Isaac Deutscher 1953

Soviet Diplomacy

Source: The Listener, 8 October 1953. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Jane Degras (ed), Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, Volume 3, Oxford, 42 shillings

With the present volume the Chatham House series of Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, selected and edited by Mrs Jane Degras, is completed. Mrs Degras has done her best to make the selection as representative as it can be within the space available. Her translation of the texts is, generally, both accurate and fluent. The present volume is up to the high standard of its predecessors, and the whole set is indispensable to the student of international affairs. No comparable collection of documents, covering Soviet diplomatic activity over the whole period from 1917 till 1941, exists in any language including the Russian.

The first volume covered the years from 1917 to 1924; the second 1925-1932; and the third contains the documentation for the years 1933-1941. This chronological division is justified on historical grounds. Each of these three periods had its distinctive characteristics, and in each a different trend dominated Soviet policy.

Between 1917 and 1924 it was largely civil war and foreign intervention that dictated Soviet policy, which was still inspired by the Leninist hope for imminent revolution in Europe, although even then Bolsheviks did not spurn ‘business-like’ agreements with bourgeois governments. The subsequent years, up to Hitler’s rise to power, form the classical period of Stalinistic isolationism. The West abandoned the hope for the overthrow of the Soviet regime by force; and Soviet Russia was reluctant to stake her present and future on the overthrow of capitalism abroad. West and East, labouring under the consequences of the First World War and shaken by economic and political convulsions, were virtually disarmed and inclined to settle their immediate differences on the basis of ‘peaceful coexistence’.

Hitler’s rise destroyed the prerequisites for this state of affairs. As Soviet diplomacy grew aware of this, it began to seek reinsurance against the threat from Germany. The choice was between an anti-Nazi alliance with the powers of the West and a policy of placating the Third Reich and accepting for Russia the role of its part-accomplice. The present volume shows Stalin’s diplomacy trying out both these policies and failing in both.

The story falls naturally into two parts, the first relating Litvinov’s search for the anti-Nazi alliance, a search defeated at Munich; and the second culminating in the Nazi-Soviet pact and ending with the Nazi invasion of Russia. In both these phases ‘world revolution’ was almost absent from the calculations of the Soviet policy-makers. Stalin’s diplomacy spoke and acted as conventionally as its revolutionary origin permitted. This emerges strikingly from a comparison between this and the first volume of the series. In Volume 1 there is hardly a page which does not convey to the reader the hot breath of the ‘heroic period’ of Bolshevism, its élan, its world-embracing hopes and illusions, and its challenging revolutionary style. In the volume under review Soviet diplomacy appears exclusively as the sober purveyor of alliances and pacts; and its representatives try hard to keep up to standards of League of Nations’ respectability, and to overcome the hostility or distrust of its prospective partners. It has since become customary to contrast this ‘realistic’ period of Soviet diplomacy with the ‘quixotic, revolutionary follies’ of the Leninist era. But as one reflects over the texts of Litvinov’s appeals for collective security and of Molotov’s ‘friendly’ messages to Ribbentrop one cannot help wondering whether either Litvinov or Molotov was really one whit more ‘realistic’ than was, for instance, Trotsky when, from the conference table at Brest Litovsk, he called upon the German working class to rise against the Kaiser. They were certainly not one whit more successful.

There are different degrees of realism, of course. Against the background of the Geneva of the middle and late 1930s, Litvinov’s stature does indeed appear very impressive – he is almost the Bolshevik Gulliver in the Metropolis of Lilliput. He had a relentlessly clear perception of the danger threatening the world from the Third Reich, and an equally clear foresight of the consequences of Western timidity, muddle-headedness and appeasement. The very insistence of his warnings to the West, when they are now re-read, must gain him new, posthumous respect. Even his style, free neither from crudity nor from circumlocution, is refreshingly direct, unconventional and witty in comparison with the evasive, cliché-ridden and complacent language of Geneva. His style, of course, is also infinitely superior to that of his successors, to Molotov’s stammering polemics and Vyshinsky’s garrulous pettifoggery.

Yet Litvinov was by no means an independent statesman. He was not even one of the more cultivated minds among the old Bolsheviks. His strength lay in the straightforwardness and clarity of the cause he pleaded. In the atmosphere of the Cold War, when Western opinion is growing dangerously self-righteous about both the present and the past of the West’s relationship with Russia, it can do no harm to be reminded of this chapter of recent diplomatic history.

The Nazi-Soviet pact reduced Soviet diplomacy to repulsive cynicism and extreme hypocrisy, from which it was never to recover completely till the end of Stalin’s days. In the volume under review the years 1939 to 1941 are less well documented than the Litvinov era. The process by which Russo-German ‘friendship’ gradually deteriorated and the tensions accumulated which led to war is less adequately reflected in these pages than it might have been. So crucial an event as Molotov’s visit to Berlin in November 1940, the event after which Hitler resolved to attack Russia, and Stalin’s last-minute attempts to placate Hitler do not come to life in this selection. Such gaps were perhaps inevitable, and they do not detract from the immense usefulness of Mrs Degras’ work.

To the student of international affairs these three volumes are of greater value than the whole, growing avalanche of recent literature on Soviet foreign policy. And the student will look forward to the complementary collection of documents on Comintern policy, promised by Chatham House.