Prof Rempel lecture: soviet foreign policy 1921-33

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Soviet Foreign Policy 1921-33:
Fr0m Accommodation To Neo-Isolationism

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


I. Accommodation, 1921-1927


Lenin warned Moscow leftists late in 1920 that an era of coexistence with capitalism was dawning. European capitalist economies were reviving, and even the intransigent Trotsky admitted:

"History has given the bourgeoisie a fairly long breathing spell .... The revolution is not so obedient, so tame that it can be led on a leash as we imagined."

The conflict with Poland, ended by the Treaty of Riga (March 1921), left Soviet Russia weakened. The Ukraine proper became a Soviet republic, but Poland acquired parts of Belorussia and the western Ukraine. After seven years of strife, Russia's economy faced collapse. Lenin, confronting peasant uprisings and the Kronstadt revolt, launched the New Economic Policy at home and a conciliatory policy toward the West.

To strengthen itself for subsequent conflict, Soviet Russia now sought diplomatic recognition, trade, and credits from the West. Recognition would provide some security against attack and aid Soviet efforts to divide capitalist countries and win trade concessions. The West reacted favorably because European industries lacked sufficient markets and their governments, never truly committed to overthrow the Soviet regime, longed for normal relations. Obstacles to settlement included Comintern propaganda in the West and its colonies and especially Russian debts. Western claims, totaling about 14 billion rubles (roughly 7 billion dollars), included pre-World War I tsarist debts, wartime borrowing, and compensation for nationalized European property; the Soviets made huge counterclaims for damage done by Allied intervention.

The West agreed that wartime debts and Allied damage to Russia about canceled out, but the French especially sought repayment of the prewar debt, most of which they held, and reimbursement for confiscated property. When Russia demurred, debt negotiations broke down; but the Soviets, making token concessions on propaganda, obtained some short-term credits, trade agreements, and diplomatic recognition from all major powers except the Untied States. Even this refusal of recognition did not prevent extensive U.S. technological assistance and some Soviet-American trade during the 1920s.

The shift to accommodation enhanced the role of Soviet diplomacy directed by an able professional, George Chicherin (1918-1930). an ex-Menshevik of noble birth who had once worked for the tsarist foreign ministry, Chicherin was an idealistic socialist, dedicated, scholarly, and hard-working. However, with his dubious past, he never achieved high rank or influence in the Soviet Communist Party. Abroad, he had to compete with the Comintern, Profintern (international trade union organization), secret police, and foreign trade and tourist agencies. Furthermore, the Narkomindel (People's Commissariat of Foreign Affairs) lacked even the degree of authority enjoyed by the tsarist foreign office.

After 1919, formulation and decision making in foreign and domestic affairs were concentrated in the Politburo of the Russian Communist Party, rather than the Party Congress or Central Committee. During Lenin's illnesses of 1922-23, the Politburo decided foreign policy issues collectively, then transmitted its decisions to Chicherin for implementation. However, when healthy, Lenin formulated basic theoretical and practical concepts of foreign policy himself, and devoted much attention to organizing the new Soviet diplomatic service. His fertile political imagination and tactical skill made him preeminent in determining the general outlines of early Soviet foreign policy. With Lenin acting basically as his own foreign minister, Chicherin's position resembled that of Foreign Minister Gorchakov in the 1860s--executing policies already determined by the head of state. The Politburo frequently bypassed the Narkomindel, the rival Comintern did not keep it informed, and the government, affirming that the Comintern was an independent agency, disclaimed responsibility for its moves. Nonetheless, Chicherin achieved real gains by persistent diplomacy.

A. Rapallo

The Genoa Conference (April 1922) marked his, and Soviet Russia's, diplomatic debut. In western Europe, Genoa was conceived as an international effort to restore Europe's depressed economy by drawing in both of its pariahs--Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia. At the opening session of the Conference, Chicherin declared:

While maintaining ....their communist principles ....the Russian delegation recognize that in the present period of history, which permits the parallel existence of the old social order and of the new [socialist] order now being born, economic collaboration between the states representing these two systems of property is imperatively necessary for the general economic reconstruction.

To the West, Chicherin held out alluring prospects of extensive trade with Soviet Russia and lucrative investment in nascent Siberian industries, coupling this with a proposal for general disarmament. however, his main objective remained to separate Weimar Germany from the victor powers, and reach agreement with her.

