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Eastern Front9th October 1944

Churchill returns to Moscow

Churchill met Stalin in the Kremlin in October 1944
Churchill met Stalin in the Kremlin in October 1944

On the evening of 9 October 1944, Winston Churchill walked into Joseph Stalin’s gloomy office in the Kremlin in Moscow. Perhaps surprisingly, given the recent row between the British and the Soviets over the Red Army’s lack of support for the Polish Home Army during the Warsaw uprising, Churchill was at pains to be friendly to the Soviet leader. But the reality was, as Churchill well knew, that Stalin held almost all the cards in this particular encounter.

The Red Army had advanced into almost half of Poland and it was clear that within months almost all of Eastern Europe would be occupied by Soviet forces. Churchill was determined to try and make the best of this potentially divisive situation – and in particular he wanted to try and reach agreement on the future of Poland. After all, the British had announced in September 1939 that they had gone to war over Polish sovereignty.

So, not surprisingly, it was the fate of Poland that the two leaders discussed first. Churchill agreed, at the very start of the meeting, that the ‘boundaries [of Poland] were settled’ – by which he meant that Stalin could keep eastern Poland as part of the Soviet Union, and that Poland would be compensated with German territory in the west.i  Significantly, the Polish government-in-exile had not agreed to this arrangement. So Churchill persuaded Stalin to let a delegation from the Polish government-in-exile travel immediately from London to Moscow for a meeting to discuss the new boundaries.

Churchill then admitted to Stalin that whilst he felt that the Polish soldiers fighting in the British Army were ‘good and brave men’, the ‘difficulty about the Poles was that they had unwise political leaders. Where there were two Poles there was one quarrel.’ Stalin then joked that ‘where there was one Pole he would begin to quarrel with himself through sheer boredom.’

So with the Polish question amicably shelved between the two of them until the arrival of the delegation from the Polish government-in-exile, Churchill and Stalin moved on to discuss the future of the rest of Eastern Europe. And it was at this point that Churchill produced what he famously called his ‘naughty document’. This was a handwritten note which outlined a series of ‘percentages’ showing how much influence ‘Russia’ (by which Churchill meant the Soviet Union) and Britain would have over a variety of other Eastern European countries. Thus Churchill proposed: ‘Romania: Russia 90%, the others 10%; Greece: Britain (in accord with USA) 90%, Russia 10%; Yugoslavia: 50%, 50%; Hungary: 50%, 50%; Bulgaria: Russia 75%, the others 25%. Stalin responded by scrawling out the percentages for Bulgaria to ‘Russia 90%’ and ‘the others 10%’.ii

This was the kind of hard talking about political and power realities that Stalin appreciated. Indeed, before showing Stalin the document, Churchill had said that he recognised that ‘Marshal Stalin was a ‘realist’.’ But it is scarcely the kind of behaviour that many people, familiar with the popular view of Churchill as a vibrant supporter of democratic ideals, would have expected from the British leader. So what on earth was Churchill doing, speaking so callously about the future of other nations in Europe, condemning many millions to live in a post war world within Soviet ‘influence’?

Well, a large part of Churchill’s reasoning would have been that this was a practical attempt to deal with a stark political reality – that the Red Army would shortly occupy almost all these places anyway. It’s also possible that Churchill saw this as a rough, temporary arrangement, before the peace conference he expected at the end of the conflict, which would definitively sort the future of Europe out. And for Churchill there was one other immediate practical concern – the future of Greece. Churchill wanted to ensure that the Greek communists did not take over once the Germans were defeated. So by bargaining away influence in other countries, Churchill hoped to gain a democratic Greece.

For the British, there was also another unpleasant reality behind this meeting. The fact was that Britain was no longer a great power alongside the Soviet Union and America. The British economy had been badly damaged by the war, and it was clear that the British Empire was in severe – if not terminal – decline.

As Churchill sat in Moscow he knew that on a practical level the amount of power and influence the Americans had over the British was obvious on the very streets back home. 'I think the significance of the Americans coming [to Britain] was that it was a precursor of the geopolitical fact of the post-world war,' says social historian Dr Juliet Gardiner. 'In other words you had a superpower. Anyone in authority realised that Britain could not win the war without American support....but of course once the Americans came over here it was felt obviously that they were so much better equipped; their huge great planes, their greater capacity, at every level from the smartness of their pink trousers, they weren’t pink, of course, they were mushroom coloured, but they looked managerial and they looked sort of efficient. They looked like the future, they didn’t look like our poor old Tommys in their heavy khaki and their hobnailed boots -they looked sort of like artisan soldiers.'

But it was also obvious to Churchill that Europe would only have one indiginous superpower at the end of the war - and it wasn't going to be Britain but the Soviet Union instead. Churchill must have felt he simply had to get on with Stalin for the future peace of Europe.

