Isaac Deutscher 1954

The New Soviet Policy Towards the Satellites

Source: The Reporter, 2 December 1954. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Soviet policy towards China and the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe has entered a new and significant phase. In this field, as in others, Stalin’s successors have been reviewing their legacy critically to see whether and how they can free it of its worst liabilities.

Broadly speaking, their new course aims at lifting from the other Communist governments the odium of puppetry and some of the burdens of vassalage that Stalin’s heavy hand had laid on them. The peoples of Communist Asia and Eastern Europe are to be reassured that they will no longer be treated as Russia’s subjects and that the new government in Moscow shows respect for their national aspirations and renounces those quasi-imperialist privileges which Stalin had acquired for Russia. It goes without saying that the Soviet leaders expect that this new policy will eventually strengthen their position within the Soviet bloc.

The new policy is being carried out simultaneously from the various angles of strategy, economy and politics, from the China Sea to the Elbe. There are broadly three major motives behind it. There is first Moscow’s apparent desire to avoid a dissipation of Soviet strength and to cut Russia’s strategic commitments. There is further a new confidence, springing from the recent tremendous growth of the Russian economy, which enables Russia to give up the economic advantages that Stalin had so ruthlessly extracted from the satellites.

Big Gains from Small Losses: The most significant application of the new policy can be seen in the Russo-Chinese agreements that were signed in Peking on 11 October, during the celebration of the first five years of Mao’s regime, in the presence of a large and important Soviet delegation headed by Nikita Khrushchev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. The Soviet leaders chose that solemn occasion to announce that Russia would evacuate the naval base of Port Arthur, Manchuria, by 31 May 1955. Moscow had promised to give up Port Arthur in the Russo-Chinese pact of 1950, but until recently it looked as if that promise would never be honoured. At first Stalin delayed evacuation on the grounds that the Russian garrison must remain at Port Arthur as long as Russia and Red China had not concluded a peace treaty with Japan – it was as a reinsurance against Japan that Russia had acquired the Manchurian naval base in the first place. Then during the Korean War, which the Chinese feared might spread to Manchuria, it was they who asked the Russians to hold Port Arthur as a deterrent. The imminent evacuation indicates, therefore, a new Russo-Chinese confidence in the maintenance of peace in that part of the world.

But whatever the broader international context, the move will soothe Chinese patriotic feelings, which have always been offended by the presence of foreign garrisons. And the Russian gesture is sure to be acclaimed throughout the rest of Asia, for Asians recall very few instances, if any, in which a great power has given up a first-rate strategic base on foreign territory except under direct hostile pressure from another power or under the immediate threat of revolt in the occupied country. Throughout Asia, Chinese and Soviet propagandists are contrasting the Russian evacuation of Port Arthur with the establishment of new American bases under the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation. Moscow has chosen this moment to emphasise that it sees the rivalry between East and West in terms of economic and political competition rather than of military action. From this point of view, the Soviet Union’s spectacular abandonment of one great naval base may be a more profitable operation than the acquisition by the United States of a score of new bases: it helps to make all China a single, solid base of Communism.

Less conspicuously, Russia is also withdrawing from the long-lasting, silent rivalry with China in Sinkiang, Mongolia and Manchuria. In all those provinces, Stalin’s agents had worked hard to establish Russian influence by economic penetration and direct and indirect control. The results of their work are now being scrapped, and Peking’s sovereignty is being restored all across China’s northern boundary.

The most important single act of this second strategic withdrawal is the disbandment of the mixed Russo-Chinese joint-stock companies, also announced in the October agreements. These companies exploited the gold mines, the oil wells and possibly also the uranium deposits of Sinkiang. They controlled shipyards in Manchuria, and they managed the whole of China’s civil aviation. Moscow is now giving up the assets it held in those companies on a 50-50 basis and is withdrawing its general managers. Last but not least, it is giving up some of the facilities that enabled the agents of its intelligence services to obtain access to every corner of China and to every aspect of Chinese life, facilities to which Stalin attached very great importance.

Unlike the evacuation of Port Arthur, the disbandment of the mixed companies had not been promised in any previous Russo-Chinese agreement. But the companies naturally reminded the Chinese of the old concessions, with extraterritorial privileges, formerly maintained by the Western powers. Therefore the disbandment removes a grievance. It dispels lingering suspicions of Russia’s intentions, and it is being hailed as proof of Russia’s ‘socialist generosity and disinterestedness’.

This instance of the reversal of Stalin’s policy is not, however, so sweeping as are some others. The attitude of the Peking government towards Moscow has never been that of a vassal. Even Stalin was anxious to spare Chinese susceptibilities and to make the Chinese Communists feel that they were treated like respected allies. But the habit of ordering his satellites about was so deeply ingrained in Stalin that he could not rid himself of it entirely even when he tried to humour Mao Tse-tung. And so only Stalin’s successors have been free to renounce the assets and advantages for which Stalin had bargained so hard – and thus to base the Russo-Chinese alliance on a more solid foundation.

