Isaac Deutscher 1955

The Protocols of Maxim Litvinov

Source: The Reporter, 17 November 1955. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers. The book reviewed here was one of the many forgeries written by the Russian émigré Gregory Bessedovsky during the late 1940s and early 1950s, all purporting to have been written by prominent Soviet figures. See two articles by Paul Blackstock, ‘“Books for Idiots”: False Soviet “Memoirs”’, The Russian Review, Volume 25, no 3, July 1966; ‘CIA and the Penkovsky Affair’, World Review, February 1966.

Maxim Litvinov, Notes For a Journal, Introduction by EH Carr, Prefatory Note by General Walter Bedell Smith (New York, Morrow, $3.75; London, André Deutsch (without General Smith’s Prefatory Note), 18s).

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This book has a strange history. It is about two years now since its British publisher, André Deutsch, began to advertise it, quoting Professor EH Carr, a prominent historian, to the effect that it was one of the most sensational works of its kind. The description did not at first seem exaggerated. Authentic diaries of Maxim Litvinov, the Old Bolshevik who was Soviet Foreign Commissar in the 1930s, would surely represent a most important contribution to contemporary history and a human document of extraordinary interest. What was going on, one wondered, in Litvinov’s mind during the nightmare of the great purges, when nearly all his old friends and comrades perished? What did he think of Stalin’s foreign policy during and after the Second World War? This book, one hoped, should answer these and many other questions.

Then the publication of the diaries, which were said to have been smuggled out of Russia, was repeatedly delayed. Inquiries about them met with silence. At last the book was presented to the public but with much less assurance than in the original advertisement. Professor Carr, who wrote the introduction to the Notes, expresses prudent doubt about their authenticity and avows that their origin has remained obscure to him in spite of his investigations. He was informed that Litvinov had entrusted his memoirs to Mme Alexandra Kollontai while she was Soviet Minister to Sweden, that she entrusted them to someone else, who in turn handed them to another person, and so on. Strangely, everyone through whose hands the original manuscript or typescript allegedly had passed turned out to be dead, and Mr Carr could only interview some unidentified ‘Russian intermediaries’ in Paris. In short, not a single person was prepared to assume any degree of responsibility for the document.

Even after that, strange things continued to happen. Although all people concerned with the ‘smuggling out’ of these diaries were said to be dead, new portions of the ‘Litvinov typescript’ landed on the publisher’s desk. One might have thought that this alone should have sufficed for the publisher and Professor Carr to dismiss the book.

Beset by doubts, Professor Carr has dutifully warned readers about the authenticity of the ‘document’ and has pointed out which items in it have struck him as spurious. But he still thinks that the book is a ‘composite document’, which, together with some obvious fiction, ‘contains a substratum of genuine material emanating in some form or other from Litvinov himself’; and that ‘handled with caution, it still makes a useful contribution to our understanding’ of Soviet affairs. Even if, Professor Carr adds, ‘the hypothesis of a complete forgery or fiction cannot be dismissed out of hand’, these Notes would ‘as an historical romance… be a work of considerable insight and imagination as well as of a high degree of literary talent’.

Shameless Forgery: I have great respect for Professor Carr’s scholarly achievement, especially in his many-volumed History of Soviet Russia. But his achievement falls within strictly defined limits. He specialises in the history of policies and institutions, about which he knows more than most Sovietologists. But he pays little attention to the social, psychological and moral background of the events he describes.

In my view, these Notes are a complete, crude, shabby and shameless forgery. They are worthless even as an ‘historical romance’; the portrait of Litvinov that is supposed to emerge from them bears no relation whatever to the real Litvinov. No one writing about Communism with any inside knowledge, with a sense of its climate, can have any doubt about this.

There is hardly a page in the Notes that does not contain striking anachronisms and incongruities. It is impossible to believe that these emanated from Litvinov; even a competent ghost writer would not have committed them.

To start from the lighter side, we are offered a number of ‘human-interest’ stories about Litvinov and other Bolshevik leaders. The effect is often grotesque. We are given, for instance, a glimpse of the erotic life of Karl Radek, the once famous fighter, wit and ‘prince of pamphleteers’. ‘Litvinov’ alludes for our benefit to Radek’s ‘violent outbursts of jealousy’ for Larissa Reissner. Now Radek was indeed the lover of Larissa Reissner, a Bolshevik authoress and famous beauty. He might have been jealous of her – Bolsheviks were not above such bourgeois vices. But the outbursts were supposed to have taken place in 1928. At that time Radek was already deported to the north and Larissa Reissner had been dead for two years. (I have before me her obituary written by Radek himself and dated ‘Moscow, the Kremlin, 1 December 1926’.)

