Canadian historian and the author of the book, Michael Jabara Carley, has shed light on early Soviet diplomacy and the reasons for his interest in this subject.
Sputnik: Why did you choose this particular period of Soviet diplomacy for your research? Was it just a scientific interest or something personal?
Michael Jabara Carley: This is a complicated question. The first book that I wrote, the first monograph was on the French intervention, military, political, economic intervention in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in November of 1917. And after I finished with that subject, I just got interested in the 1920s. I wanted to continue going forward in time and basically that’s how it started. I formed a partnership with another colleague in Canada, Richard K. Debo, he was interested in Soviet foreign policy and we decided to write a book together on the 1920s. We applied for a research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. And we got our grants. And I went to Paris, London, Washington, Moscow. He went to London and Paris and Bonn and Potsdam. And we gathered a lot of research. Unfortunately, he fell seriously ill and fell out of the project and I went ahead with it by myself.
Sputnik: Michael, you’ve started the research in Paris in 1987. Did you manage to talk to diplomats who worked at the time?
Michael Jabara Carley: You mean who? Who were still alive for the period?
Michael Jabara Carley: No, I didn’t. I think they’re all dead by the time.
Sputnik: And how did you get access to exclusive archives, what facts impressed you the most?
Michael Jabara Carley: Well, which archives are we talking about? French, British, American, Russian?
Sputnik: Well, all of them.
Michael Jabara Carley: Well, some archives are easier to get access to than others. The French archives, once they were open, anybody who was judged qualified could go in and consult inventories and request files. It was same in Great Britain and in the United States, the only place where it’s more difficult to function is here in Moscow at the foreign ministry archives. It’s a little bit more difficult to have access there.
Sputnik: You’ve also used Western archives for your research, and how was the Soviet foreign policy represented in these sources?
Michael Jabara Carley: Very negatively. What can I say, the foreign intervention? After the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, all the Western powers could think about was destroying the Bolsheviks and hanging them all from light posts between Moscow and Petersburg. They sent military forces to various places in Soviet Russia and they tried to crush the Soviet government. Only they didn’t succeed. So their attitude was exceedingly hostile and continued to be so even after the defeat of the foreign interventionist by the Red Army, which was led by, as you might know, by Trotsky.
Sputnik: And why were they so concerned about the Bolshevik government? I mean, was it the human rights concerns or what?
Michael Jabara Carley: What happened after the Bolsheviks seized power was that they nationalised private property. They nationalised banks and industries and they cancelled desires to the state debt. And this in France alone has represented the sum of 11 billion gold francs. So if you’re a member of the French bourgeoisie, middle class, and you bought Tsarist bonds to retire on interest of those bonds. And suddenly they’re not there, you wouldn’t be too happy. And you put pressure on the government to do something about. Do something, please. And, of course, the French government on principle was outraged that they said to them, so, who the hell are these people? How dare they nationalise banks? How dare they? They abolished the czar’s state debt. They’re veiling. They’re violating all our capitalist principles. We can’t tolerate this. Imagine if you were a bank manager and somebody buys a mortgage from you and then doesn’t pay. That’s basically what the attitude was.
Sputnik: What facts impressed you the most?
Michael Jabara Carley: How about if I answer your question this way, okay? What’s most interesting to me is comparing various perspectives represented in these archives, particularly I’ll speak of U.S. and British and French archives as the Western archives and then compare them with the outlook represented in the Soviet archives. And the differences are sometimes quite remarkable. Most people won’t know this, but Soviet diplomats of the first generation were really very good at their job. They were well educated. They weren’t uneducated workers. They were doctors, engineers, lawyers, schoolteachers, historians. They were polyglot, multilingual. Speaking German, English, French, perhaps other languages. They were highly sophisticated people. And they were very pragmatic. And, you know, at the end of the intervention period Soviet Russia was ruined. After eight years of war, civil war and foreign intervention, the country was functioning at about 15 percent of industrial capacity as of 1914.
