The Maisky Diaries: Empowering Young Women to Change What’s Happening in Washington

By Denny Taylor

If you want to know what’s going on today in the White House and Washington you’ll find many insights in The Maisky Diaries. Ivan Maisky was the Soviet Ambassador to Britain from 1932-1943 and his diaries have been edited and translated by Gabriel Gorodetsky, published in 2015 by Yale. Few Soviet accounts exist of the political and upper class life in England of that time – Soviet officials were discouraged from writing them. Maisky ignored this directive and kept copious notes on his meetings with the rulers of Britain and the British Empire, including Churchill, Chamberlain, Eden, Halifax, Lloyd George, and Beaverbrook.

The Maisky Diaries are both riveting and terrifying. Riveting because they provide accounts of the many private breakfasts, substantive lunches, and intimate dinners that Maisky had with the powerful men who made the decisions that created the world in which we live. Terrifying because of the arbitrariness of the decisions, which were influenced by the huge egos and irrational rivalries of the powerful men who made them. Knowing how unfit for leadership these men were empowers us – especially young women – to become the leaders most powerful men have failed to be.

Here’s what Maisky wrote on March 23, 1940, followed by a brief commentary on present day rulers in the U.S. and the U.K. All the italics and ellipses are in the printed version:

. . . it seems that things have returned to normal.  . . .  Yes, normality in this strange Sitzkrieg (a war, or a phase of a war, in which there is little or no active warfare) has undoubtedly returned.

And yet, I am increasingly gripped by a vague sense of the illusoriness and unreality of everything I see around me.

Parliament sits three times a week … The MPs ask questions, as usual … The ministers read out their answers, as usual … The Speaker nods away, as usual, as he sits there in his wig …  The departments arrange their conferences and do their paperwork, as usual … The newspapers invent sensational stories and spread high-society gossip, as usual … Shops sell their goods … Banks count money and deliver their annual reports … Courting couples hide in the parks … Throngs of children play rowdily in the playgrounds … The taxis line up at the cab-stands … Newsboys, shouting at the tops of their voices, sell the evening papers as usual …

Everything is as it always is. Everyone lives for today, for the petty interests of the hour, the minute. No one thinks of the future, no one tries to look ahead. One’s instinct is to avoid doing so, even if a capricious thought happens to bring one to the verge from which vistas open up into the future. All are especially keen to emphasize that everything is happening in the normal, customary, traditional manner. No novelties. No excesses.

But to me it all seems temporary, unreal, fantastic …

Perhaps I’m wrong, or, at least, not entirely right, but one and the same picture keeps appearing before my mind’s eye.

A gigantic wave. It grows, swells, rises higher and higher. Its dark depths conceal powerful turbulence. Immeasurable forces are gathered and concentrated there. Any moment now and the forces will break through in a catastrophic, irrepressible torrent. Yet while the surface of the wave is still relatively smooth and calm, tiny boats full of passengers sail to and fro over this surface in their normal, habitual order, or rather disorder. The boats make intricate patterns as they come together and drift apart, as passengers shout out to each other, laugh and argue. Gentlemen, court ladies and the ladies flirt and paint their faces. Colored handkerchiefs flutter, carefree voices are carried on the breeze. Everything seems eternal, normal, immutable, ordinary … No one thinks of the storm that is ready to strike …

And then, a sudden crash and roar! …

The catastrophe arrives.

Eerily familiar, Maisky conjures up the “normality” of the surreal Sitzkrieg of 2017 – a Sitzkrieg that defies logic, and is inexplicable and baffling to all those who would fight it. Like Maisky we are increasingly gripped by a vague sense of the illusoriness and unreality of everything we see around us. The catastrophe has arrived, and yet we live in the moment for the present day and carry on as usual, as if our social world has not changed forever.

The gap between the super rich and regular people is now so vast it cannot be diminished without a social revolt of such massive proportions few can imagine it. The twisted oligarchs and the billionaires, who have their own self aggrandizing libertarian visions of what human societies should “look like”, are in the final stages of dismantling the social infrastructure on which this fragile democratic society depends – and the political elites are on board steering the ship of state that is destroying industrial cities and rural farming communities.

