On the night of April 15, 1947, accompanied by Smith and Bohlen, who would act as translator, Marshall made his way to the Kremlin through what appeared to Smith to be the most heavily policed street on earth. Ushered through a series of antechambers, the Americans arrived in a wood-paneled conference room where the Generalissimo, in his mustard-colored military uniform, stood waiting. Molotov, Novikov, and a translator were present. Portraits of Russian Napoleonic war heroes stared down from the walls.
Bolshevism, Kennan had argued, was just the standard under which the latest Russian autocrats marched. Peter the Great had fathered the strategy of dominating neighbors by “protecting” them. Catherine the Great pushed the empire to the south and west. Czar Alexander I, who witnessed his capital’s desecration by Napoleon’s army, insisted that eastern Europe was to be treated as Russia’s buffer against the West. Sergei Sazonov, Russia’s foreign minister at the outbreak of World War I, determined that they needed to be turned into client states. Many of them, however, particularly Poland, Hungary, and Romania, had remained hostile to Russia and its interests during the interwar period. Hitler’s aggression had therefore driven home to Stalin how much remained to be done.
It was 10 p.m. Stalin welcomed Marshall, complimenting him for having aged much better than he had. He, Stalin—at sixty-eight, two years older than Marshall—was now, in contrast, “just an old man.” Bohlen agreed. He was surprised to see how the Soviet leader had aged. Five foot five, pock-faced, with a coarse, streaked mustache, yellowed teeth matching his eyes, his physical figure seemed to betray his legend.
Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili took the revolutionary name Stalin, or “man of steel,” in his early thirties, around 1910, after a decade in and out of prison and labor camps for crimes ranging from organizing mass strikes and bank robbery to racketeering and murder. Having in his teens excelled at a Tblisi theological seminary, publishing Georgian-language poetry in his spare time, he might have gone in a different direction had his mother, cut off financially by his violent, drunkard father, been able to continue paying his tuition.
By that time, however, he had already become attracted to forbidden “revolutionary” literature—such as the novels of Victor Hugo, the possession of which got him punished—and Marxist periodicals such as Kvali (“The Furrow”). Still, he had to find employment following his expulsion from the seminary in 1899 for skipping an exam. After a spell of student tutoring, he took a job as an “evaluator-observer” in the Tiflis Observatory, which afforded him the time to cultivate his radical and anti-tsarist passions. He was dismissed in 1901 following a police raid on the facility, in which several of his colleagues were arrested for possessing illegal literature, and would thereafter finance himself entirely through criminal and political activity.
Around that period, he became acquainted with the writings of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, eight years his elder. Joining the Bolshevik faction of Lenin’s Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903, the young revolutionary met Lenin in 1905. Recognizing his talents and energy, Lenin co-opted Dzhugashvili into serving on the breakaway Bolshevik Party Central Committee in 1912 and designated him to write an important doctrinal piece on managing nationalities within the Russian empire. Having no language or scholarly skills, the author relied on Bolshevik publicist Nikolai Bukharin to complete the assignment in 1913.
It was from his position as secretary general of the party’s Central Committee, which Stalin assumed in 1922, two years before Lenin’s death, that he began to consolidate power, marginalizing and later killing rivals, such as Bukharin and Trotsky, as well as myriad potential and imagined rivals. Mass purges, show trials, and labor camps became central to his efforts to establish himself as an unassailable dictator in the 1930s, providing a man with paranoid tendencies ever greater cause to fear lurking enemies.
Stalin’s systematic murder of thousands of his own military and intelligence corps in the 1930s and 1940s, a centerpiece of his perpetual “strategy” to eliminate opposition and subversion, would have doomed the Soviet Union had it not been for its capacity to produce weapons and absorb casualties. His nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1939 freed him to annex eastern Poland (then including western Belorussia and Ukraine), Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and parts of Romania while leaving Soviet borders unprotected, yet nearly caused his own country’s annihilation after Germany invaded in 1941.
After the war, Stalin’s efforts to extend Soviet power were guided by a crude, unwavering, and empirically false Marxian belief in the inevitability of capitalist intramural conflict and collapse. Confident that time was on his side, however, he was also pragmatic and patient.
As a diplomat, he excelled. Lurking beneath his “unpretentious facade,” Kennan observed after meeting him in 1945, were great “depths of calculation, ambition, love of power, jealousy, cruelty, and sly vindictiveness” as well as “diabolical skill as a tactician.” Attlee said of Stalin that he “reminded me of the Renaissance despots—no principles, any methods.” Of his style, there was “no flowery language—always Yes or No, though you could only count on him if it was No.”
Stalin adapted his demeanor to his opponents’ capacity for resisting his will. With Moscow’s eastern European “allies,” he was typically condescending, offensive, and brutally direct. Tito’s lieutenant Milovan Djilas, who in 1962 published Conversations with Stalin, referred to him as “a monster, who, while adhering to abstract, absolute and fundamentally utopian ideas, in practice had no criterion but success—and this meant violence, and physical and spiritual extermination.” With Churchill, he needled and flattered as he saw fit. With Roosevelt, he was almost invariably charming, even when unwilling to concede substance, owing to the paucity of issues on which he could afford a rupture with Washington.
Part of Stalin’s negotiating prowess owed to his choice of deputy. As Smith put it, Stalin cultivated the myth that there were “two schools of thought [in] the Politburo, [a] conciliatory one headed by Stalin and [a] tough one by Molotov. . . . This [was] one of [the] oldest gags on [the] Soviet confusion-propaganda circuit.”67 Molotov so infuriated his counterparts with his sullen stubbornness that they were almost grateful to have their demands denied less unpleasantly by his boss. “Molotov was almost always the same, with hardly a shade of variety, regardless of what or who was under consideration,” Djilas observed—nothing like the temperamentally dexterous Stalin. “Hooded, calm, never raising his voice, [Stalin] avoided the repeated negatives of Molotov which were so exasperating to listen to,” observed Anthony Eden, reflecting on Yalta. “By more subtle methods he got what he wanted without having to be so obdurate.” Stalin was, for Eden, the best negotiator he ever encountered.
Copyright © 2018 by Benn Steil. Courtesy of Simon and Schuster.