Maisky & Royalty: The death of King George V

Red Ambassador’s London Diaries: 1930s to WWII
Gabriel Gorodetsky is Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and emeritus professor of history at Tel Aviv University. He has held visiting fellowships at St Antony’s College, Oxford, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton and the Rockefeller Bellagio Research Center. In 2010 he received an honorary doctorate from the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow. Among his books are Stafford Cripps’ Mission to Moscow, 1940-1942 (1984), Russia between East and West: Russian Foreign Policy on the threshold of the 21st Century (2003), and Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia (1999).
Maisky on his way to present his credentials at St James’s Palace (Courtesy of the Scheffer-Voskressenski family)
During his career as Soviet ambassador to London, Ivan Maisky rubbed shoulders with statesman and royalty alike. Israeli-born Oxford historian Prof Gabriel Gorodetsky offers a unique perspective on the 1936 death of King George V.

When Maisky first met King George in November 1932, he was astounded by the king’s resemblance to his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II. ‘I thought he would look upon me as a ... murderer,’ he confessed, ‘but it was quite different from what I had expected.’ Maisky resented it when such insinuations were made. ‘After all, if we are regicides,’ he told Lady Vansittart, ‘if we killed Tsar Nicholas, you killed King Charles and the French sent Louis XVI to the guillotine.’‘Yes,’ retorted Lady Vansittart, ‘but that was two centuries ago and more, and you killed the entire imperial family.’ As Maisky recalled, she then added, in a characteristic English reflex: ‘Why! You even killed their dog!’ The observant Lady Vansittart noticed tears in the eyes of Maisky as he walked behind the coffin of the tsar’s cousin.

20 January 1936

[Henry] Wickham Steed [a BBC foreign correspondent] lunched with me. … We talked about the king’s illness, and Steed related some interesting details concerning George V and his predecessors. … On King Edward VII: Steed once found himself among the royal retinue in Carlsbad, where the king had gone for a cure. King Edward had to send a complimentary telegram to the Boy Scouts in England. The king’s secretary asked Steed if he would write the draft. Steed did so. The next day the secretary ruefully informed Steed: ‘Nothing doing, I’m afraid. The king read your draft and said: these are not the words of a father-king to his children, but an editorial from The Times. This won’t do for me.’ Edward composed the telegram himself; according to Steed, it really was much better than the one he had written.

King George also wrote most of his own speeches and addresses to the nation. A few years ago, when Steed was still working at The Times, the king’s secretary asked him to send a man to draft the monarch’s speeches. Steed sent a brilliant journalist. A month later the journalist returned to Steed in disappointment and said: ‘I am not needed there at all. Whatever draft I tried to write, the king would rewrite it from scratch and barely a sentence of my own would remain. I resigned my post in the palace.’

Steed claims that in 1928, shortly before his illness, the king was in a very depressed frame of mind. He felt that he was coping poorly with his duties and steadily losing authority and respect among his subjects. He even toyed with the idea of abdication. Baldwin, who was prime minister at the time, tried to reassure the king and resolutely opposed abdication. In December 1928, George fell seriously ill. The general sympathy displayed by the public during his illness impressed the king deeply. He became calmer, having decided that the Empire needed him; his will to live came sharply into focus. This psychological state greatly facilitated the king’s almost miraculous recovery seven years ago. ‘Perhaps the same will to live will save the king even now,’ Steed concluded. ‘Who knows?...’

Maisky and his wife Agniya leaving for a Royal Garden Party, Courtesy of the Scheffer-Voskressenski family

21 January 1936

King George V died yesterday.

Rumors about his illness were already circulating at Christmas. They were officially denied. The king even broadcast his Christmas appeal to the Empire and many, including Bernard Shaw, complimented the king publicly on his skill at speaking over the radio. Then all the rumors faded. Not until the evening of 17 January did a medical bulletin appear dedicated to the state of the king’s health. Listeners were informed that the weakening of the king’s cardiac activity ‘gives cause for concern’.

That was a very serious symptom and a serious warning. Things went from bad to worse. A prominent cardiologist was summoned to Sandringham, bulletins began to come out more often and their contents were ever more disquieting. On Sunday, 19 January, I notified Moscow by telegram of the possibility of the king’s death and requested that condolence telegrams be sent in that event to the queen and the royal family from Kalinin and to Baldwin from Molotov.

On 20 January, Agniya and I went to the cinema. On leaving the cinema at about 11 p.m., we saw on newspaper posters: ‘The King is Dying.’ When we got home, we tuned into the radio and began listening. There was a bulletin every quarter of an hour. The Kagans came over to listen with us. At 12.15 a.m. the radio announcer said with emotion: ‘It is with deepest regret…’ All was clear. The king had died at 11.55 p.m. on 20 January.

We woke up Falin (our chauffeur) and … drove into town to see what was happening. The traffic was unusually heavy. There was a long black queue near Buckingham Palace, which was slowly passing the gates, on which hung a notification of the king’s death. The square in front of the palace and the adjacent streets were crammed with cars. A large body of policemen had a hard time trying to keep order. There was a restrained, intent silence, but there were no tears or hysterics – or perhaps these were concealed by darkness.

We drove on to Fleet Street, which was noisy and lively. Newspaper boys carrying huge piles of fresh print were running in all directions, shouting: ‘The king is dead!’ The passers-by stopped them and hastily bought newspapers still smelling of ink. We also bought some. They were the next day’s issues of all the major papers (Daily Herald, Daily Express, Daily Mail and others) and were almost entirely given over to the king’s death. They already carried editorials on the subject, lengthy surveys of the king’s reign, character sketches of George V as monarch and man, and salutations to the new king, Edward VIII. I checked my watch: the time was not yet 1 a.m. The king’s heart stopped beating only an hour or so ago. London newspapers work fast! There is no doubt that the editorials, recollections and salutations were written in advance, and that the printing presses were just waiting for the signal to unleash millions of copies on the world, but all the same…

Translated by Oliver Ready and Tatiana Sorokina

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