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Survival and Consolidation: The Foreign Policy of Soviet Russia, 1918-1921.

In 1979, Richard Debo published Revolution and Survival. The Foreign Policy of Soviet Russia, 1917-18. This book took Soviet foreign policy from its inception to the end of the First World War, and left Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks in a precarious position. They had made their revolution and stayed in power while the Great Powers were embroiled in war, but what would be their fate when the war ended and if the eagerly-anticipated worldwide revolution did not take place? A dozen years later, Debo seeks to provide answers to this question in a welcome sequel.

He succeeds well. In twenty carefully crafted chapters, Debo shows how the aim of Soviet foreign policy slowly changed from trying to ensure the survival of the Soviet state (which was seen as serving primarily as the nucleus for the wider revolution) to attempting to consolidate the former lands of the Tsarist Empire into a new socialist state that could stand on its own. In broad outline, this is well-known. For example, Ulam and Uldricks have always made this point a general assumption of their studies of early Soviet foreign policy. Debo's book is distinguished from theirs by three things: he actually shows how this came about by examining the period in detail, he considers carefully (and at the archival level) the foreign policy of the major powers with whom the Bolsheviks had to deal and he keeps one eye firmly on the military situation (in the Russian Civil War, in the Allied intervention, and in the Polish War).

Weaving all these threads together is a complicated task. Debo eschews, in my view correctly, a strictly chronological approach in favour of a series of chapters that overlap each other in time. Instead, he takes as their organizing principle the primary focus of Soviet foreign policy at the moment. This often means that a particular country or geographic region sits at the centre of his narrative. Chapters two through five, for example, have Germany as their hub. Chapter two discusses the effect of the failure of the German revolution on Soviet foreign policy; chapter three looks at the Bolsheviks' efforts to make peace from October 1918 to February 1919, while the Allies dickered with Germany; chapter four considers the Soviets' willingness to negotiate with the Bullitt mission while events in eastern Europe looked promising for revolution; and chapter five outlines Soviet policy in the Baltic in Poland from December 1918 to the spring of 1919; while German troops were the dominant military presence in the region.

The withdrawal of German forces from eastern Europe removed this focus. With Germany's deciding to pursue a pro-western foreign policy and the failure of revolution to occur spontaneously in the wake of German withdrawal, the Bolsheviks now had to struggle to come to terms with the various forces on their borderlands in order to focus on the greater need for survival. This created two geographic axes: one stretching from Murmansk to Reval; the other from Budapest to Novorossisk. On each axis, the Bolsheviks faced a four-fold challenge: promoting revolution abroad, Allied intervention, counter revolution and the emergence of submerged nationalities. All were connected and affected each other. For example, the collapse of the Hungarian Soviet in July 1919, the Whites' taking of Tsaritsyn in the same month, the French desire to provide more support for the Whites in South Russia and the problems with various Ukrainian factions all pushed and pulled at Bolshevik policy.

By the beginning of 1920, with Denikin's White forces on the run, Soviet foreign policy concentrated on Britain. This was logical, for Lenin believed that the resumption of normal trading relations with Britain, the apotheosis of capitalism, was necessary for Soviet Russia's economic survival. Debo is particularly astute in his consideration of Anglo-Soviet relations in chapters ten, eleven, fifteen, and eighteen. He deftly shows how Lloyd George, who favoured increased Anglo-Soviet trade for domestic reasons, was able to outmanoeuvre his political opponents (principally Churchill and Curzon), who loathed the Bolsheviks on ideological grounds, and bring about a trade agreement between the two countries. Here, Debo contributes substantially to our knowledge of British foreign policy, not only by enhancing our knowledge of Anglo-Soviet relations (augmenting Ullman and White), but also by showing how the contradictory policies of Britain and France towards the Bolsheviks contributed to the widening gulf between the two former allies.

Three chapters, twelve through fourteen, have Poland as their focus. Debo is splendid on this murky subject. He shows how Pilsudsky's nationalism and extravagant plans for a greater Poland excluded any collaboration between him and Denikin's White forces. At the same time, Debo demonstrates how France's desire for security (with its need for a strong Poland to help contain Germany) clashed with Britain's desire for improved trade with Russia (with its need for peace in eastern Europe). The result was that the two western powers had no common policy, much to Poland's detriment. Finally, Debo reveals how Soviet policy towards Poland shifted between a willingness to surrender a good deal of territory to obtain peace and a desire to extinguish Poland when military victory seemed possible.

This is a fine book. It is firmly based on original material; its conclusions are well-balanced and judicious. Debo shows clearly the pragmatic and flexible nature of a Soviet foreign policy that was at the same time profoundly ideological. Once the Soviet leadership had become convinced that revolution abroad was not imminent, their emphasis on survival changed dramatically to a focus on the consolidation of Soviet power (a precursor in fact of Stalin's later policy of "socialism in one country"). Such an achievement was to be expected from Debo. He also has revealed how much of the Soviet successes was due to the disharmony of their enemies. This book requires careful attention from the reader, reflecting the complexity of the subject rather than any shortcoming in Debo's presentation. Indeed, he writes gracefully and to the point. Survival and Consolidation is required reading for those interested in both the beginnings of Soviet foreign policy and the wider matter of the restructuring of Europe in the aftermath of the First World War.
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Author:Neilson, Keith
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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