In the early hours of August 16, 1942, Winston Churchill made his way through the corridors of the Kremlin to the private apartments of Joseph Stalin. He went with some trepidation: Stalin had been at his most sarcastic and dismissive in negotiations the previous day—effectively accusing the British government of cowardice, and reminding Churchill that “without taking any risks one cannot wage war.”
But that night in Moscow, Churchill was to encounter a very different Stalin. The Soviet leader was now friendly, introducing his daughter Svetlana to Churchill and giving him a personal tour of his modest apartment. As the drink flowed and the suckling pig was eaten, Stalin presided over an almost festive occasion. Churchill even felt he could tease Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign secretary, about his recent visit to Washington, saying that Molotov was late returning from the trip because he had decided to sneak off by himself to see New York.
“It was not to New York he went,” Stalin joked. “He went to Chicago, where the other gangsters are!”
Churchill was charmed by Stalin. He returned to his government rest house at three o’clock in the morning and announced to the British ambassador to Moscow that it was a “pleasure” to work with “that great man.”
Stalin the charmer is not a picture that comes readily to mind—but it is accurate. “He was always superb with people,” says Stalin’s biographer, Simon Sebag-Montefiore, “and again and again people thought that they were indispensable to him, even despite the obvious evidence that everyone was dispensable…. Stalin cultivated a sort of gentleness and a sort of quietness, a lack of showiness which people trust, but also he was very charismatic in a sort of feline way.”
In fact, by all accounts, Stalin was a brilliant negotiator, winning concessions for the Soviets that would shape the postwar world to his liking, while schooling the Allies in the art of using force and charm to get one’s way. His lack of personal vanity meant that he could let Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt drone on while he silently plotted his next move. Whenever Stalin spoke, as one member of the British delegation noted, it was “very much to the point.” Indeed, so outstanding was Stalin’s performance in meetings that Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, subsequently wrote that, “If I had to pick a team for going into a conference room, Stalin would be my first choice.”
That does not make him or his legacy any less frightening: There is little evidence that Stalin possessed the slightest genuine humanity or compassion. Individuals meant nothing to him. A deeply suspicious and paranoid man, he would do whatever was necessary for his own survival, including murder men, women, and children, and condemn whole nations of innocent people. Whatever was necessary—even be charming.
Stalin’s negotiating prowess rested on four key qualities. The first was his ability to focus only on the essentials. When, for example, a British delegation arrived in Moscow in December 1941 to discuss the future relationship between the two countries, they were shocked to hear Stalin immediately demand they agree that at the end of the war the Soviet Union should be allowed to keep eastern Poland, the territory it had snatched as part of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1939. The British were amazed that Stalin raised this territorial issue when German troops were still just a few miles from the Soviet capital. But Stalin always thought long-term, and he always focused—in foreign policy terms—on what was important rather than what was merely urgent.
From the very beginning of his relationship with the Western Allies, Stalin focused on just two key goals: retaining the territory the Soviet Union had gained under the pact with the Nazis, and ensuring that the states bordering the Soviets were “friendly” to his regime. By thus narrowing his focus, Stalin defined the parameters of all future discussions. While he was prepared to listen to whatever his allies wanted to say—and they did have myriad other issues to raise—Stalin himself concentrated, for what turned out to be several years, only on those two prizes. It was no accident he won them both.
The second key element to Stalin’s deal-making skill was a profound understanding of the importance of timing in all negotiations. He was not disheartened when the initial British response in December 1941 to his demand that the Soviets keep eastern Poland at the end of the war was negative, with Churchill saying privately to Foreign Secretary Eden in January 1942 that the request was outrageous since this territory had been “acquired by acts of aggression in shameful collusion with Hitler.”
Stalin understood that his ability to conclude a successful negotiation would be based on the success or failure of the Red Army. If Soviet forces pushed the Germans back, then all of Churchill’s objections based on fine “principles” would disappear. And so it proved. As British historian Andrew Roberts points out, there was a “massive shift” in the relationship between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union when “the Red Army starts to fight back.” As he puts it, “you can plot the increased respect and time that Roosevelt and Churchill have for Stalin on the map of the Eastern Front.”
