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Churchill and Stalin

LAURENCE REES: Churchill meets Stalin for the first time in 1942 and they have these rows around the whole question of the second front, but then there is this very cosy dinner when they get together and this seems to turn Churchill almost on a sixpence into a fan of Stalin's. How can we understand what is happening here?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Well, one of the things we need to remember about Churchill is that we have this image of him now as this sort of bulldog figure, and the bulldog is absolutely firm in his views and opinions and gets its teeth into something and sticks there. Well, Churchill is a very volatile person actually. He has that pugnacious side to him, yes, but he’s a man of incredible moods, he goes to and fro; very volatile. Mercurial, was often the word that was used back in the 1930s, so Churchill’s attitudes to Stalin do go up and down but what we have to remember is the incredible buzz that somebody from the West in the war got if they were actually allowed to see Stalin. Here’s this leader of this amazing brutal, violent, turbulent country, a man who has clearly presided over the most violent changes and upheavals over the last decade or more. It’s only two decades or so since the Revolution, 25 years since the Revolution, and most of the time Stalin is just an icon, a figure, a poster. Ambassadors never get to meet him, Stafford Cripps, the British Ambassador to Moscow only met him a couple of times. Once the Soviets need Western aid the curtain sort of lifts a bit and a succession of top level emissaries are allowed to visit, people like Hopkins, Harriman from the American side, Beaverbrook, Eden from the British side and then Churchill himself.

It’s amazingly exciting and you build up this sense of expectation. You’re driven into the Kremlin, it’s usually late at night, it’s dark, it’s kind of spooky, you’re taken along the corridors, up the elevator, open the doors and then the guy you see there isn’t really quite what you’d expect. He’s a little man, he’s pockmarked, you can’t see the club foot and things, but he’s not very prepossessing and he sits there, he doesn’t say very much, he sort of doodles away and so on. When he answers it’s sort of clear, it’s direct. The questions go to and fro. So this is the great dictator? Well, he’s not a ranter like Hitler, he’s not a popinjay, a bombast like Mussolini, and so you think, wow, this is interesting. And then you have a bad meeting with him, he argues with you and whatever, but then you have a good meeting and what you always got with Stalin was you got direct answers.

There was a sense of frankness going on, and I think what Churchill really feels by the time he leaves Moscow in August 1942 is that he’s got through. There’s a man here who I can deal with. Okay, so we had a bad day yesterday, but today is a good day, we’ve had dinner, we’ve had a booze, we’ve talked about families and things, this is human stuff. And given how remote Stalin was before, that’s progress. Churchill always hangs onto this, he always feels that if he could get round the table with Stalin things could be sorted out. Not necessarily easily, but they could be sorted out. And he develops, and most of the British and Americans have it as this sort of dichotomous view of what’s going on in Moscow. They have no idea how Kremlin politics work, but they gradually come to the view that Stalin is a kind of moderate, somebody willing to reach out to the West, and around him there are these shadowy figures, they don’t quite know who they are, but they’re the hard-liners, they’re the Mr. Nasties.

Molotov’s probably one of them and they have this amazing belief that Molotov is an independent figure, whereas in fact we now know that he’s basically under Stalin’s thumb all the time, but maybe there are some Marshals, some funny people in the politburo. It’s very hard for 21st Century people to imagine how little we knew about Russia in the Second World War, but it’s against that background of ignorance that we have to understand the way Churchill and Roosevelt both reach out to Stalin as a sort of little bit of light, something human in an insane, dark and inhuman country.

LAURENCE REES: Except they’re wrong.

DAVID REYNOLDS: They’re completely wrong. But that’s what they are putting their money on.

LAURENCE REES: Alanbrooke famously said in his diary that Churchill is appealing to things in Stalin that aren’t there. He spotted it, how come the others didn’t?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Part of this is the romantic side of Churchill. He is sort of captivated by the epic of Russian history. Stalin is, in a sense, the successor to the Tsars and things like this. I can give you some of the answers like this but in the end it’s a very difficult question to answer. Anthony Montague Brown, Churchill’s Private Secretary at the end of his life, often came back to this question with Churchill and he says, you know, I don’t understand how he could have been so, in effect, naïve about Stalin.

LAURENCE REES: Churchill, at the start of 1942, writes this extraordinarily powerful note to Eden, saying Stalin can't keep Eastern Poland at the end of the war. This is territory, writes Churchill, which Stalin has gained 'in shameful collusion' with Hitler. But then in November 1943 Churchill is having another boozy meeting with Stalin late at night at the Tehran conference, and he now suggests that Stalin can keep Eastern Poland after all.  So why this complete change between January 1942 and November 1943?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Well, the war has moved on hugely. By the end of 1943 we’re beyond not only Stalingrad but the Battle of Kursk, so the Red Army is rolling back. It’s into the Ukraine, it’s retaking Kiev, the Red Army is going to be a force in the future of Europe, and I think Churchill has had to move on from those original views. But in January 1944 he also talks about the new confidence that has grown in our hearts towards Stalin. Perhaps the other thing we need to say is that we now know that the 20th Century, say, from 1917 to 1991 is the story of how the Bolsheviks took hold of the Russian empire, brought it under new leadership and turned it to their own ends, putatively for world revolution, at the very least for maintaining an iron grip on that country and its neighbours. But that’s not how people like Roosevelt and Churchill necessarily saw it at the time. From their perspective between 1917 and, say, 1942, there was revolution and civil war which were brutal, bloody, messy, and there was a huge revolutionary surge in Europe in 1918-19 but that sort of seems to have died out.

