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The revolutionary period: 1917-21
When the Bolsheviks came to power, they largely ignored foreign policy, believing that
revolutions would soon sweep Europe. This would eliminate the old diplomacy and create a new
order based on comradely relations between socialist nations. As such, the main foreign policy
initiative of this period was the establishment of the Communist International (the Comintern), to
foster revolution worldwide. Parties affiliated with the Comintern were ordered not to cooperate
with their socialist counterparts, even though they shared many policies in common with them.
The defeat of the communist revolutions in Germany and Hungary in 1918 put paid to the idea
that revolutions would occur around the world. Even so, the Bolsheviks were preoccupied with
fighting the Civil War, and had little time to devote to foreign policy beyond their own borders.
The ‘united front’: 1921-29
The end of the Civil War gave the Bolsheviks some breathing space. They now realised that
they would have to improve their relations with the capitalist nations, in order to keep the peace
and to foster trade and investment. This was not so easy, since Western governments were
reluctant to recognise the USSR. Britain objected to the anti-colonial propaganda of the
Comintern; the US was gripped with a red scare during the 1920s; and France was still smarting
over the repudiation of its pre-war loans.
To mollify international opinion and to bring Comintern policy into line with the new policy of
moderation in Russia (the NEP), the Bolsheviks ordered all communist parties around the world
to end their hostility to the socialist parties in their respective countries. The hope was that if the
political left united, this might allow the socialists to come to power, thereby increasing the
likelihood of cooperation with the USSR. For this reason, the policy was known as the ‘united
front’ – a unity of all working class parties.
The nation Russia first turned to for help was Germany, which was also suffering diplomatic
isolation. A trade agreement was signed in 1921, and soon after, the two nations began
cooperating militarily. Russia allowed the Germans to build munitions factories and to train their
army on Russian soil; Germany provided the Red Army with training and technical assistance. In
1922, the two nations signed the Treaty of Rapallo, which re-established diplomatic relations
between them. Finally, in 1926, they signed the Treaty of Berlin, under which each promised to
remain neutral in the event of an attack on the other by a third power.
Relations between Russia and Britain were poor throughout the 1920s. Although the two nations
signed a trade agreement in 1921, diplomatic recognition did not follow. The Conservatives made
use of a forged document from the Comintern to British trade union leaders (the so-called
‘Zinoviev Letter’ to discredit the Labor Party, which was planning a new trade agreement with
Russia. The Comintern then made matters worse, by encouraging British workers to join the 1926
General Strike. Public opinion turned against Russia, and the Conservative government
terminated all relations with the USSR. (Diplomatic relations would not be re-established until
1930, following the election of the Labor Party to government.)
By the late 1920s, relations with Germany had also soured. Germany was concerned about the
activities of the Comintern, and both nations began to look elsewhere for allies.
But the biggest foreign policy disaster occurred in China. In the mid 1920s, Stalin recommended
that Russia provide aid to Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist forces rather than the Communists, since
he believed Chiang had the best chance of success (and he hoped to acquire influence in a future
Nationalist government). Trotsky had opposed this, but lost the debate. When the aid was
delivered, Trotsky’s objections proved valid. Once the Nationalists had established control, they
turned on the Communists and almost wiped them out. Russia lost all its influence in China.
The ‘war’ against the social democrats: 1929-34
By 1929, Stalin realised that the ‘united front’ policy had failed to end Russia’s diplomatic
isolation. He also believed that the Great Depression would spark a new wave of revolutions in
the West. As such, he decided to bring the Comintern into line with the radical policies he was
embracing in Russia (collectivisation and central planning). Communist parties were now ordered
to end all cooperation with other leftist groups (branding them as ‘social traitors’).
In 1929, Stalin ordered the German Communist Party (the KPD) to direct its opposition to the
socialists (the SPD) rather than the Nazis. This proved disastrous, since it split the leftist vote and
allowed the Nazis to become the largest party in Germany. As the economic and political crisis
deepened, President Hindenburg turned to Hitler as the only hope of preventing another
communist insurrection. The Nazi leader was appointed chancellor in January 1933, and within
three months had effectively eliminated all political opposition. The Communist Party was banned
and its leaders sent to concentration camps. All military cooperation with Russia was ended.
