For much of the second half of the 20th century in the United States, Republican politicians had an advantage on the vital issue of national security. That electoral edge began in large part in February 1945. That was the month of the Yalta Conference, the last summit of World War II at which all the Western allies participated. It was at that meeting, Republicans charged, that Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt ceded control of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union.
Florida State University historian Robert Gellately repeats this myth in his well-researched but flawed new book Stalin’s Curse. Here, Gellately argues that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was impervious to diplomacy at Yalta or anywhere else. “Marxist-Leninist ideology as interpreted by Stalin drove the men at the top,” he writes. “The Soviets invariably took Roosevelt’s efforts to be friendly or accommodating as demonstrations of weakness.”
Gellatedly is the author of several books on Nazi Germany and one on the era of Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler. His grasp of the literature is tremendous, especially his expertise with the Soviet archives. I know of only two or three other books that can rival "Stalin's Curse" in terms of its penetrating use of Russian sources.
That erudition has led Gellately to conclude that Stalin “was or became a psychopath” with a deep and abiding commitment to spreading communism across the globe.
The book begins with Stalin’s ascent into Soviet politics, after a career as a thief and underground revolutionary. His consolidation of power within the Soviet state foreshadowed his brilliance in power politics at the international level. Most of the book is committed to recounting Stalin’s experiences in World War II and the Cold War, closing with his death. Since Stalin was the Soviet state in a figurative and sometimes literal sense, "Stalin's Curse" also in effect functions as a history of the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1953.
What set Stalin apart from so many other dictators was not his brutality – others have rivaled his cruelty – but his brutality coupled with his brilliance. The diplomat George Kennan observed once that the Soviet leader had more patience and self-discipline than Hitler. Hitler was reckless and impatient to the point of self-destruction, opening up a second front to Germany’s east even while it was fighting in the west, and unnecessarily declaring war on the United States three days after Pearl Harbor. Stalin was willing to wait for years, even decades, to achieve his aims. After World War II, “The Moscow dictator was willing to bide his time and let Europe stagnate and fester,” writes Gellately.
That shrewdness deserted him when he encountered Nazi Germany, however. The great mystery of Stalin is how he could have deluded himself into believing Hitler would honor the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. "Stalin's Curse" sources this misconception in the powerful hold ideology had on the Georgian-born leader’s mind. “Stalin’s mistaken belief was that the Nazis were driven only by economics and a lust for booty,” reads the book. “This led to the false conclusion that if the USSR provided essential goods – such as foodstuffs, raw materials, and oil – then a costly war would make no sense to Hitler.”
The flaw in Gellately's theory that the expansion of communism was Stalin's overriding goal is that Marxist-Leninist ideology makes no allowance for a pact with the world’s leading fascist country. If communist ideology were the primary animating purpose of Stalin’s life and worldview, he could never have made alliances with those he believed were imperialists. Indeed, left-leaning hearts all across the globe were broken on the day that Stalin inked a deal with Hitler, precisely because it violated both the letter and spirit of Marxist doctrine.
What the Soviet leader’s alliance with Nazi Germany – and then with the United States and the British Empire to fight his former ally – did demonstrate was a commitment to traditional power politics. Nothing in Stalin’s foreign policy was an aberration from actions that a traditional Russian Tsar might have taken. Stalin certainly didn’t see himself that way – but a man’s self-conceptions and his genuine motivating forces are often two different things.
"Stalin's Curse" makes a related mistake with regards to the Cold War’s origins. The book posits that FDR was naïve and Churchill self-deceptive in believing Stalin could be negotiated with. But the two leaders were making the best of a bad situation as the Soviet army blanketed East and Central Europe. Unless the West was willing to wage a third world war, there was virtually nothing it could do to prevent Stalin from doing what he wanted everywhere east of Berlin. That was the depressing situation beginning in 1944.
"Stalin's Curse" is not the definitive account of the years it tracks, but Gellately does an excellent job of showing how the Soviet leader took his country from a backwards nation to a global superpower.
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at The Christian Science Monitor and Salon.