7 February 2013

Conversations with Stalin by Milovan Djilas

Milovan Djilas gave us a clear-sighted assessment of the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin.

Conversations with Stalin, originally published in English in 1961, is a wonderful piece of literary memoir and political analysis, which is still valuable reading over a half century after its appearance.

Milovan Djilas (1911-1995) was one of the four high-ranking communist leaders of the Yugoslav Communist Party, whose partisans overthrew the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. At the end of the Second World War the establishment of a communist state in Yugoslavia did not wholly fit with Stalin’s plans for two main reasons. First Stalin feared that the early appearance of communist states in eastern Europe would unsettle the West and risked sparking a conflict; and second, Stalin feared the development of centres of communist power, which remained outside his control.

Starting from a naive and idealistic appreciation of Stalin, Djilas recounts his several visits to the Soviet Union to negotiate with Stalin and the Soviet government. He tells of his exhilaration as his plane flies over Soviet territory for the first time, then recounts his experiences and how his initial enthusiasm is dimmed by an accumulation of events.

Of most interest are his vivid accounts of meetings with Stalin and his foreign minister and sidekick Molotov. Djilas describes the aura of submissiveness and adoration that surrounds the old man, along with Stalin’s theatrical explosions of outrage (e.g. when Djilas complains about the behaviour of the Red Army in northern Yugoslavia) and his indulgence of his guests at alcohol-saturated dinner parties.

The book concludes with a brief assessment of Stalin, his crimes and achievements, and pointing out how Stalin’s legacy continued to affect his successors.

For writing this memoir, Djilas was imprisoned in Yugoslavia for betraying state secrets, though the only secret of substance communicated in the book is, in effect, Stalin’s offer that Yugoslavia could “swallow up” Albania in exchange for political and economic subservience to Moscow.

DJILAS, Milovan, Conversation with Stalin, Pelican 1969

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