Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Stalin and power: when "The Joker" became "The Boss" (2)
The start of the Second World War was an auspicious event for Stalin.
With his empire now firmly in his hands after the years of the "Terror" (as explained previously here), Stalin turned his full attention to foreign affairs. Stalin had got involved in the Spanish Civil War, as an opportunity to spread influence and as a testing-ground for military and covert tactics (and as well as a way of raising finance through gun-running), but it had been Stalin's only real "action" abroad since attaining power (The Soviet Union had been a big enough theatre to keep him occupied with forcing his combined vision of terror and modernisation on the country). In the event, he used the Spanish Civil War as a vast living laboratory for repeating the same terror tactics as used during the Russian Civil War, causing as much chaos and terror on his own side as on the purported enemy. But by 1939, the Spanish Civil War was a memory, "The Terror" on the home front was over, and Stalin was ready for other machinations; so he turned to Europe.
Stalin didn't trust Hitler (part of the reason for Stalin's involvement in the Spanish Civil War was reducing the influence of Fascism across Europe), but neither did he trust Britain and France, and saw a callous opportunity to extend his empire with Hitler's collusion. Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 came about through a Soviet-Nazi treaty to effectively carve up Eastern Europe between them. Germany took the western half of Poland, the Soviet Union the eastern half, while Germany turned a blind eye to the Soviet annexations of the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), and Moldova (then called Bessarabia). Once in Poland, Stalin approved the massacre of the Polish military command at Katyn, to prevent any reprisals. In the winter of that year, to gain further territory, Stalin also approved war against Finland, though this turned into a military winter quagmire (mostly due to Stalin ridding himself of the most able generals in "The Terror", and relying on unqualified Politburo cronies); eventually Finland agreed to cede to the USSR a chunk of their territory close to Leningrad (former St Petersburg).
Stalin and his government knew that Hitler couldn't be trusted, but Stalin was not expecting a German attack in 1941, confident it would happen the year after. In the spring of that year, Hitler sent his forces into the Balkans, the area that Stalin had considered his sphere of influence in the carve up of Eastern Europe. He had helped set up a Communist government in Yugoslavia that year as a balance against Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria's support for the Nazis. When the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia, the Communists lasted ten days.
The warning signs were there, but Stalin believed his own rhetoric, and his sycophantic Politburo was too weak to contradict and bring some reason to their preparations. When Hitler's forces attacked the Soviet Union at the same moment, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, in June 1941, Stalin was pole-axed. The Soviet military command, under the wing of Stalin's incompetent and arrogant Politburo, stood no chance against the highly-organised Nazi war machine. Within a few months, the Nazi forces had occupied territory thousands of miles into the Soviet Union. By October, they were within miles of Moscow (where there was almost anarchy on the streets), and Leningrad was almost surrounded, its population on the verge of starvation.
Stalin evacuated the families of most of the Politburo to Samara near the Urals, and was on the verge of ordering the government and population to evacuate Moscow too. But he made a point of staying and everyone else therefore did the same. During the German bombing raids he made a point of living in an underground station; he moved government operations underground and slept like a vagrant on the stone floor, wearing his greatcoat to sleep in.
Shunning the trappings of power, at these moments he seemed to revel in the image of an outcast and a rebel; like "The Joker" in Batman, an anarchic ascetic fighting a war against the the establishment, orthodoxy of all kinds, and almost everything else besides. There would be other moments during the war when Stalin would make a point of pointedly defying social graces in front of his military officers and ministers, testing their patience as well as their social orthodoxy. And in spite of this, in many ways he was less of an ideologue than Lenin or the older Bolsheviks in the Politburo: and this intellectual flexibility allowed him a further edge over those around him and under him - it made him a difficult man to predict. This was another of the many facets of Stalin's psychological terror; almost everything with him was some form of power-play or subtle game of terror, whether it was a simple meeting, a dinner, or an alcohol-fuelled all-nighter. Creating chaos was his second nature.
