From communist star to red dwarf

Stalin's Cold War - Last of the Empires - Stalin's Drive to the West 1938-45
January 5, 1996

John Keep's requiem for the Soviet Union and his inquest into the decline and fall of that diseased, distended Soviet, sovietised mass, the "last of the empires", brings to mind the sombre phrase of the end coming not with a bang but with a whimper. It is as fortunate as it is productive that Keep is a distinguished and vastly experienced historian of Russia in its several phases, that he should apply the rigour of exacting scholarship and the advantage of perspective to the death of a system whose antecedents and birth he had earlier chronicled.

The narrative begins with a survey of the final years of Stalin's rule, if rule is not too rational a term for the paranoid suspicion that reigned in the Kremlin and the machinery of repression that formed the core of Stalin's political system. In his extensive treatment of Khrushchev, the author does not hold the Soviet dictator to account for failing to democratise the party, since that was not his aim. There was at the time no "realistic alternative to the existing bureaucratic structure".

What, therefore, changed? Keep shows how that "slow metamorphosis" within the space of a generation cut the ground from beneath the party's feet. Restoring "Leninist norms of party life" might have been the slogan but it was also the kiss of death. What was at stake was the party's legitimacy and finally its raison d'etre, first challenged by civil rights activists and the human rights movement, then spokesmen for the various national groups.

It was under Brezhnev that the author perceives the scene was set "for the crumbling of the Soviet imperial structure" - local barons, encouraged by the centre, developed patronage networks reinforcing the sense of ethnic identity. At the same time the absolute power of the party was being whittled away, its grip on society was shaky, its ideology less credible, while corruption was rampant. Here was a seriously sick society and an ailing empire. Did Surgeon-General Gorbachev have the cure and the means to implement it? Keep argues most convincingly and with a wealth of evidence that Gorbachev's errors and miscalculations lay in a failure to understand the true nature of the Soviet political system. Specifically, the spending spree of 1985-86 undermined financial stability, ethnic tensions were badly handled, the refusal to support the 1990 Shatalin programme for transition to a free market was a blunder, while the centrifugal forces operating within the nationalities which Brezhnev neither caged nor tamed now speeded the collapse of empire. The temperate, scholarly analysis of Last of the Empires provides an exhaustive explanation for this complex, protracted tragedy whose consequences are yet fully to unfold.

In their discussions of the cold war neither R. C. Raack nor Caroline Kennedy-Pipe displays that degree of impressive, persuasive equanimity exercised by Keep. Raack at the outset berates those "many westerners in high places" who failed to discern in Stalin a closet Trotskyite, nursing bold, not to say adventurist international plans designed to turn "the European and Asian world order upside down". This design scarcely accords with the widely accepted interpretation, much of it misguided or ill-informed in Raack's view, of a defensive purpose behind Stalin's diplomacy in 1938. Hence the chronological frame in which this work is set. Accepting Hitler's offer in August 1939 was the spark which would ignite "the flame of world revolution" and could retrospectively explain "the schedule of Stalin's foreign policy preferences in 1938". Can it really explain that? The great scheme of war and revolution was first revealed in the summer of 1940 by Molotov to a "would-be collaborator from Lithuania" - nothing less than the Red Army marching west exporting revolution, ending in a mighty battle on the Rhine to bring about a final triumph. Some of this sounds more Wagnerian than Trotskyite.

Demonstrably in 1941 the Red Army could neither attack nor defend. In a number of respects this explanation of Stalin's strategic aims and political behaviour resembles that furnished in Viktor Suvorov's contentious Icebreaker and Ernst Topitsch's Stalin's War, though there is a greater wealth of original material, much of it drawn from eastern European sources freshly disclosed or uncovered. Predictably neither Churchill nor Roosevelt emerge as heroes in their wartime dealings with Stalin. Both are stigmatised as "appeasers of Stalin", each for his own reasons, most of them recounted in Raack's bitter rehearsal of the Polish tragedy. Some of this is manifestly unjustified, where Churchill talked of "these bloody Russians" and Stalin, facing resistance, growled "vot Cherchill" - "that man Churchill", capable of anything. Those animosities predated 1938.

If Raack is at times intemperate, Caroline Kennedy-Pipe in examining the theme of Soviet strategies in Europe 1943-56 tends to be somewhat over-sanguine in her examination of Soviet policy towards the central issues of Germany and German power and the American military presence in Europe. The research is very detailed though confessedly lacking "access to source materials on the Soviet side". Those so far released show Stalin in a much less compliant attitude towards American power and influence. However, one of the advantages of this study is its vigorous demonstration that Moscow "had a far less rigid strategy for Europe than has been assumed", that Soviet motives were complex. But regarding Soviet assent to, or convenient complicity in the American troop presence in Europe, the Scottish verdict of "not proven" is possibly more relevant.

John Erickson is director, centre for defence studies, University of Edinburgh.

Stalin's Cold War: Soviet Strategies in Euroe, 1943 to 1956

Author - Caroline Kennedy-Pipe
ISBN - 0 7190 4201 1 and 4202 X
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 218

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