In Europe Too: The new course is not designed merely to placate Russia’s only great and important ally. This can be seen from the fact that it has been extended to Russia’s less independently powerful satellites of Eastern Europe. There also the mixed companies have been disbanded at a stroke – in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and East Germany.

It will be remembered that these companies figured largely in the conflict between Stalin and Tito; the Yugoslav Communists viewed them as instruments of their economic subjection by Russia. Through these companies Russia controlled the entire navigation of the Danube and all civil aviation in the Balkan countries. The companies operated such essential parts of the Balkan economy as Romanian oil and Hungarian bauxite and aluminium. Even the National Bank of Romania was under the management of a mixed Soviet-Romanian company.

The companies enjoyed extraordinary privileges. Their profits were exempt from taxation; they were free to import and export goods without observing the restrictions to which local concerns, even those owned by the state, were subject; the general managers of the companies, usually Soviet citizens, fixed prices, freight, rates and tariffs and thereby exercised a powerful influence over the whole economic life of the area.

But the Yugoslav charges that the companies were instruments of Russian ‘state-capitalist exploitation’ were only partially justified. It was mainly during the first postwar years – roughly up to 1950, while the Soviet economy still laboured under the after-effects of war – that Stalin was bent on speeding up Russia’s economic recovery at the expense of the satellites. In those years he did use the mixed companies for transferring wealth from Central and Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. Later, after the Soviet Union had recovered somewhat economically, a two-way traffic developed, and then Eastern Europe began to benefit from Soviet investment and technological assistance. But Moscow still saw that it got its share of the profits made by the companies, and it still held many ‘commanding heights’ in the Eastern European economy.

Now this whole chapter of direct Russian control over that economy is being closed. The Danube may soon cease to be a Russian river. Control of its navigation may soon be back in Yugoslav, Hungarian, Bulgarian and Romanian hands. This is not to say that Russia’s economic influence will decline. But Russia will now exercise its influence indirectly, by the sheer weight of economic preponderance, geographic proximity and ideological affinity rather than through menace and political pressure.

The end of direct Russian economic control may foreshadow moves of even broader international significance. The ending of that control may be part of a scheme for the reorganisation of Eastern Europe in case of a withdrawal of Soviet occupation armies and of a consequent windup of Soviet communication lines in the Balkans. But it is difficult to see how such a withdrawal can take place before East and West reach settlements on Germany and Austria.

Moscow Loves Tito: It is only natural that at this stage, when so many of the original causes of the break between Moscow and Belgrade are vanishing, Moscow should initiate a rehabilitation of Tito.

Some time ago, the virulent campaign against Titoism was quietly called off throughout the Soviet bloc. Normal relations between Yugoslavia and all Eastern European governments have been re-established. The Yugoslavs have regained their influence on the Danube Commission, from which Stalin had unceremoniously ousted them. The Soviet economic boycott of Tito’s government has ceased. Bulgarian and Hungarian troops have been withdrawn from the Yugoslav frontiers, and Tito has cut armament expenditures and decreed partial demobilisation. Finally, Russia has acknowledged the settlement over Trieste even though it had not been consulted on it and had had no say in it.

This ideological and political truce, ordered in Moscow, induced a lot of soul-searching in the Yugoslav Communist Party. Even before that, its leaders had not seen eye to eye on the prospects of their conflict with Russia. A group headed by former Vice-President Milovan Djilas reckoned with an indefinite prolongation and aggravation of the conflict and favoured closer links between Yugoslavia and the West than those to which Tito had consented. Another group, headed by Vice-President Edvard Kardelj, hopefully expected that after Stalin’s death changes would occur in the Soviet Union that might make reconciliation possible. Tito himself tried to keep balance between the conflicting views until, last January, he disavowed Djilas and his theories and cautiously placed his authority behind Kardelj’s views,

Until the last few weeks, however, neither Moscow nor Belgrade was prepared to go beyond an ideological cease-fire. Tito was, and probably still is, afraid of being caught in the shifting crosscurrents of Soviet policy. If he were to take a few steps in the direction of a return to the Soviet bloc, he would cut himself off from the West. But if as a result of factional struggle a group hostile to Titoism were to gain the upper hand in Moscow, he might find himself dangerously isolated from both East and West, distrusted and perhaps attacked by both. Tito therefore trod cautiously, equally anxious to encourage the new conciliatory attitude in the East and to avoid arousing suspicion in the West. On the other hand, Stalin’s successors wondered how far Tito had gone in his commitments towards the West and whether it was too late for them to try and conciliate him.

But Moscow has now decided to allay Tito’s fears. Of its own accord it has initiated his rehabilitation. The occasion chosen was the tenth anniversary of the Red Army’s entry into Belgrade, which was celebrated in both Moscow and Belgrade on 20 October. On that day, for the first time since 1948, Pravda and other Soviet newspapers mentioned Tito’s name without the customary abuse. Moreover, they underlined the ‘heroic role’ Tito and his Partisans had played.

