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Maiskii, Ivan Mikhailovich

(1884–1975), Soviet diplomat. Born in Kirillov, Novgorod Province, to the family of an assimilated army doctor and village school teacher, Ivan Liakhovetskii (Maiskii [Maisky] was a pseudonym he later adopted) became involved in revolutionary activities that led to his expulsion from Saint Petersburg University and exile to Siberia in 1902. In Siberia, he gravitated toward the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party (RSDWP). In 1908, he immigrated to Switzerland, and later obtained a degree in economics at Munich University. Proceeding to London in 1912, he adopted Lenin’s militant internationalist position and forged close relations with future Commissars for Foreign Affairs Georgii Chicherin and Maksim Litvinov. Maiskii returned to Russia in February 1917, shortly after the tsar was overthrown, but it was only in 1919 that he renounced his association with the Mensheviks and joined the Bolshevik Party. His command of foreign languages and familiarity with the international scene, clearly bolstered by his friendship with Litvinov, secured his meteoric rise in the Soviet diplomatic service.

Serving for short periods in London, Tokyo, and Helsinki, Maiskii returned to London as Soviet ambassador in late 1932 and remained in that position for 11 years. This was an important posting because Stalin considered Britain to be the Soviet Union’s main rival in the power struggle over European hegemony. Maiskii’s zealous efforts in London to implement a collective security agreement against Nazi Germany through the League of Nations failed both to erase the mutual suspicion between the two countries and to bring appeasement to a halt. His wide popularity in Britain and unparalleled access to the British establishment probably spared his life during the Moscow purges. The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, however, was a personal rebuff and for two years Maiskii strove relentlessly to prevent the eruption of hostilities between Britain and the Soviet Union. Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 drew Stalin into the Allied orbit. In London Maiskii was personally identified with Soviet resistance and the removal of the threat of an invasion of Britain. He failed, however, to persuade Churchill, with whom he had established a close and cordial relationship, to launch a second front in Europe or to negotiate a postwar settlement.

In 1943 Maiskii and Litvinov, now ambassador to Washington, were recalled to Moscow and entrusted with the preparation of the Soviet agenda for the peace settlement. Maiskii advocated the continuation of collaboration with the Western Allies, exploiting the popular recognition of the Soviet contribution to victory. As chief adviser to Stalin at the Yalta and Potsdam summits, he formulated the realpolitik tenets of Soviet policy calling for a division of Europe into spheres of interest. The onset of the cold war finally removed Maiskii from the forefront of Soviet diplomacy. He was diverted to the Russian Academy of Sciences, where he pursued a fruitful career, producing his memoirs (Journey into the Past; 1962) and a wide array of historical research.

Ironically, Maiskii’s former Menshevik association and Stalin’s personal dislike of him had fateful consequences a mere two weeks before the dictator’s death. At the height of the anti-Jewish frenzy surrounding the Doctors’ Plot, Maiskii was arrested and charged with espionage, treason, and involvement in Zionist conspiracy. Although Stalin’s death saved his life, Maiskii’s incarcaration was prolonged by his association with L. P. Beria, who had wished to see him installed as foreign minister in 1953 but who himself fell from power and was executed later that year. Pardoned in 1955, Maiskii was reinstated at the Academy of Sciences, where he pursued a successful career until his death.

Throughout his life, Maiskii, like fellow revolutionaries, denied his Jewish origins. “I know they say I am Jewish,” he told Palestinian Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, “but it isn’t so.” However, like Litvinov and Trotsky, he could not escape being identified as a Jew, either in Russia or in the West. Beria’s son, for instance, who, like his father, certainly appreciated Maiskii’s qualities, still saw fit to recall in his memoirs the visits to their apartment of the “agile little Jew who resembled a mouse.” Likewise Chamberlain referred to him in closed circles as that “revolting but clever little Jew.”

Despite this, Maiskii did leave an important impact on the history of the State of Israel. Prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Herzog met Maiskii in London and secured through him free passage to the Soviet Union and exit permits to Palestine for thousands of Lithuanian and Polish yeshiva students. In early 1941 Maiskii discussed first with World Zionist Organization President Chaim Weizmann, and subsequently with David Ben-Gurion, president of the Jewish Agency, the future of Palestine and the fate of the Jews under German occupation. In 1942, beseeched by British Jewry, he convinced Stalin of the need to condemn Hitler for the rumored plans to exterminate the Jews. The Yishuv leadership succeeded in impressing on Maiskii the vitality of the Jewish settlement during his visit to Palestine en route to Moscow in 1943. Maiskii submitted to Stalin a long memorandum that outlined the strategic advantages of cooperating with the Jews. His pioneering efforts and interest in the region gradually introduced the shift in Soviet policy leading to Moscow’s advocacy in the United Nations of the partition of Palestine in 1947, permission for displaced persons to immigrate to Palestine from Soviet-controlled zones, and finally Soviet diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel in May 1948.

Suggested Reading

Gabriel Gorodetsky, The Diaries of Ivan Maisky, 1933–1943 (New Haven, 2007); Ivan Maiskii, Journey into the Past (London, 1962); Ivan Maiskii, Memoirs of a Soviet Ambassador: The War, 1939–43 (London, 1967).