The enemy of my enemy is not a trustworthy friend

History is more interesting with additional points of view, and that’s what The Daughters of Yalta accomplishes.

Written by Catherine Grace Katz, the book recounts the Yalta Conference from the perspectives of three eminent daughters: Sarah Churchill, Winston Churchill’s favorite child; Anna Roosevelt, FDR’s daughter who was tasked with guarding the secret of the president’s ailing health; and Kathleen Harriman, daughter and most trusted confidante of U.S. ambassador Averell Harriman.

Their inclusion adds greater depth to the history, and Katz does an excellent job of getting inside everyone’s heads, fathers and daughters alike, to present the personal dimension. For example, we get a sense of how Winston was haunted by Europe’s failure to achieve a lasting peace after the previous World War.

The book also shows the friction within the U.S.-British-Soviet alliance, and how the Soviets were generating the bulk of that friction. The Americans and British were indeed swimming with sharks to defeat the Nazis (sharks who were previously allied with the Nazis, who of course could also be described as sharks themselves).

On one hand, the Soviets showed excessive hospitality at Yalta. Their guests’ most casual wishes were granted. Sarah Churchill mentioned how lemon would go nicely with the caviar she was eating, and wouldn’t you know it, a lemon tree appeared on the premises the next day.

But the wish-granting had a dark side. The Soviets were spying on the Americans and British. They planted non-metallic bugs and installed microphones to eavesdrop on their guests.

“They steered FDR toward their listening devices in the Livadia gardens by tidying certain garden paths, so he could manage them in his wheelchair, practically guaranteeing that they could follow his every move,” Katz writes.

Soviets would transcribe private conversations and report summaries to Stalin in advance of meetings.

The NKVD secret police were an ominous presence at the conference. Katz explains that they were “an elite force of terror under Stalin’s leadership. The agency became the secret police and assassination squad. It made the supposed enemies of the people, whether political dissidents or an entire ethnic minority, disappear.”

Kathy Harriman had already learned to be suspicious of the Soviet government, and she was not alone in her concerns. Working as a newspaper reporter in London, she was tasked with covering press conferences given by leaders of exiled European governments, such as those of Poland and Czechoslovakia.

“At these press conferences, the issue that raised the most immediate concern was not Nazi aggression, but rather Britain’s new alliance with the Soviet Union. The exiles were not pleased with the sudden rush of support for Stalin in Britain and the United States,” Katz writes.

“The exiled Polish leaders were particularly vocal. They argued that Stalin would look for any opportunity to seize Poland and install a de facto Soviet regime. Kathy believed them. Not until the late summer of 1944 would Averell realize that Kathy had been right to listen.”

Even before the conference, Kathy Harriman experienced the Soviets’ duplicity firsthand, though she didn’t realize it until later. She and several other journalists were invited to Katyn Forest in Russia to observe a mass grave containing the remains of thousands of Polish soldiers.

What had actually happened was that the Soviets executed nearly 22,000 Polish citizens in 1939. This included “soldiers, intellectuals, and aristocrats — anyone who might have the means and desire to actively resist Soviet rule,” Katz writes. 

“With so many ‘enemies of the state’ in their clutches, the Soviet leaders realized they had a prime opportunity. They could begin liquidating the Polish ruling class, thus making it easier to control the country once the war was over.”

Stalin ordered the executions, and the Soviet agents tampered with the evidence to make it look like the Nazis committed the massacre. The Soviets then fooled the journalists, including the skeptical Kathy Harriman, into believing their innocence regarding this particular atrocity.

“The Nazis committed countless crimes against humanity … but the Katyn Forest massacre was one crime they did not commit,” Katz says.

She later adds, “No matter how much the British and the Americans abhorred the atrocities the Soviets committed, defeating the Nazis remained paramount.”

The Daughters of Yalta is an excellent, insightful book. I’ve provided only a glimpse of it. Read the whole the thing!

Lenin’s red flag

Vladimir Lenin was the sort of person who should never, ever have been given any power. His ruthlessness during the Russian Revolution makes that clear, but he foreshadowed his cold-blooded disregard for human life much earlier.

In 1891-92, Russia’s Volga region experienced its worst famine in many years. According to Victor Sebestyen in his biography Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror, more than 400,000 people died over the course of the famine, either starving to death or contracting typhus or cholera.

Lenin

“The central government did almost nothing to help the millions of starving peasants who poured into the towns begging for food,” Sebestyen writes.

This was, of course, not yet Lenin’s government. (And he wasn’t yet calling himself Lenin, but I’ll use that name here for simplicity’s sake.) Nevertheless, as a private individual, Lenin showed no sympathy for the famine’s victims. Relief campaigns were launched, but he had no interest in such efforts.

“For him the important thing was that the famine would weaken the autocracy and might further the cause of the Revolution. The thousands of people who died of hunger were simply unfortunate casualties of a war against Tsarist oppression,” Sebestyen writes.

Lenin was pretty much alone in this line of thinking. His callousness disturbed even his sisters, who were normally supportive of him.

