The Coldest War

More
Joseph Stalin (Wikimedia Commons)

I'm entering into the portion of the Postwar that deals with the early days of the Cold War. Terms like "evil" are overused, but it takes some mental gymnastics to watch Stalin bend Czechoslovakia, war with Tito, choke Bulgaria, pilfer Hungary and not construe the U.S.S.R as "an evil empire." If there's any problem with that phrase it's that it's redundant. I've yet to come across an empire that isn't "evil." Empires emerge from conquest, degradation, and mass existential violence. I don't know how you look at what the British did in Kenya, what the Belgians did in the Congo, what the French did in Algeria and conclude that empire is ever anything but "evil." 

But this shouldn't obscure the point. There's a long history of African-American communism that deserves a longer treatment than I offer here. Some of my heroes rank among these folks--Robeson and Du Bois immediately coming to mind. I was talking to my buddy William Jelani Cobb about this. Jelani did his doc researching black anti-communists. He pointed out that part of the attraction for people like Robeson was the fact that the Soviets had no colonies in Africa. 

But the U.S.S.R. was ultimately as much a colonizer, as much an imperial power,  as any other European power. The difference was that Russia colonized white people:

The Czech case is a particularly striking one. Before World War Two, the Czech regions of Bohemia and Moravia (already the industrial heartland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before 1914) had a higher per capita output than France, specializing in leather goods, motor vehicles, high-tech arms manufacture and a broad range of luxury goods.

Measured by industrial skill levels, productivity, standard of living and share of foreign markets, pre-1938 Czechoslovakia was comparable to Belgium and well ahead of Austria and Italy. By 1956, Communist Czechoslovakia had not only fallen behind Austria, Belgiumand the rest of Western Europe, but was far less efficient and much poorer than it had been twenty years earlier. In 1938, per capita car ownership in Czechoslovakia and Austria was at similar levels; by 1960 the ratio was 1:3.

Even the products in which the country still had a competitive edge—notably small arms manufacture—no longer afforded Czechs any benefit, since they were constrained to direct their exports exclusively to their Soviet masters. As for the establishment of manufacturing mammoths like the Gottwald Steelworks in Ostrava, identical to steelworks in Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the USSR, these represented for the Czechs not rapid industrialization but enforced backwardness (crash programs of industrialization based on the manufacture of steel were pursued in spite of Czechoslovakia’s very limited resources in iron ore).

Following the one-time start-up benefits from unprecedented growth in primary industries, the same was true for every other satellite state. By the mid-fifties, Soviet Eastern Europe was already beginning its steady decline into ‘planned’ obsolescence.

The U.S.S.R. extracted reparations from Hungary and made each of subservient nations trade with them first, not each other. At the center of it all was the pirate Stalin:

Stalin had emerged from his victory over Hitler far stronger even than before, basking in the reflected glory of ‘his’ Red Army, at home and abroad. The personality cult around the Soviet dictator, already well advanced before the war, now rose to its apogee. Popular Soviet documentaries on World War Two showed Stalin winning the war virtually single-handed, planning strategy and directing battles with not a general in sight. In almost every sphere of life, from dialectics to botany, Stalin was declared the supreme and unchallenged authority.

Soviet biologists were instructed to adopt the theories of the charlatan Lysenko, who promised Stalin undreamed-of agricultural improvements if his theories about the inheritability of acquired characteristics were officially adopted and applied to Soviet farming—as they were, to disastrous effect.50 On his 70th birthday in December 1949 Stalin’s image, picked out by searchlights hung from balloons, lit the night sky over the Kremlin. Poets outdid one another in singing the Leader’s praises—a 1951 couplet by the Latvian poet V. Lukss is representative:  

Like beautiful red yarn into our hearts we wove/Stalin, our brother and father, your name.  

This obsequious neo-Byzantine anointing of the despot, the attribution to him of near-magical powers, unfolded against a steadily darkening backdrop of tyranny and terror. In the last years of the war, under the cloak of Russian nationalism, Stalin expelled east to Siberia and Central Asia a variety of small nations from western and south-western border regions, the Caucasus in particular: Chechens, Ingush, Karachays, Nalkars, Kalmyks, Crimean Tatars and others, in the wake of the Volga Germans deported in 1941. This brutal treatment of small nations was hardly new—Poles and Balts had been exiled east by the hundreds of thousands between 1939 and 1941, Ukrainians in the 1930s and others before them, back to 1921.

More than anyone, Stalin is the most fascinating figure in the early chapters of Postwar. I can't get a handle on him. He bumbles constantly. When Stalin goes to subjugate Poland, he is crippled by the fact that he's purged an entire generation of Polish communists. He was caught totally by surprise when Hitler invaded. And yet somehow Stalin does not just hold on to power he increases his power.

The politics at work in this era of Central\Eastern Europe remind me of the politics at work during in the early 17th century. There's that same sense of chaos and shifting alliances. As history, it is totally gripping. I have argued, repeatedly, that white people have never done anything to black people they haven't done to themselves. You see this in the Stalin's empire--right down to the slave ships.

Judt is just now describing Stalin's anti-Semitism and the show trials orchestrated against Jewish communists. More on that soon. 

Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

From This Author

Just In