A Tale of Two Stalins

An amusing asymmetry in historical studies occurred with the November publications of “The Iron Curtain” by historian Anne Applebaum and “The Untold History of the United States” and its companion eight-part miniseries by historian Peter Kuznick and Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Oliver Stone — amusing because the former is a diligently researched work by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian while the latter is a revisionist fever dream by the loudest, most paranoid customer in Hollywood’s head shop.

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To be fair, your reviewer has read Applebaum’s book and has only viewed the first four episodes of Stone and Kuznick’s Showtime series. But, after reading Applebaum’s “Gulag,” for which she won the aforementioned and well-deserved Pulitzer, and suffering through four hours of Untold History, it’s clear which of the new books should be taken seriously as history and which one would be more appropriately used merely as a doorstop.

Subtitled “The Crushing of Eastern Europe: 1944-1956,” Applebaum’s “Iron Curtain” relies on a treasure-trove of recently unclassified documents to reveal the expansionist policies of the USSR immediately following World War II. Such new information makes for a compelling argument against the reign of terror of Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov and their Eastern European water-carriers in Poland, East Germany and Hungary.

Contrast this with Stone and Kuznick who rely on the same-old, same-old discredited conspiracy nonsense that has been pedaled for decades by Stalinist apologists. Nothing new to view here other than the howler that President Harry Truman’s tough stance against the USSR was based on nothing more than the silly, ersatz-Freudian analysis that Truman’s dad labeled him a “sissy,” his mother told him he was supposed to be a girl, his classmates bullied him for wearing glasses, and he repeatedly owned businesses that went belly-up. These factors, the writers assert, led to what they consider the imperialist Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and 40 years of Cold War.

Stalin’s atrocities against his own countrymen and the residents of the USSR-controlled satellite nations, however, receive short shrift. Yes, a passing sentence reminds viewers that Stalin didn’t always play nice, but it’s akin to the Monty Python “Piranha Brothers” sketch wherein the mobster Dinsdale Piranha is excused for nailing Stig O’Tracy’s head to a coffee table because, as the victim explains: “Well he had to, didn't he? I mean there was nothing else he could do, be fair. I had transgressed the unwritten law.”

Funny guys, those Pythons, but a little less-so Stone and Kuznick because millions of real-life individuals and families suffered and died as a result of Stalinist institutionalized practices.

A more complete assessment of “The Untold History of the United States” by Ronald Radosh was published recently in The Weekly Standard. As for Applebaum’s “Iron Curtain,” it serves no justice to this magnificent, original work to simply contrast it with the ramblings of two historical revisionists. Readers can anticipate a more detailed review in the coming days. For now, suffice to say it is to be admired far more as history than what’s been observed thus far on Showtime.

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