April 24, 2020

A Treat for History Connoisseurs

Last year offered few Estonian translations of books on history, at least that of the 20th century.

David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov (eds). The Kremlin Letters: Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt. Yale University Press (US)/Bodley Head (UK), 2018. 680 pp.

Nevertheless, in late November, one of the most notable works of the year reached bookstores—an interesting and voluminous source publication. Two scholars of diplomatic history, David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov, published a co-edited collection of wartime letters between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt with extensive commentary.

David Reynolds (b. 1952) has worked as a professor of history of international relations at the University of Cambridge for many years. For years, Vladimir Pechatnov (b. 1947) worked at the Soviet embassy in Washington and in several research institutions, later becoming chair of European and American Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. This book is the result of unique and, in current times, rare British-Russian high-level research cooperation lasting ten years. It was published in 2018, and Estonian was supposedly the first translated edition. Given the geographical and thematic reach of the letters written by the three wartime giants, new translations of the book can be expected soon.

From 22 June 1941, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, until Franklin Roosevelt’s unexpected death in April 1945, the three heads of government sent 682 messages to one other. The last was from Roosevelt to Stalin on 11 April, a day before the stroke that ended the president’s life.

The messages naturally include some laconic notes and lists of military supplies requested from or promised to the other party. The more important messages, including letters, included in the book form close to 75% of the total correspondence between the three men, and form the main axis of the volume.

Granted, the letters exchanged between the grand trio were published for the first time in English and Russian in 1957 in the Soviet Union and, in the context of the Khrushchev Thaw, it was a decent version. It is possible that the English text might have been retouched by the notorious Cambridge graduates, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Soviet spies who lived in Moscow at the time. It would be a real treat for some connoisseurs of source criticism to compare the wording and translation of the 1957 version with the new publication. Nevertheless, over 60 years ago this collection of documents was published in Moscow with a longer preface and some notes to the text.

In this book, the background to the letters has been extensively explored. The editors have attempted to identify the first drafts of the letters, as well as minutes of some discussions by ministers or advisers to the heads of government. Ambassadors’ notes are also discussed—orders from their principals on how to hand over the letters, aspects that had to be emphasised, or instructions to pay attention to the recipient’s first reaction to a secret despatch. The nuances in several letters make fascinating reading. It is worth noting that the book sheds light on some significant changes that the letters’ authors made just before sending them. The hard work of the editors consequently presents the reader with a thorough overview of wartime leadership politics, as well as the work done behind closed doors. Most of the letters were sent by secret telegram, which meant encrypting and later deciphering the words. The editors illustrate several examples of mistranslation leading to confusion or even offence being taken.

The book explains that, upon finishing his letters, Stalin usually cut out parts of the text and tried to convey his wishes as clearly as possible. Churchill, on the other hand, preferred a long quill, as he liked to say, and his style was verbose, sometimes even bellettristic. Roosevelt showed the least interest in the detail of composing a letter, and his first, rather dry drafts were improved by adding points on his personal views and incorporating a more encouraging style. Undoubtedly, though, all three men had a clear vision for their military and foreign-policy objectives.

It is worth noting that, while Churchill met Stalin for the first time in Moscow in August 1942, the first encounter between Roosevelt and the Soviet leader took place in Tehran in November 1943. Thus, they had to resolve complex politico-military issues only via letters for several years. Exchanging letters was their substitute for meetings and discussion and, for the Western statesmen, correspondence offered the first chance to familiarise themselves with Stalin’s views.

Hence, we find out how surprisingly little they knew of the other party’s capabilities at the beginning of their exchange. For example, in one of Stalin’s first letters to Churchill, on 13 September 1941, the Soviet leader was in dire straits and asked the British to send 25–30 divisions to Arkhangelsk or to the southern regions of the USSR through Iran without posing any threat. First, the long sea route from the UK to northern Russia was clearly dangerous, as the Germans had taken over Norway and used it as a base for their air and naval forces. Moreover, it is surprising how extensive was Stalin’s request for help. By comparison, by early May 1940—just before the Wehrmacht’s great offensive in Western Europe—the British could only offer 13 divisions to their ally France, three of them with little training, mainly to be used for service in the rear. By May 1940, the British had not even completed the formation of their only large tank unit, the 1st Armoured Division.

Another surprising topic is the competitiveness between the statesmen. Everything appears serene at first glance, as the three countries were literally fighting for survival against Nazi Germany and its allies. Stalin and Roosevelt were both simultaneously commanders-in-chief of their armed forces and heads of government, and de facto, Churchill was too. They had equal positions and a common goal—to win the war.

Thus, one might think that they were united by their goal. However, many letters show ideological disagreements, doubt, and plain distrust. Discussion on several topics led to deadlock. Several times Stalin suggested that it might be difficult to explain some decisions to his people and the Supreme Soviet. Some decisions that were inevitable in military and strategic terms were substantiated by allied solidarity in the letters. Some letters are clearly intended to deceive. For example, Churchill tried to postpone opening the Second Front in France at any cost, while Stalin announced in the early spring of 1945 that the main destination for the great offensive by Soviet forces was not Berlin.

Relations between the men nearly broke down several times, as the tone of the correspondence turned uncompromising and combative. While Roosevelt and Churchill constantly informed each other of Stalin’s letters and often coordinated teir responses, Stalin mainly had to guess or put together the puzzle of what his so-called partners were saying based on contradictory intelligence. By the end of the war, tension rose as the statesmen began to envision post-war Europe and their chances of claiming the strongest positions. Moreover, everything in the letters was wrapped in diplomatic style, which in itself provides for interesting reading.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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