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Stalin and the West

LAURENCE REES: Let's discuss Stalin's relationship with the Western allies. In his meeting with Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, in December 1941, Stalin says that at the end of the war he wants to keep the territory he received via the Nazi/Soviet pact - essentially, Eastern Poland and the Baltic States - and also he demands an immediate Second Front in the west. These are then consistenly his demands, aren't they?

ROBERT SERVICE: I think he wants the Second Front. You didn’t have to be a military genius to know that if there was a Second Front it would ease the first Front which was the Eastern Front. But he also wants supplies, very important gaps in Soviet production had to be plugged by someone or other, and the Americans and the British ran supply lines. The Americans did the producing of jeeps, of explosives, of spam and of sugar that otherwise the Soviet Union would have been without. So he knows that in order to win the war he had to turn to the Allies for not just military assistance but supplies. The price that he paid for that, though, was that foreigners had to come to the Soviet Union and he preferred a country that was insulated, that was in permanent ideological quarantine. So these foreigners who came over to negotiate had to be followed everywhere and were kept very, very closely under control. And Soviet citizens, generally speaking, knew that it would be dangerous to speak to them except on official occasions, and they kept their distance.

LAURENCE REES: So we were talking about Molotov’s visit to Washington in the spring of 1942, and Roosevelt appears to promise a Second Front that year. Was that an error of Roosevelt’s given Stalin’s naturally suspicious character?

ROBERT SERVICE: I think Stalin had a very suspicious nature and he was very manipulative and he would say anything to anyone if he thought he could get the political result that he wanted. And when he met Roosevelt he found someone who had those skills as well. Roosevelt could say casually that he would do things that he couldn’t easily do. This annoyed Stalin, but it was exactly what Stalin was like himself, and actually Stalin was like that to an even greater extent. So Stalin was tough. He could bark at people for letting him down, and he did, but then he could get on with the difficulties that resulted. He wasn’t a whinger, no one would call Stalin a whinger. There was a trace of self pity every so often but by and large he got out of negotiations what he could and he then got on with things.

LAURENCE REES: Stalin said, through his interpreter, to a French delegation after the end of the war, that he believed the only reason D Day happened when it did was because the Western Allies were frightened that Red Army soldiers were getting near France. So that's Stalin's own cynical interpretation of why the Western powers acted as they did.

ROBERT SERVICE: I think that Stalin probably genuinely thought that the British and the Americans were dragging out the D Day invasion of France. At the same time what did he do when he got into Poland and when he was within sight of Warsaw and the uprising in Warsaw took place?  The great uprising of the Poles took place in Warsaw and Stalin refused to aid them. So he was a cynic himself and he was judgmental about his allies. There was nothing he could do about it though. If they didn’t start the Second Front he couldn’t send a bomber over the top of the House of Commons to threaten Churchill, there was nothing he could do about it, so he just had to get on with it.

LAURENCE REES: Churchill and Roosevelt, of course, in some of the documents, seem to be concerned in 1943 that Stalin might try and make another peace with Hitler. But that was never on the cards, was it?

ROBERT SERVICE: Well, I don’t think that in 1942, ’43, ’44 there was really any serious prospect of Stalin doing anything other than exacting a terrible revenge on the Third Reich. But it would have been foolish for Roosevelt and Churchill not to have considered this as a possibility, so efforts were made to show Stalin that the Western Allies were doing their maximum while not yet opening up the Second Front. They had to handle him carefully on the grounds that the Red Army was taking the brunt of the casualties on the Eastern Front on behalf of the whole Allied effort. But these were very, very, calculating men, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. They thought in terms of their national interests before they thought in terms of any other interests. I’m not trying to compare Roosevelt and Churchill with Stalin on any other plane of analysis, but we shouldn’t idealise the thinking of Roosevelt and Churchill who were both content that it was Russian soldiers who were dying rather than American or British ones.