By Robert Gellately

Alfred A. Knopf, $32.50; 477 pp.

Joseph Stalin represents a 20th century icon rooted in such infamy it boggles the mind how devastatingly effective his Communist political apparatus operated during his nearly 30 years in power.

The Russian leader’s zeal for his political philosophy impacted the trajectory of world politics for generations. Any explanation of Stalin cannot be captured with traditional sense or interpretation. Marxist-Leninist philosophy fed Stalin’s life, and he projected those ideologies with inhuman brutality. Anywhere within his influence, the Russian dictator realized his ambitions by murdering with impunity, without compunction, devoid of any nod to fundamental human morality.

His Communist objectives represented his supreme goal. How does any single individual become so forceful, powerful, diabolical, and effective on a world stage? Florida State University Professor of History Robert Gellately traces Stalin’s career in a new work that takes dead-aim at debunking historiographical views that Stalin’s political post-World War II posturing originated from any obsession with national security.

To conclude that security concerns drove Stalin’s shape of post-war Russia, as much of the historical literature does, is to be trifled by a master manipulator, Gellately argues.President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill fell victim to Stalin’s shrewd intellect and talent at Tehran and Yalta, as didPresident Harry Truman at Potsdam. No matter how much charm Stalin feigned during the “Big Three” summits, he loathed his counterparts and everything they represented.

It proved the height of folly that western leaders supposed they could outwit Stalin, Gellately writes. It’s this point precisely that represents a central thrust of the book: Stalin stood as an extraordinary individual with a processing capacity his political counterparts could not match. Stalin was also, however, a cold calculating killer and revolutionary, and he was simply the best at pushing through to an objective. Conversely, any human morality checking the political ambitions of Churchill and FDR was not present in the Russian dictator.

Stalin cared nothing what the Americans theorized about his motives as long as he got what he wanted, the author argues. Playing upon the logical sympathies of losing a breathtaking 26 million Russian people in World War II, Stalin dropped his iron curtain across Eastern Europe. The Communist zones that Stalin erected did not result from any security concerns. Rather, Eastern Europe represented a major piece in Stalin’s ideological puzzle in pivoting a post-war world toward a Marxist-Leninist future.

While at Yalta and Potsdam, Roosevelt and Truman were unwise to suppose they achieved common ground with a man like Stalin, Gellately writes. There was none, except through the practical realties of strength and weakness.

The author makes a compelling argument. In the aftermath of World War II, Stalin’s retribution to his own people he suspected as being disloyal or even fleetingly receptive to Germany’s invasion was stunning in its breath and severity. He obliterated entire communities overnight. Stalin’s infamous terrorist police squad, the NKVD, poured into cities and rural areas informing residents, in most instances, they had 15 minutes to prepare for resettlement. Entire areas became ghost towns overnight. Hundreds of thousands ended up in gulags. Millions died.

After absorbing the author’s thesis, supported by primary materials now available from Russian sources, a present day reader is rendered incredulous to Stalin and his crimes against humanity. It’s staggering how brutally effective Stalin’s Communist network had become and how successfully it encroached beyond Russia into Europe. Romania, Hungary, Albania, Bulgaria, Poland, Yugoslavia, et al became Soviet client states, touching off a Cold War that would dominate world politics for the next 40 years.

Stalin died unexpectedly in 1953, his dreams unrealized. Stalin never wavered from the assumption that the capitalists would destroy themselves. Therefore, the Russian dictator positioned Russia to swoop in and overtake the weakened capitalist countries remaining in the world. Stalin’s only moment of leadership paralysis occurred in the run-up to Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia in 1941. To this point, Stalin held firm to the belief that the capitalistic countries would fight themselves before they got to him. He felt secure German dictator Adolf Hitler would finish off Britain before turning toward Russia. Therefore, Stalin steadfastly refused to believe reams of intelligence warnings of the imminent German invasion as anything other than a German ruse. That mistake nearly toppled the Soviet Union.

In the wake of the post war years, Stalin methodically orchestrated a communism’s slow sweep through Western Europe, ironically through the ballot box. With the utter destruction that befell Europe under capitalist and fascist leadership, Stalin believed Communism’s worldwide triumph was only a matter of time.

Apparently, other Western leaders viewed this outcome as a distinct possibility. Then something occurred, Gellately writes, that caught Stalin off guard and unprepared. The generosity of the Marshall Plan extended even to Russia, arguably the nation that suffered the worst in Hitler’s wake, upset everything for Stalin.

The Marshall Plan presented Stalin with a “momentous choice,” — the chance to avert the world from Cold War. Of course Stalin was never going to accede. Stalin was charting a quite different outcome. Post-war misery played into his plan of extending the Communist alternative and bringing on the dawn of a new era. Stalin proved willing to sacrifice the well being of Europe and his own people in the process to realize it.

Therefore faced with the choice between American aid and political mission, Stalin opted out, and the Cold War began. The irony remains that had Stalin taken the aid, the Russian economy would have also recovered. The Marshall Plan presented a lifeline to Europe that provided the opportunity for self-sustaining growth. Instead, Russia fell behind western Europe, and never caught up, Gellately writes. “Ordinary people in the Soviet Union and its satellites paid the price … and Communists in Western Europe never again put in a serious bid for political power.”

The curse of Stalin prevailed over the course of much of Europe, and the Cold War ensued. On the other side of the hemisphere, the author clearly shows Stalin’s involvement in guiding events on the Korean peninsula, which prompted another war involving the United States, this time as an adversary. North Koreans today live out their lives in a cult environment toward their leadership, a present day throwback to “Stalinism.”

Thus, Gellately demonstrates that Stalin’s entire existence, indeed, proved ideological. The Russian dictator was convinced war would be dispelled when its root cause — capitalism — was expunged.Stalin’s anti-capitalistic position represented an unshaken tenant of his existence. For all of the countries that fell under his sway, however, Stalin’s leadership represented a curse, and his victims numbered millions, dead and living.