Dimitrov & Stalin, 1934-1943.
(Review by Michael Jabara Carley)
Dimitrov & Stalin, 1934-1943: Letters from the Soviet
Archives, edited by Alexander Dallin and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, translated
by Vadim A. Staklo. Annals of Communism. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale
University Press, 2000. xxx, 278 pp. $35.00 U.S. (cloth).
Dimitrov & Stalin is a collection of letters from Georgi Dimitrov, the
Bulgarian head of the Communist International or Comintern, to I. V. Stalin
during the 1930s and early 1940s. There is no correspondence from Stalin; the
Soviet General Secretary's replies are limited to a few marginal comments and
notes. The documents published in this volume are found at the RTsKhIDNI (now
RGASPI), the Comintern and Soviet communist party archives in Moscow. The
correspondence covers a number of interesting topics ranging from the
"united front" policy (1934-39), to the Spanish civil war, the
period of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact (1939-41), and relations with
the Chinese and Yugoslav Communist Parties.
The editors, Alexander Dallin, professor emeritus at Stanford University,
and F. I. Firsov, a former researcher at RTsKhIDNI, point out in their preface
that the Comintern portrayed in these documents, while not "a benign
organization of well-meaning paper-pushers," was "a far cry from the
worldwide conspiracy of terrorists it was sometimes believed to be" (p.
xix). The editors say they unexpectedly found evidence of muddle and confusion
in policy-making: "Moscow's strategy and tactics were characterized not
so much by clarity, cleverness, or consistency as by dilemmas and ambiguities
in decision making. Time and again we observe the tensions between conflicting
aims and interests ..." (p. xx).
Not surprisingly, the reader of this book will encounter a good deal of
Dimitrov going to Stalin for approval of this or that policy, sending
instructions or advice to foreign communist parties, and mediating policy
disputes. According to the editors, Stalin is "something of a
sphinx," not deeply involved in Comintern business, though Dimitrov may
have been trying to pull him into greater involvement to gain a more important
role and more resources for the organization. Stalin seems only casually
interested in Dimitrov's correspondence, giving cursory responses, or none at
all. "Decide for yourselves," he says, when too busy to turn his
mind to Comintern business (pp. xx, 122). This may have been a frightening
prospect in the purge-ravaged Soviet Union.
The role of Stalin in policy making is of great interest to scholars
because he was at the centre of power in the Soviet Union and because it has
thus far been difficult to find his written words in memoranda and directives.
And this has led to conspiratorial interpretations of Stalin's conduct. For
example, the Soviet government appeared to support a "united front"
and "collective security" against Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but
what did Stalin really think? Was Soviet government policy only a front for a
clandestine personal policy pursued by Stalin? A reader will not find that
kind of speculation in this book. The editors acknowledge that new evidence
may come to light, but they think themselves on relatively secure ground.
So Stalin supported the Comintem's "united front" against Nazi
Germany which ran in tandem with foreign commissar Maksim M. Litvinov's
advocacy of a broad based anti-Nazi alliance. The Comintern, originally an
organization to promote world socialist revolution, became an organ of Soviet
foreign policy. As one French diplomat put it in 1933, the Comintern, like the
Red Army, was only dangerous to those states hostile to the Soviet Union.
During the Spanish civil war Stalin supported the united front policy and a
broad-based coalition against the fascist rebellion. He approved of
discouraging the Spanish communists from taking too prominent a role in
government for fear of alienating other more conservative elements of the
Republican movement. In China too, he urged co-operation between the Chinese
Communist Party and the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese
invasion. Chiang had to be dragooned into fighting the Japanese; his
preference was to make war on the Chinese communists, who were the greater
threat. The Comintern pursued a similar policy in Yugoslavia between Tito's
partisans fighting the German army of occupation and the anti-communist
The united front policy was abandoned after the conclusion of the
Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact in August 1939. The Soviet government and thus
the Comintern abruptly reversed positions, depicting the European war, started
by the German invasion of Poland, as a conflict between rival
"imperialist" powers struggling for dominance. The Soviet Union had
no interest in being drawn into such a conflict, and European communist
parties should therefore oppose the war. The editors capture Stalin's cynicism
after war broke out in September 1939. "We have no objection to their
[the Anglo-French and Nazis] having a good fight, weakening each other,"
Stalin commented (according to Dimitrov): "It wouldn't be bad if by the
hands of Germany the position of the richest capitalist countries (especially
England) were shattered ..." (p. 150). The editors do not comment on the
seeming contradiction between Stalin's apparent equanimity at the prospect of
a protracted war between Nazi Germany and France and Britain and his support
for an early end to the war. Grist to the mill, perhaps, of those who see a
conspiratorial Stalin. Whatever the position, Stalin's comment mirrored the
view of many French and British conservatives who had hoped that if any
fighting was to-occur in Europe, it would be the Nazis and Soviets doing it.
A.J.P. Taylor long ago commented that the Soviet Union succeeded in doing a
deal with Hitler, where the Anglo-French had failed at Munich. And as one of
Dimitrov's notes to Stalin demonstrates, the Comintern estimate of
Anglo-French policy in the late 1930s was not so far wrong (p. 159). According
to the editors, Comintern propaganda aimed at unmasking the "legend of
the antifascist character of the war" being conducted by Britain and
France (p. 164). This view, too, was not entirely off the mark. Contemporaries
attributed to the British and French leaders Neville Chamberlain and Edouard
Daladier a preference for an early end to the war and for not overly weakening
Germany. And what was the Soviet government to make of the "phoney
war," and the ample evidence of Anglo-French hostility before and after
the outbreak of the Soviet-Finnish Winter War? The French government showed a
greater interest in fighting the "weak" Soviet Union than in
launching an offensive against "colossus" Germany.
The collapse of France in June 1940 frightened the Soviet government, and
accordingly Comintern policy shifted to allow for communist resistance to the
German invader in Greece, Yugoslavia, and France. The Soviet Union, however,
still hoped to stay clear. This was an "awkward position," as the
editors note (p. 169), and it was also the transition back to the "united
front" policy resumed after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June
1941. The Comintern then became a liability to good Soviet relations with
Britain and the United States. As the editors note, Stalin never had much
respect for foreign communist movements, still less so after 1935. "One
tractor is worth more than ten foreign Communists" went a popular epigram
in the 1930s (p. 223). So Stalin said it would be "good to make the
Com[munist] parties entirely independent instead of being sections of the CI
[Communist International]" (p. 227). And this Stalin declared on 20 April
1941, two months before the German invasion. The Comintern was dissolved in
May 1943, and at the end of the war Dimitrov returned to Bulgaria eventually
to become prime minister until his death in 1949.
This is an interesting book which offers a more nuanced view of Soviet
foreign policy as exercised through the Comintern. We still do not see much of
Stalin except by implication, though this is no fault of the editors. And we
do not see anything of the commissariat for foreign affairs, though here the
editors might have used the published Soviet papers in the more recent volumes
of the Dokumenty vneshnei politiki to give context to Dimitrov's
correspondence with Stalin. This more nuanced view of the Comintern is in
striking contrast to the earlier volume published by Yale University Press in
1995, entitled The Secret World of American Communism, edited by Harvey Klehr
and Earl Haynes, to which Firsov injudiciously lent his name.