Soviet diplomat Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) at a Soviet embassy
Сommerce between the cities and the countryside broken down money, paper money was worthless. The Soviet government, too, was desperate to renew relations with the West in order to trade with the West, in order to revive the Soviet economy. Necessity makes people very pragmatic. And these diplomats were extremely skilled and pragmatic and made the case to the West that we should forget the past and try to build towards the future and at least establish correct and mutually profitable relations. That was basically the view of the Soviet side. But the western side wasn’t really buying that. They were on principle outraged by socialism in Russia. They were outraged by the fact that the Soviet government had abolished private property and so forth and so on. And these were fundamental principles of capitalist civilisation. And they were not prepared to accept that the Soviet government could do this and get away with it. But on the other hand, there was pressure from industrialists who needed to fill their order books. And Russia seemed like an extraordinary market.
And so there was pressure on governments to let them make deals with the Soviet government and to acquire credit in order to finance them. And this if it had been up to the United States government, for example, they would have demanded that all trade be made on a cash and carry basis with the idea that they would eventually bankrupt the Soviet government, its gold holdings and its foreign currency holdings. And at that point, the Soviet government would be at the mercy of the West. That was the American plan at the outset and it didn’t work.
Sputnik: How would you assess the ideas and activities of the first generation of Soviet diplomats and their relations with Western countries?
Michael Jabara Carley: Like I said, they were extremely skillful and pragmatic people. And what’s surprising about them is they managed to establish remarkable relationships with all manner of Western politicians, people in government, journalists, industrialists and so forth and so on. Remarkable constructive relations. And they recorded the facts of these relations, their meetings with them and so forth and so on and in regular reports that they sent to Moscow. And so we know a lot about these relations from the Soviet archives. Things we can’t find out from the Western archives because the Western counterparts, the Soviet diplomats didn’t keep records. So what we know, we know from the Soviet files. I often tell students that if you really want to dig into French history and the inner warriors, you need to learn to read Russian and go to Moscow and read the archives in the foreign ministry.
Sputnik: What were the challenges in forming diplomatic relationships with other countries in those days? What did diplomats have to face?
Michael Jabara Carley: Basically, they had to face intense hostility from the West. The first images of the Bolsheviks were of dirty, stinking people with broken teeth and the blood of innocent victims dripping from the corners of the mouths of these monstrous Bolsheviks. Sometimes they had bloody daggers in their teeth and other representations of them show them with a bomb in one hand and a knife in the other, dripping with the blood of innocent bourgeois citizens. Those are pretty ugly images. And these images persisted through the interwar years and sometimes as Soviet diplomats were roughed up too. Occasionally they were assassinated. They had a hard time. They really did. And they were brave. They were brave people to put up with it. And yet somehow or the other they persisted. They were not intimidated. They did their job and sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they didn’t.
Sputnik: How did the Western governmental elites react to the USSR foreign policy?
Michael Jabara Carley: That depends on what period you’re talking about. But often they misinterpreted it. They saw the Soviet Union as an aggressive purveyor of communist and socialist revolution, which was at the beginning, it was partially true. There were conflicts between so it divides practical, Soviet diplomats and revolutionary members of the Communist International. The Komintern which was formed in 1919. As I say, their job was exceedingly difficult and they managed to persevere. But, you know, that’s the first 10 years and the second 10 years, that’s the 1930s. As you know, Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933, and the Soviet side very rapidly saw the danger of Hitler and proposed the talks with the Western powers based on collective security, mutual assistance to recreate and effect the World War one anti-German relationship composed of the United States, France, Britain and even fascist Italy. And that strategy of the Soviet side, which they pursued for about six years, that was obviously not successful.
Sputnik: If we speak about the first part of the 20th century, how did relations between the West and the USSR develop given the European diplomatic and economic sanctions in the 1920s?
Michael Jabara Carley: I think you know that I proposed to my students that the Cold War began in 1917 and there was a truce between 1941 and 1945 during the Great Patriotic War and the establishment of the Grand Alliance and a resumption of the Cold War in 1945. So the Soviet side was always up against what one Soviet ambassador called in 1930 Sovietophobia and anticommunism. And these obstacles could not be overcome. And in spite of all the efforts of the Soviet government and 1930s to establish this anti-German entente against Hitler Germany. It didn’t succeed.
