The Legacy of Yalta

Robert A.D. Ford February 11 1985

The Legacy of Yalta

Robert A.D. Ford February 11 1985

The Legacy of Yalta



Robert A.D. Ford

Livadia Palace in Yalta, the sprawling white-marble resort home of 19th-century Russian czar Nicholas I, is maintained today by the Soviets in all its imperial glory. It is preserved not because it represents an architectural monument of which to be proud nor as a reminder of a past over which Moscow prefers to draw a distorted veil. It is preserved because in its halls the Crimea Conference took place from Feb. 4 to 11, 1945. And there, for the first time, the Soviet leaders felt they had established themselves on an equal basis with their wartime allies, the British and the Americans. This achievement had, and still has, immense symbolic importance for the Russians. It signalled their acceptance as equals on both the political and the

I military level—and their hope, quite unreal, that agreement at Yalta would eventually lead to a division of the world between its natural leaders.

The division of Europe that emerged from Yalta, while reflecting the hard realities of the military and political

I situation as the war in Europe ended, ran flatly against the expectations and hopes of nearly everyone in the Western alliance and resulted very quickly in accusations of sellout and betrayal. Josef Stalin, of course, knew perfectly well what he was doing and cynically used the cover of Yalta to confuse what otherwise would have been an undisguised, brutal imposition of Communist rule on the peoples of Eastern Europe. He was no doubt surprised at the speed with which the West reacted —surprised because, knowing practically nothing of the world outside the Soviet Union, he probably believed Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had acquiesced in the Yalta agreements as a means of obfuscating what they must, in his mind, have known to be the Soviet intentions.

What is especially surprising is that anyone in the West should have believed for one moment that the Soviets had any other aim than total control of the countries they occupied. Moscow’s obsession with security primarily meant taking measures to prevent an invasion from the West ever happening again. Given the Soviet military’s concentration on land forces, this preoccupation meant extending Soviet frontiers as far to the West as the political situation would permit, i.e. the annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the incorporation of half of East Prussia, Poland up to the River Bug, including Lvov, the eastern portion of Slovakia, and Bessarabia. Even this buffer was not enough. The search for security meant the transformation of all the countries under their control into full members of the Soviet bloc.

In 1968 after the military intervention in Czechoslovakia, the Soviets argued publicly and privately that it had been necessary because of the danger an unstable Czechoslovakia would pose to the security of the bloc. I asked a high Soviet

Robert A.D. Ford served as Canada’s ambassador to the U.S.S.R. from 196h to 1980.

official at that time if Moscow really believed that.

He replied categorically that it was the military’s firm opinion that to leave a gap between the Soviet forces in East Germany and those in Hungary was not acceptable. There were many other reasons for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, but I am sure the Soviet concept of security, which means in effect security only for the U.S.S.R., was foremost in their minds.

Having decided that Soviet security required the communization of Eastern Europe, it was inevitable that they would attempt to impose the Soviet model within the limits of national differences. Poland was always the exception because of the difficulty of forcing this proud people totally into the Soviet straitjacket. The enforcement of the Soviet system in Eastern Europe was originally intended to provide a solid political and military barrier between the Soviet Union and the West and to prevent the contamination of Soviet culture by Western culture and ideas. The Soviets have shown repeatedly that they have no compunction about using force to maintain their military hold on Eastern Europe.

What has been less easy for them to deal with is contamination—dissidence from within the bloc.

the problem of a new kind of

The major aim of the Soviet leaders and the group of perhaps 100,000 who make up the Nomenklatura (the Soviet elite) is to maintain the power and privileges they have acquired and to pass them on to their children. They have many weapons at their disposal for this purpose, including the army and the police. But the days of Stalin are past, and it is no longer

possible to rely on brute force alone. There has to be some justification for their “confiscated power.” They have to show that they can provide security for the country, law and order, pride in their country’s position in the world, progress in living standards and an acceptable explanation—ideologically—of their hold on power.

In a period in which the Soviet standard of living has been slipping—and is likely to slip even more if there is no control on arms expenditure—and when foreign achievements are not obvious, it becomes more important than ever to make sure that the ideology remains free of heresy. Given the nature of the Soviet state, it is highly unlikely that any demand for ideological, political or economic reform will come from within the U.S.S.R., certainly not from the lower ranks. But it is the fear of the Soviets that heretical ideas

might penetrate the curtain from Eastern Europe.

The U.S.S.R. invaded Hungary in 1956 to crush an antiSoviet revolt and to ensure that the country remained Communist and a member of the Warsaw Pact. There was no such justification for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. What worried Moscow most, apart from the security issue, was the introduction of economic reforms by the Czech Communist Party itself and the parallel call to follow up with political

reforms. If either or both set of reforms were permitted to take hold, the Soviets foresaw pressure at home to introduce changes in their own cumbersome system that would eventually threaten the privileged position of Communist bosses all over the country. Therefore Czechoslovakia had to be crushed and, a decade later, Polish demands for reform contained.

The Soviet leaders have an immense interest, for security and ideological reasons, in keeping Eastern Europe under their control, preferably through local surrogates, if necessary by their own forces and their agents. There is a desperate need in nearly every country of Eastern Europe for economic reform, but so long as the U.S.S.R. is afraid to modify its antiquated economic machinery there is little chance that it will allow the East Europeans to do so. And so long as its political structure remains inviolable, it will permit only minor changes within the bloc.

After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, who died in 1982, elaborated on a policy that had been proclaimed previously but not in quite so stark a context. Subsequently known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, it stated in simple terms that what concerned one member of the “socialist” community concerned them all. And this convenient doctrine was later invoked to justify the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Indeed, it went even further in implying that the U.S.S.R. was entitled to interfere in neighboring countries if its own security were threatened.

Before I left Moscow in 1980, a senior Soviet official, irritated by my criticism of his country’s invasion of Afghanistan, insisted that the Soviets would never leave Afghanistan and that the West would in time forget, as it forgot Czechoslovakia. The Russians will in fact never voluntarily leave Eastern Europe or Afghanistan. They hope that, in the face of the evidence, the peoples of Eastern Europe will adjust to reality and that the West will accept the inevitable. But history is unpredictable, and human courage and ingenuity are factors that make longterm predictions uncertain.

One thing is certain, however: Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, will never cease to be an obstacle in the development of better relations between the Soviet Union and the West. The aspirations of the people of Eastern Europe cannot be totally suppressed and they can come to the surface at any time, as they did in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The West would probably have forgotten the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan by now if it were not for the brave struggle of the Afghan nationalists. But it is sensitive to anything affecting the peoples of Eastern Europe.

The Yalta agreement was obviously not the cause of the division of Europe, although it put a gloss on it. The division was the result of Soviet military and political imperatives. Yalta cannot be reversed, and the most the West can do is to find policies that will gradually improve the material standard of living of the peoples of Eastern Europe, loosen—as much as possible—Soviet dominance and permit the survival of the indigenous cultures that form an integral part of Western civilization. As the noted Sovietologist George Kennan said in a recent article, “There is no issue worth a nuclear war.” And it would take a war to dislodge the Russians from Eastern Europe.