Three Things I Think I Know About Russian History

Три вещи, которые, я думаю, знаю о России*

        This past summer I had the pleasure of reading a number of historical texts in preparation for Fall 2018 courses in “Twentieth Century Russia”, “American Diplomatic History”, and in the Russian Language. What I gained with this exercise was a greater appreciation for the complexity and depth of Russian-American relations, diplomatic processes in general, and the tremendous opportunity for misunderstandings, duplicitous operations, and the weaknesses of not taking the time or effort to understand the vagaries of a foreign culture, history, and national perspective.

            “Three things which I think I know about Russia”* is an attempt to reduce this reading experience to an all too brief encapsulation of selected Russian events which affected Russian-American relations in the twentieth century.


A defeated Czar Nicholas on the German front in WW I.

            The first of these historical happenings occurred in late 1917 and early 1918. As a result of the March 1917 “revolution” which deposed Czar Nicholas II, a provisional government was formed in Petrograd (modern St. Petersburg). The United States was the first foreign government to diplomatically recognize the new “hopefully democratic” government of Russia and this recognition was quickly followed by similar actions of all Allied powers. The ulterior motive of the allies was to encourage the continuation of Russian military participation against Germany on the Eastern front which kept Germany from transferring a large number of army divisions to the Western front and used directly against Britain, France, and US forces. Unfortunately, the morale and effectiveness of Russian forces were rapidly deteriorating and Kerensky, as leader of the Provisional Government, was not able to stem German aggression. In October of 1917, Lenin and Trotsky led a successful coup and installed a new government of Bolshevik patriots. Lenin and Trotsky immediately called for a German-Russian armistice and began protracted negotiations for what would become an eventual German-Russian settlement.

            Trotsky met with German representatives in the town of Brest-Litovsk (near Warsaw) and actually demanded (“Six Points”) that Germany withdraw its armed forces from occupied territory. Lenin simultaneously issued a news release to the allied populace (not the governments directly) calling for an end to the world war and asking the Allies to join the Russians at the negotiating table. The Allies were appalled as they had no desire to end the war with Germany in possession of French territory and besides, they stated in press releases, Russia was not permitted to engage in separate peace talks as outlined in a 1914 treaty.

            The German delegation at Brest-Litovsk rejected the Bolshevik proposals and the Trotsky delegation returned to Petrograd. Both parties re-met in January 1918 and Germany made further demands against the new Soviet government which, in turn, were rejected. As soon as the Bolshevik representatives left the table, the Germans began a new offensive with practically no Russian army resistance. The German army advanced into Ukraine and approached Petrograd via Latvia forcing the Bolshevik government as well as the foreign diplomatic corps to relocate the seat of government to Moscow. Lenin and Trotsky had no recourse but to return to the negotiating table where they were presented with more onerous terms including German occupation of the newly acquired territories plus the loss of Ukraine and its agrarian and manufacturing base to Germany. Lenin and Trotsky blamed the capitalistic allies not only for the war itself but for the lack of help in the German-Russian negotiations. The ramifications of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were worldwide. Germany removed dozens of army divisions and inserted them on the Western front and that action became the impetus for a German assault against the Allies in 1918. Japan now feared German aggression in the far eastern arena of Manchuria and Siberia and began taking preemptive action to protect its sphere of influence. The Allies discovered thousands of tons of war materiel in Murmansk and Vladivostok and feared that it would fall into German hands. Thus the beginning of Soviet-American relations was not only problematic with no official diplomatic recognition but was based in mutual fear, distrust, and a complex web of misunderstanding and duplicity.


German infantry advance through a devastated village in Ukraine.

            Twenty years after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the world faced a new nemesis in Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany. The mutual fear and distrust between Allied and Russian governments were intensified by a paranoid Stalin. The Soviet leader, who had recently purged his military of the majority of its officer corps, found his country on the aggressive edge of German expansion. Stalin tried unsuccessfully to forge a mutual support treaty with Britain and France and as those negotiations faltered, he reached out for his only other recourse – a non-aggression pact with his sworn enemy – Nazi Germany. Joachim Ribbentrop, representing Hitler, and Vyacheslav Molotov, representing Stalin, reached an agreement (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) for non-aggression between Germany and the USSR which included extensive trading arrangements giving raw material resources to Germany in exchange for German manufactured goods to Russia. This “sudden” agreement shocked the Allies as they knew they needed an Eastern front to bring about any regression of German militancy in Europe. They would have been more appalled if they had known of the secret bi-lateral pact attachment to split the Polish nation in half.

            Germany, now knowing that its Eastern borders were “secure” and that Britain and France would only be spectators, brazenly launched a blitzkrieg advance against overwhelmed Polish forces. Two weeks later, the Soviet armies breached their Polish border and advanced to meet their new ally – Nazi Germany. USSR forces also moved into the Baltic countries of Latvia and Estonia as well as southern Finland. Hitler had no intention of honoring his commitment to the USSR and one year later to the surprise of Stalin, he launched Operation Barbarossa and attacked the USSR along a 2,000 km front. The resulting Great Patriotic War became the demise of Hitler and the Nazis but at the cost of millions of Russian civilians and soldiers.


