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

Agony uncle.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1935. Photograph: Getty Images

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)

Next Article