Reviewed: Stalin’s Curse - Battling for Communism in War and Cold War by Robert Gellately

Agony uncle.

Stalin’s Curse: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War
Robert Gellately
Oxford University Press, 496pp, £20

The Allied forces brought the Third Reich to its knees in 1945. It was left to the politicians of the wartime “Big Three” – the US, the USSR and the UK – to reconstruct the world system in the interests of peace and economic recovery. The decisions they took had a lasting impact.

At the Potsdam conference in July 1945, they maintained their grand alliance since imperial Japan had not yet surrendered. They founded the United Nations in October. Throughout the year, they managed the emergence of a new Europe. Global politics was pressed into a mould from which it was freed only at the end of the 1980s.

The then US president, Harry Truman, and the British prime minister, Clement Attlee, were newcomers to international negotiations – Franklin D Roosevelt had died in April 1945 and the British electorate had got rid of Winston Churchill in the summer. Joseph Stalin was the third of the leaders in Potsdam. His experience of summits was limited: he had been to only two previous ones. Yet he had overseen Soviet foreign policy since the mid-1920s and micromanaged it from 1939.

His wiliness and intransigence proved more than a match for Truman, who moved only slowly towards the conclusion that Stalin was a global menace. By the time Truman was ready to stand up to him in 1947-48, the USSR had already tightened its fist around eastern Europe. Communism was imposed in full spate.

Robert Gellately’s Stalin’s Curse has this process at its core and it supplies a refreshingly frank analysis. Not for him is the revisionist notion that the US was as much to blame for the cold war as the Soviet Union. Gellately insists that Stalin bore the main responsibility. He does hold Truman in some contempt for failing to discern what he was up against in eastern Europe until it was too late. But he applauds him for his change of heart when it came to Asia.

The Korean war, which broke out in 1950, had Stalin and Mao competing to support Kim Il-sung of North Korea. Their planes and advisers were sent to accomplish the communisation of the entire Korean Peninsula. Truman resolved to prevent this outcome. The conflict that resulted was one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century.

Gellately argues that the traumas could have been avoided if only the US delegation at Potsdam had shown greater spirit and understanding. This cuts against the historical writings that highlight the problems faced by the western Allies in mid-1945. Japan had not yet been defeated and the atomic bomb was still being tested. The Red Army might yet have been needed in the ultimate offensive in the Far East.

Truman, like Roosevelt before him, also had to contend with demands for US troops to return from Europe as soon as possible. As for the British, their public finances were in ruins and both politicians and people wanted to give priority to national interests. Stalin was widely known as “Uncle Joe” in the US and Britain and was feted as the saviour of his country and the hero of the eastern front.

However, popular opinion proved to be pretty brittle. It was changed relatively quickly by the anti-communist media barrage of the early 1950s. What is more, the Americans were already confident of the devastating potential of their A-bomb; and the isolationist tendency in US politics was no longer as potent as it had been at the end of the First World War.

Gellately is an “intentionalist” scholar, committed to the idea that people – not their environment – make their history. He also accords decisive importance to individual leadership. Though he finesses the point, he sees Stalin as the man who imposed the one-party, one-ideology state on eastern Europe. Gellately sees him as a leader of genius, even if his cult of the individual was a monstrous absurdity.

The chapters on the postwar show trials and purges contain searing descriptions of the horrors of communisation from Estonia to east Germany. Yet he rejects the argument that Stalin was motivated simply by a sadistic pathology. For Gellately, the process stemmed from a Marxist-Leninist ideology to which the commitment to global expansionism was central. Stalin, as Lenin’s disciple, was showing how wrong Trotsky had been in claiming that the Soviet leadership was not interested in world revolution.

Stalin’s Curse draws on up-to-date secondary literature and recent documentary collections. It is a powerful work of synthesis. It lays down a challenge to those historians who suggest that Stalin would have been easier to handle if only the Truman administration had been less confrontational from the late 1940s onwards. Gellately has no patience with the notion that the Soviet dictator was open to the possibility of allowing eastern Europe to avoid complete communisation.

It took decades for confrontation and containment to erode the foundations of communist power in the USSR and its “outer empire” to the west of Russia. Ronald Reagan tightened the militarytechnological and economic blockade of the Soviet Union from 1981 onwards. He was able to do this to such effect as a result of decades of pressure.

The Soviet economy was in a mess and when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he complained that his trade officials could not even buy shoe-manufacturing equipment abroad. Eastern Europe was an economic shambles and Moscow was unable to relieve the Poles and Hungarians of the debts that they had incurred with western banks in search of industrial investment. Communisation turned out to be an affliction for communist leaders, as well as for communised societies, in the USSR and eastern Europe.

When this curse was lifted in the revolutions of 1989-91, some countries emerged in better shape than others. Poland, Estonia and the Czech Republic quickly regenerated their economies and societies. The Russian Federation has been less effective in ridding itself of the traditions of authoritarianism and lawlessness. The ex-Soviet central Asia is a cauldron of political terror. The world that was constructed in the second half of the 1940s has yet to undergo complete reformation. Gellately’s book helps us to understand why.