And so it was that during the 1943 Tehran Conference—by which time the Red Army had indeed started to fight back against the Germans—Churchill completely reversed his position on eastern Poland. He now suggested to Stalin that the Soviet Union should keep the territory and that Poland should be compensated for the loss with land from eastern Germany. The whole of Poland would move more than a hundred miles west after the war. It was one of the biggest demographic shifts in the history of Europe, affecting the lives of millions of people, and Churchill proposed this move without the consent of the people affected—the Poles. All of this was simply to please Stalin.
When Churchill had asked Stalin what he himself proposed, Stalin had simply said that “he did not feel the need to ask himself how to act.” Stalin, playing his hand brilliantly, just sat back and listened, waiting for Churchill to give him what he wanted.
As smart as these negotiating tactics were at Tehran, they were nothing compared to the way Stalin timed his contribution at a key moment during the famous Yalta Conference in the Crimea in February 1945. The issue was, once again, the future of Poland. For while Stalin had won the battle over eastern Poland—this territory would indeed become part of the Soviet Union after the war (in fact, it is still not Polish, but part of Belarus and Ukraine today)—that left the thorny question of how the “new” Poland bordering the Soviet Union would be governed. The British and Americans supported the democratic Polish government in exile, based in London, but Stalin hated and distrusted these Poles, and had broken off diplomatic relations with them in 1943. In 1944, after the Red Army had entered Polish territory, he had installed his own tame Polish government.
So, by the time of Yalta, there were actually two Polish governments. One supported by the Western Allies based in London, the other supported by Stalin in Poland. Resolving this mess was a top priority for the Western Allies at Yalta. Even Roosevelt, who had not been engaged in detailed questions about the future of Eastern Europe, was concerned about this issue—so much so that he had written to Stalin suggesting that representatives from the London-based Poles should immediately fly to Yalta to meet, under the supervision of the Allies, representatives of Stalin’s Poles. A compromise of some kind could thus be forced through by the “Big Three” acting together.
This, of course, was most definitely not in Stalin’s interest. He didn’t want Churchill and Roosevelt determining the government of the new “Soviet-friendly” Poland. But he realized that he couldn’t just reject Roosevelt’s suggestion out of hand. So first, in the classic default action of leaders under pressure, he delayed any response at all, saying that he hadn’t been able to get ahold of his own Poles and, in any case, he and Foreign Secretary Molotov had worked out some ideas of their own but unfortunately they had not yet been typed up.
What this meant, Stalin continued, was that the Big Three could not discuss the Polish issue as planned at that moment—but they certainly could discuss it later in the conference. Meantime, the Soviet leader suggested, he had some thoughts about the formation of the United Nations, the postwar issue closest to Roosevelt’s heart.
Up to then Stalin had been stalling on the question of Soviet involvement in the future UN. He knew how important the UN was to Roosevelt, who clearly saw it as a core part of his legacy. But Stalin, in what was likely a deliberate attempt to create space for himself for future negotiations, had been frustrating Roosevelt’s plans for the UN by insisting that each Soviet republic should have one vote in the General Assembly—giving the Soviet Union 16 votes to 1 for the United States.
Now, in a coup de grâce of brilliant timing, Stalin had Molotov tell the conference that instead of 16 votes at the General Assembly, the Soviet Union would be satisfied with only “two or three.” Both Roosevelt and Churchill were ecstatic, hailing this change of heart as a “great step forward” toward a strong UN.
It was only then, in that atmosphere of gratitude toward Stalin (who in fact had given little of substance away), that the Soviets suggested moving on to the question of Poland. Molotov said that, unfortunately, they hadn’t been able to get the members of their own government of Poland on the phone and so “time would not permit the carrying out of the President’s suggestion to summon the Poles to Crimea.” However, the Soviets agreed that it would be “desirable” to add some of the London-based Poles supported by Roosevelt and Churchill to the new Soviet-backed government of Poland.
Both Roosevelt and Churchill, still basking in the good news about the UN, went along with the Soviet proposal. But surely even they realized how transparently ludicrous was the idea that Stalin could not get his own tame Poles “on the phone.”
