'The Kremlin Letters' book cover Image Credit: Supplied

The Kremlin Letters

By David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov, Yale, 680 pages, £25

When we talk about political summits and summitry, we are using a term invented by Winston Churchill, who thought that all sorts of problems could be solved by what he called “a parley at the summit”. So much modern history depends on personal relationships forged, for better or worse, in face-to-face meetings — think of Reagan and Gorbachev — that it is now hard to recognise just how recent this whole phenomenon is.

During the Second World War Churchill did clock up more than 100,000 miles of travel, much of it to visit his two most important counterparts, Roosevelt and Stalin. But those face-to-face encounters were exceptional, reflecting both the extraordinary situation Britain was in and Winston’s unusual enthusiasm for personal jaw-jaw. Most business was conducted in the old-fashioned way, through ambassadors and by means of letters.

Altogether, 682 letters were exchanged between the “Big Three” political leaders between Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941 and Roosevelt’s untimely death in April 1945. Two eminent historians, David Reynolds in Cambridge and Vladimir Pechatnov in Moscow, have had the brilliant idea of publishing the bulk of this correspondence (excluding only routine bureaucratic items) with a detailed running commentary. They modestly call this just an “edition”, but it is much, much more than that. In reality, this is by far the best study ever written of policymaking between the three Great Powers during those crucial years.

By the starting date of the book in the summer of 1941, Churchill’s relationship with Roosevelt was already well established; he had been sweet-talking and cajoling the President for nearly two years. They had formed a close rapport; the flow of American armaments under the “Lend-Lease” scheme had already begun; and when, six months later, Pearl Harbor was followed by Hitler’s crazy declaration of war on the US, the sense of Anglo-American fellow feeling could not have been stronger.

So you might expect this book to tell the story of a relationship between two parties: Britain and America on the one hand, and the Soviet Union on the other. On one side you have democratic values and a shared culture; on the other you have what Churchill himself had called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.

Yet at times there was a real three-way dynamic, as Roosevelt’s vision of the world conflicted sharply with Churchill’s. He was hostile to the very existence of the British Empire, and when he pushed for self-government in India, he made the Prime Minister explode with rage.

Because of his own socially progressive policies, Roosevelt imagined that he was better placed to form a good working relationship with Stalin. In 1943 he even tried to set up a personal meeting with the Russian leader (at the Bering Straits, to make it as difficult as possible for Churchill to attend), and then lied to Churchill about the idea, saying that it was Stalin’s initiative.

Real disagreements on strategy also played their part. From almost the moment that Hitler invaded Russia, Stalin was demanding a “second front” in Western Europe to take pressure off his own forces. After the disaster of the British Expeditionary Force in 1939-40, Churchill was reluctant to send any army across the Channel unless it was so powerful that it had a strong chance of success. That meant waiting for a build-up of US divisions in England. But while the Americans were slow to send those troops, they also criticised the British for foot-dragging on the promised second front. It took much persuasion by Churchill to get them to accept his “Mediterranean strategy” (first North Africa, then Italy) — something carped at by American generals, and bitterly resented by Stalin.

But the biggest problems were always with Stalin, and it’s not hard to see why. His whole technique of negotiating with his international allies reflected the way that he ruled his own cowering courtiers in Moscow: constant but unpredictable pressure, with menacing silences, occasional disconcerting friendliness and all-too-frequent explosions of resentment. When Churchill got into the habit of referring to him as “Bruin”, he was thinking not only of the traditional image of the Russian Bear, but also of one with a very sore head.

Stalin’s fierce recriminations over any pause in the supply of armaments — via Arctic convoys in which thousands of British sailors lost their lives — make unpleasant reading. But by far the nastiest element here is his treatment of the Poles. In 1943, when Germany revealed details of the massacre at Katyn (where thousands of captured Polish officers had been brutally killed by the Soviets), he went immediately on the offensive: because the Polish government-in-exile, based in London, repeated these truthful German claims, he accused them of being “Hitlerites” and ceased to recognise them.

This was part of a larger strategy of imposing a post-war Polish government of Communist stooges, and altering, to Russia’s massive advantage, the Polish borders. Churchill struggled manfully to resist these policies — with, as this book shows, somewhat faltering support from Roosevelt — but force majeure triumphed in the end. Indeed, as early as May 1942, Stalin had written to his envoy Molotov that Western agreement about the new Polish borders would not be necessary, because “the question of frontiers will be decided by force”. After the turning point of Stalingrad (in February 1943), Stalin realised that delays in the “second front” might even be advantageous, allowing him to seize more of central Europe. Yet still he kept up his complaints about them, to gain a moral advantage that could be cashed in other ways.

By the closing pages of this book, the shape of post-war Europe has already become clear. An “Epilogue” carries the story to Churchill’s famous speech at Fulton, Missouri, in early 1946, when he warned that an “iron curtain” was falling.

Revisionist historians contest the inevitability of the Cold War, and place more of the blame on the Western powers; but this book demonstrates that even if Stalin’s claims were, on the surface, merely for equal treatment as a Great Power, his underlying suspicion and hostility towards the West, and his fundamental reliance on brute force, would make normal coexistence well-nigh impossible.

This is a masterful work of history. It should be read by anyone who wants to understand how the world we live in was shaped not only by the whole sequence of events of 1941-45, but also by the thoughts and feelings of just three extraordinary individuals.

–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018