Robert Service is a professor of Russian history at the University of Oxford. He is working on a history of the end of the cold war. His most recent book is “Spies and Commissars: Bolshevik Russia and the West” (Macmillan, £25)

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1935. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Why are we surprised to see Jenny Slate at the movies with Jon Hamm?

 It’s like your best friend just turned around and told you she’s dating Jon Hamm.

An announcement: two human people have been pictured at the movies together. Those two people are known attractive persons Jenny Slate and Jon Hamm. There’s no word yet on what they actually went to see, whether popcorn was or was not consumed, or if either went for a mixed fountain drink.

But the internet was very interested regardless. The news comes after Slate’s high-profile break-up with another Hollywood actor generally considered to be A Hunk™: Chris Evans (aka Captain America). Speculation about whether the two are now dating was rife. New York Magazine’s The Cut sold their coverage of the pictures with the line, “Jon Hamm and Jenny Slate, who are both attractive and currently single, went to the movies together”, noting that “In February, eternally delightful person Jenny Slate broke up with your crush, Chris Evans. And now, she’s been pictured at the movies with your other crush, Jon Hamm.”

Elle went for the headline, “Jenny Slate Is Unequivocally Winning The Hollywood Dating Game Right Now”, while Buzzfeed opted for “Jenny Slate Might Be Dating Jon Hamm And Her Life Really Is A Dream Come True”. Twitter posts called Slate “an icon”, or posited, “if Jenny Slate is dating Jon Hamm right after breaking up with Chris Evans she is truly the most powerful heterosexual in the world”.

Always the tone of surprise. The implication of all these pieces is that Slate is, if not exactly batting above her average, something of a non-traditional choice for Hamm and Evans. Slate is not a 6 foot blonde supermodel, but she is an extremely successful and beautiful Hollywood actress who has also proved herself to be funny, charming, intelligent, emotionally self-aware and generally seems like really good fun. So what’s the issue?

Many of Slate’s fans noticed the backhanded elements to these compliments. “Jenny Slate is way hotter than Jon Hamm,” one Twitter user wrote. “Stop acting like she won the lottery.” Another wrote, “First Chris Evans, now Jon Hamm: neither of those men deserve Jenny Slate and her perfection.” One added, “Full disclosure, I would also like to throw my hat in the ring and try to date Jenny Slate if that is a possibility?”

In a widely-read interview with Vulture, Slate addressed the surprise that greeted her relationship with Chris Evans – including her own.

To be quite honest, I didn’t think I was his type,” she says. (Evans has dated Jessica Biel and Minka Kelly). “Eventually, when it was like, Oh, you have these feelings for me?, I was looking around like, Is this a prank? I mean, I understand why I think I’m beautiful, but if you’ve had a certain lifestyle and I’m a very, very different type of person — I don’t want to be an experiment.” Evans never made her feel that way, but it was hard to get past how so many people seemed to feel some ownership of him and view her as an interloper. “If you are a woman who really cares about her freedom, her rights, her sense of being an individual, it is confusing to go out with one of the most objectified people in the entire world,” she says. Especially when she’s aware that in Hollywood, she says, “I’m considered some sort of alternative option, even though I know I’m a majorly vibrant sexual being.”

Although she is a conventionally attractive, very successful actress, Slate knows she is “considered some sort of alternative option” when put next to stars like Jessica Biel.

But is there something else going on? 35-year-old Slate has enormous popularity amongst 20 and 30-something women, both thanks to her warm and funny performances in Obvious Child, Girls, and Parks and Recreation, and her generally warm and funny persona. Just look at this selection of tweets, which, with their blend of feminism, humour, self-deprecation and encouragement, are obviously written by the funnier, wiser older sister you never had:

And that Vulture piece is a rare thing in celebrity profiles – a genuinely candid and exposed interview. She talks openly about her feelings for Evan, the difficulties of meeting him at the same time as her divorce was going through, her lack of “prudence” in dating again so quickly. She even compares herself to ornamental mice:

Slate introduces me to the mascots of her new home, two cute mice figurines in jaunty outfits who look like they’re off to travel the world. “The way I feel now is I’ve stepped out of the woods and I’m a forest animal and I’m standing on the lawn,” she says. “And if anybody tried to approach me right now, they’re seeing a creature that’s just trying to figure out what the lawn is like. All I’m thinking about is the lawn. I’m not thinking about whether or not they are going to be a fun person to be on the lawn with, because I am just trying to be on the lawn.” And what or where is this lawn? “It’s just where I am,” she says. “I like the lawn. It’s filled with air, freedom, sunlight, and I’m alone.”

Part of the reason people feel so surprised by, and so invested in, Slate’s love life, and her closeness to society’s paragons of male attractiveness, is because they see themselves in her. Slate is generous enough to be open and vulnerable in a very public way, and that makes her simultaneously relatable and aspirational. It’s like your best friend just turned around and told you she’s dating Jon Hamm. You love your best friend. You think anyone would be lucky to date her. You’ve always thought she is radiant and beautiful and special. But you’re still shocked and excited to learn she’s dating Jon fucking Hamm.

The delight onlookers feel in glimpsing Slate’s love life in tabloids might be creepy, or misplaced, or even vaguely patronising. But, to me, it doesn’t seem malicious or insulting. Because who wouldn’t want to be Jenny Slate?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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