The Soviet diplomat Maxim Maximovich Litvinov (1876-1951) was perhaps the best-known Bolshevik diplomat of his time and certainly the most successful in establishing cooperative efforts with the Western powers against the Nazi menace.
Maxim Litvinov, whose real name was Meyer Wallach, was born on July 17, 1876, to an impoverished Jewish family in Bialystok. Leaving Bialystok, he went to the Ukraine and in 1898 joined the newly founded Russian Social Democratic Labor party, spending most of his time recruiting supporters in the Kiev area. In 1903, when the party divided into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, he opted for the Bolsheviks and established close ties with several Bolsheviks from the Caucasus area, notably Joseph Stalin.
For the next 15 years Litvinov roamed all over western Europe on various errands of daring for the Bolshevik cause, adopting all sorts of aliases to avoid police. At various times he was known as Kuznetsov, "Papasha" (literally, "Poppa"), Feliks, and various other code designations. In 1905 he was involved in a spectacular, if unsuccessful, attempt to smuggle guns to revolutionaries in Russia through the Black Sea. In 1907 he was arrested in Paris as he tried to change bank notes acquired in a bank holdup masterminded by Stalin. While he appears to have been singularly unsuccessful in his various exploits, his repeated efforts gave him a heroic reputation among revolutionaries.
After the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, Litvinov tried to muster support for the Bolshevik cause in London; however, his intense antiwar activity, as well as British unhappiness over the treatment of their Moscow agent Bruce Lockhart, led to Litvinov's expulsion from England. Back in Moscow, he was assigned to the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, where he carried out a number of important assignments, including an abortive approach to Woodrow Wilson and, more successfully, the resolution of Soviet-Estonian conflicts.
In 1921 Litvinov became deputy commissar of foreign affairs, serving under Georgi Chicherin for almost a decade. It was a strange collaboration, for Chicherin and Litvinov not only were completely different personally and in orientation but actively and openly disliked each other. However, it was also a strangely successful collaboration with Litvinov making his own mark, as in 1928, when he startled Western disarmament commissions by proposing total disarmament rather than formulas or ratios. In 1930, when Chicherin's ill health forced his retirement, Litvinov became commissar of foreign affairs.
Litvinov was perhaps the best-known and, by some criteria, the most successful diplomat in Soviet history. He was quick to perceive the importance of Hitler's accession to power in Germany in 1933 and to guide a reorientation of Soviet foreign policy to cope with the threat. Under his guidance the Soviet Union finally established diplomatic ties with the United States in 1933 and in the following year joined the League of Nations.
Proclaiming the mutual interest of all antifascist powers, capitalist or Communist, in containing fascism, Litvinov became world-famous for his policy of "collective security, " a policy that reached its heights with the conclusion of a mutual defense pact with France in 1935, followed by a qualified pact with Czechoslovakia. His long-established ties with Stalin protected him during the purges of the 1930s, and indeed he was one of the very few Jews to survive in a high post under Stalin. His jovial and rotund appearance belied his fundamental toughness, and he acquired a respect both inside and outside the Soviet Union that few Soviet diplomats ever enjoyed. However, in 1939, when Stalin developed his own doubts about "collective security, " he made overtures to Hitler by replacing Litvinov with Vyacheslav Molotov. When the change culminated in the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, Litvinov lapsed into semidisgrace and, early in 1941, was even relieved of the post he had held on the party's Central Committee since 1934.
However, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union later in 1941, Litvinov was brought out of retirement and made ambassador to the United States as a renewed symbol of antifascism. He served in Washington until 1943, when he returned to the Soviet Union, carrying out various assignments in the Foreign Office until 1946. He then retired entirely from public life and lived in semiseclusion until his death on Dec. 13, 1951.
Further Reading on Maxim Maximovich Litvinov
Depending on whether one accepts the claim of authorship, the most important book on Litvinov might be his purported diary, Notes for a Journal (1955). Scholars are divided on whether it is Litvinov's work, with the weight of opinion that it is not. A very sympathetic portrayal is Arthur U. Pope, Maxim Litvinoff (1943). Much more perceptive is the essay on Litvinov by Henry Roberts in Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert, eds., The Diplomats, 1919-1939 (1953).
Additional Biography Sources
Phillips, Hugh D., Between the revolution and the West: a political biography of Maxim M. Litvinov, Boulder: Westview Press, 1992.