The true sources of Soviet conduct

  • Themes: History, Russia

The Soviet Union believed that it was manifestly destined to lead the world to a higher future but that ambition masked profound insecurities about its economic, political and military status as a great power.

A poster of Joseph Stalin, 1944.
A poster of Joseph Stalin, 1944. Credit: akg-images / Alamy Stock Photo

To Run the World: The Kremlin’s Cold War Bid for Global Power, Sergey Radchenko, Cambridge University Press, £30

Sergey Radchenko’s massive and readable new book is a history of Soviet foreign policy from the glorious victory over Germany in May 1945 to the humiliating collapse in December 1991. Radchenko is Russian but has spent most of his academic life working in Britain and America. He joins the distinguished scholars who left the Soviet Union in the decades after the revolution, people such as Alec Nove in Britain and Moshe Lewin in America, and he too brings the invaluable insights and intuitions of someone who knows the country from the inside.

Radchenko starts by making an essential point. The Second World War had an overwhelming and lasting effect on everyone in the country. Joseph Stalin’s eldest son died in German captivity. Nikita Khrushchev’s eldest son went missing in action. Leonid Brezhnev was wounded – an experience on which he dined out forever after. Mikhail Gorbachev’s father went missing at the front for many months; he returned to his village to find it had been occupied by the Germans and his family was struggling with famine amid the ruins. Vladimir Putin was not yet born, but his brother died as a baby in the siege of Leningrad.

The war took the lives of twenty-seven million Soviet citizens. It destroyed much of its industry and agriculture. A dissident told me in 1991, when I was the British ambassador, that, as his country stumbled on the verge of ruin, The Victory was the only thing of which all Russians could be still proud. Much Russian behaviour today is only explicable by reference to these deep feelings.

In the years after the Second World War the study of the Soviet Union in the West was beset by ignorance (forgivable, perhaps: Stalin had put a cordon round it), ideological fervour, and some bizarre theories, such as the idea that Russians were naturally obedient to authority because they had been swaddled as babies – for example in Geoffrey Gorer’s article ‘Some Aspects of the Psychology of the People of Great Russia’ in The American Slavic and East European Review from 1949. Nathan Leites’ little book Operational Code of the Politburo was based on the idea that you could predict the Soviet leaders’ every action from the works of Lenin and Stalin. It was useless as an explanation of how the Soviet government actually behaved. Some assessments by government analysts of those days, such as the US National Security Council’s NSC-68 of 1950 or the CIA’s Team B report of 1976, both leaked to the Washington press at the time, now make your hair stand on end.

Of course, a countercurrent developed which put a more sober view. There were plenty of good scholars and analysts working in Britain. The Americans were lucky enough to benefit from a generation of sober-minded diplomats who knew the language and had worked in Moscow at the height of Stalin’s Great Terror. Among them the best remembered is the diplomat George F. Kennan, who in July 1947 anonymously published the ‘Sources of Soviet Conduct’ in Foreign Affairs that detailed the Soviet motivations and recommended the policy of containment.

Kennan had a remarkable knowledge of Russia, its politics, history, and literature, about which he wrote with style, understanding, and affection. His impact on American policy towards the Soviet Union was substantial. But he found it hard to accept that a country’s foreign policy is conditioned not only by objective characteristics, such as geography, powerful neighbours, population, and natural resources, but also by its domestic politics. He was taken aback when his proposal the Soviet Union should be ‘contained’ until it reformed itself was interpreted by America’s politicians and its military to mean that the Soviet Union should be overmatched by a massive nuclear deterrent. By the time he said in 1997 that expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era’ he was speaking to the unconvertible.

Policy hawks argued that America should take advantage of its victory in the Cold War, and use NATO as one of its main tools for exercising influence in Europe. Powerful minorities with East European backgrounds – people whom you couldn’t ignore in an election – were insisting that NATO should extend its protection against a resurgent Russia to their former homelands. It may be, as many argue, that nothing in history is inevitable. But under Bill Clinton the die was cast. It only remained, as his aide Strobe Talbott put it in his memoirs, to get the Russians to eat their spinach. The Russians read those memoirs, along with the stuff that historians dug out of the American archives, and they deeply resented it. That too explains much Russian behaviour today.

