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

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism