Stalin’s Conversation with A.M. Kollontai
In March 1938, Fascist Germany unceremoniously occupied Austria; Anschluss did not lead to any protest either from England or from France. Even the League of Nations did not react. In September, Chamberlain and Daladier had a meeting with Hitler, the outcome of which was the betrayal of Czechoslovakia on their part. The Sudeten region was also annexed to Germany.
The leadership of the USSR had big hopes for the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations (May-August, 1939), where we introduced our proposal for the conclusion of a defensive pact between the three powers. However, because of the objections raised by Poland – an ally of England and France, and the boycott from the side of the West, the negotiations broke down and the military collaboration of participating countries became impossible. The USSR was left with no alternative to fend off the threat of war away from itself other than to accept the offer of Germany to conclude a non-aggression pact that was eventually signed in Moscow on the 23rd of August.
On the 1st of September 1939, Germany attacked Poland. World War II became a fact. On September 28, an agreement was signed in Moscow between the Soviet Union and Germany, which established the western border of the USSR roughly along the ‘Curzon Line’ that was proposed as early as in 1919 and approved by England, France and the USA as the border between us and Poland. Debates started around the Soviet-German talks. These talks were interpreted in very different and often contradictory ways.
Under war conditions in Europe the security interests of the Soviet Union required strengthening of its boundary with Finland. At this time, the negotiations of Soviet government with the Finnish delegation were going on in Moscow. These negotiations were difficult and progressed slowly. The Press depended on guesses and on tendentious rumours. The Soviet ambassador to Sweden, A.M. Kollontai also did not have sufficient information available to her and, in order to orient herself better, decided to go to Moscow to consult the People’s Commissariat, to clarify the position of the USSR.
After settling down in hotel ‘Moskva’, Aleksandra Mikhailovna rang up V.M. Molotov.
‘I, – recalls Kollontai – sat and waited in the lounge for Molotov to call me. I waited for hours. Secretaries coming out from his room would tersely say:
– No, no, they are still busy, please wait. Finally a secretary to Molotov opened the door of his office for me to go in:
– Please go in, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich is waiting for you.
Molotov started the conversation with the question:
– You have come to petition for your Finns?
– I have come to orally inform you how our broken negotiations with Finland are reflected in the public opinion abroad. I have come to personally meet you in order to make an objective and comprehensive report. It seems to me that in Moscow they do not realise what the consequences of a conflict between Finland and Soviet Union can be.
– Going by the case of Poland, the Scandinavians are convinced that we shall not give any concessions to the Nazi.
– All the progressive forces of Europe will be on the side of Finland.
– Thus you praise the imperialists of England and France by describing them as progressive forces? Their intrigues are known to us. But what about your Swedes? Will they be sticking to their proclaimed neutrality?
I tried briefly but precisely to clarify to Molotov the inevitable consequences that the war shall entail. Not only Scandinavians, but also other countries will come out in support of Finland.
On this Molotov cut me short.
– You once again have in mind the ‘progressive forces’ – the imperialists of England and France? We have taken all this into account.
My information was decisively set aside by Molotov. Molotov repeatedly and decisively told me that there is no possibility whatever of agreeing with the Finns. He explained the basic ideas of the draft of the agreement with Finland, all of which were meant to protect our boundaries and, without encroaching on the sovereignty of Finland, compensated the Finns for the shifting of the boundary line more to the north. To all the proposals of the USSR, the Finnish delegation had only one answer. ‘No, we cannot accept’.
Since none of the explanations were taken into consideration, this created an impression that the Finnish government has decided for itself the question regarding the inevitability of war against the USSR. However, the Soviet government, the minister said, is interested in the neutrality of the Scandinavian countries.
– It is necessary to do all that is possible to stop them from entering the war. In that case it will be one front less against us, Molotov told A. M. Kollontai on parting.
With some feeling of dissatisfaction, of fatigue and a sense of increasingly heavy responsibility, I slowly went back to the hotel, all the while examining the details of the encounter with Molotov, wrote Aleksandra Mikhailovna. She tried to complete as fast as possible all the official matters related to the Foreign Ministry and the foreign trade department and return to Stockholm. I wanted, especially after the encounter with Molotov, to ring up Stalin. Mentally I strived to do so. However, realising the entire prevailing situation and all the existing tensions and responsibility that Stalin had to deal with, I decided: I could not disturb him...
Several busy days passed by. I completed almost all my work and already wanted to leave when suddenly the telephone rang.
– Comrade Aleksandra Mikhailovna Kollontai?
– Yes, I am listening to you.
– You are invited by comrade Stalin. Could you meet him? And what time would be convenient to you?
I answered: any time that is convenient to comrade Stalin. For some time there was silence. Apparently, the secretary reported this to Stalin.
– Can you come just now?
– Certainly, I can.
– In seven minutes the car shall be in the main entrance of hotel ‘Moskva’. Good bye, Aleksandra Mikhailovna.
I was again in the Kremlin office of Stalin. Stalin got up from his working table to meet me and smilingly shook my hand for long. He asked about my health and requested me to sit down.
Outwardly Stalin appeared tired and concerned, but calm and confident. However, it was apparent that the enormity of the situation was weighing on him. This I became acutely aware of. I could feel it, when Stalin began to walk to and fro along the long table. His head was sunk into his shoulders as if under the enormous weight of the events. At this moment Stalin asked: "How are things going on with you and with your Scandinavian neutrals?
While I thought how to briefly yet comprehensively answer his question, Stalin started to talk about the negotiations with the Finnish delegation in Moscow and about the fact that these six month long negotiations came to naught. The Finnish delegation, in the middle of November, left Moscow and never returned with the ‘new directives’, as it promised. The agreement, which had to ensure peace and peaceful neighbourly relations between the USSR and Finland, remained unsigned. One could see that Stalin was perturbed, but not anxious.
