February 4, 1945 in Hammered History: The Big Three Meet at Yalta…and go on a week-long bender

The Big Three. If you look closely, you can see Stalin offering Winston a shot.

In February 1945 the European theater of the biggest and most destructive war in the history of humankind was inching towards its inevitable close. There were millions of military and civilian casualties, Europe was in tatters, the world was exhausted. On the bright side, the Soviet army was fifty miles from Berlin, Germany was just about done, and thus so was the war in Europe. Also, Hollywood would have movie fodder for decades; they just needed Steve McQueen to graduate from high school.  

It was time to come up with a plan for post-war Europe. What would post-war Poland look like? What should be done with Germany? Would newly-liberated European countries be democratic and self-determining? Would there be spheres of political influence throughout Europe? And most importantly, when would Kinder eggs be available?

Meeting to discuss and decide these issues (probably not the Kinder eggs) were the Big Three world leaders – Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Premier Josef Stalin. So, for eight days starting on February 4th, the Big Three and their staffs met to decide on the geopolitical face of the world. ‘The Big Three’ is not ‘The Super Four’ because they snubbed French President Charles de Gaulle. None of the Big Three seemed to like or trust him, but at least it didn’t lead to a passive bitterness in French-British and French-American relations for the rest of eternity.

Churchill suggested meeting in Malta or in the Mediterranean, probably hoping to get a tan after five years of bunkers and British weather. Stalin nixed these suggestions claiming his doctor’s orders restricted extensive travel. Plus, he was terrified of flying (and eating food that hadn’t been tasted, and sleeping, and being around other people). So he proposed Yalta, a Crimean resort on the Black Sea. We don’t know if he chose a perfect rhyme to mollify Churchill, but the choice kept Stalin on Soviet soil and forced the others (including a gravely ill President Roosevelt) to travel extensively and uncomfortably. This perhaps gave Stalin the first of many upper-hands. But to be fair, he did formally proclaim Roosevelt the leader of the conference and most of the plenary meetings were held in his building.  

Yalta left a lot to be desired. The mattresses were so thin that people could feel the springs. The bed bugs and lice within the thin mattresses thoroughly enjoyed the British and American steaks trying to sleep on them. And the war-ravaged and bombed-out atmosphere of Yalta led Winston Churchill to mention that they “couldn’t have chosen a worse location if they’d had ten years to plan.” In a more succinct critique, he dubbed the resort “The Riviera of Hades.” The deplorable conditions would not be matched by a civilized society until Britain opened its first Airbnb 64 years later.

Perhaps in part to make up for the poor conditions, Stalin embarked upon a charm offensive. Much of it was bent on impressing his guests with food and hospitality. This included feasts of smoked sturgeon, potatoes, assorted game, and lavish caviar. He also catered to his guests’ every need (besides mattresses). The morning after Roosevelt mentioned that there were no lemons for his afternoon cocktail, a lemon tree appeared outside his door, having been flown in from Georgia.  

Another big part of Stalin’s charm offensive was booze. He wanted to make his guests happy, comfortable, and too numb to notice they were being eaten alive by bugs. Stalin ordered a decanter of vodka to be left in each room. He ordered crates of a strong Armenian brandy (Dvin) to satisfy Sir Winston’s booze-soaked palate. Throughout the eight-day conference, Georgian wine and champagne were plentiful and Stalin made sure they were flowing by making lots of toasts.

How hammered is this history? Well, Stalin was a drinker of sweet Georgian red wines and vodka (you’re not officially allowed to open a gulag in Russia if you don’t like vodka). And Stalin definitely knew his audience. President Roosevelt was well known for his enjoyment of beer, martinis, and high balls. He was also known for his love of entertaining and mixing his (evidently awful) martinis for guests, with gin and a splash of absinthe.   

But this history would be mildly tipsy were it not for Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. Well before Sir Winston wobbled into his quarters at Yalta, his alcohol intake was the thing of global legend. In fact, while some of it was legend, much of it wasn’t. Churchill was famous for his love of champagne, brandy, whiskey, wine, and port. He was famous for drinking in the morning, day, and night. He was famous for his wit while drinking. He was famous for his drinking stamina. While visiting FDR at the White House, he would keep the President up drinking brandy and smoking cigars into the wee hours in sessions called “Winston Hours” by White House staffers. After Winston had left, it would take Roosevelt three days to recover. Though FDR most probably kept the White House liquor cabinets well-stocked, Winston liked to travel with his own stash. While working as a correspondent for The Morning Post during the Boer War, it’s claimed that he travelled with six cases of wine and spirits meant to fight the boredom (boerdom?) in the down hours. To wit, Winston Churchill could have gone to Yalta alone and spent a week playing Risk by himself and it would still qualify as hammered history.

Stalin may have had ulterior motives for having booze readily available. It’s been argued that Stalin wanted to keep the Americans and the British tipsy to have the sober upper hand in discussions and negotiations. It’s reported that the multitude of toasts he made were with vodka, because vodka looks like water. He would evidently sip the vodka and chug the water. He also bugged the rooms to overhear the British and Americans. But one wonders what useful information might be offered up by those who’ve just drunk twenty shots of vodka and were having a pillow fight with a bedbug.

What exactly happened at Yalta and its results have been debated ever since. Some claim that Roosevelt was grifted by Stalin, who made promises he would later break. It has been called the “sell out at Yalta” in that Churchill and Roosevelt sold out Eastern Europe and Poland to secure a commitment of Soviet troops for the invasion of Japan. But most agree that none of the Big Three walked away completely satisfied from Yalta. In any event, Roosevelt did secure Russian involvement for the war in the Pacific (Russia declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945). He also established the basic principles of the United Nations and did what he could to protect the Grand Alliance. Unfortunately, we know what happened to that alliance over the next four decades.  

Given the legendary status these three men have (and had) attained, it’s possible to forget that they were human. Tiny 5’4 Stalin, pock-marked, paranoid, murderous, his countrymen taking the brunt of European war casualties (because he couldn’t get to them first). He would be dead in eight years. Roosevelt was gravely ill and would be dead in two months. Egotistical Churchill, had seen Britain and the British brutalized by two wars. He would live another twenty years, but would be forced to witness Tuna and Jello Pie, Vegetable and Tuna Jello Wreaths, and other Jello-based culinary nightmares conceived in the fifties. No wonder he drank so much.

So, we can look at Yalta in another way. For eight days in February 1945, with all they’d been through and all the responsibility and heaviness that weighed on their shoulders, maybe The Big Three deserved a week of drinking. It seems a small period of refuge for three of the most beleaguered leaders on earth. Perhaps the only world leader more beleaguered than them was in a bunker 2,147 kilometers away casting longing looks between his Walther PP, a bottle of cyanide tablets, and Eva Braun’s breasts.

In any event, I wonder if they drunk dialed de Gaulle.    

So, what to drink?

If you want to drink like Churchill (first of all drink before breakfast, good luck, and update your CV), you could go with the Armenian (Dvin) brandy that Stalin gave to Churchill at Yalta. ArArAt Brandy has nuances of deep mahogany, a subtle aroma of cloves, and layered notes of deep fruits. It finishes with bright tinges of spice from forest nuts. Plus, it’s 100 proof and got Sir Winston fucked up, so after two shots you’ll be well on your way to handing over Eastern Europe to the closest Russian you can find. If you want to drink vodka to commemorate the Yalta Conference, you had better make it Russian vodka. Go for Stolichnaya or Russian Standard, play a game of Risk, and make lots of toasts. Just check your bottle for bugs.   

Comments are closed.