CRF Blog

Stalin’s ism

by Bill Hayes

In Stalin’s ism for The New Criterion, Gary Saul Morson reviews Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941 by Stephen Kotkin.

After Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, totalitarian rulers with purportedly opposing ideologies, signed their 1939 pact to divide up Eastern Europe, one English diplomat remarked that “all the isms have become wasms.” In the Soviet Union, Sergei Eisenstein’s movie Alexander Nevsky, which showed war between Russians and Germans, was withdrawn from theaters, as were all other anti-German or anti-Nazi media. One memoirist recalls a friend lamenting, “Now I’ll never get to see Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator!”

The second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s monumental biography of Stalin focuses on three main events from the years 1929 to 1941: the collectivization of agriculture, the Great Terror, and the Hitler–Stalin pact. Kotkin devotes some three hundred pages to the diplomacy, negotiations, and ideological contortions leading up to and following the pact. The Nazis immediately invaded Poland from the West, thus initiating World War II, while the Russians took the rest of Poland from the East. Poor Poland! It is well known that Polish officers who fled to the Soviet Union were massacred on Stalin’s orders at Katyn, one of those place names that has become synonymous with treachery and horror. It is less well known that the Soviets arrested and deported to the Gulag one million of eastern Poland’s 13.5 million residents. Soviet interrogators called the truncheons with which they beat anyone arrested “the Polish constitution.”

As the Baltic states also fell under Soviet sway, the Red Army invaded Finland. The official version, believe it or not — and many Western leftists did believe it — was that Finland, with a population of four million, invaded the USSR, with a population of 170 million. The Soviets were armed to the teeth while the Finns didn’t even have an air force. A joke at the time told of the Finns asking the Swedes for tanks and the Swedes responding, “How many do you need? Just one, or all three?”

And yet, the Finns, mounting a defense on skis, managed for an astonishing time to hold off Soviet forces. They also showed great ingenuity — for instance, posting portraits of Stalin on targets so no Soviet soldier would dare shoot at it. [more]