And still we find it hard to believe that the American people’s human rights are being taken away. While in denial, we do everything we can to normalize our day-to-day lives.  We bob along in Maisky’s “boats”, which make intricate patterns as they come together and drift apart, and as passengers shout out to each other, laughing and arguing as children play.

We float on the surface of the roiling sea, blissfully unaware or willfully ignoring the rip tides and undercurrents that are going to capsize our boat. Stupefied by the President’s unpresidential Tweets, we convince ourselves that everything is normal, eternal, immutable, and ordinary, until a sudden wave of anxiety hits us, and for the first time we are conscious of the enormity of the struggle. For the cold hard truth is in reality that what we are facing is a series of cataclysmic events of unknown proportions, and deep down we know the risks of any one of them could be existential and end human life on Earth.

Returning to Maisky. What can we learn from him? What do his diaries reveal about the attitudes and actions of the powerful men who have made the decisions in the 1930’s and 1940’s that created the world in which we live? How do The Maisky Diaries prepare us for the gathering storm of nefarious practices of government officials that are jeopardizing our ability as a nation to respond to the existential risks we face? What insights can we gain from Maisky about how to react to the very real possibility that the President of the United States is guilty of obstruction of justice, conspiracy with a foreign government, money laundering and violation of RICO? Is there a place for us – especially young women without privilege or money – to stop what is happening in Washington by taking up the call and becoming the caring and just leaders men have rarely been?

The 1939 – 1940 entries by Ivan Maisky are the most revealing of how men in the U.K. governed at that time, and how rich and powerful men in the U.S. govern today. What these powerful rich white men have in common is the arbitrariness of their political decision-making, which was (is) influenced by their irrational rivalries and huge egos – their needs, wants, desires, and impulses, and their sexual and aggressive drives. It is difficult to separate these influences on decision making for they are contingent and conditional on each other and intricately interconnected – some more dominant than others in any one individual, but when combined? In truth it can be said, without a doubt, that rationality bows to the egos of men whose experience of life was (is) of their immutable superiority. 

Here’s Maisky, November 15, 1939:

Beaverbrook lunched with us.  …

Beaverbrook himself opposes the war.

‘I’m am isolationist,’ he fretted. ‘What concerns me is the fate of the British Empire! I want the Empire to remain intact, but I don’t understand why for the sake of this we must wage a three-year war to crush “Hitlerism”. To hell with that man Hitler! If Germans want him, I happily concede them this treasure and make my bow. Poland? Czechoslovakia? What are they to do with us? Cursed be the day when Chamberlain gave our guarantees to Poland!

… Beaverbrook is sure that Chamberlain will retire soon for reasons of ill-health. He thinks that either Hoare or Halifax will succeed him. Churchill, apparently, has no chance at all. Even Eden is more likely to become prime minister. We shall see, however, whether Beaverbrook’s forecast proves correct, particularly as far as Churchill is concerned. I’ve noticed that Beaverbrook’s attitude to Churchill is very changeable: one day he might praise him as Britain’s greatest statesman, on another he might call him a ‘swindler’, ‘turncoat’ or ‘political prostitute’. Today he is madly annoyed with Churchill – isn’t that the reason for his extreme pessimism about Churchill’s chances of becoming prime minister? Time will tell.

Maisky leaves us in no doubt that the trajectory of the Second World War was the result of the irrational rivalries and huge egos of Britain’s rich and powerful men. On March 13, 1940, following the communication of the peace treaty between the USSR and Finland, Maisky wrote:

I can’t recall seeing (the Parliament) in such a state of excitement and fury. Indeed, the only word to describe the mood of the majority of all the MPs, with few exceptions, was fury. Impotent fury, but fury nonetheless – vivid, seething, overflowing, fury …

Looking down from the diplomatic gallery, I watched that vile display of angry impotence with a sense of superiority.  …

On March 19, 1940, Maisky again lunched with Beaverbrook and wrote in his diary:

‘You know, I was against the war,’ Beaverbrook went on. ‘I wanted an early peace. But now I’m all for war! I’m in favour of an intensification of the blockage and of the war in the air! I’m ready to be a gunman on a plane piloted by my son!’