In essence our conversation moved around the situation that was prevailing with Finland. Stalin advised that we should concentrate the work of the Soviet embassy on the study of the situation in the Scandinavian countries in connection with the infiltration of Germany into these countries and to draw in the governments of Norway and Sweden as well as to influence Finland, in order not to allow a conflict. And, as if concluding, he said that ‘if we do not succeed in preventing it, then it would be a brief one and end with little bloodshed. The time for ‘persuasions’ and of ‘negotiations’ was over. It is necessary to practically start the preparations to repel; to be prepared for war with Hitler’.
I felt, as if I was hit by electric current. For the first time I realised how close the war was. So much so that my notebook fell down from my hands; I later picked it up. I had taken it into the Kremlin to note down all that Stalin said.
This time the conversation continued for more than two hours. I did not notice how rapidly the time flew. Stalin, while he talked with me, it appeared as if he was at the same time discussing aloud with himself. He touched upon many questions: on the defeat of the People’s Front in Spain; talked much about the heroes of this fight. On the whole he continued for several minutes. His main thoughts were concentrated on the position of our country in the world, its role and potential possibilities. ‘In this plan, – he emphasised – the economy and policy are not at odds’. Speaking about industry and agriculture, he named several persons responsible for the matters and tens of names of the leaders of large enterprises, plants, factories and workers in the field of agriculture. He was especially anxious about the rearmament of the army, and also about the role of the rear in the war; about the need of strengthening vigilance on the border and also inside the country, and, as if concluding, he specially emphasised:
‘All this shall rest on the shoulders of the Russian people, as the Russian people are a great people; Russian people are generous. Russians are enlightened people. The Russian people are born to help others. Courage is inherent in the Russian people, especially during difficult times, in the dangerous times. They have initiative and have a purpose. Therefore, they face more hardships than other nations. On them it is possible to rely during any misfortune. The Russian people – are invincible, they are indomitable and indefatigable’.
I tried not to miss even a single word, so rapidly I wrote that my pencil broke. I somehow clumsily attempted to pick up another one from the bunch on the table that the stand nearly fell down. Stalin glanced, chuckled and began to light his pipe...
Reflecting about the role of personality in history, on the past and future, Stalin mentioned many names – from Alexander the Great to Napoleon. I tried not to miss the order in which he listed the Russian names.
He began with the Kiev princes. Then came to Alexander Nevsky, Dmitri Donskoi, to Ivan Kalita, Ivan Grozni, Peter the First, Alexander Suvorov, Mikhail Kutuzov. He finished on Marx and Lenin.
At this moment I butted in; I wanted to speak about Stalin’s role in history, but I could just say: ‘Your name will be inscribed...’ that Stalin raised his hand and stopped me and I stopped. Stalin continued:
‘Many matters of our party and people will be distorted and abused, above all in foreign countries and, yes, even in our country too. Zionism, in a tearing hurry for world supremacy, will be harsh on us, be vengeful on account of our successes and achievements. They still consider Russia as a barbarous country, as a raw material adjunct. And my name will also be slandered; it is being slandered even now. To me they shall attribute many a crime.
International Zionism shall by all means attempt to destroy our union, so that Russia could never rise again. The strength of the USSR lies in the friendship of the peoples. The sharp edge of the struggles will be directed, first of all, towards the destruction of this friendship, to the severance of the periphery from Russia. On this count it has to be acknowledged that we have yet not done much. Here is yet a large field of work.
Nationalism shall raise its head with special force. For some time it will dominate internationalism and patriotism; however, only for some time. Groups of nationalities within the nations shall emerge and shall enter into conflicts. Many pygmy-leaders shall emerge in these nations.
On the whole, in the future the developmental process shall proceed in ways more complex and in ways even more rabid and furious and the turns and twists shall be extremely sharp. It shall come to pass that the Orient will be in violent turmoil. Sharp contradictions with the West shall arise.
And nevertheless, the events, no matter how these were to develop, a time shall come, that the sight of the new generations will turn to the accomplishments and victories of our socialist fatherland. Year after year the new generations shall be born. They shall again think about the banner of their fathers and grandfathers and they will give to us full credit. They will build their future on our past.’
‘These conversations, Kollontai wrote, produced indelible impressions on me. I began to look differently at the peaceful world around me. I mentally returned to these talks many times during the war years and after it, repeatedly re-read the notes and always found in them something new, some nuance, and some new element. And now, as in reality, I see the office of Stalin in the Kremlin, and in it a long table and Stalin...
While departing from the office some melancholy enveloped me. Saying goodbye, Joseph Vissarionovich said; ‘Toughen yourself. They shall attack. At hand are arduous times. They must be overcome’. And, in a softer voice, he said: ‘We shall overcome. We shall certainly overcome! Collect yourself. Strengthen your health, harden yourself in the struggle!’
Coming out of the Kremlin, I did not walk; I simply broke into a run, noticing none, repeating, in order not to forget what was said by Stalin. After entering the house, I took out the notebook with my notes; I clasped some paper and began to write. I looked at the clock. It was already deep night. The clock showed ten minutes to two...’
Note. Extracts from the diaries of A.M. Kollontai, located in the archives of the Ministry of External Affairs of the Russian Federation; reproduced by historian M.I. Trushe.
Dialog, 1998, No. 8, pp. 92-94
I.V. Stalin, ‘Sochinenia’, Vol. 18, 1917-1953, Informatsionno-izdatelskiy
‘Soyuz’, Tver, 2006, pp. 606-611.
Translated from the Russian by Jaweed Ashraf
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