, is now available in German.

The downside is that it is a translation (from English) of a translation (from Russian). Such detours create blurring. One could also have relied on the Russian complete edition from 2006/2009.

Maiski knew Great Britain and the later Soviet Foreign Ministers Chicherin and Litvinov from his time as a political exile from 1912 to 1917. The son of a doctor of Polish-Jewish origin, born in 1884, had, like many of his contemporaries, embarked on a revolutionary career as a student.

He was initially a Menshevik, a social democrat, and during the revolution even a minister of a short-lived anti-Bolshevik counter-government - a lifelong stigma, even if he converted to communism in 1921 and was able to pursue a diplomatic career. Before his call to London, he was ambassador to Finland. In 1943 he was almost sidelined in the Moscow apparatus of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1947 he moved to the Academy of Sciences as a historian.

Stalin's death saved Maiski's life

In February 1953, when he was arrested as an alleged "British spy", terror overtook him. Stalin's death two weeks later probably saved Maiski's life, but in the course of the succession struggles he got caught up in the affair over the intelligence chief Beria, which earned him another two years in prison. His confiscated diaries were later made only partially accessible. In 1975 he died. Gorodetsky provides detailed information on Maiski's life based on a wide range of sources.

In the pre-war years, Maiski worked tirelessly for British-Soviet rapprochement. The main concern of Soviet foreign policy was a possible "appeaser" arrangement with the fascist powers and the isolation of the USSR.

Therefore, his activities were aimed particularly at the "anti-appeasers" in the establishment such as Lloyd George, Vansittart, Eden or Churchill, and less at the left, in whose ranks he was friendly to some intellectuals. Beatrice Webb, the Grande dame of British socialism, in 1937 he even entrusted his vision of a "democratic communism" that would succeed Stalin. There is of course nothing of this in his own diary.

Despite all disappointments, Maiski still hoped at the beginning of August 1939 that the Moscow negotiations with England and France would be successful, which, however, became obsolete with the conclusion of the Hitler-Stalin Pact on August 23. Maiski saw the responsibility for this outcome in the "appeasers" and the weaknesses of their opponents.

The fact that the Soviet Union, with its show trials and the beheading of the army, was not exactly a reliable and strong partner, is at best addressed indirectly in the diary, with the description of worried questions from Churchill, who emphasized the need for a strong Russia.

Maiski was never at a loss for a justification for the Stalinist terror, although or perhaps because he himself was endangered. Gorodetsky also attributes Maiski's tireless activity to the goal of remaining indispensable in safe London.