Sixty years after his death, a thoroughly researched new book on Josef Stalin and the Cold War era is causing historians and others to rethink old ideas about one of the 20thcentury’s most powerful and feared leaders.
With “Stalin’s Curse: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War” (Oxford University Press), Florida State University history professor Robert Gellately paints a portrait of the Soviet Union’s de facto leader whose uncompromising ideology, which claimed millions of lives and led to a bitter, 44-year standoff with the West, were far more than the actions of a murderous psychopath. In fact, all of Stalin’s barbarous actions were done in pursuit of one overarching goal: to expand his strident communist beliefs throughout the world.
“Marxist-Leninist teachings informed everything in Stalin’s life, from his politics and his military strategy to his personal values,” said Gellately, FSU’s Earl Ray Beck Professor of History.
In researching his book, Gellately pored over recently released documents from Cold War-era German and Russian archives, as well as examining numerous firsthand accounts. The final product has earned kudos and provoked commentary in such prominent publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, Publishers Weekly and the well-known British weekly The New Statesman. A review in the international news weekly The Economist is especially stellar, stating that “Mr. Gellately’s latest work has a good claim to be the best single-volume account of the darkest period in Russian history.”
In the foreword to “Stalin’s Curse,” Gellately describes the “Red Tsar’s” single-minded resolve to spread communism beyond his nation’s borders, even as his country was enduring some of its greatest tragedies and challenges.
“As far back as August 1939, the Soviet Union, as Hitler’s ally, had begun to renew its mission, on hold since the early 1920s, to extend the communist Red Empire,” Gellately writes. “According to Stalin, Hitler was unknowingly playing a revolutionary role by destroying old regimes and ruling classes. The Nazi invasion of the USSR in mid-1941 represented a setback, but Stalin still perceived possibilities for advancing the cause . . . What is remarkable is that his faith in the inevitability of worldwide communist revolutions never diminished.”
From his research, Gellately reaches a very different a conclusion from that of many revisionist historians, who argue that the United States was just as responsible as the Soviet Union for the start of the Cold War. Gellately insists that the dishonest but shrewd Stalin, whose commitment to the global expansion never wavered, bore the main responsibility.
“He was the master of disguise,” Gellately writes. “When he spoke with his accidental allies (the Western Bloc, particularly the United States and Great Britain), he never used the language of the Communist revolutionary, nor whispered of any aims for the post-war besides guarantees for the future security of the USSR. Who could argue with that?”
“The United States and Britain didn’t make plans for what would follow the defeat of the Nazis in 1945,” Gellately said. “The Soviets, however, made plans in excruciating detail for what would come next.”
By the time U.S. President Harry Truman realized what the Soviet leader was up to, the USSR already had tightened its grip around eastern Europe, which it had occupied since beating back Nazi Germany during the war. The first effective American response came in 1947 with the Marshall Plan. It offered desperately needed aid to Western Europe, and also to the USSR and the East. Stalin rejected it, even though his country was in the midst of a famine, and he forced the satellite countries to do so as well. There followed an often-tense, four-decade standoff between the two superpowers, which ignited numerous proxy wars all over the world and the Cold War. It finally ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
It would be naïve to view Stalin as nothing more than a sadist or a psychopath, although he may have been both, according to Gellately.
“He was dedicated to the Marxist-Leninist ideology to the very core of his being,” Gellately said. “Millions of lives may have been destroyed, and the world may have been balanced on the edge of war for much of the 20th century, but his belief in this ‘higher cause’ ultimately motivated every decision he made.”
As Andrew Roberts aptly concluded in his The Wall Street Journal review, “The blame for the barren cul-de-sac down which global history strayed for nearly half a century has never been better diagnosed: It was Stalin’s curse.”
Thus far, “Stalin’s Curse” has had a remarkably successful run. The book has been selected by six leading book clubs in the United States, including the Book-of-the-Month Club, the History Book Club and the Military Book Club.
Gellately has written or edited eight history books, and his works have appeared in more than 20 foreign languages. Prior to “Stalin’s Curse,” he released “Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe” (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, and London, Jonathan Cape, 2007), a widely praised history focusing on the dominant powers of Europe between the beginning of World War I and the end of World War II.
He has also won numerous research awards, including senior fellowships from the Alexander von-Humboldt-Foundation in Germany; grants from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation; and others from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (his native country).