Moreover, Roosevelt had said at the Tehran conference the previous November that he wanted American soldiers to come home as soon after Germany’s defeat as possible – certainly within a year or two. In such circumstances, Churchill must have felt even more pressure on his shoulders to try and find some kind of way forward – brutal and cynical as that way forward might appear.

However, discussions the very next day, 10 October, between the two foreign ministers – Eden and Molotov – demonstrated the inherent vagueness of Churchill’s ‘naughty document’.iii  Both foreign ministers started bargaining percentages, with Molotov saying, for example: ‘if Hungary was 75/25 then Bulgaria should be 75/25 and Yugoslavia 60/40.’ But the trouble was that no one exactly knew what a percentage ‘influence’ like 75/25 in any country actually meant. And the British, in particular, were not anxious to define just what it did mean. So the ‘naughty document’ was not taken any further – at least in terms of formal negotiations. But Churchill did believe subsequently that his intervention saved Greece from Communism – though there is also evidence that Stalin had already decided not to intervene in Greece.  And there was one other dangerous legacy of these discussions around the ‘naughty document’. They must have created in Stalin a sense that since Churchill was willing to discuss ‘spheres of influence’ in Eastern Europe in these brutal terms, any subsequent talk from the British about ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ in Eastern Europe was merely for propaganda purposes.

Churchill’s meeting with Stalin in October 1944 is also famous – indeed, infamous in some quarters – for the subsequent discussions which were held over the future of Poland, once the Polish delegation arrived from London.v  Direct talks between Stalin, Churchill and the Poles (in particular with the Polish Prime Minister-in-exile Stanislaw Mikolajczyk) began on 13 October. From the start, the discussions did not go well. Stalin reiterated his position that he did not recognize the Polish government-in-exile and that he intended to annex eastern Poland and make it part of the Soviet Union. Mikolajczyk, not surprisingly, rejected Stalin’s territorial demands and pointed out that ‘Polish soldiers abroad, who were fighting against the Germans, thought that they were fighting in the hope of returning to that territory [i.e. eastern Poland]’. Stalin replied: ‘Ukrainians and White Russians’ were also fighting for this land and that ‘they had suffered much more than all the Poles put together.’

The atmosphere at the talks then did the seemingly impossible – and grew worse. Molotov told Mikolajczyk that – contrary to what the American President, Franklin Roosevelt, had led the Poles to believe – the Americans had also agreed secretly at the Tehran conference, nearly a year before, that the Soviets could have eastern Poland.

It was a devastating blow for Mikolajczyk who had been counting on Roosevelt’s support. Churchill could clearly see that Mikolajczyk was upset, both by this revelation and by British attempts to force the Poles to agree with Stalin’s territorial demands. ‘I hope you will not hold against me these unpleasant but frank words,’ said Churchill at the end of the meeting, ‘which I have spoken with the best of intentions.’ Mikolajczyk then said, in sad response: ‘I have already heard so many unpleasant things in the course of this war that one more will not let me lose my balance.’

The next day, at the British embassy in Moscow, Churchill tried to persuade the Poles once again to give up eastern Poland in exchange for German land in the west. But the Polish leadership felt they could not agree to this without the consent of the Polish population. Churchill eventually lost his temper with them, saying that he thought the Poles were ‘callous people who wanted to wreck Europe’ and that if they wanted ‘to conquer Russia we shall leave you to do it. I feel as if I were in a lunatic asylum. I don’t know whether the British government will continue to recognise you!’vi 

So the whole matter of the future of Poland remained unresolved – though it was clear who was going to eventually win this battle. As Stalin knew better than anyone else – better perhaps than anyone in history – power comes through the barrel of a gun. And the guns in Poland now belonged to the Red Army.


i Record of Meeting at the Kremlin, Moscow, 9th October, 1944, at 10pm, PREM 3/434/2, National Archives, Kew and Clark Kerr’s Record of Meeting at the Kremlin, Moscow, October 9th, 1944 at 10pm, FO 800/302, National Archives, Kew
ii English and Russian versions of the handwritten ‘Naughty Document’, PREM 3/66/7, National Archives, Kew
iii See PREM 3/434/2 pp10-14 PRO
iv See Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953, Yale University Press, 2006, p. 220
v Soviet minutes of the meeting on 13th October 1944 published in O. Rzheshevski, Stalin and Churchill, Moscow Navka, 2004, pp. 444-8 and Polish minutes in Sikorski Historical Institute (ed.), Documents on Polish-Soviet Relations 1939-1945, vol. 2, Heinemann, pp. 405-415
vi Polish notes of this meeting in Sikorski Historical Institute (ed.), Documents on Polish-Soviet Relations 1939-1945, vol. 2, GSHI A.11.49/Sow/4-b, Heinemann