Sputnik / Khalip
Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov
I’m writing a new book on this on the 1930s to follow the one that was recently published in Russian, on the 1920s, and it’s very clear from the archives, Soviet, French, British, for example, the American, that there was insurmountable hostility which basically prevented the establishment of this anti-Nazi entente with the Soviet Union. It was basically, you know, I say to my students – governing elites in Europe were very conservative and very afraid of socialism, very afraid of communism, and their fear of communism was greater than their fear of Nazi Germany. The question of the 1930s was who was enemy number one? Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union? And very often, all too often, members of the governing elites in Europe came up with the wrong answer. It was as though they saw red and turned yellow.
Sputnik: Even after Hitler came to power?
Michael Jabara Carley: Even after Hitler came to power, this is going to shock you. Maybe, but, conservative elites in Europe actually were very favourable to Nazism. They were very favourable to Hitler, I think of the Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King. He thought Hitler was a remarkable man. A large, large portion of the British elite, too, was of a like mind. You know, the thing about fascism was that it was perceived by conservative elites as a bulwark against socialism and communism.
You know, fascists represented power and masculinity and this especially impressed masculine males of the governing elites who weren’t so sure about their masculinity and were insurance so sure of their power. And when they saw these Nazi parades with the drums and the flags and the torchlight parades at night, this created, you know, wow. This is really – wow this is power. I want to be part of this. I’m not exaggerating. You might think it’s a little funny or maybe some people who might be listening to us might think Professor Carley is exaggerating, but no, I’m not. It was – it was like that.
Sputnik: I’m smiling here because I’m wondering if they thought that Nazis represented power and what about communism? How did it look? In their view?
Michael Jabara Carley: Terrifying. Imagine if you have a nice house in London, another house in the countryside, a bank account with a lot of pounds in it, and the communists socialists take power in Britain, you might lose all those things. It was as simple as that for some people. They weren’t prepared to tolerate socialism. They weren’t prepared to tolerate the danger of their wealth and property being taken away from them. And they saw the Soviet Union as a threat in that respect, too. Especially influencing working classes in Europe. The Communist Party in France became very powerful in 1930s, the Communist Party in Germany was quite strong before it was repressed by Hitler. You know, there were there was some danger for elites and they looked at the Soviet Union as a hotbed of danger towards their political and economic interests.
Sputnik: Can we draw any parallels between the current stance of diplomatic relationship of Russia and the Western countries with the situation back in 20s? What are the similarities and differences?
Michael Jabara Carley: Well, the biggest differences that Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. That’s the biggest difference. But what’s similar is, a deep hostility of the West towards Russia. Russophobia. It was very intense in the 1920s and it’s intense now to the point where it’s become absurd. And then the Western powers in 1920s use the same tools that the Western powers are using now and in order to in the 20s hurt the Soviet Union. Now to hurt the Russian Federation, I’m thinking of economic sanctions of various sorts which are intended to sabotage the Russian Academy. The Soviet economy in 1920s and now the Russian economy. They didn’t work all out well in 20s and they don’t appear to be working all that well now. But the red thread, if you want the common commonality of relations in the 20s and now is this intense hostility toward Russia. It’s in some ways it’s incomprehensible.
Sputnik: Back then they were concerned with private property. What are they afraid of now? It’s an open country.
Michael Jabara Carley: You know that that is exactly the question that I ask. What the hell are they afraid of? You know, President Putin, when he came to power, he was an Atlanticist. He talked about an economic market from Lisbon to Vladivostok. You know, more trade, more this, more that with Europe. He wanted to integrate Russia without sacrificing Russia’s independence. He wanted integration, whether with Europe. He wanted to get along. His policy was an Atlanticist. And he became and he tried to push that when, you know, after 9/11 and the Americans went in to Afghanistan. He was one of the first two heads of state to offer assistance, the United States. Come on, let’s get along. That’s what he says. That’s still his line. Let’s get along. What’s the problem? And he gets nowhere.