The ‘Popular Front’ against Fascism: 1935-38
Stalin now realised his mistake, and immediately began seeking better relations with the western
nations, in the hope of ending Russia’s diplomatic isolation. The United States obliged, and in
1933 recognised Russia for the first time since the Revolution. Then, in 1934, Russia joined the
League of Nations (which it had previously branded a ‘capitalists’ club’). By so doing, Stalin
hoped the USSR could call on the organisation for help in the event of a German invasion (since
the League was based on the notion of collective security). Finally, he signed treaties of alliance
with France and Czechoslovakia in 1935.
That same year, Stalin ordered the various member parties of the Comintern to form a ‘Popular
Front’ with all anti-fascist groups in Europe. His aim was to bolster support within the Western
nations for an alliance with Russia against Germany.
The Spanish Civil War
In 1936, following the election of a left-wing government in Spain, elements of the Spanish
army under the control of General Francisco Franco revolted and attempted to seize power. An
amalgam of left wing and centrist forces (Stalinists, Trotskyists, anarchists, socialists and liberals)
rallied behind the government to prevent the coup from succeeding, but they could not defeat the
fascist forces. A civil war ensued.
At first, Stalin hoped France would help the republican government, since it was very difficult
for Russia to supply aid to Spain without French cooperation. However, the Popular Front
government in France was crippled politically, and chose not to take sides. Britain was also
reluctant to get involved.
Stalin too had good reason to keep out of the war, since he wanted to keep Britain and France on
side and avoid the impression that Russia was exporting revolution. He feared that if the fascists
won, they might be sufficiently emboldened to stage a coup in France. However, he also feared
that if the Republic won, France might be driven into an alliance with Hitler, as a bulwark against
a communist-aligned Spain. Although he delayed his decision for as long as possible, in the end it
was difficult for him to justify not helping the Spanish left in its fight against fascism. He also
found it useful to help the democratic forces in Spain as a means of countering the bad publicity
the purges were generating among leftists in the West. (He feared that Trotsky’s views might be
taken more seriously.)
Russian aid to the Republican government was considerably less than German and Italian aid to
the fascists, and this helped the latter get the upper hand in the war. Stalin soon found it
convenient to prolong the conflict rather than win it, since this would keep Hitler preoccupied
with that part of the world. After the Munich Agreement in 1938 (ceding parts of Czechoslovakia
to Germany), Stalin decided there was no prospect of forming an alliance with Britain and France,
and that his best bet was a non-aggression pact with Germany. He reduced aid to Spain to almost
nothing. Of course, Hitler never reduced the level of his aid to Franco and, as a result, the fascists
won the Spanish Civil War in 1939.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact
In 1936, Germany and Japan signed the anti-Comintern Pact, leaving Russia to face the prospect
of a war on two fronts. (In fact, Russia was already at war with Japan, although this was at a very
low level.)
Stalin’s fears were raised when France allowed Germany to reoccupy the Rhineland in
contravention of the Treaty of Versailles. When Hitler invaded Austria in 1938, and began making
demands on Czechoslovakia, Stalin tried to get France to make a stand – enforcing Russia’s 1935
treaty to defend Czechoslovakia. However, France was not willing to contemplate a war with
Germany. Some in the French government hoped Hitler might turn his attention east rather than
west; others doubted the Red Army was in a position to fight Germany, following the purges; still
others felt it was not worth going to war over such a small, distant country. At the Munich
Conference in 1938, France and Britain gave Hitler what he wanted – control of the border
regions of Czechoslovakia. As historian J.N. Westwood has put it: “Thus the Munich agreement
of 1938 was not only a betrayal of Czechoslovakia, but in a sense of Russia too. Probably it was at
this time that Stalin began to visualise his own Munich, a bargain with Germany. He still
preferred an alliance with Britain and France but these two powers, though less uncongenial,
seemed unenthusiastic and unreliable. He probably did not expect the western powers to fulfil
Britain’s guarantee of the Polish frontiers in the event of a German attack.” (Westwood: page 331)
The first hint of Stalin’s intentions came in April 1939, when he replaced the pro-western
Litvinov with Molotov as foreign minister. The Germans responded by offering Russia large
tracts of land in Eastern Europe in return for Russian neutrality in their coming war with Poland.
