I trust readers will forgive the provocative title, but I want to get your attention as well as to make a point. And don’t worry I am not a died-in-the-wool Stalinist ready to see all the victims of the Great Purges as justly tried and punished.
My point is that western-Soviet-Russian relations have changed little over the last 99 years. In 1917 there was a great revolution in Russia. In March the Tsar Nicholas II abdicated; in November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power. Europe was at war at the time. Russia was an ally, amongst others, of France, Britain, and more lately the United States, against Wilhelmine Germany and the Central Powers. The so-called Allies worried of course about the abdication of the tsar. «What will happen next?» they wondered. None too sure, Britain and France studied the possibilities of a separate peace with Germany at Russian expense.
That was a mild reaction compared to what happened after the Bolsheviks seized power in November.
«What? The Bolsheviks have taken power in Petrograd? Ha, ha, they won’t last more than a few days». That expectation proved wrong.
Stupefaction seized hold of politicians and generals in Paris, London, Washington. «Gawd, how is it possible?» How could these «anarchists» and coffee house philosophers take power in Russia? The Bolsheviks called for World Revolution, transforming the Great War between states into a war between classes. They annulled the tsarist state debt and nationalised banks and industry. It was a nightmare for the West. The world was being turned on its head. The first principles of Capitalism were trampled. The Bolsheviks encouraged the lower orders of society to think that it was they who should govern. «It’s anarchy», exclaimed Robert Lansing, the US Secretary of State, and dangerous!
The blockade around Germany was extended to Soviet Russia. Nothing should get in or out. Bolshevism was a plague; Russia, a plague house. The bacillus of Bolshevism had to be snuffed out before it could spread.
«Send in the bailiffs», demanded western bankers and investors. British, French, and US troops were sent to the four distant corners of Russia, to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk in the north, to the Caucasus and Central Asia in the south, to Vladivostok in the east. Japan landed some 70,000 troops. They ranged as far north as Khabarovsk and as far west as Lake Baikal. Would Russia be carved up like China and colonised?
No! It would not. The Bolsheviks defended the new Soviet republic tenaciously. In July 1918 the Bolsheviks barely clung to power. By the end of that summer, a new Red Army, led by a courageous Bolshevik, Lev Davidovich Trotsky, was driving back White Guard forces away from the Soviet heartland.
When the Great War ended on the Western Front in November 1918, the French and British general staffs thought they would have twenty divisions available to send to Russia to destroy the Soviets. The spirit of the Bolsheviki is «lurking» everywhere, said the US president Woodrow Wilson. «Hurry», we have to crush the Soviets before it’s too late.
The twenty Anglo-French divisions for Russia were far too optimistic an estimate. Having escaped the western abattoir, common soldiers had no interest in going to another in Russia. Especially the French… French divisions were sent to southern Russia, and large elements of the French fleet were stationed at Sevastopol in the Black Sea. First the soldiers, then the sailors mutinied. Young women offered sex to soldiers and sailors on leave in the port city of Odessa in exchange for spreading propaganda amongst their comrades. The commander-in-chief of French forces said the brothels of Odessa were the most dangerous «nests» of Bolshevik propaganda in the zone of occupation. You can see why. He warned of a «Sicilian vespers», a massacre, if his forces were not withdrawn.
French intervention against the Bolsh proved to be a catastrophe. Mutinous sailors hoisted the red flag on French warships. Vive les Soviets! they declared.
«The complete failure of a ridiculous adventure», one French general commented.
So it was. But western Sovietophobia was unrelenting. The French government launched a policy of containment, the so-called the cordon sanitaire, to keep Bolshevism locked up in Russia. A wall would be built from the Baltic to Black Seas of East European states, notably Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, armed and supported by France to keep Russia out of Europe. Does it sound familiar?
The British government invested more than £100 million in arming White Guard armies. The spring of 1919 was the high spring of the Red Scare. In 1919 the French right fought national elections based on the Red Scare. The Bolsh was a bloodthirsty killer, with a knife in his teeth, ready to plunder the capitalist west.
Whether in France, or in Germany, or in the United States, the images were the same: the unwashed ruffian, with a long knife in one hand and a smoking bomb in the other threatened «bourgeois» civilisation.
The Red Army beat the White Guards and their foreign interventionist quartermasters. In April 1920 White Poland launched an offensive into Byelorussia and the Ukraine with a French wink and nod.
The goal was to make Kiev a Polish city and to re-establish the Polish frontiers of 1772. The Soviet government summoned its people to fight the Polish invasion. The Poles could not hold Kiev and were forced back to the outskirts of Warsaw before the Red Army in turn suffered defeat. The Russo-Polish war was the last gasp of foreign intervention, leading to an inconclusive peace, unsatisfactory to both sides.
The civil war in Russia ended; it made the American civil war look like children’s play. Millions died. The old tsarist society was destroyed. The Bolsheviks had won, but really they had lost for everything was in ruins. Neo-liberal western historians deplore gratuitous Bolshevik «violence». The Bolsheviks were «putschists», with no popular support. The Russian Revolution was an accident, due to the «passiveness» of the masses. The neoliberal narrative works only by forgetting that great revolutions do not come from nowhere. Violence begets violence. The Russian peasantry endured hundreds of years of serfdom and repression; the small Russian working class was treated like convict labour. Centuries of tsarist violence against the masses, exacerbated by the butchery of the Great War, led to revolution, which the Bolsheviks rushed to control and direct. The Allied interventionists shot Bolsheviks on sight and boasted of hanging the rest from a long line of gallows. That was not violence of course; it was righteous punishment of anarchists and plunderers. The Allied bailiffs were sent in to restore capitalist «civilisation» and impose indemnities. They planned to control Russia as they then controlled China. Soviet Russia became defender of the revolution and defender too of Russia’s independence.
Blood was blood, but trade was trade. Would bygones be bygones between the West and Soviet Russia after the end of the civil war? Each side had need of the other if for no other reason than trade. Does this sound familiar? «Money talks» was a principle that didn’t and still does not work in Russian-western relations. There would be no bygones be bygones. If open war failed against Russia, a «hybrid war» – this is what we call it now – continued. If the Allied blockade against Soviet Russia was formally lifted, a credit blockade continued. Credit fuelled international trade and Soviet Russia desperately needed it to buy in the West to rebuild the ruined Russian economy. The Entente idea was to trade with the Bolsheviks on a cash and carry basis only, compel the Soviet government to exhaust its gold and foreign exchange reserves, and bring it to its knees. The damned, impudent Bolsh would be forced out or forced to convert to capitalism. The West would make Soviet Russia eat the nasty porridge of capitalism with a splintery wooden spoon, like it or not. Apart from appearances, has anything really changed since the 1920s? It’s still the splintery spoon and still western (read US) «values» to be swallowed.
The Soviet side sent it best diplomats to the west, highly-educated and multilingual, to negotiate with the West. «Accept us as we are», they proposed, «just as we must accept you as you are».
We need to trade and so do you. Common interests outweigh our differences. Let’s explore the former and try to settle the latter. No, replied the Americans, the British and the French. They banged their splintery wooden spoons on the table and demanded full satisfaction of their demands, complete capitulation, or else no deals, no settlements. They used the red scare to win elections against the left. They sacrificed the interests of investors hoping for a settlement of the tsarist debts. They discouraged trade and credit for trade with the Soviet Union. Does it all sound familiar?