‘STALIN WAS A MOST AFFABLE HOST’
HE WAS four foot something in his Red Army socks or, to use the current jargon, vertically challenged. One arm hung in inertly by his side. A man, you might think, whom life would have no difficulty passing over, even ignoring.
Yet this was the man, Stalin by adoptive name, with whom Churchill and Roosevelt had to do business at the Yalta conference which took place this month exactly half a century ago. Sir Frank Roberts, too, was there, as an advisor on German and Polish questions to Churchill and Eden. Indeed, at 87, he is one of the few left alive of the senior officials who were there.
After Yalta, as a minister in Moscow (1945-47), he got to know Stalin even better, and in 1948 he was sent back to Moscow by Ernest Bevin to join America’s General Bedell-Smith in negotiating directly with Stalin, Molotov and Vyshinsky over the Berlin blockade.
“With Stalin, you had to be extremely well briefed,” Sir Frank told me. “We had to be well briefed anyway, of course, but with Stalin even more so. In those days, Soviet leaders delegated very little and tended to conduct the important business themselves. With Khrushchev you could get away with more, you could take risks.”
Sir Frank should know. As our ambassador in Moscow (1960-62), he struck up a cordial friendship with Nikita Khrushchev which paid dividends during the 1961 Cuban missile crisis. Later, as our Ambassador in Bonn during the post-Berlin Wall years, Sir Frank’s front-line experience of Cold War tactics helped us to define Germany’s place in postwar Europe.
He lives now in the nearest thing to a privatised embassy that I’ve seen - in a huge Kensington apartment of ambassadorial proportions. There was no sign of dust - or of servants: a contradiction I dared not seek resolve. Sir Frank’s mind was on higher things.
“If you look out of that window,” he was saying, “there is nothing between me and America. But, if you look out of this window, there is nothing between me and Russia - apart from the Post Office Tower.”
Like Stalin, Sir Frank is himself vertically challenged, although he could probably give Stalin a couple of inches. Did this create a bond between them? It was not the sort of question one could ask out loud to someone of Frank’s gravitas. At least, with Yalta one was on safe ground.
“Stalin was very Clever,” said Frank, as we sat with our backs to America. “He would get his foreign minister, Molotov, to negotiate the difficult bits and take any flak. Then, once a decision was around the corner, he’d come in all smiles and agree. Speaking in a naturally soft voice, he appeared the very antithesis of the ruthless dictator he was. He was also a most affable host; at banquets, he would toast all and sundry.
“He would always appear at the negotiating table in full generalissimo’s uniform. General Bedell-Smith, the American Ambassador to Moscow, played up to this and spoke of “we generals together”. Stalin loved it. No wonder Roosevelt and Churchill dubbed him “Uncle Joe”. They buttered him up in the hope that if they treated him like a member of a gentleman’s club he would become one.”
Churchill in fact never trusted the man who thought nothing of murdering the Red Army’s senior officer elite; of setting up mock trials and executing many of his colleagues in the Politburo and on the Central Committee; or of being responsible for the death of millions of Soviet peasants on the rack of his agricultural collectivisation programme. Such a ‘gentleman’, ventured Churchill, might bring discredit on the club.
Because Stalin’s death decrees went out not as single spies but in battalions, he would sign them in batches, by the gross. “He always got Molotov to countersign them as he liked things to look legal,” recalled Sir Frank. “He even forced Molotov to sign an order exiling his, Molotov’s, own wife to Siberia.” Stalin, it seems, brought a certain gallows humour, relish even, to the execution of his duties. “Once, after signing one particular batch of 135 death decrees, Stalin said, “I hope there’s a good film on tonight.” Stalin loved films. Winston gave him Sir Alexander Korda’s film of Nelson and Lady Hamilton. He watched it thirty-eight times!”
The conventional view that, at Yalta, the West ‘gave away’ the eastern bloc to Stalin is one that Sir Frank is, naturally, anxious to discredit. “That was just not the case,” Sir Frank tells me. “In war, generals speak louder than diplomats. The fact is that the Red Army was already in possession of those territories.” Or, to put it in less diplomatic language, you can’t wrest the bone from your dog-of-an-ally’s if you want something else from him.
The cordless phone rings for the third time and Sir Frank bounces forward out of the maw of his cavernous sofa to answer it. “Hold on! I’ll have to consult my diary in the study.” He pushes the phone aerial up to improve reception, and negotiates the shortest route to his study. Silence. I admire his glittering array of Russian icons, their burnished gold glowing in the twilight.
Sir Frank’s form becomes suddenly discernible in the distance. He holds the cordless phone in front of him like a mine-sweeper, after sandwiching yet another appointment into his bulging diary. “Just because I’m retired, people think I’ve nothing to do,” he grumbles. “In fact, I’m busier than ever.” Daimler-Benz is just one of his glittering clutch of directorships. He still drives one of their cars.
“Where are we?” he asks, from the depths of the sofa. “At Yalta,” I answer. “Ah, yes. Our agreement to have free elections in Poland looked good on paper - but, as we all know, it didn’t last. That was a disappointment. Poland’s freedom, after all, is what we’d gone to war for in the first place. Molotov must have been pleased at the long-term outcome there. A curious man, Molotov. When he was angry, he would turn pea-green and stammer. Once, on some highly technical macroeconomic subject, he was asked if he would mind seeking the advice of his chief economic advisor. He took exception to that as he felt it reflected on his own expertise. “I supposed,” he growled, “all things are possible.”
The ebullient Khrushchev was a different samovar of tea. “What a contrast to Stalin!” recalled Frank with relish. “As Ambassador in Moscow, I had an urgent message from London that Harold Macmillan wanted me to deliver personally to Khrushchev. Any message I could deliver in person I did, as it gave me an excuse to see him. But the instruction to deliver this particular message was countermanded just as I was stepping into the embassy Rolls. Too late. The appointment had been made. I had to go.
“On arrival in the Kremlin, I explained the situation to Khrushchev and said I would simply leave the message with him and go. “No, no,” he expostulated, “if you leave now people will think I’ve snubbed you and that we’ve broken off relations with Great Britain. You must stay here for at least an hour.” I was, of course, only too delighted to comply, and asked him what book he was currently reading. “War and Peace,” he replied. It was perfectly true, he knew all about Tolstoy’s characters and the intricate plot. We had a marvellous off-the-record conversation.
“Latterly, though, Khrushchev’s colleagues had come to distrust his judgement, particularly over the Cuban missile crisis. Even Stalin, within his own terms, had made some palpable mistakes. He had, for example, ignored his generals’ warnings of Hitler’s intention to invade, and refused, until too late, to build up the country’s defences. “I don’t know how many forgave me,” Stalin declared. Nor, frankly, do I.”
Another cordless phone call - this time about one of several Yalta interviews Sir Frank has been vouchsafing to foreign periodicals. Memories of Yalta, it seemed, were coursing through his sitting-room, rather as the Suez Canal was thought by Lady Eden to be running through the middle of 10 Downing Street at the height of the 1956 Suez crisis.
But we couldn’t continue with these speculations. Sir Frank had to ‘prepare’ to take out a lady friend to dinner and a film - not Nelson and Lady Hamilton; it would be hard to imagine the cerebral Sir Frank enjoying such a trivial farce.
“How” I concluded, as we shook hands by the icons with their backs to Russia. “How, as a professional diplomat, have you learnt to contain your irritation with people less intelligent than yourself?” Sir Frank paused mid-handshake, “You might just as well ask how brighter people cope with me.” Ever the diplomat.