Only Don't Call Me Comrade

February 23, 2011 Topics: Domestic PoliticsIdeology Regions: Russia

Only Don't Call Me Comrade

Mini Teaser: Stalin: The Dictator. The Revolutionary. The Homebody? The USSR’s Cold War ambitions have been greatly exaggerated. Worldwide Marxist revolution played second fiddle to control of the Continent.

by Author(s): Mark Mazower

Jonathan Haslam, Russia’s Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 544 pp., $38.00.

Silvio Pons and Robert Service, eds., A Dictionary of 20th-Century Communism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 944 pp., $99.50.

[amazon 0300159978 full]ONE MIGHT have thought that the end of the Cold War would lead to a rapid reappraisal of the origins, nature and meaning of that strangely amorphous conflict. Yet this did not happen in any immediate sense, and initial access to long-coveted Soviet files did not generate much in the way of fresh basic insights. We Now Know, the title of a book published in 1997 by the dean of U.S. Cold War historians, John Lewis Gaddis, promised more than it delivered: the new knowledge, as reviewers pointed out at the time, looked awfully like the old. It was, to paraphrase Gaddis, pretty much all Joseph Stalin’s fault, although one could trace back an underlying antagonism between the United States and Russia far into the nineteenth century. Stalin was a ruthless dictator presiding over an authoritarian regime, dedicated to building the wrong kind of empire. Fortunately, he was confronted by America, which was ready to build one of the right sort. Stalin started it; Washington fought back in the name of freedom. And thank goodness it did. What was surprising in all this was certainly not the interpretation—familiar to readers of Gaddis’s earlier work. It was rather that the opening of the Soviet archives, and the spate of memoirs and other firsthand accounts that emerged in Russia in the 1990s, had apparently done so little to shift our basic historical terms of understanding.

But as the years pass, things have begun to change. Communism is now less a matter of politics and more of history. At the same time, scholars of U.S. foreign policy, of European diplomacy and of Soviet Russia have begun to read one another’s work and have learned that they have interests in common. A special contribution to this process has been made by historians from Europe, as these two books testify. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Cold War looks from the Soviet perspective much more like a conflict over the Continent than it once did. In fact, both books under consideration suggest that there was only one global power—and that it was not the USSR: Soviet priorities were more traditional (more bounded) and less far-reaching than those of their principal, and much more powerful, transatlantic antagonist.

[amazon 0691135851 full]THE SHIFT in perceptions starts with the question of when it all began. Plenty of answers to the timing of the Cold War’s origins have been offered in the past: between 1944 and 1948 has been the usual response, though more ideologically inclined writers sometimes plausibly suggested looking to 1917–1921 and the clash between President Woodrow Wilson and Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. Those who took the very long view even pushed things back to Pan-Slavism, imperial autocracy or—but could the Cold War really have been their fault?—the Mongols. What was not taken seriously enough, despite or maybe because of the regime’s emphasis on the topic, was the rather obvious idea that its roots were located in the experience of the Second World War, the German invasion and occupation, and the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens.

One of the things that emerges from the very start of Cambridge professor Jonathan Haslam’s readable, assiduously researched but old-fashioned account is the searing importance of the Great Patriotic War. (His title promises to take the story back to the Soviet Revolution, but by page eight we are already firmly lodged in 1939.) For Stalin and his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, the German invasion in 1941 confirmed the deep foreboding of the threat from the West they had felt at least since the early 1930s. And it cemented their suspicions thereafter. In Haslam’s account, everything, it is little exaggeration to say, revolves around the German question—right up to the very end. Almost everything else—certainly most of the vaunted global Cold War in Africa and the Middle East—is a sideshow. For the memory of the war galvanized not only the Stalin generation but also those that followed. On October 26, 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, Uncle Joe’s successor Nikita Khrushchev reminded President John F. Kennedy that he had “participated in two wars and I know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.” As for future Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, he shored up his own relationship with Khrushchev when they both served in the Ukraine, while Brezhnev’s successor, Yuri Andropov, had fought in the partisan movement on the Karelian front during World War II. At their critical meeting in Moscow in 1990, the last president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, stressed to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl how much the world had changed since the war. That he could even say so was surely connected to the fact that he was the first Soviet leader without direct wartime experience. Would any of his predecessors have had such a sanguine attitude to the prospect of German reunification?

The probable division of Europe into spheres of influence was foreseen in 1944 by a few percipient observers—men like “Long Telegram” author, eventual U.S. ambassador to the USSR and father of containment George Kennan and Maksim Litvinov, a Russian revolutionary, Soviet foreign-affairs chief and, briefly, ambassador to the United States. It was that summer that Operation Bagration—the Red Army’s awesome onslaught against the Wehrmacht on the eastern front—not only drove the Germans out of the pre-1939 Soviet territories but also brought whole swaths of new land in Eastern Europe under Stalin’s control. One doubts that Stalin had anticipated the sheer speed of his troops’ advance any more than the Nazis did, or indeed the British and Americans, struggling as they were out of their Normandy beachhead. While Soviet tanks rolled into Poland and Romania, fifty-seven thousand German prisoners of war were marched through the Russian capital in a kind of Roman triumph, and Western diplomats scrambled to come to terms with the new realities in Eastern Europe.

Realpolitik was endemic in the British Foreign Office—it was the diplomatic corollary of military weakness—and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and Prime Minister Winston Churchill rushed to Moscow to work out a temporary understanding, the famous percentages agreement. In Washington, things took much longer: whatever President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s private reservations, the official line was to hope that the evil days of the Old Diplomacy had gone away, and to wish for the continuation of the wartime alliance into the peace. As for Moscow, spheres of influence were the only obvious answer—given the strength of anti-Communist and anti-Russian sentiment in Eastern Europe—to the security concerns that were uppermost in Stalin’s mind. He too wondered whether the wartime alliance would survive their imposition. Stalin certainly believed for a while that it might.

And then there was the issue of how actually to consolidate Soviet influence in the region—an essentially political task. One can only imagine the intensity of the ideological arguments waged in Moscow over this all-important question. Haslam tells us frustratingly little about these, and indeed spends scant time on ideological matters in general. (We get more in A Dictionary of 20th-Century Communism from University of Rome professor Silvio Pons and Oxford scholar Robert Service, a work which is more attuned to issues of ideology.) In any case, we know the general outcome: advocates of immediate revolution were told to back off from attempting violent takeover, on Stalin’s orders, and the construction of people’s democracies (whatever that meant would be determined by events) proceeded, essentially continuing the line first developed in the 1930s of a broad front against the enemies of socialism.

INDEED, WHAT emerges is a counter-traditional-narrative version of Russian power. The Communist agenda it turns out was not particularly seditious—nor was it particularly well thought out. Three things became clear quite quickly. First, far from being a revolutionary so far as Europe was concerned, Stalin was in fact to a surprising degree the protector of the order established at Versailles in 1919. With some reservations of course—and not marginal to those concerned—Poland was shrunk and shoved westward; the Baltic states were incorporated into the USSR; and Bessarabia was taken back from Romania. But all of this was no more than his czarist predecessors would have wished, and he was restrained in comparison to them. Unlike Catherine the Great or Alexander I, Stalin did not wipe Poland off the map, and he respected Finnish sovereignty once he was satisfied that he and the Finnish political elite understood one another. As Haslam reminds us, Stalin blocked the Allies’ idea of creating large federations in Central and Eastern Europe because he regarded these (with some reason) as inherently anti-Soviet in purpose. So nation-states remained, and indeed became more homogeneous thanks to Soviet sponsorship of the forced expulsions and population transfers that continued well after the war ended.

Image: Essay Types: Book Review