Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Stalin and Ribbentrop shake hands after the signing of the Molotov - Ribbentrop Pact with the scary looking Shaposhnikov laughing it up in the background, Moscow, August 23, 1939.
Stalin died 60 years ago today. He had a stroke in the night, and lay in a pool of urine on the cold floor of his dacha for hours until he was dead. Beria made sure nobody went in to help him until it was too late. Not that I'm expressing sympathy. The world became a better place when he died. My thoughts about Stalin in a previous article.
This is a revealing photograph, a rare instance of Stalin letting his guard down. It shows a greedy wolf contemplating a huge meal. In this case, the meal was Stalin's favorite: Poland. Significantly, the photo exists because it was taken by a German photographer brought along to the signing by Ribbentrop. A Soviet photographer would have destroyed the negative rather than risk showing the great leader in an unflattering light.
There is a continuing debate in Russia about what to think of Stalin. Some praise him for his wartime leadership. Others condemn him because of his ruthless terror. Both are right, though I think his crimes far outweigh his achievements. He was, however, the essential man in World War II. Had he lost his nerve in the summer and fall of 1941, the Germans would have won the war.
Edits for clarity.
Stalin did actually lose his nerve in July. As the enormity of his errors became clear to him, he left the Kremlin and hid out at his dacha for two weeks. When a delegation came to ask him to return, he thought they had come to arrest him. But he did go back to work, and by the end of July or early August, his nerve returned. It never wavered again.
Also, looking at the photo, it occurs to me that Stalin is looking at Poland, and Ribbentrop is thinking, "You took the bait. We will destroy you."