Paul Dukes looks at "one of the best and one of the most useful" recent books on Stalin.
There have been many books on Stalin in recent years, a few good, some not so bad and the rest pretty poor. This is one of the best, and one of the most useful. Why? Because for the first time we now have a balanced overall account of the great dictator’s foreign policy in the crucial years. At last, there should be an end to the argument that almost all the world’s major ills between 1939 and 1953 should be attributed to Stalin and his totalitarian system alone.
Geoffrey Roberts makes three basic assertions. First, of all the war leaders, Stalin alone was irreplaceable. For all his mistakes and brutalities resulting in the death of millions and the extreme discomfort of many millions more, he exercised leadership without which the war against Nazi Germany would probably have been lost. (Averell Harriman, American ambassador in Moscow 1943-45, is quoted in support here: ‘I’d like to emphasize my great admiration for Stalin the national leader in an emergency one of those historical occasions when one man made such a difference.’) Second, he strove mightily to make and then maintain the Grand Alliance, even if some of his policies and actions helped lead to the Cold War. Third, his postwar domestic regime differed markedly from pre-war: in a sense, therefore, the process of destalinization began while the cult of personality still held sway.
Seeking to demystify rather than rehabilitate, Roberts suggests that the lesson of Stalin’s rule is not a simple morality tale about a paranoid, vengeful and bloodthirsty dictator but a story of powerful politics and ideology that strove for both utopian and totalitarian ends. The Marshal was ruthless but realistic, a pragmatist as well as an ideologue – a leader prepared to compromise, adapt and change, as long as it did not threaten the Soviet system or his own power.
Making good use of archival material, especially from Russia, as well as a wide range of his own and other publications, Roberts tackles familiar thorny subjects from the Nazi-Soviet Pact onwards. Here, we are reminded that the First Lord of the Admiralty as he was then, Winston Churchill, soon recognized that the agreement was ‘clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace’ and that the key to elusive understanding was ‘Russian national interest’. Stalin himself declared at the beginning that this was a patriotic war for the survival of the Russian and the other peoples of the USSR. At the end, the Georgian Generalissimo singled out the Russians not only because they were the leading people but also because they had common sense and endurance, faith, patience and persistence.
So many indeed were his references to the Russians and their history during the world war and after that some commentators have found clear continuity between the ambitions of the Generalissimo and those of his Tsarist predecessors. He himself frequently made historical parallels, from the Far East, on which he made explicit reference to the necessity to recover the losses incurred in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, to Eastern Europe, where he posited the basis for a neo-Panslavism.
Congratulated on coming to Berlin, he commented that Tsar Alexander I had been welcomed in Paris! He also compared Russia’s痴 historical position with that of his allies. For example, on the age-old question of the Turkish Straits, he asked, what would the Americans and the British say to similar restrictions in the use of the Suez and Panama Canals? However, to the end, Stalin was also an avowed Marxist-Leninist: his ideology gave him added determination.
To be sure, it could also lead him astray: he exaggerated the degree of dissension in the capitalist camp, of the possibility of expanding the Communist camp in Korea. From the Western point of view, dogma was an added barrier to continued collaboration, especially after the creation of the Cominform in 1947 and the assertion of the two-camps doctrine with the claim that the Eastern bloc constituted a new democracy.
The post-war years were indeed difficult for those of us brought up on the image of a cuddly Uncle Joe (a name that he himself hated.) At least one British voter was confused enough to vote Communist under the impression that our former ally was the progenitor of Marshall Aid. As for the younger Geoffrey Roberts, he is far from finding Stalin policies benign in the post-war years, at home or abroad. He makes clear that repressions continued and gives appropriate attention to such incidents as the Doctors Plot allegedly involving a medical conspiracy to murder Stalin and his henchmen. But he also suggests that the process of rehabilitation of individuals and dismantlement of the Gulag system, along with an attempt to establish a lasting peace with former allies, both began before the Great Leader died in 1953.
The story goes that his son Vasilii received the following rebuke for attempting to exploit the family name: ‘You’re not Stalin and I’m not Stalin. Stalin is Soviet power. Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and portraits, not you, no not even me!’ Indeed, the man has often appeared larger than life, both as hero and villain. Not the least virtue of this excellent book is that it cuts him down to size, calculating but capricious, by no means infallible and often taking decisions that acted against his own best interests. In conclusion, Roberts sees the study of history as a court in which the prosecution makes the case for the outright condemnation of Stalin. He argues that we need to consider seriously the case for the defence, and to attempt to appreciate the complete picture. Thus, he suggests at the end, history can make us wiser, if we allow it too.
Paul Dukes is the author of Paths to a New Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
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