Soviets vs. Russians

In the American history class that I taught this morning, the topic of conversation was the origins of the Cold War, and in particular the division of Europe into capitalist and communist spheres. Something that I have been left thinking about for the rest of the day is the question of what in the post-World War Two settlement made the Cold War inevitable.

In answer to this, I take note of a problem in contemporaneous accounts of the early Cold War, both in documents such as George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”, the US National Security Council planning document “NSC-68”, and even in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1967 retrospect on the events of 1947 (the year the Cold War began with the Truman Doctrine, the withdrawal of eastern Europe from the Marshall Plan, and Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech). That problem is the interchangeable use of the words “Soviet” and “Russian” in reference to the USSR and its policies.

Kennan, the NSC staffers who wrote NSC-68, and Schlesinger all use these words interchangeably, but they actually refer to distinct things, and I wonder whether this conflation helped lead to the ossification of divisions in Europe. “Russian” is an ethnic and national identification, while “Soviet” is a political one that substitutes for “Communist”. The conflation of the two is evident throughout the documents. It raises the question of whether things would have turned out differently had Western diplomats been able to isolate the components of Soviet policy that were part of the USSR’s Russian heritage from those components which were manifestations of its Communist ideology.

For example, a substantial amount of the Long Telegram is devoted to orientalizing the Soviet Union as a domain of persecuted and paranoid Russians. Kennan compares (or conflates) the Russian fear of invasion with the Communist fear of capitalist encirclement, even going so far as to elide “Soviet” and “Russian” in the same sentence. But this does not follow. Not all Soviets were Russian (Stalin was Georgian), and, for that matter, not all Russians were Communist (although they all bore Soviet citizenship). Not only is this confusion of language imprecise, but it may have obscured areas in which the West could find rapprochement with the East.

After all, before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Russia had been an equal participant in the Concert of Europe and had co-existed quite easily in the European diplomatic sphere. While Kennan was right to point out that the Russians feared invasion through the Polish corridor, this was something separate from the Soviets’ abstract Communist identity. The important difference was that while the Russian tsars had shared an interest with the German Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns in maintaining a conservative order in Europe, the Soviets were interested in overthrowing that conservative order. The tsars could view their western neighbors as partners, but the Soviets could only view them as antagonists. What this suggests is that “Russian” and “Soviet” understandings of the USSR’s western frontier were not as neatly aligned as Kennan implied.

If the American and British diplomatists had been able to better understand the nuance between “Russian” and “Communist” conceptions in cases like this and others where the mindsets overlapped but were not identical, it is surely possible that Soviet foreign policy could have been treated as a synthesis of Russian and Communist priorities. Consequently, Western strategy could have been to satisfy Russian concerns, which were potentially compatible with a general design of collective security, while isolating the Soviets on purely Communist concerns.

A second thought occurs to me, however, and that is that no matter what compromises could be reached on Russian-Soviet concerns, no meaningful compromises could be reached on Communist-Soviet concerns. The reason for this is that capitalism and communism are fundamentally expansionist – capitalism in pursuit of profits through new markets, and communism in pursuit of political hegemony and economic  autarky. These two goals are mutually exclusive and cannot be reconciled – eastern Europe could not be both open to Western trade through what Schlesinger termed the New Deal-ization of Poland and Czechoslovakia, and securely within the Soviet orbit through participation in the Soviets’ autarkic economic model and satisfaction of the eschatological Communist imperative for the overthrow of bourgeois society.

What this suggests is that, while Russian concerns were compatible with a general European settlement, Communist concerns were not. Although the Cold War itself was probably inevitable, it might have unfolded differently had the West found ways to satisfy the Soviets’ particularly Russian concerns by isolating them from Communist concerns. Where Kennan and others were incorrect was in ascribing Russianness to the Soviets as if it were sufficient to explain their behavior. There was no geographic or ethnic determinism that meant that the USSR had to be isolated from Europe (nor is there for Russia today). Consequently, it was at least theoretically possible that the Russian need for security in the physical space of the Soviet Union could have been satisfied while thwarting the Communist need for expansion. Unfortunately, by conflating the two during the post-WWII settlement, the West was not able to facilitate an amenable solution for Russian concerns, and the division of Europe was the result.

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About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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One Response to Soviets vs. Russians

  1. jkmhoffman says:

    Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.

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