Things have moved on since the veteran British historian A. J. P. Taylor described the struggle for mastery in Europe in the nineteenth century as a matter of cerebral competition between the chanceries of the great powers. It is a myth that autocratic regimes can plan for the future in ways that elude democracies with their short term political cycles. Russian leaders may play chess, but they can see no further ahead than the rest of us. In Mike Tyson’s words, their plans survive only until they get punched in the mouth. Policymakers in Moscow, like those in Berlin, London and Washington, are distracted by changing priorities, ignorance, personal ambition, and the simultaneous pursuit of incompatible objectives. Of course, some kind of policy eventually emerges. In the hands of a master – Bismarck, Roosevelt, Stalin, Thatcher – the end result can be impressive. But the process is never as coherent as the protagonists would have you believe.

In the age-old controversy about the influence of Great Men on history, Radchenko comes down, as do I, in favour of the belief that ‘states are led by people, and foreign policy decisions are subject to fears, delusions, and, yes, needs of specific individuals’. He has taken full advantage of the opportunities that emerged in the 1980s, when the archives opened up under Gorbachev, people of influence began to write their memoirs, and it became possible to interview the protagonists. Despite Putin’s determination to grip the writing of Russian history, many of the archives have remained open. Radchenko has discovered a treasure trove of documents – records of conversations, speeches, memoranda. Unusually for many scholars of Russia, he has also worked on the complementary documents in the Chinese archives. He feels he has lived among them for so long that he knows the Soviet leaders at a very personal level.

Radchenko identifies four factors which particularly influenced Soviet foreign policy: their understanding of national interest, their belief that history predicted the ultimate victory of Communism, their need for respect and legitimacy, and their determination to retain the leadership of world communism against all comers, but especially the Chinese. The last did not come easily to Stalin or his successors. Radchenko reports that Brezhnev felt that ‘Europe is closer to us’. Khrushchev saw Mao Zedong as a reincarnation of Genghis Khan. In the end, the attempt degenerated into bitter rivalry.

National interest is a slippery concept. Even so-called ‘realists’ find it hard to define: look at the woolly-headed attempts of the British to work out who they are, where they belong ,and what they should do about it. For the Soviet leaders there was a perpetual conflict between concentrating on the defence of their country against the imperialists, pushing the limits of power as far as they could in Europe, spearheading the anti-colonial movement, and managing the often-conflicting requirements of leading world communism and being a great power.

Historians quarrel about how big a role Ideology also played in shaping Soviet policy. Radchenko’s conclusions are sensible. Stalin and his successors – even Gorbachev for much of his career – really did believe that Marxism predicted the ultimate victory of Communism. But a detailed reading of Das Kapital did not much help them to decide what to do next. Perhaps the best explanation is that for them ideology was both a reason and a justification for action, and a cloak for failure, a kind of comfort blanket.

Equally important in shaping Soviet foreign policy, Radchenko insists, was an obsession with status. The marker was always America, which the Soviet leaders believed their country should equal, and from whom they always sought legitimacy. That search for respect was not new. Ivan the Terrible demanded it from Europe’s sovereigns. After Peter the Great defeated the Swedes and propelled Russia onto the European stage as a great power, he exulted: ‘We have come out of the darkness into the light; and people who did not know us now do us honour.’ Stalin complained that Russia’s neighbours had humiliated it for centuries because of its backwardness. He determined to make up for it in ten years. The Soviet people paid a terrible price for his brutal and disorderly transformation of Soviet industry, but it gave him the weapons to win the war. Khrushchev and Brezhnev went on trying to catch up with America. Brezhnev persuaded himself that he and Nixon could run the world together.

