Litvinov, Maxim Maximovich (1876-1951)

Maxim Litvinov

Maxim Litvinov

A Soviet diplomat, who was the People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs from 1930 to 1939 and the Soviet Ambassador to the United States from December 1941 to June 1943.

Litvinov, whose real name was Max Wallakh, was born on 4 (16) July 1876 in Belostok of Grodnenskaya gubernia of the Russian Empire (now in Belorussia) in a modest Jewish family. After graduation in 1893 from the city “real school” (a secondary school with emphasis on sciences), he joined the army as a private, and after his release from the army worked as an accountant. In 1898, he joined the Russian Social Democratic Party (RSDRP) and took part in revolutionary work in Ukraine, Riga and St. Petersburg. In April 1901 he was arrested along with other members of the Kiev Committee of RSDRP, but escaped in August of 1902 and emigrated to Switzerland, where he took part in transportation and distribution of the Bolshevik paper, “Iskra” [“Spark”]. In 1903, Litvinov returned to Russia, but had to remain underground. For some time he was a member of the RSDRP Committee in Riga. In the fall of 1905, at the height of the first Russian revolution of 1905-1907, Wallakh came to St. Petersburg to help start the first legal Bolshevik paper, “Novaia zhizn’” [“The New Life”]. Living underground, he traveled to many Russian cities, having changed many names to escape the police. His most popular party nicknames were “Papasha” [“Daddy”]; among other known names are “Felix,”  “Graf” [“Count”] and “Nits.” On the instruction of the Bolshevik militant group, Max Wallakh took an active part in the purchase of arms abroad and their delivery to Russia. The arms were bought with the money that was “expropriated” – the Bolshevik term for their armed hold ups of banks and postal coaches.

In 1908, Wallakh was arrested in France while trying to exchange 500-ruble banknotes that were taken in a bank robbery in Tiflis (now Tbilisi in Georgia) in 1907 and deported to Great Britain, where he stayed for 10 years, working, first, as secretary of the London Bolshevik group and later in the Bolshevik section at the International Socialist Bureau. In 1916, he married Ivy Lowe (1889-1977), a daughter of a prominent British writer, who struck him with her knowledge of Russian writers Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. In February 1917, they had their first child, son Mikhail, and next year, daughter Tatyana. Ivy Val’terovna, as she was known in Russia, retained her British citizenship.

On January 4, 1918, Litvinov was appointed as an authorized representative of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs (NKID) in London. As he wrote years later, he had neither experience, nor staff, nor money, nor instructions from Moscow for the job. Although the British Foreign Office refused to recognize him as an authorized representative, it agreed to maintain a de facto relationship. Litvinov went on to organize a “Russian People’s Embassy” and a “Russian People’s Consulate” in London, established communication with Moscow and began to inform NKID on the current events. However, in September 1918, he was arrested together with the employees of his mission in a response to the arrest in Moscow of Bruce Lockhart, the head of a special British mission in Soviet Russia, on charges of espionage and anti-Soviet conspiracy.  In late October 1918, Litvinov returned to Russia in an exchange for Bruce Lockhart.

In December of the same year, Litvinov was sent to Stockholm for negotiations, however, in late January 1919, he was deported together with the personnel of the Soviet mission after Sweden had joined the economic blockade of Soviet Russia. In late 1919, Litvinov was appointed as head of the Soviet delegation in Copenhagen to conduct negotiations on exchange of prisoners of war. On his return from Copenhagen, he served as a Soviet envoy in Estonia, until in May 1921 he was appointed as Assistant People’s Commissar (Narcom) of Foreign Affairs. His sphere of responsibility was to supervise the relations with Western countries.

In April-May 1922, Litvinov took part in the Genoa Conference for the Economic and Financial Reconstruction in Europe, which among other things negotiated a relationship between European capitalist economies and the new Russian economy. Later in the same year Litvinov headed the Soviet delegation at the Hague Conference. In November 1927 he took part in the League of Nations Preparatory Commission and as head of the Soviet delegation he proposed a project for an immediate universal and total disarmament, which was rejected.

Since 1928, Litvinov became a de facto head of NKID – substituting Narcom Georgy Chicherin during Chicherin’s prolonged absences due to ill health. Litvinov aimed at a gradual reorientation of the Soviet foreign policy from confrontation to improving relations with Western nations, primarily the USA, Great Britain and France. He was an advocate of Soviet participation in all kinds of international pacts and conferences. His top priority was the issue of disarmament, and he paid particular attention to the negotiation process at the League of Nations in Geneva.

