Maxim Litvinov was born in Białystok on July 17, 1876 to a wealthy Jewish banking family. His birth name was Meir Henoch Mojszewicz Wallach-Finkelstein (Max Wallach). In 1898 he joined the illegal Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (SDLP) and adopted the pseudonym Maxim Litvinov. In 1900 Litvinov became a member of Kiev party committee and one year later the entire committee was arrested by Okhrana. After 18 months of captivity, he led an escape of 11 inmates from Lukyanovskaya prison. He made his way to Switzerland where he worked as an editor for the revolutionary newspaper Iskra. In 1903, he returned to Russia and joined the Bolshevik faction. After the 1905 Revolution he became editor of the SDLP’s first legal newspaper, Novaya Zhizn (New Life) in St. Petersburg.
When the Russian government began arresting Bolsheviks in 1906, Litvinov left the country and spent the next ten years as émigré and arms dealer for the party. Based in Paris, he traveled throughout Europe, sometimes posing as a procurement officer from Ecuador, buying rifles in Belgium, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. He successfully smuggled arms into Russia via Finland and the Black Sea. In 1908 he was arrested and deported to London, where he became active in the International Socialist Bureau. There, he met and married Ivy Lowe, daughter of one of the most distinguished Jewish families in Britain. Her father, Walter Lowe, was a prominent writer and a close friend of H.G. Wells.
After the October Revolution of 1917, Litvinov was appointed by Vladimir Lenin as the Soviet government’s representative in Britain. However, in 1918, he was arrested by the British government and held until exchanged for Bruce Lockhart, the British diplomat who had been imprisoned in Russia. Litvinov was then employed as the Soviet government’s roaming ambassador. It was largely through his efforts that Britain agreed to end its economic blockade of the Soviet Union. Litvinov also negotiated several trade agreements with European countries, including the 1929 Litvinov Pact in Moscow, in which the Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, Latvia and Estonia promised not to use force to settle their disputes.
In 1930, Joseph Stalin appointed Litvinov as People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. A firm believer in collective security, Litvinov worked hard to form a closer relationship with France and Britain. In 1933 he successfully persuaded the United States to officially recognize the Soviet government. When President Roosevelt sent comedian Harpo Marx to the Soviet Union as a good-will ambassador, Litvinov and Marx became friends and even performed a routine on stage together. Litvinov also actively facilitated the acceptance of the USSR into the League of Nations where he represented his country in 1934—1938.
After the Munich Agreement, German media derided Litvinov about his Jewish ancestry, so on May 3, 1939, Stalin replaced Litvinov with Vyacheslav Molotov. The replacement of Litvinov with Molotov significantly increased Stalin’s freedom to maneuver in foreign policy and removed an obstacle to negotiations with Germany. Stalin immediately directed Molotov to “purge the ministry of Jews.” Three months later, the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact was signed and Hitler remarked to military commanders that “Litvinov’s replacement was decisive.” After the outbreak of the war with Germany, Stalin appointed Litvinov as Deputy Commissar of Foreign Affairs. Litvinov also served as Ambassador to the United States from 1941 to 1943 and significantly contributed to the lend lease agreement signed in 1941.
He died on December 31, 1951.