The winter set in, slowing and stalling the German advance on Moscow, so the following spring, the Nazis turned to the south, sweeping through the Ukraine, heading for the Caucasus and the oil-fields of Baku. By August 1942, the Germans were at Stalingrad on the Volga river, a massive strategic prize as well as prized for its symbolic name. It was here that the Soviet weapons of terror against their own people re-surfaced; deserters had already been summarily shot in the previous year of Soviet retreat, so any sign of weakness here was dealt with even more harshly, with express permission from "The Boss". But it was also at Stalingrad that Stalin finally realised he needed real generals and to heed the opinion of real military experts: because of this, the German army was captured early in 1943, and it was from this point onwards that Stalin never looked back.
For the rest of the year, the Soviet military pushed the Nazis back to the frontiers of the Soviet Union. When Stalin then went to meet up with FDR and Churchill in Tehran late in 1943, Stalin showed a different side to his personality: Stalin the charmer.
Tehran was the first of two meetings between these three leaders (the other was Yalta early in 1945). Stalin used all his capacious charm (as he was a skilled performer, as well as a master of the art of psychology) to win over FDR, while isolating Churchill against FDR and himself. This had the result of FDR effectively surrendering Eastern Europe to Stalin's sphere of control after the war, in order to get Soviet involvement in the war against Japan. Churchill later bitterly regretted not being able to be stronger with FDR against Stalin's machinations.
1944 saw further terror imposed on the re-conquered parts of the USSR and Eastern Europe. Beria, now undisputed master of these dark arts as Stalin's right-hand man, oversaw the deportation or and massacre of the ethnic populations of these areas: millions were affected. Meanwhile, as the Soviet troops got to within sight of Germany itself, Stalin was dismissive of the millions of women raped by his soldiers, even doing so to some of their own women held as German prisoners: he saw it as part of the spoils of war.
When the war was ended, Stalin emerged as the master of half of Europe. Any country that had been "liberated" by the Soviet Union would likely find itself a Soviet satellite, answerable to Moscow and Stalin. And by this point, with Stalin's self-confidence through the roof, he enjoyed toying with the visiting legations from his East European tributes.
This "toying" typically involved alcohol: lots of it. Stalin, when in the right mood, could drink like a fish, continuing these games well into the early hours of the morning. His own colleagues were not immune; on the contrary, Stalin seemed to gain great pleasure from seeing how drunk and incapable he could make his colleagues, testing their limits simply for the sake of it. As Stalin was a natural night-owl, many of his decisions taken with his colleagues were done at these drunken all-nighters. His sense of humour was sharp and he often made a point of humiliating his colleagues mercilessly. Even having a drink with Stalin was a form of psychological torture.
If possible, Stalin's behaviour after the war became even more erratic. Ministers who considered themselves amongst his most loyal supporters, found themselves under suspicion, as did the military, now that the war was over. Wives of ministers became the newest form of psychological pressure to come to heel: some wives were killed, others imprisoned to ensure loyalty, while the ministers under suspicion themselves were demoted. Other ruthless and amoral "bright young things" emerged from this latest merry-go-round of psychological torture in the years after the Second World War, while people like Beria, a one-time "bright young thing" and head of Stalin's terror operations, were mistrusted by Stalin and demoted.
This new game of psychological torture continued almost up to his death. The new "bright new things" that he had promoted after the Second World War at the expense of older hands like Beria, were themselves to become victim to Stalin's game: within a few years, he had dispensed of their services, and promoted others by the opening of the 1950s. Then, in the autumn of 1952, with Stalin mindful of his years and the succession, Stalin publicly humiliated many of the older loyalists in the Politburo, expanding the number of ministers in government (with younger loyalists), while also firing any older hands he thought were likely successors.
