How Churchill attempted to crack the 'riddle' of Russia

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).
Churchill in the Winter Garden of the Maisky’s residency © Scheffer-Voskressenski family
After the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Soviet ambassador to London Ivan Maisky had few friends who grasped Russia’s motives. Churchill, as Maisky revealed in his diaries, published by Oxford historian Prof. Gabriel Gorodetsky, knew better.

Shortly after the outbreak of the war, Churchill, who had been a vociferous opponent of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy, was appointed as the First Lord of the Admiralty. On 1 October, 1939, in one of his early broadcasts, he made the now famous reference to Russia: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

READ MORE: Hitler invades Russia: Soviet ambassador Maisky’s view from London

This sentence has since been often employed to describe Russia’s sinister and incomprehensible policies. But Churchill did not stop there (as most historians do). He in fact cracked the riddle: “but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest of the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of south Eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.”

Maisky, who since the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact had become a pariah in London, his survival hanging by a thread, did not fail to see the chance of amending relations with Britain. He was determined to help Churchill find the key. He therefore was quick off the mark seeking a meeting with Churchill.

Maisky and Clementine Churchill © Scheffer-Voskressenski family

6 October 1939

Churchill’s secretary called and asked me to come to see him at the Admiralty at 10pm. Not exactly the ordinary hour for receiving ambassadors in England, but the present situation is far from ordinary, and the man who invited me is also far from ordinary!

It’s dark and misty tonight. The clouds are low and gloomy. It’s pitch-dark on the streets. I reached Horse Parade [sic], where the Admiralty is located, with some difficulty. We had to stop the car frequently to check our bearings. We eventually arrived. The familiar square seemed quite unfamiliar. The Admiralty building rose darkly out of the swirling fog like a fairy tale fortress. Not a single light or human being in sight. I knocked and rang at the various doors and gates – silence. Were they all asleep in there? Or had this huge institution, which governed the movement of the British navy all over the globe, 24 hours a day, given up the ghost?... I was beginning to lose my patience. At last I saw a pale ray of light in the archway of the gates, and behind it there appeared a sleepy watchman. I explained my business. A few minutes later I was already sitting in the office of the First Lord of the Admiralty.

READ MORE: Red Ambassador: Wartime diaries of Soviet diplomat Ivan Maisky published in English

Churchill greeted me with a welcoming smile. The walls of his office are covered with a collection of the most varied maps of every corner of the world, thickly overlaid with sea routes. A lamp with a broad, dark shade hangs from the ceiling, giving a very pleasant soft light. Churchill nodded to the lamp and, pouring whisky and soda, said with satisfaction: “The lamp was here 25 years ago, when I was naval minister for the first time. Then it was removed. Now they’ve put it up again.”

How very English!

Then Churchill led me over to a wide, folding door in the wall and opened it. In the deep niche I saw a map of Europe with old, faded small flags pinned onto it in various places.

Maisky helping Churchill to find the key to ‘the Russian enigma’ © Scheffer-Voskressenski family

“It’s a map of the movements of the German navy in the last war. Every morning, on receiving the naval reconnaissance information, the flags were moved, meaning that we knew the location of each German ship at any given moment. I ordered this map 25 years ago. It’s still in good condition. Now we will need it again. We just have to bring the flags up to date.”

I looked at Churchill with a smile and said: “So, history repeats itself.”

“Yes, it repeats itself, and I’d be only too happy to philosophize about the peculiar romance of my returning to this room after a quarter of a century, were it not for the devilish task at hand of destroying ships and human lives.”

We returned to the present and I asked: “What do you think about Hitler’s peace proposals?”

Churchill sprang to his feet and, quite abruptly, began pacing the room: “I’ve just looked them through and haven’t had time to exchange views with my colleagues in the Cabinet. Personally, I find them absolutely unacceptable. These are the terms of a conqueror! But we are not yet conquered! No, no, we are not yet conquered!”

READ MORE: Maisky the pariah: Nazi-Soviet pact & outbreak of war

Churchill once again set about pacing the room in vexation.

“Some of my Conservative friends,” he continued, “advise peace. They fear that Germany will turn Bolshevik during the war. But I’m all for war to the end. Hitler must be destroyed. Nazism must be crushed once and for all. Let Germany become Bolshevik. That doesn’t scare me. Better communism than Nazism.”

But all this was just an opening flourish. The main story which Churchill wanted to discuss with me so late at night was the state of Anglo-Soviet relations.

Churchill asked me how we define the present state of our relations. I repeated to him what I had told Halifax on 27 September. Churchill listened to me attentively and then spent nearly an hour relating to me the British Government’s view of Anglo-Soviet relations. The essence of this view is as follows.

Anglo-Soviet relations have always been poisoned by the venom of mutual suspicion, today more than ever before. What are these suspicions? Britain suspects the USSR of having concluded a military alliance with Germany and that it will openly come out, one fine day, on Hitler’s side against the Western powers.

Churchill himself does not believe this, but many (including some in government circles) do. This circumstance cannot but affect the general tone of Britain’s attitude to the USSR. On the other hand, the USSR suspects Britain of pursuing a hostile policy against the USSR and of various machinations against it in the Baltic, Turkey, the Balkans and elsewhere. This condition cannot but affect the general tone of the Soviet attitude to Britain.

Churchill understands why our suspicions are especially acute today. The Anglo-Franco-Soviet Pact negotiations were conducted in a repulsive way (I know his view on this matter) and have left bad memories in Moscow’s mind. But let the dead bury the dead. The present and the future are more important than the past. And the present and the future are precisely what Churchill wants to talk about.

His starting point is that the basic interests of Britain and the USSR do not collide anywhere. I know this to have been his view in the past, as it is in the present. It follows that there is no reason why our relations should be poor or unsatisfactory... We should not take too much to heart the criticism and indignation with which the Soviet–German non-aggression pact and the subsequent moves of the Soviet Government have been met in Britain. This was due to their unexpectedness. The initial shock, however, has now passed, and people are beginning to see things in a more accurate perspective.

The Baltic States. The Soviet Union is going to be master of the eastern part of the Baltic Sea. Is this good or bad from the point of view of British interests? It is good... In essence, the Soviet Government’s latest actions in the Baltic correspond to British interests, for they diminish Hitler’s potential Lebensraum. If the Baltic countries have to lose their independence, it is better for them to be brought into the Soviet state system rather than the German one...

We parted ‘like friends’. Churchill asked me to keep in close touch and to turn to him without ceremony whenever the need arose. I’ll keep this in mind...

Translated by Oliver Ready and Tatiana Sorokina

Read more extracts from Gabriel Gorodetsky’s The Maisky Diaries, Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, 1932-1943.

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