For Stalin, this was an attractive proposition since it gave him breathing space to build up his
forces and recover from the purge of the Red Army. It also gave him a buffer zone against future
German aggression.
When Britain and France were unable to make an acceptable counter-offer, Stalin decided they
were not serious about an alliance. In August 1939, he accepted the German offer and signed a
ten-year Non-Aggression Pact. The Pact contained a secret protocol which divided Poland into
Russian and German sectors and ceded Finland, Estonia and Bessarabia to Russia. This so-called
‘Nazi-Soviet Pact’ took the communist parties of Europe by surprise, and their credibility was
badly damaged when they agreed to support it.
The partition of Poland and the start of World War Two
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two and a half weeks later – once the Polish
army had been defeated – the Red Army did likewise. Germany and Russia formally agreed to
partition Poland and eliminate it as a nation. Stalin then moved to occupy the Baltic states. He
subsequently invaded Finland, after the Finnish government refused to accede to his demands for
territorial gain. However, the Red Army was defeated in the opening months of campaigning and
only managed to defeat the Fins after their reserves were exhausted. Russia annexed some Finnish
territory, but succeeded only in losing prestige in the west and military credibility in Germany.
Hitler became convinced that the Red Army was useless. He also gained diplomatically, since
Finland became a German ally and Russia was expelled from the League of Nations. By the end
of 1940, he began preparing for his next campaign – the invasion of Russia.
For much of the period between 1917 and 1941, Russian foreign policy matched domestic
policy. When the government was waging war against its enemies at home, it was
uncompromising towards its enemies abroad; when it sought accommodation at home, it did the
same abroad. Only in the mid 1930s did the link come unstuck, resulting in a catastrophic failure
on Stalin’s part to protect Russia from external attack.
The table below shows the connection between domestic and foreign policy in the period
between the November Revolution and the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War.
Domestic Policy
Foreign Policy
War Communism and Civil War;
confrontation with the
Bolsheviks’ internal foes; the Red
NEP and a return to rural
capitalism; a reduction in class
conflict within Russia; a
flowering of the arts; the
industrialisation debate.
Collectivisation and a return to
class warfare; elimination of the
kulaks as ‘class enemies’. Kirov’s
murder and the first wave of
The Great Terror; the war against
‘class enemies’ and traitors
reached its zenith. The Russian
Army was ruthlessly purged of 90
percent of its officers.
The purges ended; Stalin began
preparing the nation for war
against Germany.
Confrontation with other nations;
attempts of foster revolution in the
rest of Europe. Establishment of the
Communist International
(Comintern), to coordinate the
activities of communist parties
around the world.
When it became clear that
revolutions were not going to occur
in Western Europe, the Bolsheviks
decided to make peace with their
neighbours, particularly Germany.
Communist parties were ordered to
cooperate with their socialist
counterparts, creating a ‘United
Front’ on the left of politics.
Stalin expected the Great
Depression to spark revolutions in
Western Europe, so ordered all
communist parties to cease
cooperation with their socialist
counterparts. Russia’s relations
with its neighbours deteriorated.
The Nazis came to power in
Germany, thanks to Stalin’s error.
The Popular Front Against
Fascism: Stalin tried to unite all
anti-fascist groups, in opposition to
Nazi Germany. Russia joined the
League of Nations and signed
treaties of alliance with France and
The Nazi-Soviet Pact: Stalin signed
a non-aggression pact with
Germany, in an attempt to buy time
before Russia was attacked. He
hoped Germany would attack
France first.