Interview with Gabriel Gorodetsky, editor of Pushkin Prize 2016 shortlisted book 'The Maisky Diaries'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack

 What made you interested in Russia?

It was curiosity about my roots. I was born in Jerusalem but my parents emigrated from Russia to Palestine. My mother came from St Petersburg. Not many Jews were allowed to live in the city during the Tsarist period. After the revolution their property was confiscated and they had to flee to Danzig. My mother escaped to Palestine in the last moment in 1938 and her entire family perished in Auschwitz. My father came from Odessa and his family suffered a similar fate. He ended up in Palestine where he met my mother. Although they spoke Hebrew at home, there was Russian in the background. I did a history major, and took Russian studies on the side out of curiosity. Within a year everything turned around - I became preoccupied with Russian history. Then Isaiah Berlin came to Israel, we met and he arranged for me to come to Oxford where I wrote my DPhil on Anglo-Soviet relations in the 1920s.

What access did you have to Russia?

Russia severed relations with Israel after the Six Day War, and only resumed them after 1991. So I was never able to go there until 1989. I was very much involved in the re-establishment of relations, and was even earmarked at one point as Israeli ambassador, supported by the Labour party. But then the right wing opposition came to power. There was great curiosity on both sides as a result of this period of severance. The legacy of the founders of the state of Israel all of whom had come came from Russia.

How did you come across the Maisky diaries?

I had initiated an official project of an official joint publication of documents on Soviet-Israeli relations in 1948-53. While working in the archives in the Russian foreign ministry, we were trying to identify the earliest contacts between the Soviet Union and the Zionists. The archivist suddenly remembered that Maisky had an entry on a meeting with Weizmann, the President of the Zionist World Organization. He went down into the stacks, and came back with a volume from 1941 – a crucial year in Russian history - containing about 300 pages, and put it in front of me. I almost fainted. It was still a secret document which had to be declassified. It had been confiscated when Maisky was arrested in 1953 and never returned to him. It took a long time to convince the authorities that it should be released. They had to be published first in Russian. Then it was a huge task to translate the complete diary holding some 1,500 pages. In all, it took me about 12 years in the Russian and Western archives, crossing each entry with relevant material, in order to provide indispensable contextual commentary.

What was the most surprising finding?

Winston Churchill had this famous saying: that history would be kind to him because he was the one to write it. In his first volume leading up to the war, he only makes two references to Maisky. Maisky’s single volume alone has over 160 references to his encounters with Churchill. Churchill concealed completely the extent to which he had those clandestine, intimate contacts with the Soviet ambassador. After all, his memoirs were written in 1953 in the height of the Cold War. Maisky’s diaries contain an endless number of very detailed descriptions of his meetings with Churchill in an attempt to sway Chamberlain from appeasement and later on to forge the Grand Alliance. The other thing that surprised me was the human touch. In most of the history of Soviet foreign policy, the characters appear as caricatures, not as living, real personalities. The diary reveals the extent to which the human factor dimension in the formulation of policy played a major role even under Stalin’s authoritarian rule. It also reveals the extent to which an ambassador at the time could influence policy. The innovative approach to diplomacy devised by Maisky was not confined just to contacts with his counterparts. He created a network of politicians, artists and the press, including Lord Beaverbrook.

How was he able to survive Stalin’s purges?

The diary is a narrative of the long drawn out process of the Stalinisation of Soviet foreign policy. From the early 1920s, it was conducted by a group of intellectuals and cosmopolitian socialists of varying colours. Maisky was very much a Fabian, who came to his views through Beatrice and Sidney Webb. It was a group of [who were] very independent thinkers, while Molotov was very close to Stalin and groomed in the revolutionary environment. There is a continuous struggle going on. The whole question of survival is fascinating. Maisky had been a Menshevik, the only one to actively fight the Bolesheviks in the civil war, and who had to escape to Mongolia. He was able to come back to Mosocw, and found himself posted to London after Tokyo and Helsinki. He was one of only three ambassadors in Europe who survived the purges. He was sent to London in order to try to create collective security against Nazi Germany.  His survival depended very much on the success of his policy. He created networks which allowed him to present himself as indispensable. When he was finally recalled from London in a supposedly respectful way – he was promoted to deputy foreign minister – Churchill and Eden were really desperately trying to keep him in London and intervened with Stalin and Molotov. Although he was able through these close contacts networks to stay alive, one can only imagine what sort of life it was.  Every time he was recalled for consultations, he didn’t know whether he would return.

What is access to the archives like today?

In all due modesty, I don’t thing there is any document of such magnitude as that of Maisky – in size or significance for the period. There may still be single documents that become available: we still don’t have everything to narrate the story of the Soviet decision to sign the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, for instance. But have the Russians bolted the archives so that everything is under lock and key? Much depends on the determination of a scholar. Many historians give up before they make the effort. But I think I was lucky even in 1993.

What are your next research plans?

I have accumulated a lot of material. My main project is to write a history of the grand alliance, which I think has not been examined properly. During the Cold War, most works focused on the special relations between the Americans and the British, D-day, and the Anglo-Saxon contribution to victory. There were quite a number of works on Anglo-Soviet relations, but not an attempt to look at all three countries under a single spotlight. What I think will emerge is the complexity of wartime diplomacy and policy. Each of the three participants had hidden agendas, not only pursuing the war against Nazi Germany but also their own ideas on what should be the political outcome of the war. It is a huge task. Meanwhile, there are the full three volumes of Maisky with all the academic references, which will be published next year.