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Yalta: Witness to History

When the Big Three — Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin — convened at this fabled Crimean seaside resort in 1945, the whole world was watching

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The images are seared in our memory from World War II: photographs of the Big Three seated together in a marble courtyard at Yalta. As this uneasy alliance of leaders convened on the Black Sea, they offered hope to a world ravaged by war. Later, the so-called Yalta Conference was blamed for almost everything that was to go wrong in the next half-century. But what happened at the conference itself, argues frequent contributor Robert Wernick, did not warrant this response.

It was a historic moment, to be sure, but little of note was actually decided at Yalta. "Despite the persistent legends that have grown up over the years," Wernick writes, "the Big Three of Yalta did not divide Europe into East and West," and they "did not divide Germany into zones of occupation." What they did do "was to make promises of future cooperation and eternal amity," and vaguely (and ultimately, ineffectively) ensure the rights of the nations of Europe to self-determined, democratically elected governments.

Ironically, notes Wernick, at least some of the promises they made, since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, have been realized. Yalta itself — once part of Russia, then handed over to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic — finally became, in 1991, part of the newly independent republic of Ukraine.

Wernick takes us on a guided tour of Yalta through the years — to Livadia Palace, the dream house built by Czar Nicholas II that became the site of the Yalta Conference; to the inner workings of the conference itself; through the postwar years; and finally to what, today, remains a splendid, though unpolished, jewel on the Black Sea.

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