Maxim Maximovich Litvinov

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(18761951), old Bolshevik, leading Soviet diplomat, and commissar for foreign affairs.

Maxim Maximovich Litvinov was born Meer Genokh Moisevich Vallakh in Bialystok, a small city in what is now Poland. He joined the socialist movement in the 1890s and sided with Vladimir Lenin when the Social Democratic Party split into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. From 1898 to 1908, he smuggled guns and propaganda into the empire, but having achieved little, he emigrated to Britain. There he married an English woman and led a quiet, conventional life, even becoming a British subject. During the October Revolution, he served briefly as the Soviet representative to London but was expelled from Britain for "revolutionary activities" in October 1918. In Moscow he became a deputy commissar for foreign affairs and frequently negotiated with the Western powers for normal diplomatic relations, to little success. However, Litvinov did conclude a 1929 nonaggression pact with the USSR's western neighbors, including Poland and the Baltic states.

From 1930 to 1939 Litvinov served as commissar for foreign affairs. In 1931 he negotiated a nonaggression treaty with France, an extremely anti-Soviet state that had become worried about an increasingly unstable Germany. Soon after Adolf Hitler came to power, Litvinov initiated alliance talks with France, finding a partner in Louis Barthou, the foreign minister. In December 1933, the Soviet Communist Party leadership formally approved Litvinov's proposal both for a military alliance with France and for the Soviet Union's entrance into the League of Nations. Talks took a tortuous course, but in June 1934, Barthou and Litvinov agreed on a eastern pact of mutual assistance that would be guaranteed by a separate Franco-Soviet treaty of mutual assistance.

For several reasons, however, these treaties proved ineffectual. First of all, Barthou was assassinated in October 1934, and Pierre Laval, an advocate of good relations with Germany, replaced him. Moreover, the British were hostile to close relations with Moscow, and France was generally unwilling to act without London's support. Finally, in 1937, Stalin ordered the decimation of the Red Army's leadership at the same time he was terrorizing the entire nation. To the already suspicious West, it seemed clear that the USSR could not possibly be a reliable ally. Litvinov realized the damage the Great Terror wrought on Soviet foreign policy but was powerless in domestic politics. Ignored and rebuffed at virtually every turn by the West, Litvinov was replaced by Stalin's close associate, Vyacheslav Molotov, in May 1939, four months before the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

With the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, Stalin appointed Litvinov ambassador to the United States. For the next two years, Litvinov constantly urged the West to open a second front in France. Angered at Litvinov's lack of success, Stalin recalled him in 1943. He served as a deputy commissar for foreign affairs, making many proposals to Stalin advocating Great Power cooperation after the war. This effort failed, and Litvinov eventually understood that Stalin saw security not in terms of cooperation with the West, but in the building of a bulwark of satellite states on the USSR's western border. Two months before his final dismissal in August 1946, Litvinov told the American journalist Richard C. Hottelet that it was pointless for the West to hope for good relations with Stalin. Perhaps the most remarkable and mysterious fact of Litvinov's long career is that he died a natural death.

See also: bolshevism; france, relations with


Phillips, Hugh. (1992). Between the Revolution and the West: A Political Biography of Maxim M. Litvinov. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Sheinis, Zinovii. (1990). Maxim Litvinov. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Hugh Phillips

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Maxim Maximovich Litvinov

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

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 Sources

Phillips, Hugh D., Between the revolution and the West: a political biography of Maxim M. Litvinov, Boulder: Westview Press, 1992. □

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LITVINOV, MAXIM MAXIMOVICH (Wallach, Meir-Henokh Moiseevitch ; 1867–1951) Russian revolutionary and Soviet diplomat. Born in Bialystok, Litvinov joined the illegal Social-Democratic Party in 1899 and was arrested and exiled. In 1902 he escaped to Switzerland and in 1903, after having joined the Bolshevik faction, he returned clandestinely to Russia and took part in the 1905 Revolution. He collaborated with Maxim Gorki on the newspaper Novaya Zhizn ("The New Life"). After the failure of the revolution he fled from Russia and lived in France and England. While in England he became closely associated with *Lenin and was instrumental in various underground operations of the Bolsheviks, including the smuggling of arms to the Caucasus. In London Litvinov married Ivy Low, niece of the English historian Sir Sidney *Low. Following the October Revolution in 1917 Litvinov was made Soviet diplomatic agent to Britain, but he was detained by the British government and exchanged for Bruce Lockhart, the British diplomatic agent in Soviet Russia. In 1921 he became deputy commissar for foreign affairs under Chicherin, and from 1930 until 1939 he was commissar of foreign affairs of the Soviet Union, concentrating in the field of Soviet diplomacy, particularly with the West. In 1919 he negotiated the first peace treaty of Soviet Russia (with Estonia), took part in the international conference in Genoa in 1922, which resulted in the Rapallo Treaty with Germany, and headed the Soviet delegation to the subsequent conference at The Hague and the disarmament conference in Geneva (1927). He was active in the USSR's joining of the League of Nations and represented it there in 1934–38. In 1933, at Franklin D. *Roosevelt's invitation, he personally conducted the negotiations for the establishment of American-Soviet diplomatic relations. In the period of Moscow's anti-Nazi policy (1934–39), Litvinov became the chief Soviet spokesman at the League of Nations where he demanded the establishment of a collective security system. However, in May 1939, when *Stalin decided to reverse his policy and to effect a rapprochement with Hitler at the expense of the West, Litvinov, being a Jew and known as a protagonist of a pro-Western orientation, was replaced by Stalin's closest collaborator, V.M. Molotov; in February 1941 he was even dropped from the party's central committee. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941, Litvinov was appointed Soviet ambassador to the United States, where he remained until 1943. He was reappointed assistant commissar for foreign affairs for a short period in 1946, but retired soon afterwards. His publications include The Bolshevik Revolution, its Rise and Meaning (1918) and Against Aggression, Speeches by Maxim Litvinov (1939). Litvinov was never self-conscious about being a Jew. He became a lonely, forgotten figure in the last years of his life when Stalin's antisemitic campaign was in full swing.


A.U. Pope, Maxim Litvinoff (Eng., 1943); G.A. Craig and F. Gilbert (eds.), Diplomats 19191939 (1953), 344–77; D.G. Bishop, Roosevelt-Litvinov Agreements: The American View (1965); B.D. Wolfe, Strange Communists I Have Known (1965), 207–22; G.F. Kennan, Russia and the West (1960), index.

[Binyamin Eliav]