The Ghosts of Yalta Haunt Us Today

As a foreign affairs columnist, it feels a bit odd to be writing about the Black Sea when so much is going on at home: the overdue firing of US general Stanley McChrystal, Britain's impressive attack on its debts, new US bank regulation, and the hugely expensive and mostly unnecessary G20 jamboree in Toronto, which has turned that normally sedate metropolis into a version of Escape from New York.

More on McChrystal and his Crusaders next week.

To me as a military historian, Yalta is a nexus of history, the site of events that continue to affect our world to this day. It will be studied long after the latest Afghan War and the run amok Wall Street bankers are forgotten.

As Russian imperial residences go, Livadia is a rather small palace, even modest. Czar Nicholas II had this pretty palace of white limestone built as a family vacation residence in the sunny Crimea.

Livadia overlooks one of the Crimea's amazingly lush sub-tropical forests and the shimmering Black Sea. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had a summer residence just down the coast, at the ancient Greek trading post of Foros. Josef Stalin, who loved the Black Sea coast, had dachas (villas) scattered from Crimea to Georgia.

During the 1980's, I somehow managed to get down to Sochi, Abkhazia and Georgia when Americans were not allowed beyond Moscow city limits. I was flabbergasted to discover north of Sochi a Soviet version of Acapulco, complete with a pyramid hotel, all-night discos, riotous bars and throngs of vodka-fueled merrymakers.

Back to Livadia. Like so many things Russian, the palace wrenches one's emotions. So many ghosts pace its somber halls.

The palace's upstairs walls are hung with intimate photos of the Czar, Empress Alexandra, and their lovely children. The doting Nicholas often neglected state duty to spend time with his family. There were sad pictures of his son, who suffered from the family's curse, hemophilia -- but no pictures of the sinister monk Rasputin who turned the people against the Czarina.

We see Nicholas' weary face, the frightened eyes staring out from behind his beard of a weak ruler overwhelmed by a tempest of problems, lacking will or ferocity to rule a Russia seething with revolution.

Photos show the imperial family grouped together at Livadia much as they must have appeared when they were later murdered in 1918 by Communist gunmen in a dingy basement in the Urals. One mourns this family so filled with deep love for one another, and their tragic end.

But as l studied these melancholy mementos of Russia's last czar, I was struck by how much Nicholas bore heavy responsibility for the ensuing disasters of the 20th century. He held in his hands the chance to change the flow of history, but failed to do so. We see similar strains of indecisiveness in the character of another unproven leader caught up in fraught times, Barack Obama.

In 1914, Serbia sought to provoke a war between Russia and its enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire over Bosnia-Herzegovina, by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, at Sarajevo. As expected, Austria mobilized its armies to exact revenge on Serbia.

Serbia was a close Russian ally, as it remains today, and the primary tool of Russian expansion into post-Ottoman Eastern Europe, as it also remains today. In a fatal act that would end Europe's golden age, Nicholas ordered his huge armies to mobilize against Austria in support of Serbia.

Russia's mobilization forced Austria-Hungary's ally, Germany, to mobilize its force. France mobilized in response to German mobilization. Facing Russia and France in a two-front, Germany was forced to attack France before Russia's vast armies could take the field.

The Czar's decision to mobilize lit the fuse of World War I, which then led to WWII.

Nicholas should instead have rushed to Berlin on his private train to meet with his "cousin Willy," Germany's Kaiser, to avert the oncoming cataclysm. But Nicholas unleashed the dogs of war. He ended up losing Russia's empire and his family -- and plunging Europe into three decades of war.

On Livadia's main floor, one feels no melancholy, but anger. There, in February, 1945, US President Franklin Roosevelt, Britain's Winston Churchill, and Soviet ruler Josef Stalin met to decide postwar Europe's future.

In modern history's greatest betrayal, the Allied war leaders handed half of Europe to Soviet rule, betraying tens of millions of its people to the gulag, dictatorship, and confiscation of all their property.