His sister Maria is quoted as saying, “Vladimir Ilyich, it seems to me, had a very different nature from Alexander Ilyich [their late brother]. Vladimir … did not have the quality of self-sacrifice even though he devoted his whole life indivisibly to the cause of the working class.”

Sebestyen says, “He would shrug off accusations that he was inhumane, using an inflexible logic and a cold interpretation of Marxism which Marx himself would never have countenanced.”

He goes on to quote Lenin as saying, “It’s sentimentality to think that a sea of need could be emptied with the teaspoon of philanthropy. The famine … played the role of a progressive factor.”

After Lenin gained power, another food shortage occurred in 1918. The Bolsheviks didn’t cause the problem, but they, led by Lenin, amplified the pain and suffering.

Sebestyen notes that there were very few rich peasants in Russia at the time, but that didn’t stop Lenin from using them as scapegoats. The dictator branded rich peasants as “kulaks” and accused them of hoarding grain and starving Russia on purpose.

“The kulaks are the rabid foes of the Soviet government … these bloodsuckers have grown rich on the hunger of the people. These spiders have grown fat out of the workers. These leeches have sucked the blood of the working people and grown richer as the workers in the cities have starved. Ruthless war on the kulaks! Death to all of them,” Lenin said in a speech.

Lenin first expected the peasants to sell their grains to the government at an insultingly low price. The peasants, naturally, refused. So, Lenin established the Food Commissariat and unleashed armed requisition brigades on more than 20,000 villages within a couple of months.

As Sebestyen describes it, the brigades engaged in brutality—torturing peasants, stripping them, sometimes even killing them. One Bolshevik official compared the brigades’ work to “a medieval inquisition.”

Some Bolsheviks worried that the brigades were too harsh, to the detriment of the party’s reputation. Lenin did not relent.

Lenin’s instructions to Bolshevik chiefs illustrate a toxic combination of heartlessness and ruthlessness:

“Comrades, the kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed without pity. The interests of the whole Revolution demand it, for the final and decisive battle with the kulaks everywhere is now engaged. An example must be made. 1.) Hang (and I mean hang, so the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. 2.) Publish their names. 3.) Identify hostages … Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know, and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks.” 

In a postscript, Lenin added, “Find tougher people.”

According to Sebestyen, at least 3,700 were killed during the first year of food requisitions, and some villages were burned down. These extreme measures had little effect on the overall problem, and yet they set a terrible precedent.

He writes that “campaigns against the kulaks and forcing farmers at gunpoint to produce for the State became a feature of Soviet life for decades to come.”

Anyone who perceives utility in human suffering can’t be trusted to wield power with the necessary humility and compassion. Whatever good intentions Lenin may have had for Russia’s future, he quickly invalidated them with his willingness to dispose of people for his ideological cause.

In hindsight, the warning signs were there years before his ascension.

Remembering the horrors of the Soviet gulags

The Gulag Archipelago documents and examines the horrors of the Soviet prison camps. It’s the Russian literature equivalent of historical nonfiction. Comparing it to a traditional history book is like comparing War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov to a traditional novel.

Written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (a survivor of the gulags), even the abridged version is a sprawling, epic work. The author compiles not only his own experiences but those of many others to paint a thorough portrait of the oppressive atmosphere permeating Russia in the early to mid-20th century. He drills into the psyches of prisoners as well as guards, elevating the book into an insightful study of human nature.

I admit, I read only the abridged version, and I had to start and stop a few times to break it up with some lighter fare. The prose isn’t difficult to read at all, but the subject matter is intense. 

Obviously, this book is not entertainment, but it’s worth the effort. And remembering the broader story of 20th-century Russia, a historic tragedy in which millions died and many more suffered, is important. 

Ruled by the nearly 300-year-old Romanov dynasty, Russia began the century behind the times and in serious need of reform. But when revolution finally happened, conditions worsened and atrocities commenced. The Gulag Archipelago is a good starting point for learning how, and it can help us temper our righteous desire for change with the appropriate humility and caution.

The book has tons of excellent quotes. Here’s just a small sampling:

Power is a poison well known for thousands of years. If only no one were ever to acquire material power over others! But to the human being who has faith in some force that holds dominion over all of us, and who is therefore conscious of his own limitations, power is not necessarily fatal. For those, however, who are unaware of any higher sphere, it is a deadly poison. For them there is no antidote.

***

So let the reader who expects this book to be a political expose slam its covers shut right now.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

***

Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors.

***

Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.

***

The permanent lie becomes the only safe form of existence, in the same way as betrayal. Every wag of the tongue can be overheard by someone, every facial expression observed by someone. Therefore every word, if it does not have to be a direct lie, is nonetheless obliged not to contradict the general, common lie. There exists a collection of ready-made phrases, of labels, a selection of ready-made lies.

***

Truth, it seems, is always bashful, easily reduced to silence by the too blatant encroachment of falsehood.

The prolonged absence of any free exchange of information within a country opens up a gulf of incomprehension between whole groups of the population, between millions and millions.

We simply cease to be a single people, for we speak, indeed, different languages.