Equally, they must have known that the question of “adding” some of the Poles from London to the existing non-democratic government of Poland would prove to be fraught, especially since it was something which would now be sorted out by the Soviets away from supervision by the Western Allies.
And Stalin achieved all this without losing his temper, and without even speaking very much. As Alexander Cardigan, the head of the British Foreign Office during the Second World War, remarked at the Yalta Conference: “I must say I think Uncle Joe [Stalin] much the most impressive of the three men [i.e. more impressive than either Churchill or Roosevelt]. He is very quiet and restrained…. The President flapped about and the PM boomed, but Joe just sat taking it all in and being rather amused.”
Though Stalin knew timing was vital in any negotiations, the third attribute that made him such a peerless negotiator was his understanding of the power of brute force, and his ability to wield it as needed. “One should distrust words,” Stalin said in 1944. “Deeds are more important than words.”
All of which meant that Stalin was prepared to lie and lie again so long as he knew that he had the physical power to back the lies up: to in essence rewrite history to his advantage. Most notably, in April 1943 when the Soviets were accused of orchestrating the appalling massacre of Polish officers at Katyn Forest, Stalin turned the accusation to his advantage by breaking off diplomatic relations with the Polish government in exile. Previously he had told the Poles that their missing officers had probably escaped, perhaps “to Manchuria.” In fact, Stalin had been personally instrumental in ordering the mass murder of these members of the Polish elite, but right up until the fall of communism the Soviet authorities continued to lie and say that the Soviet Union had not been responsible for the crime.
Stalin—even more than Mao Zedong, who first coined the phrase—understood that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” He was at his most comfortable when setting aside diplomatic talk and getting down to brute reality. Notable examples include his carving up of Eastern Europe into “spheres of influence” with the Nazi foreign secretary Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1939, or the alacrity with which he discussed Churchill’s infamous “percentage” deal in October 1944 over the future of countries such as Bulgaria and Greece.
Churchill had proposed dividing up how much “influence” the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States should have over various countries after the war: the Western Allies were to have a 90 percent share of Greece, for example, while the Soviet Union received 10 percent. Though never formally accepted, this “percentage” agreement certainly demonstrated to Stalin that Churchill was also prepared to be ruthlessly pragmatic about the fate of Eastern Europe.
So brutal was the Soviet leader in this regard that it is almost painful, more than 60 years after the event, to read the minutes of meetings with Stalin where visiting politicians clearly failed to grasp that all Stalin ultimately respected was physical power. The bluntest encounter occurred in Moscow in August 1944, when a delegation from the Polish government in exile arrived to try to persuade Stalin to authorize the Red Army to support the Warsaw uprising, in which Polish freedom fighters were battling against the Germans.
Stalin had agreed to meet with the Poles because Churchill asked him to. But that didn’t mean he had to be civil to them. He first showed his contempt by delaying the meeting—the Poles arrived in Moscow on July 31, but didn’t get to see Stalin until the evening of August 3. When they did meet, late at night in Stalin’s office in the Kremlin, he was dismissive of the brave Poles fighting in Warsaw: “I was told that the Polish government had ordered their units to drive the Germans out of Warsaw,” Stalin said sarcastically. “I wonder how they could possibly do this—their forces are not up to that task. As a matter of fact these people do not fight against the Germans, but only hide in woods, being unable to do anything else.”
Shortly after speaking these words, Stalin broke off the meeting to take a phone call—another sign of his contempt for the Poles in front of him. Hardly surprising, given all this treatment, that the Polish minute taker at the meeting felt compelled to record: “There is a general feeling that the discussion has become futile.”
Stalin was talking to people who were the democratic representatives of Poland, but he obviously had no intention of taking them seriously. He had already set up his own puppet government of Poland—people who were his creatures and who hadn’t been elected. And he knew all of this had been made possible not because of “principles” or “fine words,” but because of the raw power of the Red Army.