The Russians are not spending a long time preaching world revolution. There’s this thing called Comintern, but that’s dissolved during the war. There is a lot of debate, not just in government, but also in intellectual circles in London and Washington, about where the Soviet Union is going, and the general belief is that the revolutionary stuff has burnt itself out. If you’re a Conservative then you’d say that there was still a hard line potentially expansionist power, but it’s not revolutionary stuff like Trotsky was preaching. Many people in the centre and left, and this would certainly include Roosevelt, feel that what you’re seeing developing in the Soviet Union is gradually the movement towards something that will eventually become more like a socialist or social democratic state maybe in another few decades. So Roosevelt’s view is let’s assist the process. The real problem is not Soviet revolutionary zeal it’s Soviet insecurity and paranoia, the old sort of Russian thing: are we part of Europe or not?

So bring them in from the cold, satisfy their insecurities, talk to Stalin, show that we’re treating them as partners, don’t give the impression that the British and the Americans are ganging up, that’s Roosevelt’s inclination. Now, Churchill obviously doesn’t go as far as that, but I think his instinct is also to say that we’ve got an interlocutor, somebody we can talk to in Stalin, let’s not lose that opportunity. So I think we have to see what they’re doing with Stalin as part of their conception of where the Soviet Union is going in the future, which is towards a sort of convergence with the West in the longer term.

LAURENCE REES: But the evidence at the time for all that was so minor, compared with the evidence that the Soviets were behaving as they’d always behaved; they’re going into Poland and they’re disarming and arresting the Polish Home Army...

DAVID REYNOLDS:  In 1944-45, yes.

LAURENCE REES: But even in 1944 they’re deporting the Crimean Tartars and in 1943 they’re clearly implicated in the massacre at Katyn. So there’s no evidence of increasing human rights; they seem to be as brutal as they’ve ever been.

DAVID REYNOLDS: I think what you do as a leader, and it’s not just leaders, we do it in human life, if you have a certain paradigm that you’re developing about a person or a policy or whatever it is, after a certain point you go with that and you kind of push aside the slightly inconvenient bits. Yes, okay, there is this Katyn thing and Churchill is not happy about this, but there are other reasons for feeling that Stalin is becoming more co-operative to the West.

Every time you have a conference with the Russians all through the war the British and the Americans have this sense that it’s better than the last one. So, for example, the first time round you can hardly talk to any Russian military. At Tehran, Voroshilov’s there, and if you want to ask him a question about military affairs, he’s a crony of Stalin’s, so he just refers it to the boss and comes back the next day. But by the time you get to Yalta there’s a free flowing discussion with people like Antonov about the military developments. And people like General Ismay, Churchill’s right hand man, write really effusive letters afterwards back home to people saying you wouldn’t believe the improvement.

So there’s this feeling that they’re difficult, nasty people and all the rest of it, but we’re making progress. Okay, they treat some of their minorities badly and all the rest of it, but you sort of push that aside. And then the other thing I think is that these leaders, Churchill and Roosevelt, are saying to themselves at the back of their mind: what alternative do we have? If we say the bear hasn’t changed its spots, if you’ll let me mix the metaphor, the Russian bear is essentially the same, as brutal and as bloody as ever. What prospect does that open up for Europe? Better to go with our hopes than surrender to our fears, really, because by the end of 1943 it’s clear that the Soviet Union and the Red Army are going to be a force in Eastern Europe, and really there’s nothing you can do in London or Washington to stop that. The decisions, in a sense, have already been made by default through delaying the second front, if that was ever a real alternative. So all that you can try and do is ameliorate the situation in Eastern Europe. Indeed, that’s what Roosevelt says before he goes to Yalta to the Senators. He says, look, what we’re going to try and do is ameliorate the situation in Poland as we can’t change it. So there is a sort of fact of life there that the Soviet Union is going to be a force to be reckoned with, and that’s part of why they’re trying to make the best they can of it.

LAURENCE REES: So at somewhere like Tehran they’re basically hoping for the best?

DAVID REYNOLDS: They’re hoping for the best, yes. Given that that’s their way of approaching it, they choose the evidence that will support that and they sort of push aside the other bits. Churchill is never consistent. After Tehran he’s ill and he’s worried and he says that he can see a Bolshevik tide rolling across Europe. But then in January 1944 a few months later he’s writing about the new feelings in our hearts towards Stalin and all the rest of it. Churchill bounces up and down but in my view his default position through the war is that we’ve got to work with Stalin, we need to try to work with Stalin, there’s reasons to work with Stalin, and that’s what he tries to hold onto.