Outfox them!

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to the Soviet Union 1921-41 by Michael David-Fox
    Oxford, 396 pp, £35.00, January 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 979457 7
  • Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-41 by Katerina Clark
    Harvard, 420 pp, £25.95, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 674 05787 6
  • Being Soviet: Identity, Rumour and Everyday Life under Stalin by Timothy Johnston
    Oxford, 240 pp, £55.00, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 960403 6
  • Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Postwar Youth and the Emergence of Mature Socialism by Juliane Fürst
    Oxford, 391 pp, £63.00, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 957506 0
  • All This Is Your World: Soviet Tourism at Home and Abroad after Stalin by Anne Gorsuch
    Oxford, 222 pp, £60.00, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 960994 9

The Soviet Union claimed leadership of the world revolution in the 1920s and 1930s – not surprisingly, since of all the European upheavals at the end of the First World War, theirs was the only revolution that succeeded. But the trouble with leading the world revolution, as far as Stalin and his associates were concerned, was that you had to deal with foreigners. Abroad was scarcely less of a problem for them than for Lord Redesdale, immortalised by his Mitford daughters and famous for saying that ‘Abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.’ The bloodiness of Abroad was something that Stalin and his cohort knew by repute rather than direct experience. Stalin himself made only a couple of brief forays outside the Russian Empire in the years before the First World War, and his political intimates were equally unfamiliar with Europe and its languages. But the fiendishness of foreigners, or at least of the capitalist exploiters who controlled the affairs of foreign nations, was a given.

It had not always been so. When Lenin’s Bolshevik Party took power in Russia in October 1917, it had an abundance of sophisticated, polyglot members, whose years in European exile had made them conversant in several European languages. These former émigrés – including Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin (in short, all Stalin’s major competitors in the power struggle that followed Lenin’s death) – were much more strongly represented in the Party leadership under Lenin than the Party’s ‘committee men’, people like Stalin and Molotov who had remained in the Russian Empire as underground revolutionary conspirators pursued, in an endless cat and mouse struggle, by the tsarist political police. Former émigrés were the elite of the Bolshevik Party, offspring for the most part of the nobility and intelligentsia, whose parents could help subsidise their life abroad. They had studied at the academic gymnasium, where French and German were compulsory subjects, unlike the mainly lower-class committee men, whose secondary education, if they had one, was in seminaries (one foreign language required) or trade schools (none).

Used to operating within the cosmopolitan world of the Second International, the Bolshevik leaders under Lenin had the advantage not only of personally knowing their enemies (of whom, being notoriously recalcitrant, they had many), but also of having old friends and acquaintances scattered throughout the world of European socialism. This was useful when they came to create their own Third (Communist) International after the 1917 Revolution. In its first ten years, the Comintern was led by Soviet Politburo members from the former émigré group – first Zinoviev, then Bukharin. Other former émigrés led and staffed the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs. Olga Kameneva, Kamenev’s wife and Trotsky’s sister, was creator and first head of the quasi-official Society for Cultural Ties with Abroad (VOKS), whose main target group was ‘progressive’ Western intellectuals. Stalin and his people had little contact with any of these institutions in the 1920s. Lacking foreign languages and cosmopolitan polish, they were ill at ease in the company of the Western-looking Russian intelligentsia – ‘crude’ men, as Stalin once said of himself, without apology. Crude was bad on the European stage but in the end good in the Russian Communist Party. In the succession struggle after Lenin’s death, the crude men won.

Newly acceding to power, Stalin was happy to point out to an interviewer that the cultured European intellectuals who had been so prominent in the Bolshevik Party before the Revolution no longer played a significant political role. He referred specifically to political second-rankers like Anatoly Lunacharsky (the first head of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment), tactfully failing to mention others who qualified, such as the late Lenin (whom Stalin revered) or the not yet late Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, his defeated rivals. That was his way of looking on the bright side. Privately he knew that there was a problem, since the Soviet Union had to deal with the outside world and needed cosmopolitan intellectuals to do it. Lunacharsky, in the twilight of his political career, was roped in for foreign liaison duties; so was Karl Radek, even though he had been in the Left Opposition. Maksim Litvinov, a cosmopolitan Old Bolshevik who (untypically for the group) had not been in any of the Oppositions, became Stalin’s foreign minister. The Comintern was the biggest problem, at least until Stalin decided that it didn’t matter. Once Bukharin was ousted from the leadership, poor Molotov, Stalin’s closest associate, had to take over the Comintern, a job he found uncongenial. He took German lessons (Stalin did too), but to little avail. Stalin acquired a few contacts among foreign Communists resident in Moscow (the Indian M.N. Roy, the Finn Otto Kuusinen, the Hungarian economist Eugen Varga), but these people were marginal in the Comintern world of the 1920s. By the time another Stalin contact, the Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov, took over the Comintern, the institution itself had become marginal in the Soviet world.

It was conventional state-to-state foreign policy that preoccupied Stalin and Molotov in the 1930s. Stalin had various maxims on dealing with the capitalist West: never trust them, recognise their cunning but be sure to outfox them by exploiting their differences. Never forget that they want to destroy the Soviet Union and are just waiting for the next chance to invade. Accept that whether they present themselves as journalists, diplomats or scholars, and regardless of their professed attitudes to the Soviet Union, they are all likely to be spies. This attitude is normally attributed to paranoia, but also surely reflected Stalin’s wary sense that he didn’t know enough about foreigners to be able to tell if they were whom they claimed to be. Moreover, as Robert Service reminds us in Spies and Commissars, in the first, formative years after the Bolshevik Revolution, when almost all the capitalist powers sent military forces to support the Bolsheviks’ opponents in the Civil War, most of the resident foreigners, with the exception of Comintern personnel, were indeed quasi-spies reporting to some foreign intelligence agency, even those with good contacts among ‘cosmopolitans’ in the Party leadership.[*]

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[*] Macmillan, 440 pp., £25, November 2011, 978 0 230 74807 1

[†] Pittsburgh, 384 pp., £25.95, September 2011, 978 0 8229 6161 1