Another entry in the Notes purports to record a telephone conversation between Litvinov and Trotsky not long before Trotsky’s deportation from Moscow in January 1929. Once again the ‘human touch’. ‘He [Trotsky] asked me if there was any news about his daughter Zinaida… I replied that there was none… Alas, yesterday I received a telegram from our Embassy in Berlin: she hanged herself on receiving news that her husband had been shot… How strange and tragic is the destiny of this man, his family and his close collaborators…’ It seems almost boorish to question the genuineness of Litvinov’s sigh over the ‘tragic destiny’ of Trotsky and his family. The only snag is that Trotsky’s daughter Zinaida committed suicide in Berlin nearly five years after this alleged conversation.

Political ‘Disclosures’: The political revelations are of the same quality. The most sensational story, which has given editorial writers and commentators of highly reputable newspapers ‘food for grave reflection’, is about a mission, headed by Marshal Tukhachevsky, allegedly sent to Germany by Stalin in December 1928. Supposedly Stalin ordered Tukhachevsky to tell the German generals that Soviet military leaders were prepared to overthrow the Communist regime and set up a pro-German military dictatorship if Germany agreed to make common cause with Russia in the diplomatic field.

In this concoction, much later developments are confusedly and incoherently projected back to the year 1928. In 1928, Stalin was in the midst of a bitter conflict with the Right Oppositionists, led by Rykov, Bukharin and Tomsky, who were still members of the Politburo. (Rykov was still the Soviet Prime Minister.) It is preposterous to think that Stalin could have made this pseudo-Machiavellian move at that time, a move that would have exposed him to a most dangerous attack if the Oppositionists had got wind of it. It is equally nonsensical that he should have entrusted the job to Tukhachevsky, an antagonist of his since the Russo-Polish war of 1920.

Another ‘disclosure’ that some writers have also found startling is that ‘after Rapallo’ the German Generals von Hammerstein, von Seeckt and Admiral Raeder ‘offered [to Litvinov] to organise the Russian production of armaments, shells and submarines, to circumvent the Versailles Treaty’ – and this ‘immediately’ after they have been introduced to him!

The truth of the matter is that highly secret arrangements for German assistance in the organisation of the Russian armament industries had been made as early as at the beginning of 1921, a year before the Rapallo Treaty; and they were made on Trotsky’s initiative and under Lenin’s auspices with such leading German industrialists as Krupp and Blohm & Voss. The authentic evidence about the deal is available in the Trotsky archives at Harvard University. The German generals had no reason whatsoever for making the offer more than a year later or for making it to Litvinov, then only Deputy Foreign Commissar.

An Historical Novel? One could illustrate the phony character of the Notes by a long list of similar examples. In each case – and there are dozens of them – dates and events, when cross-checked, turn out to be pure invention. But these illustrations are of interest to the specialist only. Suffice it to say here that nearly all that this ghostly Litvinov reveals about Soviet policy in China in the 1920s is, also in the light of the Trotsky archives and of other known sources, complete trash.

Has this book, even if it cannot be treated as an authentic historical document, the quality of good ‘historical romance’ that Professor Carr claims for it?

Litvinov certainly was not one of the giants of the Russian Revolution. But he was a cultivated, shrewd member of the Old Guard, with a deep loyalty to Bolshevism, with wide international experience, and with a somewhat sceptical and realistic mind. Like all Bolshevik leaders of Jewish origin, he was steeped in Marxist internationalism and viewed rather contemptuously, or at least indifferently, the religious beliefs and customs of old Jewry. In the 1930s he was identified with the pro-French and pro-British and anti-Nazi trend of Soviet foreign policy; but this was a matter of diplomatic orientation, not of any pro-liberal or pro-social-democratic inclinations.

