As the Red Army advanced into Eastern Europe, Stalin thought about its revolutionary role. The victories of 1944–5 had opened up the possibility of imposing Soviet-style regimes on the liberated territories. He had been planning for this since before the war began. He had realized that the war would break down states and national boundaries, giving him the chance to export the revolution by liberating European lands. If the First World War had allowed the Bolsheviks to carry out the first stage of their revolution, in Russia, a second would ‘allow us to take power in the whole of Europe’, Molotov explained to the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry in 1940.
Stalin was careful to conceal his ambitions from the Allies, instructing foreign Communists who followed in the footsteps of the Soviet troops to join other anti-fascist groups in united or ‘national’ fronts in order to disguise their revolutionary intentions. In May 1943 he dissolved the Comintern and gave an interview to The New York Times in which he disclaimed any intention of subverting other states – a claim that fooled American intelligence. Yet all the time Moscow was preparing Communists who would be installed in power by the Red Army in Poland, eastern Germany, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. At the Tehran Conference, in November 1943, Stalin pushed the British and Americans to agree to major territorial gains for the USSR, including eastern Poland up to the Curzon Line (the 1919 border) and the Baltic states, in effect reclaiming the lands he had won and Sovietized as Hitler’s ally in 1939–41.
Stalin’s first goal was to control Poland as a buffer zone to protect the Soviet Union against the threat of any post-war German revival. In July 1944, the Red Army crossed the River Bug and entered territory which Moscow was prepared to recognize as part of a future Polish state. Without consulting anyone it installed in power in Lublin the Polish Committee of National Liberation, a cover for the Communist Party, which Stalin henceforth treated as Poland’s legitimate government. He would have no truck with the Polish government in exile in London, dismissing it as an agent of imperialism, and allowed the Nazis to destroy the Polish Home Army by holding back his forces on the Vistula when it launched the Warsaw uprising. Once the uprising had been crushed by the Germans, the Red Army entered Warsaw without any resistance from the Poles. By the end of January 1945, the Lublin Communists had formed a Provisional Government in the rubble of the Polish capital.
With the Red Army racing to Berlin and Soviet help required for the war against Japan, Roosevelt and Churchill had no real option but to appease Stalin in the early months of 1945. By the time the Big Three met at Yalta on 4 February, the Red Army had crossed the River Oder into Germany, while the Western Allies had not yet reached the Rhine. The Americans and British agreed to Stalin’s plans to move the Soviet Union’s borders westward to the Curzon Line, compensating Poland with land in eastern Germany, and to his proposals for a Polish government friendly to the Russians, insisting only on a vague undertaking by the Soviets to reorganize the Provisional Government ‘on a broader democratic basis’ to include the London Poles. When Molotov advised Stalin that the wording of the agreement might block their plans to Sovietize Poland, Stalin responded: ‘Never mind. We’ll do it our own way later.’ By April, the NKVD-trained security police in Poland had arrested 40,000 Poles deemed to be opponents of a Communist regime. They were held with German POWs in Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
Stalin thought of Poland as part of the Soviet ‘sphere of influence’. At his meeting with Churchill in Moscow the previous October, the two leaders had carved up Eastern Europe into Soviet and Western zones (the Percentages Agreement). But where the British and Americans took these spheres of influence to mean traditional protectorates (without interference in domestic politics by the occupation force), Stalin saw them as a licence for the Sovietization of the liberated countries. ‘Whoever occupies a territory,’ he told the Yugoslav Communist Milovan Djilas, ‘also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise.’
By the early summer of 1945, Stalin was counting on a sphere of influence to include Finland, Sweden, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, including Soviet control of the Dardanelles. The Red Army’s conquest of Berlin hardened his ambitions. Wherever Soviet troops were in control they carried out arrests and executions of anyone suspected of potentially opposing Russian domination – civil servants, businessmen, landowners, ‘kulaks’, nationalist partisans and collaborators with the Nazis. Conquest bred imperial attitudes. The Russians lorded it over the countries they had conquered. Zhukov, for example, filled his home with looted paintings and treasures from the Soviet zone in Germany. In the Baltic lands and west Ukraine there were mass deportations of the population – the start of a broad campaign of what today would be called ethnic cleansing – to make room for mainly Russian but also east Ukrainian immigrants.
Stalin arrived in Berlin for the Potsdam Conference in July like a conquering emperor. He set about imposing his conditions for the dismemberment of Germany, for the Polish–German border, and for reparations to the USSR in exchange for Soviet involvement in the planned invasion of Japan – at that point imagined as being potentially as brutal and protracted as the invasion of Germany had been. But then Truman, the new US President, surprised Stalin by announcing that the Americans had developed the atom bomb and would use it against the Japanese. The bomb altered everything.
So far Stalin had been relatively cautious in his strategy for the Sovietization of the countries occupied by the Red Army. In addition to telling the Communists to join the national fronts, in effect returning to the anti-fascist stance of the Comintern in the 1930s, rather than to push for revolutions of their own, he also held back from supporting the Communists in Greece, which was in the Western sphere of influence. In the Soviet zone of Germany he told the Communists not to go beyond the ‘minimum programme’ of land reforms and nationalizations, hoping that would broaden their appeal to the Western half of the country. In Stalin’s view Eastern Europe was ready for a bourgeois-democratic revolution, a February 1917, but not yet for an ‘October’. The Communists were small minorities, and nationalism was too strong. He supported the idea that each society should advance at its own pace on ‘separate paths to Communism’.