The late KGB general Pavel Sudoplatov, who led the team that killed Trotsky and later observed Yalta, aptly calls the pact in his memoirs, "as cynical as the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939" that carved up parts of Eastern Europe between Germany and the USSR. But in that case, Hitler and Stalin made a two-sided deal, restoring lands their nations had lost during and after World War I.

Yalta was a shameful, one-sided sell-out of half the European continent. It was a far more egregious betrayal than the oft-cited Munich Pact. The left-leaning, likely senile Roosevelt kept hailing Stalin, who had murdered over 20 million people, "our Uncle Joe."

Ironically, last week, Georgia's pro-western government just blew up a towering statue of Stalin in his birthplace of Gori, outraging many Georgians and Russians at a time when the Soviet dictator's memory is being rehabilitated across Russia.

The heavy machinery used by Stalin to industrialize the USSR and build its arms factories was largely bought from the United States. Moscow confiscated grains from its farmers to finance industrialization, leaving some ten million of them to starve. Mao Zedong would later pay for China's industrialization in the same merciless manner during the 1950's. Recall Lenin's prediction that the capitalists would sell the communist the rope with which to hang them.

It has generally been forgotten that Stalin's concentration camps and mass murder peaked in the mid-1930's, at least five years before Hitler began his mass murder. Yet America rushed to the Soviet Union's aid when it was attacked by Germany, supplying huge amounts of material aid, arms, fuel and cash.

As Churchill so aptly remarked, when Stalin came to power, Russians were using wooden plows. When his rule ended, the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons.

Amazingly, at the Yalta Conference, the naive Roosevelt and the American delegation actually stayed at the Livadia Palace. The NKVD, the Soviet secret police, bugged every nook and cranny at Livadia, and overheard everything that was said by the president and his aides.

The British stayed at the nearby gloomy Vorontzov Palace, also heavily bugged. Sarah Churchill remarked to a British delegation member that it would be nice to taste chicken Kiev. It was delivered an hour later. Another British diplomat remarked that he wanted lemon for his tea. An entire lemon tree was quickly delivered.

NKVD and military intelligence, GRU, knew almost everything on the minds of the Americans and British. There were two Soviet agents in Roosevelt's entourage: Asst. Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White and Alger Hiss. Sudoplatov says he heard from GRU there was a third highly placed Soviet agent in the White House, and another who was a famous financier and scion of one of America's most famous families.

Harry Dexter White worked for Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, who had developed a plan to de-industrialize Germany and carve it up into little rural cantons.

How could warlords Roosevelt and Churchill been so foolish and cowardly? Stalin had 12 million soldiers moving into Eastern Europe. Stalin's might intimidated Roosevelt and Churchill, causing them to replace one totalitarian dictator, Adolf Hitler, by appeasing an even more dangerous one, Stalin.

The Soviet Union had done the lion's share of fighting in Europe, destroying 75% of all German land and air forces, and naturally expected the lion's share of the spoils. When the Americans, British and Canadians landed at Normandy, facing them was the ghost of the once invincible Wehrmacht, fatally crippled by shortages of fuel, munitions, and armor, and without any air cover. It was amazing the Germans held out as long as they did on the Western Front

After German forces surrendered, US general George Patton was ready to turn his famed 3rd Army against the Russians in Eastern Europe. The US had the atomic bomb, Russia did not. But the US and bankrupt Britain decided to buy off Stalin. Eastern Europe paid the terrible price. Patton was relieved and subsequently killed in a still mysterious road accident.

In 1905, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm predicted that fifty years hence, the British Empire, that then controlled a quarter of the globe, would vanish into dust and be replaced by two new empires, America and Russia.

I thought about this, in one of Stalin's sinister, green-painted villas on the Russia coast near Sochi. I sat at Stalin's desk, imagining how after Yalta his yellow eyes must have glinted with malice and triumph as he puffed his pipe as he sneered at the foolish Roosevelt and the helpless Churchill.