Beaverbrook is against all sentimentality in war. International law is irrelevant. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!

I have never seen Beaverbrook in such a belligerent mood.  …

You can take any of the rich and powerful men in Maisky’s diaries and they all come out looking the same. Their dominant white male upper-class entitlements have endowed them with political power, but these unearned entitlements have not enhanced their intelligence, improved their wit, or equipped them with the skills they needed to lead a country – especially a country on the brink of war and then in survival mode during the war.

On April 9, 1940, Maisky wrote:

In parliament the prevailing mood was one of confusion anger, and chauvinism. All had one question on their minds: where the devil was our navy? …

… as soon as Mander set about posing this question to the prime minister, an animal-like roar erupted on all sides of the House against the excessively daring MP. Chamberlain’s speech was weak and colourless. He had again been taken by ‘surprise’ …

On April 11, 1940:

Today Churchill made a speech giving detailed explanations about the events in Norway. I had never seen him in such a state. He clearly hadn’t slept for several nights. He was pale, couldn’t find the right words, stumbled and kept getting mixed up. There was not a trace of his usual parliamentary brilliance.

In its essence, his speech was unsatisfactory. Its running thread was a tone of apology. Churchill produced rather lame arguments to explain the German breakthrough: bad weather, the vastness of the sea, the impossibility of controlling it all, and so on. … But Chamberlain, sitting on the front bench next to Churchill, was clearly pleased. No wonder: Churchill’s failure is Chamberlain’s success.

The leaders of Great Britain were temperamental, aggressive and incompetent. Endowed at birth with upper-class status they were men of limited vision and insight, lacking in social imagination, and of no great intelligence. The myth is that this is not the case, but in reality? Their appalling rivalries and their bombastic behavior was as detestable then as it is now and forever will be – unless the narrative is changed quite drastically.

In 2017 in the United States men in power have proved themselves no better than their predecessors: Trump, Pence, McConnell, Ryan, Cornyn … the list is long. If we are committed to avoiding a world war that would be cataclysmically worse than the Second World War then young women must take a leadership role and step forward and stand for public office. And, most importantly, it is imperative that their sisters and mothers, and their grandmothers and aunts step up and support them. Women are more than 50% of the population and they can change the narrative in Washington by running for office in local, state and national elections.

Urgently, women are needed to step up, to stop voting against their own self-interests and the best self-interests of their children, and yes, women have got to stop voting against the health and wellbeing of their own bodies. When thirteen men, no women, lock themselves in a room to decide whose body is worth insuring we already know the bill will be gendered and advantage privileged white men over all other groups.

“Am I going to have to choose between insulin that keeps me alive and food and other basic necessities?” a woman with diabetes asks on a radio call-in. Quite possibly she will.

It is time for a woman in the White House who is not endowed with male privilege, nor for governing arbitrarily. The grievous and painful news is that we must all wise-up, reject the idea that men are brighter and more deserving of election to public office. History teaches us they are not.

Here’s a final entry from Maisky’s diaries. On April 6, 1940, he wrote:

Another Cabinet reshuffle! Same old, same old. It’s been done on the principle of Krylov’s ‘Quartet.’ I can’t help quoting that writer of fables:

My friends, you can change places all you want. But you’ll never make musicians.

The men in the U.S. Congress can change places all they want, be nominated by the President and voted onto the Supreme Court or to the position of Secretary of State, but it is still the same old, same old. The white men dominate all three branches of government, and whatever the reshuffle if all the candidates are men, the leadership will still be misogynous. Women will always be discriminated against until they stand up and take up the call to high office. Young women — it’s your turn.

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