Soviet Union Should Trotsky have succeeded Lenin

Russian revolution

Jan Kusber

To person

is Professor of Eastern European History at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. His focus is the history of Russia and the Soviet Union.
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Russia and the West are a conceptual pair of opposites that has a long tradition and is older than the October Revolution of 1917. This pair of opposites was not only important for Russian and Western elites in the 18th and 19th centuries to become clear about themselves, but also as a political argument: it was used in the inner-Russian debates between the so-called Westerners and Slavophiles around the middle of the 19th century, in the "Great Game" between Russia and Great Britain about expansion in Asia or on the eve of the First World War; but also after the October Revolution, in the interwar period and during the Cold War. As a political argument, this contradiction found new updates in the Putin era. It seems that the 1990s were an exception here during Boris Yeltsin's presidency.

With the October Revolution, the contrast acquired a new quality that was effective in international relations because it was ideologically charged and the fear of communism was omnipresent in the West. The following is to be explored how this new quality came about.

Russia as an ally

With the February Revolution of 1917, which brought the tsar's regime to collapse and ended the 300-year rule of the Romanovs, the question arose in London and Paris whether it would be possible to keep Russia at war: it seemed imperative to keep the Central Powers at bay to be able to defeat. On the other hand, many in Russia wanted peace. The soldiers of the empire were tired of war and wanted to go home, the nationalities of the empire began to think about autonomy, in the case of the Poles even about independence.

In March 1917, however, the Foreign Minister of the new Provisional Government, Pavel Miliukov, assured all foreign representatives in Russia in a dispatch that the new cabinet would "respect Russia's international obligations" and "devote all its energy to achieving victory". [1] The Western Allies had every interest in that. After all, the Central Powers, especially the German Empire, had advanced far into the territory of Russia and, with the military-administered country "Ober Ost", had created an area complex that included Belarusian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian territories.

The Provisional Government was far from achieving its war aims, such as reaching for the Bosphorus Straits. Nevertheless, she assured the ambassadors of Great Britain, France and Italy of her determination to achieve a "victory peace". The unrealistic war aims, as well as the willingness to continue the war in general, were "pierced" into the public and led to demonstrations in Petrograd with slogans such as "Down with Milyukov" and "Down with the war". Lenin, who had triumphantly returned to Petrograd in April 1917, had achieved one thing: the Provisional Government had lost its credibility; and the Bolsheviks, who had embraced the demands of the Zimmerwald Conference for a peace without contributions and annexations, gained popularity over the summer of 1917. In the fall of 1917, the Allies thus had only one unreserved partner in the Provisional Government.

The revolution was in the streets and Lenin, who had returned to Petrograd after brief exile in Finland and Karelia, canceled it. The October Revolution, which was less spectacular than the February Revolution, brought the Bolsheviks to power. [2] In their first decrees, the Bolsheviks kept those promises that had initially given them a certain amount of support. The next day the new Russian rulers issued a decree on the country, as a result of which the front against the Central Powers so badly needed by the Allies collapsed. At the same time, a decree on peace followed, as a result of which the Central Powers had a strong military relief on their eastern front, which they urgently needed for battles on the western front.

Before and after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks were difficult for the Allies to assess. General fear of communism went hand in hand with the question of how the Bolsheviks would conduct themselves in practice in foreign policy. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Adolf Joffe, Georgi Chicherin and other protagonists of Soviet foreign policy were to act in very different roles in the following years: as champions for the right of peoples to self-determination, as champions of the Russian and international proletariat and fighters against imperialist robbers, as representatives a Soviet Russia of workers and peasants. It was difficult for the governments of Great Britain, France, and the United States that entered the war in April 1917 to assess what was the ideological principle, what was ostensible rhetoric, and what was at the core of Soviet foreign policy. The government of Woodrow Wilson and the Bolsheviks met rhetorically on one postulated goal: the right of peoples to self-determination, which the Germans wanted to restrict with their urge to expand. At the end of 1917 it cost Lenin little to propagate this right to self-determination, which the USA wanted to see enforced, especially for Poland, since these territories were occupied by the Central Powers.

On December 5, 1917, Russia and the Central Powers agreed a ten-day armistice, which was later extended several times. On December 22nd, peace negotiations began in Brest-Litovsk, Belarus. For the Germans, but also for the global public, these became a lesson in the new forms of Soviet foreign policy that broke with conventional diplomatic traditions. In particular, when Leon Trotsky took over the leadership of the Soviet delegation on January 7, 1918, the Germans were just as irritated by his conduct as the distant Western observers. Trotsky on the one hand flattered his counterpart at the negotiating table, on the other hand he gave revolutionary speeches addressed to the oppressed of the world. The call for a worldwide struggle against imperialism was intended to demonstrate the antiquity of traditional foreign policy methods. He previously announced that he would "issue some revolutionary proclamations to the people and then close the whole booth [the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs]". [3] This policy of irritation helped him to achieve short-term success, at least to attract attention. His goal was "neither war nor peace", and this statement was perceived internationally as a fundamental one.

The means of power were, of course, in the hands of the Germans, who forced the peace of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, by resuming the war in Operation "Punch", in which Russia lost about a third of its European territory. This Soviet policy of irritation, the difficulty of distinguishing between ideological principles and pragmatic action, also shaped the perception of Soviet Russia among the powers of the Entente and the USA: this new regime deliberately did not place itself as the legal successor to the government of the tsar or the provisional Government. For example, it refused to repay loans that had already flowed to Russia from France and Great Britain before the outbreak of the First World War. It was therefore already clear after the collapse of the Central Powers in November 1918 that this regime would not participate on the side of the victorious powers in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919/20, especially in Versailles. Rather, discussions began in the West about whether the newly emerging states in northeastern Europe should be supported. [4]

In the case of Poland, the matter was clear: the pianist and politician Ignacy Paderewski had won over the American public to the cause of a separate Polish state on a concert tour through the United States. The Polish delegation around Roman Dmowski in Versailles was only concerned with the question of what borders this state should have. The course of an eastern border between Poland and Soviet Russia was - after the peace of Brest-Litovsk had been annulled with the November Revolution in Germany - part of the wars of independence of the Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles and also the Ukrainians. The First World War also continued in the Russian civil war of the "Reds" against the "Whites", who did not just accept the peoples' right to self-determination but adhered to the old vision of an empire. It was the "white" idea of ​​an undivided Russia that meant that the representatives of the White Movement in Versailles did not take part officially either. A completely different question in the western capitals and in the delegations to the Paris Peace Conference was that of supporting the White Movement in its struggle against the Bolsheviks.