Taking the substance of Stalin’s War aside, Serhii Plokhy’s review of Sean McMeekin’s new book is a model of academic understatement and good manners.

Near the start of the review, Plokhy explains,

when you look at the war from the perspective of its end rather than its beginning, it is Stalin who emerges as the main beneficiary

Historians will recognize this remark as a warning: the book is shaped by teleology. Plokhy repeats the warning a few lines later:

The image of Stalin as consistently dominant in the war is achieved by projecting the power he acquired at the end of the conflict back into the war years as a whole.

History does not work this way. We would not call the Great War “Wilson’s War” simply because, by 1918, the United States had become the world’s premier financial and military power, and it would be nonsense to read the war backward as if it represented a triumph of Wilson’s diplomacy. Anyone who knows the history of U.S. involvement in that war knows that Wilson changed his mind, and his policy, several times in response to a world situation that would not cooperate with his preferences.

The same is true of Stalin and the Second World War, as Plokhy indicates.

The Soviet leader emerges as much more powerful than is suggested by his dismal diplomatic and military performance in the early stages of the war or by his inability to negotiate any geopolitical preferences with the western allies at Yalta beyond the territories already occupied by the Red Army first in 1939-40 and then in 1944-45.

One might add Stalin’s inability to forge an alliance with Britain in the 1930s and his refusal to heed intelligence warning of Operation Barbarossa.

Plokhy notes without comment McMeekin’s belief that Churchill and Roosevelt should have negotiated a peace with Hitler.

And he concludes by saying, “the author is … right to suggest that his is a new look at the conflict, which poses new questions and, one should add, provides new and often unexpected answers to the old ones.”

It is a most polite review.