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

Hulu
Show Hide image

Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

0800 7318496