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World Leaders at the Yalta Conference, 1945

“In November 1945 Maxim Litvinov, at that time Deputy Foreign Minister of the USSR (who, as his wife told me, had become not merely tactically but even ideologically disenchanted), was asked by the American envoy Averell Harriman what the West could do to satisfy Stalin. He answered: ‘Nothing.’ In June 1946, still in that post, he warned a Western journalist that the ‘root cause’ of the confrontation was ‘the ideological conception prevailing here that conflict between the Communist and capitalist worlds is inevitable’ — that is, no more than the doctrine long since announced by Lenin that ‘a series of frightful clashes’ were bound to occur between the two systems, leading finally to the world victory of communism. When the correspondent asked Litvinov, ‘Suppose the West would suddenly give in and grant all Moscow’s demands?… would that lead to goodwill and the easing of the present tension?’ Litvinov answered, ‘It would lead to you being faced, after a more or less short time, with our next series of demands.'”

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Excerpted from Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century. In the book, Conquest, who Paul Johnson calls “our greatest living historian,” offers a blistering critique of not just Marx and his acolytes, but of the more general tendency for human beings to believe too strongly in the redemptive power of radical ideas and institutions.

On another level, in reading Litvinov’s ominous response, I was struck not by its application to today’s Russia (though some may argue that), but by how it reflects the unspoken approaches of so many groups and movements, both internal and external.

The photograph was taken at the 1945 Yalta Conference. Harriman is in the background, second from the right.

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