All that changed with the dropping of the bomb. Stalin saw Hiroshima as a warning to the Soviet Union. It strengthened his conviction that to counteract that threat he needed to be tougher in his dealings with the West. He would use the offensive potential of his troops in Eastern Europe as a defence against the US bomb. ‘The atomic blows against Japan forced us to re-evaluate the significance for the USSR of the entire East European bridgehead,’ recalled Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet ambassador in Washington.
A sign of that new toughness was the rigging of elections and intimidation of the opposition parties in Eastern Europe from the autumn of 1945. In Hungary, for example, the conservative Smallholders Party won a clear majority in the November elections. But Marshal Voroshilov, Stalin’s ‘pro-consul’, imposed a coalition government with Communists controlling the Interior Ministry and the police, which enabled them to push opponents out of office by investigating and arresting them for their ‘fascist’ connections. One after another, by these ‘salami tactics’, the Smallholders Party was destroyed.
Aggressive posturing towards the West was also part of Stalin’s tougher line. In his first major speech of the post-war era, in the Bolshoi Theatre on 9 February 1946, he called for renewed discipline and sacrifices by the Soviet people in another Five Year Plan, not just to recover from the damage of the war, but to prepare the country for the coming global conflict with its capitalist enemies, which, he said, was bound to come about ‘as long as capitalism exists’. The speech was taken in the West to mean alarmingly that the Soviets were actually willing to engage in war. It was soon followed by a toughening of the US position towards the Soviet Union.
In the Soviet Union the Cold War meant an end to the wartime relaxation in the cultural sphere. The Stalinist regime prepared the country for the international struggle by tightening its ideological grip on the intelligentsia and sealing off the country from Western influence.
Stalin was quick to clamp down on the ideas of reform that had surfaced in the war. In his Bolshoi Theatre speech he argued that the military victory had proved the superiority of the Soviet system, vindicating everything that had been done by his leadership before the war. Ruling out political reform, he ordered his subordinates to deliver ‘a strong blow’ against any talk of democracy. Censorship was reinforced. The NKVD was strengthened and reorganized as two separate bureaucracies: the MVD was henceforth to control domestic security and the Gulag system; while the MGB (the forerunner of the KGB) was placed in charge of counter-intelligence and espionage (although in a world where the regime’s enemies were by definition ‘foreign spies’, their mandate spilled over into the surveillance of the domestic scene as well). The post-war years saw no return to the terror levels of the 1930s. But every year tens of thousands of people were arrested and convicted by the courts for ‘counter-revolutionary’ activities.
Stalin launched a new purge of the army and the Party leadership, where rival power centres, formed by groups perceived as ‘liberal’ reformers, were seen by him as a potential challenge to his personal authority. His first priority was to cut down the top army leaders, who enjoyed popular authority as a result of victory in 1945 and, in the case of Marshal Zhukov, had become the focus of the people’s reform hopes. On Stalin’s orders, Zhukov was demoted to commander of the Odessa Military District, and later sent to an obscure posting in the Urals. Zhukov’s name vanished from the press. He was written out of war accounts, in which Stalin now appeared as the sole architect of victory.
Stalin also turned against the Party leadership of Leningrad, a city with a strong sense of independence from Moscow (strengthened further by the solidarity of the Leningraders in the siege) and a vibrant literary culture rooted in the European values of the nineteenth century. Leningrad’s Party leaders were neither liberals nor democrats: they were technocrats who believed in the rationalization of the Soviet system. During the war, a number of them had risen to senior positions in Moscow, largely due to the patronage of Zhdanov, the former Party boss of Leningrad. In 1949, several leading Leningrad officials were arrested, including the Director of Gosplan and Politburo member Nikolai Voznesensky, who had been the mastermind behind the planning of the Soviet war economy and had since developed ideas of economic reform based on the NEP. These were the first in a series of arrests and fabricated cases (known as the ‘Leningrad Affair’) through which Stalin destroyed leaders he perceived as threats to his personal rule.
The post-war political clampdown was matched by a return to the austerity of the planned economy. A new Five Year Plan was introduced to rebuild Soviet industries after the destruction of the war and rearm the country for the new conflict with the West. Huge building projects were drawn up for the restoration of the country’s war-torn infrastructure and housing. The war on Soviet soil had destroyed 1,710 towns, 70,000 villages, 6 million buildings, and 31,580 factories – all in all about a quarter of the country’s pre-war physical assets; it had left 20 million people homeless and an even greater number in housing without heating, running water or electricity.
Forced labour played an increasingly important role in the post-war Soviet economy. The Gulag population rose by at least 1 million in the five years after 1945, and there was an army of unpaid labour in the 2 million German POWs, who were mostly used for timber-felling, mining and construction, including many of the showcase building projects which came to symbolize the post-war confidence and achievements of the Soviet system – the Volga–Don Canal, the Kuibyshev hydro-electric station, the Baikal–Amur and Arctic railways, the extensions to the Moscow Metro, and the Moscow University ensemble on the Lenin Hills, one of seven wedding-cake-like structures (‘Stalin’s cathedrals’) in the ostentatious ‘Soviet empire’ style which shot up around the capital in these years.
To reduce consumer spending and inflationary pressures there was a currency reform (exchanging old roubles for new ones at a rate of ten to one) in 1947. Taxes on collective farms increased by one third between 1946 and 1948. Grain exports rose to pay for industrial and military spending. But there was famine in the countryside, following a poor harvest in 1946, which left around 100 million people hungry and took the lives of at least 1 million people through starvation and disease. Despite the promise of a better life to come after the war, for most people it seemed that nothing much had changed since the 1930s, the years of austerity and sacrifice.