The End of the Monster

On 4 March 1953, the Soviet Union stood still, for its great driver was gone.  On that day, it was finally confirmed, Joseph Stalin was dead.

It took long enough.  He had probably had a stroke at least two days before he was found alone in his home near Moscow.  Even his closest aides were too afraid of his violent temper to check on him, since he hadn’t been heard from.  When one brave soul finally did, even his closest associates were afraid of a trap and refused to help.

Born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzugashvilli (or Jugashvil) on 18 December 1878 in the Russian province of Georgia, his life was one of more or less constant turmoil, conflict, revenge and frank paranoia.  A professional revolutionary from a young age when he took the name Stalin (which, depending on sources, means either “man of steel” from the Czech or “son of Lin,” the province where he was born), very little about his career relied on anything more than power, fear, and intimidation.  As one of the first of Lenin’s associates to reach Petrograd after the abdication of Nicholas II, Stalin took a prominent role in the victory of the Bolsheviks in the November revolution in 1917, and even then his habits of first isolating then liquidating all opposition, rivals (including, it is said by some, Lenin), and any others that dared to even appear to oppose him or what he wanted.

From the forced collectivization of the 1920s and the liquidation of the “kulaks,” through the Terror of the 1930s, Stalin’s sole goal was the promotion of his personal program for the aggregation of power under his control.  For him, “revolution” was for his personal benefit even if he did everything “in the name of the Soviet people.”  Married twice, his first wife died after less than two years with him; her family was wiped out in the purges.  His second wife may or may not have been murdered.  His children hated him, mostly, but his grandson sued a newspaper for libel because it called Stalin a “bloodthirsty cannibal,” a suit he lost.  Stalin’s son Yakov was captured by the Germans in 1941; Stalin refused to exchange him for Friedrich Paulus, the unlucky commander at Stalingrad.

But it was Stalin’s iron will that held the Soviet Union in the war in 1941, even after appalling casualties completely wiped out his prewar army in the first seven months.  The forced collectivization paid for the factories that turned out more armor than the rest of the world combined.  The immense system of labor camps spent less time in price negotiations and more in mining iron and aluminum and digging canals, albeit at the cost of a million prisoners a quarter.

But eventually Stalin’s image of himself caught up with him, and in his fear he turned on even his closest friends, including his chief secret policeman, Laverenti Beria.  As he slowed down, his last meeting with his generals had to do with Korea, and the inability of the Chinese and their North Korean allies to either make a breakthrough on the fighting front or the diplomatic.  “Purge them all,” he is said to have replied, “then launch another offensive.  The Americans won’t fight much longer.”  Within three weeks of Stalin’s death a temporary accord had been reached, and three months later the war was over.

Russia At War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Beyond contains an essay on the life of Stalin by John D. Beatty.  Available in hardback and Kindle at fine booksellers everywhere.

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Argonaut: The Beginning of a Bipolar World

On 4 February 1945 the Yalta conference began in at the Crimean  resort town that had been mostly abandoned since the German invasion of Russia in 1941.  Joseph Stalin hosted the only other two world leaders that mattered in early 1945, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.  Together, it is said, they divided the postwar world between them at Yalta.

The truth is somewhat more prosaic, and somewhat more sad.  FDR was dying, and that was obvious to everyone.  Churchill commanded large forces, but they were fragile and dependent on the US for much.  Stalin’s armies were killing three of every four Germans dying in the war, and he had the will and the might to do pretty much whatever he wanted to do…in Europe.  Asia was a different matter, and if he had to cross an ocean even as small as the Yellow or South China Sea his power diminished tremendously.  Still, he was capable to invading Japan from Korea, and everyone knew it.

It was at Yalta that it was decided that Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and much of the Balkans would fall under a Soviet “sphere of influence,” an irrelevant concession since the Soviets were already there or would be soon.  FDR was in no position or state to argue about it, and Churchill lacked the power without Roosevelt’s insistence to resist Stalin’s “requests.”

In all, the Yalta conference did more to create a myth of “concessions” in Europe, but left unsettled the issues surrounding Japan, including the future of Korea.  Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of the current dictator of North Korea, was a Major in the Red Army of the Soviet Union, commanding a nominal battalion of Korean guerrillas at Vyatskoye on the Amur River.  Soviet cooperation in an invasion of Japan was secured at the cost to Stalin of a French occupation zone in Germany.

Poland and China were the losers of the conference, primarily because their futures were decided without their direct participation.  The winners were the Soviet Union…and the undertakers.  The next half century would see how a truly divided world could work.