I think President Putin is a frustrated Atlanticist, he’s forced to take positions that he doesn’t really want to take, but he doesn’t have any choice. I mean, NATO. NATO, for example, promised not to push up against Russian borders. You know, at the time when the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunited. Oh, sure. We’re not going to push NATO towards your borders. Not to worry. That was the line they gave to Gorbachev. Germans, Americans and so forth and so on. But they didn’t keep their word. And now we have NATO troops making military exercises a hundred and sixty kilometres from Petersburg. You know, it’s just it’s from a Russian point of view, it’s not acceptable. And the West hasn’t kept its bargain with the Russians. You know, some say that the West just cannot tolerate a strong Russia. They cannot tolerate an independent, strong, self-confident Russian nation. That’s their problem. And if that’s their problem, it’s going to be a problem for a long time. Because I don’t think Russians are prepared to be vassal states of the Western great powers, a vassal state of the Western great powers. That’s the problem.
Sputnik: Is it a unanimous opinion? I mean, back then it was mainly the United States who was pushing the narrative, anti-Russian narrative, but now we’re witnessing Europe. European partners like Italy, French President Emmanuelle Macron stressed the importance of cooperation with Moscow. So we’re witnessing a discord between the West on Russia?
Michael Jabara Carley: I think once economic sanctions were imposed on Russia after the Maidan coup d’etat in Ukraine and they were allowed to run for two, three years as certain European powers understood that they were being hurt more than Russia was being hurt and they were paying a higher price than even the United States. The United States wasn’t paying a price. They were paying the price of an American led policy. And some European leaders aren’t stupid and could read their national balance sheets and said, hey, this is working against us. We need to stop it. But every time the issue of sanctions comes up with the European Union, it’s always a continuum. They all vote for continuation, whether they think it’s a good idea or not. And you have to assume that they are simply at this point anyway, afraid or unprepared to break away from American policy.
Sputnik: I know it’s hard to make forecasts in this day, but how do you think relations will develop further? Is will there be a light in the end of the tunnel?
Michael Jabara Carley: Well, sometimes my students said, ask me that. What I say is this. You look at the last hundred years of Soviet Russian relationships, except for the period of the Great Patriotic War. Except for those four years, these relations have been tense and hostile. And if you think to yourself, well, they’ve been these relations have been bad for 100 years. I don’t see any indication that there’s going to be a change soon in that situation.
Sputnik: I cannot help but ask you about President Donald Trump and the upcoming impeachment… What is your forecast?
Michael Jabara Carley: I’m a historian. I don’t make forecasts about the future. But I will say this, that I think these charges that the Democrats in the House of Representatives are proposing as the basis of formal impeachment proceedings against President Trump were bogus and simply a political weapon in order to weaken Trump because they fear that he may win reelection. And realistically, I don’t see, at least at this point anyway, I don’t see the Republicans who control the Senate voting to oust President Trump as that would be against their interests. This is a strict party line issue. And Democrats are trying to harm a Republican president because they think he may win the 2020 elections seemed as simple as that to me. But then I’m not an expert on American domestic policy. I have to say that.
Sputnik: Coming back to anti Soviet hysteria, how did Western press portray the Soviet Union at that time?
Michael Jabara Carley: Well, as I say, the classic images of the Bolshevik represented in political cartoons and in political posters was of the dirty, stinking, foul looking Bolshevik with the blood of his victims falling from the corners of his mouth with a dagger in his teeth or his broken teeth or with a dagger in one hand and a smoking bomb in the other. There are other images of them as zombies, gorillas, monsters of various kinds, and they’re always killing the innocence of the capitalist civilisation. And these sorts of representations of bullshit of Bolsheviks have continued for a long time, although after 1945 there was a focus on Stalin as a troublemaker and an aggressor. As for me, it’s a lot like pot calling the kettle black or Satan rebuking sin because often the aggressor was in the West and not in the Soviet Union or Moscow.
Sputnik: I’m wondering – back then, the Soviet Union was a closed state. Now we’re with Internet and the interconnected world. If back then the USSR, had been an open state, you know that nowadays you can go to the Internet, listen to speeches, turn on subtitles, if back then the USSR had been an open state. Would it have been easier for the United States or for the USSR and the West to communicate and cooperate?
Michael Jabara Carley: No. Because the Western powers were essentially not prepared to accept the Soviet Union as a socialist, if you like, communist state. That was out. They weren’t prepared to tolerate it. And they ultimately their goal was to try to reverse Soviet power. And that’s basically what they achieved at the end of 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart and was dismembered. This was the ultimate policy objective of the Western states. You know, with the exception of the Grand Alliance of Second World War.
