From a tsarist imperial foreign policy to a Bolshevik lead foreign policy: rupture or continuity?
'Culture is often synonym for continuity in nation-state foreign policy' argues Valerie Hudson. Culture is a vast concept and can be defined in different ways. In this essay, the definition of culture will be based on Kluckhohm's definition: 'culture consists in patterned ways of thinking, feeling and reaction, acquired and transmitted mainly by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artefacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values.' Valerie Hudson's argument is very true: culture is the only element that outlives government, head of states or regimes and it allows the state's foreign policy to be guided by something bigger than party ideology. Even a revolution within a state does not change the culture of it. The reason for this according to Kluckhohm is that culture is historically constructed. This essay will focus on the transition from the Tsarist Imperial Regime to the Soviet Union and its impact on foreign policy. The transition not only was accomplished trough a revolution but by a rejection of all imperial based values. Can, in this case, culture be a synonym to continuity in the foreign policy of Russia before and after the 1917 revolutions? Culture in foreign policy can be recognized by identifying the operational code of a country (its core beliefs and its preferred means of pursuing its goals). For instance the Bolshevik operational code is summarised in a maxim: 'maximise one's gains rather than satisfice them but avoid adventuristic actions where outcomes are either maximum payoff or maximum loss' . However, these operational codes can be blown apart if national culture is built around a specific actor (like the Tsar) and if internal changes render that actor unable to play. To answer the question, this essay will be divided into two parts. The first part will analyse how the tsarist operational code was blown apart by the Bolshevik one and why there is no continuity in foreign policy between the two periods. Secondly, this essay will argue in favour of Valerie Hudson's statement and prove that the Russian culture driving the national foreign policy has not profoundly changed after the abdication of the Tsar.
As afore mentioned, this essay will first examine how the Bolshevik revolution destroyed the tsarist operational code and why culture, in this political transition, is not synonym to continuity.
The tsarist operational code could be synthesised by 3 words: autocracy, orthodoxy and nationalism. After the Vienna convention in 1815, Russia took in her hands the security of Europe as a whole. It is by these three expressions that Nicholas I (1825-1855) defined the Russian Empire: in 1849, he sent 200,000 troops to Hungary to suppress the last remnants of the revolutionary wave of 1848 and to prevent it from arriving in Russia. The links between the Orthodox Church and the tsarist regime were extremely strong. As they had the same objectives for Russia, they complemented each other perfectly. For instance the conquest of Siberia was the most peaceful take-over thanks to missionaries. Nationalism was expressed through the 'lesser Slav idea' : the tsar saw Moscow as the third Rome (after Rome itself and Constantinople) and sought to defend the Slavic traditions and customs by bringing together all the Slavs of the world. This ideology is called the lesser Slav idea because it was based on the superiority of the Russian Slavs over for instance the Poles or the Ukrainians. However, once in power, the Bolsheviks rejected these principles. Autocracy was dismantled as it oppressed the working class for the benefit of only a few. State and religion were separated: Lenin, like Marx, believed that religion was part of the capitalist superstructure to justify the class exploitation. The same justification was used by the Communist Party for nationalism. Instead, the Bolsheviks replaced the old system ideology by Marxism-Leninism. Marxism-Leninism foreign policy builds upon two main points. The first one is of course the writings of Marx on foreign policy: the nature, function and use of state power must push towards the death of the capitalist state (in the transitional period, the country must be ruled by the dictatorship of the proletariat). The second point is Marxist internationalism, clearly stated in the Communist Manifesto under 'working men of all countries, unite!' . The principle was especially enhanced by Lenin's Imperialism where he argued that capitalism was an entire system that communism had to out root. Right after the October Revolution, Marxist-Leninist leaders believed that world revolution was going to be achieved in a matter of days or weeks. Thus establishing a long term foreign policy was unnecessary. As Trotsky, the first Narkomindel People's Commissar, puts it 'I will issue a few revolutionary proclamations to the peoples of the world and then shut up shop' . The soviet foreign policy based on world revolution is the complete opposite to the traditional heritage from the Tsarist Empire. The key foreign policy issues were decided on the basis of regional and international configurations of power but most of all, Russian foreign policy was carved by the ambitions of the individual Tsars. The wishes of the different leaders where exported throughout the world by one of the strongest diplomatic corps in Europe. The Russian diplomatic corps was, according to Engels, capable of overcoming the weaknesses of the Tsarist regime and achieves its goals despite the numerous obstacles. This faith towards the Tsarist regime was proved when the diplomatic staff stationed abroad refused to return to Moscow and waited for another revolution to overthrow the Bolsheviks.
Straight after their arrival into power, the Communists have sought to differentiate themselves from the disastrous foreign policies of the old regime that had brought famine, death and war to Russia. Not only did they replace the traditional Russian operational code in foreign policy but they sought to take apart all aspects of it. Nevertheless, 'foreign policy is never original' : at least up to 1919, soviet foreign policy was a blend of revolutionary and traditional factors. This essay will now focus on the traditional factors that validate Valerie Hudson's declaration: 'culture is often synonym for continuity in nation-state foreign policy' .
