It has been open season on Stalin for some time now. The limited view of the Soviet leader available before 1990 has given way to a fuller image of a cynical, manipulative and cruel despot at the heart of the Soviet Union’s remarkable transformation from a relatively backward, inward-looking and insecure federation in the 1920s to the superpower of the 1950s, complete with nuclear weapons and worldwide ambitions. At the centre of this process was the Great Patriotic War, the colossal, savage conflict waged and won by the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945 as part of the broader and longer Second World War.
This is the subject of Sean McMeekin’s new history. He seeks to turn a spotlight on the war that, he argues, Stalin prepared for, directed and profited from. He asks historians, who have long focused on the role of Hitler in the war, to rethink it not as one dominated by the German dictator’s ambitions but one that Stalin manipulated in the interests of protecting and extending Soviet power and making the world communist (which were not always the same thing). He did so assisted by an army of spies, stooges and fellow travellers who, wittingly or unwittingly, enabled him to manipulate his allies and his enemies.
McMeekin sees Stalin as engaging unremittingly in acts of bad faith designed to bamboozle gullible politicians and publics abroad and to secure strategic advantage for the Soviet Union. Stalin’s claims during the 1930s to be seeking collective security were a sham to mask territorial ambitions; the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August