MIGHTY HISTORY

That time Stalin and Churchill drunkenly split up Europe

In October 1944, Churchill went to a meeting with Stalin to discuss the sovereignty of Poland. The two got drunk and just started splitting up the rest of Europe instead.

On Oct. 9, 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill walked into Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin's study, got super blitzed on whiskey with the Soviet, and then proceeded to split up Eastern Europe with Stalin by writing a list of countries and percentages next to them. He would later call it his "Naughty Document," and it's going on display with other World War II and Cold War Era documents.


Soviet troops march in 1943.

(RIA Novosti Archive, CC BY-SA 3.0)

World War II brought together unlikely allies, and possibly none of the unions was weirder than Soviet Russia teaming up with Great Britain and the United States. The U.S., Britain, and Russia were members of the Allied Powers in World War I, but Russia withdrew as the Bolsheviks rose up against the tsar.

Britain and America—as well as Canada, France, and others—sent troops to back up the tsar, but the intervention failed. So, the Soviet Union began its existence with a grudge against the foreign troops that had tried to prevent the revolution.

Then, Russia's first foray into World War II was signing a non-aggression pact with Hitler and then following Germany into Poland, capturing sections of that country. Russia didn't join the Allied effort until after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

And, in 1944, Soviet forces began to take back Poland, and they were not supporting the Polish Home Army that was part of the Allied forces against Germany. This was a problem for Churchill since the U.K. had joined the war in 1939 largely in response to the invasions of Poland.

The Soviet relationship with the U.S. and Great Britain was fraught, is what we're saying.

The man in the middle represents Yugoslavia. This will not go well for him.

(W. Averell Harriman Papers)

But the Soviet Union benefited greatly from allying itself with the U.K. and America. Russian troops drove American vehicles, and the British and U.S. navies kept the sea lanes open for Russian ships, submarines, and supplies. And the invasions of Italy and Normandy had greatly reduced the pressure on Soviet troops in the east. And remember, the German invasion of the Soviet Union had made it deep into Russia before being turned back.

So, in October 1944, Allied-Soviet relations were healthy, but it wasn't clear what would happen after Germany was defeated and peace returned. On the night of the 9th, Churchill and Stalin got blitzed and tried to figure out how they would avoid new conflict in the future.

And so Churchill started writing on a scrap of paper. He wrote a list of countries that would be between the Western and Soviet spheres of influence. Romania, Greece, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Bulgaria made the list.

(Photo by Vints, public domain. Original document by Winston Churchill)

Next to these countries, Churchill listed how much "influence" Russia and Britain should have in the countries after the war. Romania would go 90 percent to Russia, 10 percent to Britain. Greece would go 90 percent to the U.S. and U.K. and 10 percent to Russia. Yugoslavia would get an equal split. And Churchill thought Bulgaria should go 75 percent Russian and 25 percent to the other Allies, but Stalin scratched that out and made it a 90-10 split.

And then Stalin put a big blue check mark on it, and the two men looked at it. Churchill proposed burning it, worried about how posterity would look at that casual splitting up of Europe. Stalin told him to keep the document instead.

The next day, the foreign ministers of the two countries tried to shift the percentages a bit and nail down what "influence" meant, but Churchill wouldn't be pinned down on the details, and so his "naughty document," as he referred to it, was essentially abandoned.

For what it's worth, Churchill credited this late night visit and seemingly cavalier negotiation with protecting Greece from a communist takeover. There was evidence discovered after the war that Stalin had already decided to back off of Greece, but Churchill hadn't known that at the time.

Indeed, there was plenty of conjecture after the "Percentages Document" came to light in the 1990s that the British prime minister was trying to navigate the upcoming peace that would be unforgiving for Britain. The British Empire was clearly in decline, the Soviet Union was on the rise, and America had announced its plans to leave Europe as soon as possible after the war.

So, for Churchill to secure room for democracy after the war, he would have to do it by negotiating with the Soviet Union, at least in part. And if that sucked for Yugoslavia, well, that sucks for them.