Russian soldiers moving across the Kurile Islands after Japan’s surrender in WW II.

            Five years after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, Germany lay in ruins and Stalin began the process of honoring his commitment to the allies made at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. Three months after the defeat of Nazi Germany, Stalin promised Roosevelt and Churchill that the USSR would enter the Pacific war against the Japanese Empire. In return, the Western Allies promised to Stalin that they would allow the return of the southern portion of Sakhalin Island and the Kurile Islands lost to Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. In addition, the USSR could extend its sphere of influence over Mongolia, Manchuria, and the Russian-Chinese railway. However, a diplomatic impediment was emerging.

            The Japanese government realized during the early summer of 1945 that the war was lost. They began secretly contacting the Russian government (that was not involved at that time as a belligerent in the Pacific theater) to act as a go-between to negotiate an armistice and eventual peace settlement between Japan and the western allies. Why did Japan choose the USSR to instigate peace feelers? The Russians and Japanese had entered a non-aggression treaty several years earlier that had a clause requiring a one year’s notice if either party were to desire to exit the treaty. With this security in hand, the USSR did not worry about Japanese aggression in Siberia while fighting Germany nor did Japan have to worry about Russian interference in its territorial acquisitions in China, Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Japan steadfastly used this treaty as the prelude to peace negotiations but Stalin duplicitously used the treaty as a way to secretly build his forces along the Japanese controlled Manchurian border without acquiring Japanese suspicion. In early August of 1945, Russian forces poured across the Manchurian border in a three-pronged attack and within weeks had the Japanese army in submission.

            Despite the American dropping of the two atomic bombs and the subsequent Japanese surrender, Soviet forces continued their advance and recaptured Sakhalin Island and moved somewhat awkwardly into the Kurile Islands and onto Hokkaido Island – part of the Japanese mainland. Stalin did not trust the allies to honor the Yalta commitment of an award of territory for Soviet entry into the Pacific War and he believed that only with outright possession of these areas could he be assured of Soviet territorial rights. These conflicts became the last battles of World War II and the basis for continued mistrust between Soviet and American governments.


            The above information was gleaned from a number of sources which I have listed in the following annotated bibliography.

  1. Dower, John D. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

            At the end of World War II, Douglas MacArthur commands a US occupational force that must overcome Japanese exhaustion and despair as well as rebuild diplomatic trust with the USSR, China, and the solidifying Free World.

  • Faber, David. Munich, 1938: Appeasement and World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2008.

            Nazi intimidation diplomacy is introduced and the concept of appeasement is detailed as Britain and France show that they will not prevent Hitler from his self-appointed aggressive tactics. This led to a Nazi presence on the Russian border and continued fears by Stalin of Hitler’s future plans.

  • Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. Cambridge, Massachusetts: First Harvard University Press, 2006.

            The entry of the USSR into World War II, not the dropping of the atomic bombs, was the reason Japan surrendered argues Hasegawa in a detailed analysis of diplomatic and military events in the summer and fall of 1945.

  • Hearden, Patrick J. Roosevelt Confronts Hitler: America’s Entry into World War II.  Dekalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1987.

            The economic realities of pre-war allied and axis powers are explored in detail. German’s need for expansion into Eastern Europe is compared with Soviet manufacturing resurgence and Japan’s critical need for raw materials. Britain’s reliance on US imports leads to US economic dominance and the fear that Nazi hegemony will disrupt world markets.

  • Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951, 1979.

             George Kennan reviews historical American diplomatic efforts from the Spanish-American War to his projections of Soviet-American relationships at the beginning of the Cold War.

  • Kennan, George F. Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1961.

            Lenin’s vehemence and Stalin’s paranoia are examined as to how they influenced Soviet-American relations from 1917 to the start of the Cold War.

  • Kennan, George F. Russia Leaves the War: Soviet-American Relations, 1917-1920. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1956, 1989.

            With the decline of the Russian army and the ascendancy of the Bolsheviks, a German-Russian war settlement is achieved with diplomatic and political repercussions lasting decades.

  • Kennan, George F. Soviet Foreign Policy 1917-1941. Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1960.

A discussion of USSR foreign policy actions and objectives from the Provisional Government of 1917 to the negation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is detailed by the former Ambassador to the USSR – George Kennan.

  • Kurtz-Phelan, Daniel. The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.

            Marshall’s mission is to end the Chinese Civil War which is influenced by Russian and Japanese intervention in China preceding and during World War II.Steil, Benn. The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

            After total war devastation in Europe, the US develops an aid program to assist Germany and the Allied countries in establishing a sound economic base. The USSR and its satellites are purposely left out of the program with negative repercussions for future Soviet-American relationships.

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