Stalin’s belief that “one should distrust words” also meant that he could rework and redefine words as it suited him—often to his massive advantage and to the near despair of the Western Allies. For example, as soon as Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed that postwar Poland should be “friendly” to the Soviet Union, Stalin set about a slow but persistent redefinition of just what “friendly” meant. He first insisted that it meant that no “Fascist” could participate in the government of Poland, and then he eventually judged almost everyone a Fascist who was not a supporter of Stalinism. And in one of his last letters to Roosevelt before the American president’s death in April, Stalin emphasized that any of the Western-supported “London Poles” who were to join the new government of Poland had to be “really striving to establish friendly relations between Poland and the Soviet Union.” And who would determine whether anyone was really striving to be friendly to the Soviets? Why, of course, the leader of the Soviet Union himself, Joseph Stalin.
Behind all of this trickery with language lay the fourth critical attribute of Stalin in his dealings with the West: he could make people think he was a trustworthy, even compassionate person, while in reality he cared nothing about them. “It’s virtually impossible to find anyone who spent time with him who didn’t come out trusting him and thinking that they could do business with him, thinking that he was a two-dimensional character, not just a bloody monster but also an ex-priest, someone who’d read a lot and could listen,” biographer Sebag-Montefiore says. “Despite his very small town beginnings—his Georgian background, son of a cobbler—he was also always a sophisticated player. All through his life he’s wheedled, he’s made people trust him. It’s just that he always has the ability to walk away and destroy them too.”
Stalin was possibly the least sentimental leader in history. Deep down he did not care—as almost all democratic politicians do—whether people liked him. Ultimately, he was not interested in forming personal relationships with other world statesmen. He saw the world as a brutal place in which individuals did not really matter. What mattered was geopolitics and the protection of the interests of the Soviet Union as he saw them.
Yet few people in the West actually realized this during the war. One of the few who did was the British military commander Alan Brooke, who wrote in his diary in 1942 that he felt Churchill was appealing to “sentiments in Stalin which I do not think exist there.”
And because Stalin—unlike most human beings— didn’t mind whether he was liked or not, he was able to use calm, unemotional insults as a way of destabilizing an opponent. Stalin, for example, regularly insulted Churchill. (He only occasionally insulted Roosevelt, almost certainly because he recognized the American president, backed by the military might of the United States, as the stronger potential adversary.)
At a banquet at the Tehran Conference, Stalin so insulted Churchill—by saying, among other things, that the prime minister had a “secret affection” for Germany—that he stormed out of the dinner. And later, after Yalta in the spring of 1945, Stalin upset Churchill once again by alleging that the British were attempting to deceive the Soviets. In response, Churchill sent a lengthy note of complaint back in which he called the Soviet charge “wounding” and denied that he or the British were being “dishonorable.” Stalin’s telegram in reply was ice-cold: “My messages are personal and strictly confidential. This makes it possible to speak one’s mind clearly and frankly. This is the advantage of confidential communications. If, however, you are going to regard every frank statement of mine as offensive, it will make this kind of communication very difficult.”
Churchill, Roosevelt, and many others all appear to have been genuinely hurt by Stalin’s insults, something which implies they believed they were in a relationship of friendship. Even Roosevelt—himself a skilled manipulator of other people’s emotions—was personally upset by Stalin’s claim that the Western Allies were negotiating with the Germans in April 1945 behind the back of the Soviet Union, writing to Stalin that such “vile representations of my actions” caused him to feel “bitter resentment.” But the key to understanding Stalin’s power in negotiations is to understand that he had no need of friendship or personal relationships.
The terrible—and unpalatable—truth is that by the end of the war, Stalin had got pretty much everything he wanted out of Churchill and Roosevelt. And he achieved all this with an astute mix of threat, political savvy, and charm. Essentially, he successfully conned the Western Allies. On his return from Yalta, in late February 1945, Churchill had said: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.”
The next 45 years—featuring the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe—would show just how wrong Churchill and the rest of the Western Allies had been.
Laurence Rees wrote WWII Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West and won the British Book Award for history book of the year in 2006 for Auschwitz: the Nazis and the ‘Final Solution. Educated at Oxford University, he is currently a Visiting Senior Fellow in the International History Department of the London School of Economics and Political Science, London University. He launched the website WW2History.com in May 2010.