In July 1930, Litvinov was appointed as Narcom of Foreign Affairs. Anticipating Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany, he advocated improvement of relations with Britain and France “in the interests of the policy of peace.” Although Litvinov’s hopes for a quick rapprochement with Britain were frustrated, his diplomacy resulted in signing non-aggression agreements between the USSR and France in 1932, followed by similar agreements with Poland and other nations of Eastern Europe. After the USSR joined the League of Nations in September 1933, Litvinov soon became one of its recognized leaders. Among the most important successes of his diplomacy were his negotiations with President Franklin Roosevelt in November 1933, which resulted in establishing of diplomatic relations with the United States in the same month. Since mid-1930s, at the League of Nations, Litvinov called for collective security measures against the Nazi aggression in Europe.

1939 became a turning point in Litvinov’s career: a sincere opponent to any rapprochement with Nazi Germany, on May 3, 1939 he was removed as the People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs and substituted by Vyacheslav Molotov. Demoted, Litvinov lived at his dacha not far from Moscow, however, until February 1941, he remained member of the Central Committee of VCP (b).

Litvinov’s services were again requested following the Nazi attack against the USSR on June 22, 1941, when the Soviet leadership needed an alliance with Great Britain and the USSR. On July 31, 1941, Litvinov appeared from his virtual exile as a translator during the meeting between Josef Stalin and Harry Hopkins, a personal envoy of President Roosevelt, and on November 10, 1941, Litvinov was appointed as the Soviet ambassador in the USA and simultaneously as deputy People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs.

Litvinov facilitated correspondence between Stalin and Roosevelt and carried out Stalin’s direct instructions. On January 1, 1942, he put his signature on behalf of the Soviet Union under the Declaration of the United Nations signed in Washington, D.C. by President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and representatives of other nations. Litvinov often met with Roosevelt and other US government leaders, as well as with American public figures. In October 1942, he simultaneously became the first Soviet envoy to Cuba.

By mid-1943, Litvinov’s position with the Soviet leadership became shaky: he was unable to “deliver” on his major assignment: to speed up the opening of the second front in Europe. In June 1943, leaving for Moscow for a vacation, he understood that he would not come back. In early September 1943, as a deputy Narcom of Foreign Affairs, Litvinov headed a commission on peace treaties and post war settlement, and next month he took part in the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers of the USSR, USA and Great Britain.

Litvinov officially retired in 1946 at the age of 70 and devoted the remaining five years of his life to his family. He died on December 31, 1951 after a third heart attack  and was buried at the most prestigious Novodevichy cemetery. However, there have been continuous rumors of a death in a strange car accident not far from his dacha, which found way into some of his on-line biographies. Likely, these speculations originated in a story in Nikita Kchruschev’s memoirs about Stalin’s plans for Litvinov’s assassination in a car accident on the approach to his dacha. According to the account of Litvinov’s Russian biographer, Zinoviy Sheinis, in his final weeks, when he was made to keep bed without reading books, Litvinov pinned Stalin photo he cut from a magazine to his radio set, and was noticed to be often looking at the photo, then moving his eyes to the bust of President Franklin Roosevelt he kept on his desk. According to Sheinis, Litvinov was likely pondering over the fate of Soviet-American relations – going back to his final conversation with Roosevelt in the April evening of 1943.

Litvinov was the only member of the Soviet party elite who was married to a foreigner. His British wife taught at the Red Army Military Academy and wrote many English training manuals. In 1972, she returned to her native country, where she died in 1977. Litvinov’s grandson Pavel, a physicist and well-known dissident, was arrested for his protest against the Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in 1974 was exiled from the Soviet Union. His granddaughter, Vera, married Valery Chalidze, a well-known human rights defender, publisher and a friend of Academic Andrey Sakharov. Both live in the USA. 1

  1. Sheinis, Z.S. Maksim Maksimovich Litvinov: revolutsioner, diplomat, chelovek. Moskva: Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1989 (Sheinis Z.S., Maxim Maximovich Litvinov: Revolutionary, Diplomat, Man, Moscow: Political Literature Publishers, 1989); Litvinov, Maxim Maximovich,; Nikita Kchruschev. Vremya. Liudy. Vlast’. (Vospominanija). Chast’ III. Moskva: “Moskosvskie Novosti”, 1999. (Nikita Kchruschev, Time, People, Power (Memoir), Part III, Moscow: “Moscow News”, 1999.