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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era