Putin has chosen the opposite path. His brutal assault on Ukraine has led to a protracted and debilitating war, encouraged the further enlargement of NATO and the strengthening of Europe’s defences, and destroyed Russia’s wider relationship with the West. He has turned his back on Russia’s European vocation and is leading his country instead towards subordination under a renascent China. For a Russian chess player, it has been a pretty second rate performance. Stalin must be turning in his grave.

This obsession with status is matched by another. Russians suspect that, despite their massive contribution to world culture, many of their neighbours regard them as no better than barbaric predators, ‘vicious and drunken savages’, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica put it in 1782. But they also believe passionately that their country is manifestly destined to lead the nations of the world to a higher, more moral future. That belief shines through both the works of Dostoevsky and the political musings of Putin.

These considerations colour Radchenko’s tour through post-war Soviet history. Stalin was determined to secure the spoils of victory. He imposed Soviet rule in Eastern Europe wherever the Red Army was in place, as a defensive glacis and as a launch pad for further advances. Churchill and Roosevelt were powerless to loosen his military grip and had little option but to recognise a grim reality. But Stalin never pushed his luck, and paused when he came up against an immovable object: American determination in Berlin, or the impertinent defiance of his Communist ally Tito. He was willing to abandon territory – in Iran, Greece, and Yugoslavia – if he thought it expedient or unavoidable. When I was a young sergeant in occupied Austria in 1952 – when the country was divided into zones administered by the Soviets, British, Americans and French – an officer told me the Russians never abandoned a place they had once taken over. They pulled out three years later.

By contrast, Stalin’s ebullient successor Khrushchev was a risk taker. He enthusiastically exploited the opportunities which opened up as the peoples of South America, Africa, and Asia threw off the imperial yoke. Under him, the Soviet Union became much more than a European power. But he too had to retreat in the face of American power – over Berlin, Cuba, and elsewhere.

By the time I first went to Moscow in 1963 it was already clear that the industrial colossus which Stalin had forged in blood was faltering. The shops in Moscow – the capital of the world’s second superpower – were largely empty. In the nearby villages, women tottered home with water from the well on wooden pavements which kept them out of the muddy road. Khrushchev recognised that the system was in deep trouble. His remedies were desperate and they failed. He was ousted by Brezhnev in 1964.

Brezhnev was a wily and tenacious politician. His stolid management improved domestic living standards. He too successfully exploited opportunities in the Third World. Under him Soviet scientific and military power continued to advance. But as early as 1968 the head of the KGB Yury Andropov warned him that the country had still not overcome its backwardness, and was far behind the United States in research and development, education, and computers, the skills of the future. Brezhnev did nothing. His country’s nuclear weapons were now its only claim to superpower status. He did at least understand his terrifying responsibility for avoiding nuclear war:

By 1985 the country clearly needed someone new. The Party chose Gorbachev, energetic, imaginative, optimistic, allergic to bloodshed, determined to save something from the wreckage and a decent man (I am biased: decades later he rang me out of the blue from Moscow to console me for my wife’s death.) Gorbachev brought a kind of democracy to the Soviet Union. Together with Ronald Reagan he ended the Cold War. But by then, ‘[t]he stark reality – that the USSR was not the superpower that it was claiming to be – had finally caught up.’

The Soviet Union’s economic and imperial problems were insoluble in the short, even the medium term. Gorbachev’s bitter critics have never came up with convincing alternatives. As Radchenko says, the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight. In their misery and humiliation, the Russians eventually turned to Putin. Could other leaders have managed better? Could the Cold War have been averted? Was the Soviet collapse inevitable? Could more sensitive American policies have prevented Russia’s alienation from the West?

In To Run the World Radchenko asks the right questions. Radchenko has suggested many interesting answers, and his book is a serious contribution to the debate. There may no longer be many new documents left to reveal. But historiographical fashions will change. New answers will inevitably be propounded as future generations of historians bring their own perceptions to bear. Neither Radchenko nor his successors will pronounce the final word. There is no harm in that. Looking at the past from fresh and original angles is one of the pleasures of writing and reading history.


Rodric Braithwaite