One of the main characteristics of Russian foreign policy, whether soviet or tsarist, that never has disappeared over time is expansionism although it had different goals. Tsarist expansionism was only aimed at filling the power vacuums around the state and never had a global aim. There are three factors behind this growth at all cost of the territory under Russian control. The simplest explanation is the nature of the tsarist regime itself. 'The absolute nature of the Tsar's powers enabled Russia's rulers to conduct foreign policy both arbitrarily and idiosyncratically' . The Tsar had at his hands unrestrained political power and a strong and devoted bureaucracy. The expansion of the Russian state was nonetheless very rational: it was always aimed at perceived weaker states. When faced with a stronger state, Russia would always try to talk itself out of a war. The First World War and the Crimean War are the only wars that Russian fought against stronger states. Thus World War I led the 500 years old regime to an end. Another advantage on the side of Russian expansionism is the fact that it could spread North, East, West or South, wherever its interest took it or wherever the neighbours were the weakest. The second explanation to the tsarist need for wider territory is concurrent with the State religion: Orthodoxy. The tsar also being the protector of the Orthodox Church, tsarist expansion has had a messianic urge to protect the Christians throughout Europe and especially in the Ottoman Empire. 'Russia perceived itself not as a nation state but as a cause beyond geopolitics, impelled by faith and held together by arms.' Finally the tsarist regime was haunted by vulnerability and thus obsessed with security. At the start, the Muscovite state had no naturally defendable borders: it was a wide plain open to nomadic tribes as well as foreign armies. This lack of natural frontiers explains why Russian foreign policy historically distrusts its neighbours. The two last factors (the messianic drive and the omnipresent threat to security) create a unique paradox in Russia: the fear that the empire would implode if the state didn't expand. Soviet foreign policy was also inherently expansionist, especially until the signature of the Brest-Litovsk Peace treaty, as it was aimed at spreading revolution to the entire world starting with Europe and Germany. Hence, foreign policy was centred around the 3rd International's and the Comintern's actions, who both work outside Russia towards the spreading of communism. 'In a year the whole of Europe will be communist' stated Zinoviev, a committed Bolshevik. This foreign policy is a logical and fitting counterpart of the domestic policy of war communism . The Decree on Peace emitted on the 8th of November 1917 was the first piece of Bolshevik foreign policy. It called for a global peace with no annexation and no indemnities. It was not only aimed at national governments but also to the people of belligerent countries. Through this decree, the soviet government made use of 'demonstrative diplomacy' . In demonstrative diplomacy, the aim of an act is not to promote freely accepted and mutually profitable agreements between governments but it seeks rather to stir up opposition among their own population. With this in mind, one must point out that most Bolsheviks were attached to the tsarist past, not because of its historical heritage but because the empire provided the best vantage point for future expansion. However, the Peace Treaty signed with Germany stripped Russia of its richest and most industrialised lands. It was Lenin who pushed for the ratification of this humiliating treaty against the wishes of the rest of the party. In a speech addressed to the Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party on the Brest-Litovsk Peace in 1918, he turns away from the foreign policy lead by Trotsky. Instead of believing in an immediate world revolution, he argues that 'revolution will not come as quickly as we expected' due to the capitalist system being too deeply anchored in the rest of Europe. Yet he still insists that Russia must work in favour of spreading communism because 'we [Russia] are doomed if the German revolution does not break out'. For now, Russia must concentrate on consolidating the soviet state from within and this is why it must accept the humiliation of Brest-Litovsk. Lenin skilfully compares their situation to the treaty of Tilsit imposed on Prussia and announces that the treaty will be broken when Russia is strong enough to fight back. This change in soviet foreign policy is why it can be seen as the heritage of the tsarist period: again Russian foreign policy has turned toward self-preservation and security. Once the words are put aside and the deeds of both regimes are put into the light, one can see definite patterns of resemblance in the frantic search for security and the messianic impulse. For instance both regimes are hostile to the West. In the case of the tsarist regime, this hostility is due to the superior civilization of Western powers as well as the raging internal debate between Westernisers, who place Russia in Europe, and Slavophils, who turn their back on Europe and turn to Asia. As for the soviet regime, Western Europe is the symbol of capitalist imperialism at its highest point. Regarding the expansion of the state, the justification of hunt for outlets and safe borders has only been replaced by the spread of Communism. In a nutshell, the communist only put new slogans to old foreign politics.