Sputnik: Could you please tell us more about Chicherin and Litvinov and their rivalry?
Michael Jabara Carley: Sure. Well, should we say who they were? Because a lot of our leaders won’t know who they are. Well, Chicherin was the second commissar for foreign affairs, between 1918 and 1928, when he fell ill and effectively ceased to his functions as foreign commissar Litvinov was the deputy foreign minister or foreign commissar. Chicherin was born into a family of the Tsarist aristocracy and studied it. I think it was St. Petersburg University became historian and was an archivist in the Tsarist Foreign Ministry before the revolution, and he eventually went to Europe and settled for a time in Britain. Litvinov was born in dysfunctional Jews, somewhat dysfunctional Jewish family in Russian Poland, very different in some ways from Chicherin.
Sputnik / Vladimir Grebnev
Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov
I call them the odd couple, the odd couple, because they shared common interests with respect to protecting the that is national and strategic interests of the Soviet Union. But they often differed on tactics so that if one of them proposed a policy A the other automatically proposed policy B and vice versa. But they share they shared more in common than about which they disagreed to. Chicherin was worried about security on Soviet southern frontiers. And Litvinov was afraid of dangers on Soviet frontiers with the Baltic states. And interestingly enough, in the 1920s, Litvinov feared that the West might establish a placoderm and in the Baltic states in order to attack Leningrad. And the same danger exists to this very day. What more can I say about them? They were the two central characters of Soviet foreign policymaking during the 1920s, and they were remarkable people. And if you want to read more about them, you should read my book.
Sputnik: Can I ask you to comment on President Putin’s recent statement? He criticised the European Parliament’s decision to equate Joseph Stalin with Adolf Hitler.
Michael Jabara Carley: Right. Well, this issue has been around for a number of years, and the European Parliament and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe keep going back to this issue. They saying that the Soviet Union was basically responsible for the outbreak of war in September 1939. And they kind of forget that Adolf Hitler was a problem at all. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit, but basically that’s their line. It’s just completely historically untrue. Basically, the history of the years from 1933 to 1939 are a history of the Soviet Union attempting to establish an anti-Nazi entente. And their efforts to establish this entente were reputed were repeatedly rejected by the United States, by France, by Britain, the Soviet Union offered and the West refused.
And it was kind of like the Soviet Union was sort of an ugly Cassandra, the truth teller. And she was ugly. And nobody in the West wanted to listen to her. And nobody wanted to ally with the Soviet Union against the Nazi menace. And the fact of the matter is that Britain and France and Poland had a far greater responsibility for the outbreak of war than the Soviet Union did by signing at the very last minute the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. For after all, they the Poles, the British and the French had spent the last of those last six years themselves trying to negotiate with Nazi Germany. And the most egregious case was, of course, the Munich agreement in September 1938, which proved to be a failure. So basically, President Putin sought refutation and condemnation of the European Parliament resolution is factually correct.
Sputnik: One more question. You told me that you first came to Russia in 1996, right? Can you tell us how the country changed – because you visited the country many times? How did the country change over the years?
Michael Jabara Carley: Let me share with you my impressions of Russian in the 1990s. It was a country – Moscow was in distress and people were in the streets selling personal effects, selling ribbons, half rotten vegetables. I remember a woman who used to stand in front of the Metro Station near Stary Arbat. But I see her every morning going to the archives and she held in her hand a bunch of zippers that she was trying to sell. And for me, you know, that image was the image of the hardship of ordinary Russians in the 90s. You know, there used to be old babushka, you or who were selling potatoes and carrots. And police come along and run them off. And that’s all gone now. You look around Moscow. It’s a modern, bustling city with impossible traffic jams, with people driving expensive cars, with new buildings being put up all over the place. A new road between Petersburg and Moscow. There’s all sorts of economic activity going on. Pipelines to China. Second pipeline to Germany almost completed, although the Americans keep trying to sabotage it. I mean, the situation is remarkably different. It’s an extraordinary transformation in some ways, although if you talk to average people, there’s still a lot of issues. There’s still a lot of problems. Salaries are not high enough. Jobs are insecure. There’s that. Now, the thing there’s a lot of work that the Russian government still has to do. But if you compare with the 1990s, the transformation is extraordinary.