It will be remembered that Stalin consistently played down that role and that shortly before the schism he rudely told the Yugoslavs that the Red Army had liberated them from German occupation. According to the new version of history produced in a letter from Stalin to Tito on 4 May 1948, Tito’s Partisans were incapable of effective action against the Germans because of Tito’s failure as a leader. From then till the end of the Stalin era, Soviet writers repeated that version, which accorded so well with the then fashionable glorification of all things Russian.

Since 20 October Moscow has made amends for the insults Stalin had heaped on Tito and the Partisans. Its writers now almost lean over backwards to pay tributes to Tito. Here is Pravda now saying:

We had to act in close cooperation with the National Liberation Army of allied Yugoslavia... which has made a serious contribution to the common struggle for emancipation of the peoples of Europe... We knew how much courage and steadfastness Yugoslav Partisan detachments had shown... they took a most active part in our battles... they were everywhere with us... and not rarely it was they who secured the outcome of a battle. This happened many times.

Acknowledging explicitly Tito’s role as Commander in Chief, Pravda now disposes of Stalin’s myth that the Red Army had to fight single-handedly for Yugoslavia’s liberation.

But Does Tito Love Moscow? Stalin’s successors are evidently ready for a full, explicit and spectacular rehabilitation of Tito as a good Communist. But it is not sure that Tito is prepared to accept the rehabilitation; and one may guess that this is now the chief topic of discussions between Moscow and Belgrade. It is quite likely that Moscow does not even demand from Tito that as the price of rehabilitation he should dramatically renounce Yugoslav’s commitments towards the West or the pacts with Greece and Turkey. In their present mood, Moscow’s rulers are inclined to admit that Stalin, not Tito, must be blamed for Yugoslavia’s defection to the Western camp. And on 7 November, during the celebration of the thirty-seventh anniversary of the October Revolution, they repeated their overtures to Tito before the whole diplomatic corps assembled in the Kremlin.

The beginning of this rehabilitation poses a number of absorbing problems to the leaders of other Communist parties. If Tito is no longer a ‘traitor’ and a ‘fascist’, should those Communist leaders who have been tried and executed in Eastern Europe as his associates and agents continue to be branded as traitors? Tito’s vindication may be the beginning of a posthumous rehabilitation of László Rajk, Rudolf Slánský, Vladimir Clementis and others. A hint to this effect has already been thrown out in Budapest where the Central Committee of the Hungarian Communist Party has declared that there were ‘many innocent comrades’ among the victims of governmental terror in recent years. Rajk’s adherents have already been released from prison and reinstated as party members; and the reinstatement of one leading Hungarian ‘Titoist’, former Foreign Minister Gyula Kállai, was carried out at a solemn party meeting by Mátyás Rákosi himself.

The wider issue of the inner regime of the Communist parties looms behind this pardon extended to Titoism. Reluctantly and hesitantly, Stalin’s successors are abandoning the hallowed principle of the infallibility of Communist leadership. If a dissenter like Tito was right against the Soviet Central Committee, then dissent is no longer a crime. The ‘monolithic’ outlook of the Communist parties thus comes into question.

Since Stalin’s death the Communist parties have certainly borne far less dictation from Moscow than they did in Stalin’s days. The Russian party now seems to exercise its influence primarily through example. It favours in any case the substitution of ‘collective leadership’ or of government by committee for the party regime controlled by a single leader.

Inevitably, the transition from the one regime to the other is causing friction and dissension. Here and there the single leader of the Stalin era attempts to defend his prerogatives and privileges. This has been the case with Rákosi in Hungary, whom the Central Committee put in his place at its October session although he still holds the office of its First Secretary. In Poland President Bolesław Bierut seems to have reconciled himself to collective leadership. In the Czechoslovak party the problem solved itself with the death of Klement Gottwald, the single leader of the Stalin era. In Romania the party is still in the throes of a crisis: the fate of Ana Pauker is still in the balance, and though they are less savage than they were under Stalin, the purges continue.

Plus Royalists Que le Roi: What is obstructing and confusing the evolution of the Eastern European Communist parties is that the governments they control are far less stable than the post-Stalin regime in the USSR itself. The peasant smallholder still dominates the rural life of Eastern Europe. The old bourgeois parties still have a potential following. A Social-Democratic tradition is still alive in the working class. Relaxation of discipline in the ruling Communist parties may be taken as a sign of their weakness, may encourage opposition, and may lead to political convulsions. Therefore, the Communist rulers view with mixed feelings the infectious reformist ferment from Moscow.

This accounts for the paradox that at times the East European Communist parties cling to Stalinist orthodoxy much more obstinately than does Stalin’s own party. On the other hand, they cannot go on clinging to that orthodoxy when it is manifestly crumbling in its own homeland. Tito’s rehabilitation throws the dilemma into even sharper relief and is sure to entail new ferments and new shifts throughout the Communist world.