Continuity between the tsarist and the soviet foreign policy do not stop at territorial expansion and fear for the security and survival of the regime. The Soviet government has based most of its system on the same pillars that supported the tsarist environment. The Tsar's liberty in deciding and guiding the state's foreign policy was based on four pillars: unrestrained political power, a strong centralised bureaucracy and a secret police, economic and social order in the hands of the State and the Russian Orthodox Church. Since the Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party, Lenin had pushed for the adoption of several resolutions that gave him 'virtually plenipotentiary powers in the affairs of the state and party' . The communist part was already by the end of 1917 the only political party allowed and had its hands on all aspects of the emerging soviet state: bureaucracy, secret police (the KGB), economy through the collectivisation of lands and social order. The communists had abolished the Orthodox State Religion and replaced it with Marxism-Leninism and the worshipping of the soviet leaders. This complete control of the state by the Bolsheviks can be assimilated to the control exercised by the Russian aristocracy. Another facet of continuity shared between the two regimes is the 'deep, almost mythical belief in the special role in the world history which Russians are destined to play' . Under the tsarist regime, it was common belief that true salvation would come from Moscow after the capture of Constantinople. This was transformed in the politically strong influence of Pan-Slavism also present in soviet foreign policy, especially used to bring together, under Communist rule, all the Slavs of the world. Again, Moscow became the centre of communist dogma to which all communists worldwide referred to. As Max Beloff puts it, the Russian-Marxist alliance is strong because when one fails to bring together, the other takes over. Continuity in foreign policy between the tsarist and the soviet regimes can be put into light through national interest. 'The foreign policies of most countries can be simply described as maintaining their national interest' . Officially the soviet state does not have a national interest to pursue since national interest is a coercive tool used by capitalist states. However, in its actions, the Bolsheviks have defended the basic historical national interest present in Russian foreign policy since Ivan the Terrible: state survival. In order to avoid a clash between their words and their deeds, they have enclosed the Russian national interest with the goals of Marxism-Leninism. For instance, after the signature of the Brest-Litovsk peace, Russia lost many tsarist possessions. Although the treaty was nullified by the Versailles treaty, these lands were not surrendered to the motherland and instead the Allied forces created a strip of independent buffer states to prevent communism from spreading outside Russia. Russia was humiliated and it was in its national interest to get these territories back. This national interest was supported by the Marxist argument of world revolution. Finally Tsarist foreign policy had one main goal: expansionism to secure strategically defendable frontiers. We have already demonstrated that soviet foreign policy was continuous in that aspect. What is necessary to point out is the elitism present in both regimes: access to foreign policy was reserved to the highest aristocrats in the tsarist regime and to the highest party members in the Bolshevik regime. Public opinion or morality was not part of the concern of the lucky few. They viewed the international system in a traditional realist style through balance of power policies. Never have these elites, whether communist or imperialist, questioned the wisdom of expansion: ambition for more vital space reinforced the quest for security as well as the attachment to the state. This is a vicious (or virtuous circle) as the growing multinational feature in turn strengthens the need for an autocratic, strong, centralised state.
Contrary to common belief, the Bolshevik revolution is not an exception to Valerie Hudson's claim that 'culture is often synonym for continuity in nation-state foreign policy' . Its foreign policy clearly has its roots in Russia's historical past despite the Soviet attempts to cut it apart from the tsarist epoch. 'The reality of the Russian Revolution has revealed its intimate and indissoluble connection with all the Russian past'
On the transition from the Tsarist Imperial Regime to the Soviet Union, Russian culture has survived and continued to define state foreign policy despite the numerous soviet attempts to create a new communist culture. Culture is thus the only element of continuity between these opposing regimes. At least during the first decade of the Communist rule in Moscow, 'communism was tsarism in overalls' with the continued drive for expansion, security and international recognition. To conclude this essay, it is interesting to notice that the same patterns are still accurate in today's Russian foreign policy although through different means. Territorial expansion was replaced by a struggle against the US to retain its traditional sphere of influences in now independent countries such as Georgia of Kyrgyzstan. The drive for security is seen through Russia's war on Chechen terrorism. Finally international recognition was awarded to the new post-soviet Russia by its acceptance, for example, in the G8. Bibliography:
A. Adams. The Russian Revolution and Bolshevik victory (Washington DC: D.C. Heath and Company, 1960)
R. Debo. Revolution and survival : the foreign policy of soviet Russia 1917-1918 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1979)
J. Degras (ed). Soviet documents on foreign policy – volume I : 1917-1924 ( London: Oxford University Press, 1951)
R. Donaldson and J. Nogee. The foreign policy of Russia : changing systems, enduring systems (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2005)
R. Goldwin. Readings in Russian foreign policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959)
V. Hudson. Culture and foreign policy (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1997)
N. Petro and A. Rubinstein. Russian foreign policy: from Empire to Nation-State (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1997)
B. Ward. Russian foreign policy (London: Oxford University Press, 1940)
V. Hudson and M. Sampson III. 'Culture is more than a static residual: introduction to the special section on culture and foreign policy'. Political Psychology 20.4 (1999), pp. 667-675
V. Hudson. 'Cultural expectation of one's own and other nation's foreign policy action' Political Psychology 20.4 (1999), pp. 767-801