Chicherin achieved this brilliantly at Rapallo, Switzerland. Exploiting Western coolness and snubs toward the Germans at Genoa, he induced their delegates to meet with him at nearby Rapallo. To the consternation of the British and French, Germany and Soviet Russia promptly concluded the Treaty of Rapallo involving mutual diplomatic recognition, cancellation of debts and claims, and agreements to expand and normalize trade. While western liberals viewed Rapallo as a sinister Soviet-German conspiracy, the Germans regarded it as inaugurating for them an independent foreign policy and escape from the consequences of defeat in World War I. The Soviets considered Rapallo a model agreement with a bourgeois state, leaving them full freedom of action, and interpreted it as splitting European capitalism, and enabling them to reach useful accords with the weaker segment. Rapallo, Moscow concluded, scotched dangers of European economic action against Soviet Russia, and brought it out of diplomatic and economic isolation.

Simultaneously, clandestine military cooperation was taking shape: the Germans were constructing arms factories in Soviet Russia whose produce was shared and tried out new weapons, including tanks, prohibited to them by the Treaty of Versailles. During the severe crisis which confronted Weimar Germany during 1923, policy differences surfaced between Narkomindel and the Comintern. While Chicherin supported the Weimar government which survived, the Comintern backed efforts by the German Communist Party to overthrow it. The Comintern suffered a grave reverse as evidence mounted that prospects for a Communist revolution in Germany were all but dead. Continuing rivalry between Narkomindel and Comintern, however, reflected merely differing tactics, not a conflict of basic aims.

B. Locarno and Berlin

Chicherin's policy of normalizing relations with the rest of Europe, while generally successful, also suffered setbacks. During Anglo-Soviet negotiations for trade and credits, the "Zinoviev letter" (October 1924), containing supposed instructions from the Comintern president to British Communists to subvert the armed forces, caused a furor in Britain. The "Letter" provoked a "Red scare" in Britain, contributed to the downfall of the Labor government, and strained Anglo-Soviet relations severely.

Another diplomatic reverse followed: the Locarno Agreements of 1925 between Germany and the former Allied powers, excluded the USSR completely, and achieved a brief era of apparent European unity and harmony. Despite such reverses, Chicherin's diplomacy, by ending Soviet isolation and reaching accord with Weimar Germany, enhanced Soviet security and contributed to its economic recovery. Only a year after Locarno the Soviet-German Treaty of Berlin (April 1926), reaffirming the provisions of Rapallo, stipulated neutrality if either country were attacked by a third power.

However, Soviet hostility toward the League of Nations persisted. From its inception the League had been viewed in Moscow as a concealed capitalist coalition against Soviet Russia. This resulted partly from the latter's exclusion from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and because that international organization was dominated in the inter-war period by leading capitalist powers, Britain and France. Furthermore, international stability and prosperity, fostered by the League, would reduce Communist prospects for world revolution. A Soviet press statement on the League of nations declared in November 1925:

We regard the League of nations... not as a friendly association of peoples working for the general good, but as a masked league of the so-called Great Powers, who have appropriated to themselves the right of disposing of the fate of weaker nations... Certain Powers are counting on using Germany to assist in carrying out... their hostile designs against the USSR .... The League is a cover for the preparation of military action for the suppression of small and weak nationalities.

Not until 1934 would the Soviets alter their hostility toward the League.

C. Asia

Asia had remained secondary in Soviet policy. Lenin recognized the revolutionary potential of colonial peoples in undermining Western imperialism, but Soviet Russia was too weak to exploit it. Soviet Russia promptly repudiated tsarist imperial privileges and spheres of interest, most of which it could not retain anyway. To weaken Franco-British influence in the Near East and enhance Soviet security, Lenin supported such nationalists as Kemal Pasha of Turkey. The Soviets appealed to colonial peoples, notably at the Comintern-sponsored Baku Congress of September 1920. Zinoviev told delegates of 37 nationalities:

The Communist International turns today to the peoples of the East and says to them: 'Brothers, we summon you to a Holy War first of all against British Imperialism.'

This was purely a propaganda campaign, but later many Asian revolutionaries were trained in the USSR with profound consequences for the West.

Justifiably, Soviet leaders regarded China as the key to Asia. They promptly condemned European imperialism there and renounced most special Russian privileges, though in 1921 the Red Army entered Outer Mongolia, ostensibly pursuing White generals, and established a Communist puppet government. Mongolia has served ever since as a buffer and Russian base on China's frontier.

During the early 1920s, Moscow maintained formal relations with the weak Peking government while Soviet agents, led by Michael Borodin, penetrated the Canton regime. Its leader, Sun Yat-sen, who had led the Chinese Revolution of 1912, aimed to expel foreign imperialism and to achieve national unity and social reform. With Borodin's aid, he built the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) on the model of the Soviet Communist Party. Sun's death in 1925 left a vacuum in Canton soon filled by Chiang Kai-shek, a young Moscow-trained nationalist officer.