But aggression at home was not yet finished. Stalin, suspicious of the new state of Israel and a possible "Fifth Column" in Russia, turned to the Jews. What was ironic here was that the Bolshevik party was attractive to Jews historically because of its internationalist outlook. Many of the original Politburo in the 1920s were Jews; there was still at least one Jew on the Politburo at the time of Stalin's purge of Jewish influence; others had Jewish wives. These were all affected and suffered through Stalin's latest wave of terror: many were killed or imprisoned. This terror continued in one form or another right up to Stalin's death.
In the middle of all this, the Cold War was becoming a reality. Stalin was wary of the new atomic power of the USA, but wanted to test it nevertheless. Beria oversaw the Soviet atomic programme, while the long-standing foreign minister, Molotov, toured the capitals of the world to charm and champion the Soviet Unions's new place as a world power, only challenged by America. The Greek civil war, which the Communists eventually lost because Stalin saw it as of only peripheral concern, was a precursor to a decisive showdown that Stalin was looking for with his new nemesis, the USA. The venue for it, in 1948, was Berlin, the post-war divided capital of Germany. Seeing that the Soviet Union had far greater troop numbers in post-war Germany than the Allies, he saw an opportunity to annex the whole of Germany as Soviet satellite. To do so, Stalin simply ordered the closing of all the frontiers to "free" West Berlin, calculating that the Western powers would be too divided or weak to respond. In this roll of the dice, with the stakes between two great powers, Stalin gambled, but misjudged his opponent. America kept West Berlin alive through a feat of modern aviation, continual flights almost every minute, to keep West Berlin supplied with food and the necessities to survive. After a year of this, Stalin realised the game was up, and he opened the borders.
His gambit over in Europe, events allowed Stalin to turn to the east. By 1949, with the coming to power of Mao in Communist China, and neighbouring Communist North Korea, Stalin saw new possibilities in the Far East. In 1950, he encouraged the North Korean leader, Kim Il-Sung, to invade the American-backed South. As Communist China and North Korea were effectively reliant on Soviet diplomatic support, the ensuing Korean War was, in effect, "Stalin's War". This was Stalin escalating his game to the next level, after the failure of the blockade of Berlin the previous year. Within a few months, the US had invaded in support of the South Koreans. China asked for direct Soviet support from Stalin to repel the Americans: he refused, but encouraged China to intervene on his behalf to support Kim Il-Sung, nonetheless. Thus China entered the Korean War late in 1950, and by the summer of 1951 had forced the Americans into a bloody stalemate. With the Korean peninsula now mostly obliterated by warfare, and with millions dead or homeless, the North Koreans asked for Stalin's support for a ceasefire. Again Stalin refused, ensuring that the bloody attrition continued up to his death in 1953.
The Korean War demonstrates Stalin's psychopathy at possibly its most ruthless and cunning. Through his own manipulation, he had engineered a war between his Communist "allies" and the West, the bloodiest war in modern history after the Second World War. It seems that Stalin was intent on entangling the Americans in a bloody war of attrition (which ultimately cost President Truman his job and killed thousands of US soldiers) with people who he was totally indifferent towards, even contemptuous of. One quote of Stalin's, when talking to a Chinese diplomat during the Korean War, sums it up. Talking of the North Koreans, he said:
"What have they got to lose, except the lives of their own men?"
This was the legacy that Stalin, the "Godfather" of Bolshevism, left the Soviet Union. When he died early in 1953, the jostling for power began immediately. Beria was killed; others were discredited. Khruschev, who was to take power after a period of transition, set about denigrating Stalin's record and distancing himself from his part in Stalin's thirty-year period of tyranny and terror. Of the millions affected by terror over the years of the Soviet Union, almost all of them occurred under Stalin's watch, and the majority of them during "The Terror". With Stalin dead, some semblance of sanity came to the government of the Soviet Union.
"Koba", the wolf, was dead. It seemed he had spent a lifetime perfecting the art of terror in all its guises.