Let us now have a look at the dummy impersonating the late Commissar. The Litvinov of this book is incredibly ignorant of what is going on inside the Bolshevik Party. Early in 1936 he becomes indignant when he hears for the first time about Trotsky’s ‘project to bring about “clemancism” [sic] in the party…’. Well, in the summer of 1927 Trotsky made the famous statement that in the event of war he would go on criticising Stalin and Voroshilov for ineptitude and muddle-headedness just as Clemenceau criticised the French government of Caillaux and Malvy during the First World War. Trotsky’s ‘Clemenceau thesis’ was the centre of a most dramatic party controversy from the middle to the end of 1927, when he and many other eminent Bolsheviks were expelled from the party. The ‘Clemenceau thesis’ loomed large in every party document of the time; it was given as the chief reason for the expulsion of the Oppositionists, and for years afterwards was often referred to in party literature. Of all this, we are asked to believe, Litvinov had no knowledge: he first learns hazily about ‘clemancism’ more than eight years after the event.

Trotsky a Mason? The same false Litvinov then writes about Kamenev as Soviet Ambassador in Rome at a time when Kamenev was already expelled from the party. He further pretends to believe that Trotsky was a Freemason – Trotsky, of all people, who in the early 1920s did his utmost to have the French Communist Party purged of Freemasons.

Anyone familiar with the background of these years will remember the zeal with which the Russian émigré press of the extreme Right, anticipating in this respect Hitler and Goebbels, denounced the Russian Revolution as a Masonic – Jewish – Marxist conspiracy. The echo of these denunciations can at once be detected in what purports to be Litvinov’s own voice, for Litvinov himself ‘exposes’ here the ‘secret connection’ between international Freemasonry and Communism. He himself also ‘exposes’, unwittingly to be sure, Jewry’s ‘sinister part in the conspiracy’, for we learn that he has meetings with the Chief Rabbi of Moscow and does his best to shield the synagogue against his Gentile comrades, and that only from fear of Stalin does he finally desist. Secret meetings between the Bolshevik leaders and Chief Rabbi were, of course, the favourite hobbyhorses of the most obscurantist of Russian émigré propagandists.

Litvinov, who had followed Lenin faithfully and without the slightest deviation ever since 1903, is also supposed to believe that Lenin made the October Revolution with the help of ‘German gold’, thus confirming yet another hackneyed and discredited legend of early anti-Bolshevik propaganda. One can only imagine how heartily the real man would have laughed over all this. He would have been exceedingly amused, for instance, by the words attributed to him about Molotov’s great ‘erudition’. Not less phony is the observation that only Lenin’s ‘fanaticism’ prevented the materialisation of Litvinov’s cherished ‘dream of bringing the Bolsheviks into the international socialist movement, not as foes, but as left-wing friends’.

Who Wrote It? Yet it is doubtful whether the real author of these absurdities has had any political purpose in producing this piece of fiction. His only ambition seems to have been to fill an obvious gap in the book market, a gap created by the lack of authentic autobiographical writings by Soviet leaders and statesmen. Who knows – he may even have been moved by a certain noble sympathy with Western specialists in Soviet affairs handicapped by this lack. He has undoubtedly brought to his job certain qualifications of the type that the counterfeiter usually brings to his work. In some patches of this book there is that spuriously vivid local colour which is usually found in an apocryphal work. Yet a forger of banknotes working with the negligence or absent-mindedness that is displayed by the perpetrator of these Notes would be caught in no time.

It is possible to trace by means of analysis of internal evidence the career of the real author. He has certainly spent some years, but hardly any after 1930, in the Soviet diplomatic service. He was surely in a subordinate position from which he had no access to the policymaking centre and from which he could obtain just a few remote glimpses of the Commissar. Trying to put himself into Litvinov’s shoes, he mustered all he could recall – his sketchy knowledge of the inside of the Soviet Foreign Office as it looked twenty-five or thirty years ago, and the bag of gossip, political and preferably sexual, picked up in some Soviet embassies and at parties given by second- or third-rank officials. He obviously knew the inside of the Soviet embassies in Paris, Tokyo and probably Warsaw, but little else. The milieu in which he moved was that of civil servants – good Greek Orthodox and Great Russian nationalists, at heart staunch anti-Bolsheviks, who after the revolution joined the party for the sake of a career. Sometime about 1930, while abroad, he certainly ‘chose freedom’ – a freedom that to his mind implies the freedom to produce bogus historical documents.

Let me admit that I am throwing this book into the wastebasket with a sigh of regret. I suppose that some Old Bolsheviks, perhaps even Litvinov, wrote memoirs in Stalin’s days and had them hidden away securely. (I am quite sure that the few Old Bolsheviks who have survived Stalin are writing them now.) How I would like to review Litvinov’s authentic diaries! Perhaps one day they may still come my way.