The Stalin-Trotsky struggle affected Soviet policy: convinced that China was entering her bourgeois-democratic revolution, Stalin favored proletarian participation in a national bloc including peasants and bourgeoisie and urged the Communists to enter the Kuomintang. Trotsky, however, advocated an armed Communist uprising, and a direct transition to socialism in China. Stalin's policy prevailed, but during his northward expedition in 1926, Chiang slaughtered Communists in Shanghai, expelled Soviet advisers, and soon ruled much of China. Soviet policies there, based on inadequate knowledge of the situation, had plainly failed.






II. Neo-Isolationism, 1928-1933

Stalin's ascendancy brought a return to autocracy in Soviet domestic and foreign policies, and produced a docile and subservient Comintern. Removing potential and actual rivals from positions of power and influence at home and launching forced collectivization and massive. industrialization, Stalin abroad raised as a smoke-screen the danger of imminent attacks on the USSR by powerful capitalist states. Envious and distrustful of cosmopolitan, intellectual Old Bolsheviks such as Zinoviev and Bukharin, he acted to undermine their influence and sever ties with European socialism. In these years occurred a marked growth of deliberate isolation from European affairs.

In his report to the 15th Party Congress (December 1927), Stalin intimated that a major shift in Soviet foreign policy was imminent, and raised the specter of renewed capitalist assaults against the USSR:

Whereas a year or two ago it was possible and necessary to speak of... 'peaceful coexistence' between the USSR and the capitalist countries, today... the period of 'peaceful coexistence' is receding into the past, giving place to a period of imperialist assaults and preparation for intervention against the USSR.

Soon afterward Stalin accused France, which he considered the dominant European power, of making preparations to attack the Soviet Union, which he surely did not believe and for which there was not a shred of evidence.

A. Sole bastion of world revolution

The Sixth Comintern Congress of September 1928, an obedient Stalinist body, proclaimed the USSR to be the sole bastion of world revolution, and stressed that all Communist parties owed exclusive allegiance to Moscow; their local interests must be subordinated to preserving the USSR.

While accusing Western capitalist nations of plotting war, Stalin emphasized that Soviet foreign policy sought consistently to preserve peace. At the 16th Congress of June 1930 he affirmed:

As a result of this policy of negotiating trade and non-aggression pacts... we have succeeded in maintaining peace... in spite of a number of provocative acts · . . of the warmongers. We will continue to pursue this policy of peace with all our might .... We do not want a single foot of foreign territory, but we will not surrender a single inch of our territory to anyone.

Indeed, despite Stalin's intransigent and frequently alarmist tone, Soviet foreign policy in these years remained cautious and pacific, avoiding confrontations with capitalist powers. Stalin appears to have counted on the preservation of world peace during the First Five Year Plan and continued to sound this theme down to 1939.

B. The Great Depression

The Great Depression (1929-33) convinced Moscow of the correctness of its policy line against western democratic socialists. Predicting the imminent demise of world capitalism, Soviet leaders concluded that this would leave social democrats as the only important remaining barrier to the conquest of power in the world by the working class led by the Communists. Declared Molotov:

Social fascism with its 'left' wing is the last resource of the bourgeoisie among the workers.

Stalin's theory of "social fascism" helped undermine democracy in Weimar Germany and bring AdoIf Hitler to power. Stalin detested the democratic, pro-Western policies of the German Social Democrats (SPD), but he also distrusted the large and volatile German Communist Party (KPD) and doubted he could control it if it achieved power. Thus Stalin, playing Communists against Social Democrats, ordered the KPD to collaborate with the Nazis against a Weimar Republic undermined by the Depression.

Believing that the capitalists were already in power in Germany and that the Nazis were likewise bourgeois, Stalin concluded that Hitler in power, rather than launch a revolution against capitalism, would crush moderate socialism, and cause Germany's defection from the western camp and dependence on the USSR. To desperate pleas by German Social democrats for Communist aid against the Nazis, the reply of the Soviet embassy was: the road to a Soviet Germany lies through Hitler. Thus, Stalin bears considerable responsibility for the triumph of Nazism in Germany, which later would prove so costly to the USSR. Even after Hitler assumed power (January 1933), Stalin persisted in regarding France as the chief Soviet foe, apparently out of ignorance about German conditions and excessive faith in Leninism.


This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Background to Revolution
  1917 Revolutions
  Lenin's Russia
  Stalin's Russia 1927-39   
Stalin: Economics & Terror, 1927-41



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BBC Radio 4 History Channel 4 History
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Channel 4 TV, UK Birmingham GRID for Learning, UK UK joint university database Argentina's national paper
SBC Education
Blue Ribbon HOT site, USA
SovLit, Harvard Univ, USA


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