"Stalin's Secret War" by Nikolai Tolstoy
Reviewed by Stanley Reynolds (Punch 23/9/1981)

HAVING trudged through the Gulag with Solzhenitsyn until the spiritual footcloths were a mass of bloody rags, I thought there was nothing new under the Kolyma. I had underestimated the genius of J. Stalin. What a man for the macabre farce he was. There he was just come to power, looking round for something jolly to do he lighted upon the idea of forging US hundred dollar bills. This was at the same time as the Left-wing intellectuals from Britain, like Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, were touring the Soviet Union, giving it ten out of ten. And there was their hero, Stalin, actually entering into an alliance with Al Capone in an attempt to flood the capitalistic world with dud 100 dollar bills. Stalin actually took over a private bank in Berlin which became the counterfeiting HQ. Western police were puzzled because the forgeries were so well done and the supply of them larger than any known gang could produce. They hadn't reckoned on the boys from the Kremlin. When the cops did twig who it was it was all too amazing. They let the matter drop.

Reading Nikolai Tolstoy's excellent new book on that monstrous regime, I kept thinking of Bertolt Brecht and what a fine Brechtian character Stalin was. But Brecht was a Communist Party member. Rather a typical intellectual dupe, really. He was too busy portraying Hitler as a gangster to look over his shoulder at Uncle Joe.

Nikolai Tolstoy, for all his famous Russian name — he is heir to the senior line — was educated at Wellington, Sandhurst and Trinity College, Dublin. He is best known for Victims of Yalta, the book about the White Russians being turned over to Stalin by the British, but he has also written a biography of Thomas Pitt and he is something of an expert on Celtic history. He is, in fact, a proper historian, not simply a White Russian with a bee in his bonnet.

And here he has had to be detective as well as historian. The Kremlin does not throw open its archives to foreign historians. There's no room in there anyway. The place is full of Russian historians cooking the books. It is just this detective work that makes Tolstoy's book so interesting. He has sought out everything, all the obscure and out of print books, the remaining victims, the former dupes, the reformed torturers and any scraps of paper in Allied files which might fit together with some other scrap of information and clear up or at least throw new light on the mystery. One of the best sources was captured German files which in turn contained captured Soviet files. The Soviet Union itself gave away nothing. And why would they? They are masking mass murder. They are Stalin's heirs. They resemble him. No matter what lip service they may pay during periodic thaws. The difference is that they are grey men while Stalin, the greasy little cripple from the backwoods slums, was an amazing maniac. He was, for example, only five foot something but he liked to look big in pictures and he actually had a number of painters shot before the others got the idea.

The torture stories in this book are really disgusting. They are, in fact, worse than anything I've heard out of Latin America in recent years and even more cruel than Nazi Germany. It is hard to believe that. But it's true. And the Soviet murders and torture are on a larger scale.

The Allies, as we all know now, were fools to trust the Russians and reading this book we must see that we are fools to trust them now. Amazingly enough, Hitler was the only one Stalin trusted. But perhaps we should not be amazed. They were two of a kind. Stalin was simply a winner while Hitler was a loser. Nevertheless, in the 1930s Hitler out-thought Stalin at every turn simply because Stalin trusted Hitler. He never extended that trust to Britain and America and this was rather surprising because the two nations were overflowing with good thoughts about Uncle Joe. And neither country could do very much without one of Stalin's men, in the Foreign Office or the US State Department, telling the Kremlin about it. More than that, American and British foreign policy seemed at times to be run by Uncle Joe's boys. Even such Tories as Eden and Macmillan seemed to have fallen under some mysterious spell cast by the Georgian dwarf.

But this book is not about the stupidity of the Allies, it is about Stalin's war against his own people. The war against Hitler sometimes took second place to the ruthless destruction of his own. Nikolai Tolstoy does some practical reckoning and shows that most of the celebrated 20 million Russian dead died at Stalin's hands. He demonstrates, in fact, that the figure of dead is nearer 30 million. But the book is more than an up-dating of history. It is a warning, but one that we in the West seem too silly to heed.