STALIN’S CURSE: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War. By Robert Gellately. Knopf. 391 pages. $32.50.
For those with even the sketchiest knowledge of modern history, the name Stalin conjures up a nightmare vision of terror, repression and famine. Millions dead, imprisoned, raped, “relocated” and, probably most damning of all, drained of the last flicker of personal initiative.
This was Stalin’s legacy, his “curse,” and it is one that lingers into the present. To read about the evil perpetrated by Joseph Stalin is to make one profoundly grateful to have been brought up in a liberal democracy.
In his book “Stalin’s Curse,” Robert Gellately sets out to prove that Stalin was always driven primarily by ideological concerns and a desire to create a Red Empire. He takes on previous historians who have contended that the dictator’s actions, particularly in post-war Europe, were the results of a traditional Russian sense of insecurity, dressed up “in the guise of international Marxism,” or that blame for initiating the Cold War rests with the U.S., whose efforts to influence events in Eastern Europe, though arguably the result of “foreign policy idealism,” forced the USSR to defend itself.
Gellately, the Earl Ray Beck Professor of History at Florida State University and author of “Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe,” bases his arguments on a cornucopia of materials, most interestingly those that have been made available since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The book is meticulously documented. One gets the feeling that Gellately is the sort of historian whose sleep would be disturbed by any suspicion that he might have made an error.
The author states clearly that this is not a biography of Joseph Stalin, nor is it an effort to explore his psychopathology. He asserts that Stalin drank heavily but, after the suicide of his wife, Nadya, in 1932, led a largely ascetic life and was “bereft of anyone with whom he could share human warmth.” Stalin’s only commitment was to his ideas, for which he had a monomaniacal passion.
Gellately takes the reader through the Great Terror, during which Stalin eliminated internal political opponents, social opposition, ethnic groups he believed threatened Soviet security and, essentially, “anyone who had ever raised an eyebrow at his leadership or policies.” At the Terror’s height in 1937-38, as many as 1,500 people a day were shot to death.
From there he follows the leader to the outbreak of World War II, Stalin’s waffling response to Hitler, his inexplicable and tragic hesitation to mobilize as the Germans reached the Russian border and, finally, the victorious, and terrifying, entrance of the Red Army into Berlin. In the process, he dissects the tortuous relationships between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, in which Stalin often seems to have prevailed.
Ideological zealotry aside, Stalin was “a master negotiator, tireless and shrewd” with a “grasp of the issues down to the minute details.”
Some of the book’s images are disturbing: an ill FDR overestimating his ability to charm “Uncle Joe,” Churchill proposing post-war areas of influence by scribbling percentages on a piece of scrap paper, and the 1945 Potsdam Conference during which the West essentially ceded domination of Eastern Europe to the Soviets.
The author describes in some depth the beginnings of the Cold War, during which Communist designed “popular fronts” were transmogrified into various “people’s republics” throughout the countries to the USSR’s west and south. Stalin kept a tight rein on what became his satellites, pressuring them, for instance, to refuse any largesse from the Marshall Plan, which was benefiting other portions of war-torn Europe.
Stalin asserted that the Truman Doctrine, which stated that countries in want were ripe for totalitarianism, was designed to frighten Communists into submission, and that the Marshall Plan was simply a means to “seduce” them with aid.
He preferred that his own country and those under his sovereignty face starvation rather than accept help. For him, the Cold War was, as Gellately puts it, a “zero-sum game.” Whenever the U.S. gained, the USSR lost, an attitude that was integral to Cold War psychology.
The book also includes discussions of Stalin’s influence on Asian countries, and particularly his involvement in the Korean War. He viewed that conflict as a way of getting the U.S. entangled in a situation that would squander its “military prestige and moral authority,” an insight that seems prescient in view of what would occur during the country’s involvement in Vietnam.
While a straightforward analysis of the Stalin era based on the rigorous use of primary sources is what gives this study its value, it is the voices of the people who suffered during the period that remains in the mind of the reader.
Or the future president of a united Germany, Joachim Gauck, on growing up in the eastern sector where they pretended, absurdly, that their own ice cream was better than what they had formerly been able to obtain in neighboring Denmark: “That was how we declared the abnormal to be normal, in order not to be overwhelmed by pain, fury and rage.”
Gellately’s exhaustively researched and elegantly written book is a superb contribution to the scholarship of a time and place that remains a cautionary tale for the free world.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.