Was the Cold War the Biggest Change in Russia’s Relationship with the West?
Announced on 12 March 1947 with the intention of containing Soviet expansion, the Truman Doctrine is sometimes seen as the first declaration of the Cold War. Four experts ask whether the conflict’s legacy is a defining one.
‘The Cold War fits the pattern of typical conflicts between Russia and the West’
Sergei Bogatyrev, Associate Professor of History at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies
Russia has had a love-hate relationship with the West since the 16th century, which saw the establishment of regular contact between Moscow and Europe. There are historical reasons for this ambiguity. Throughout its history Russia has shared many ideas with the West, from Christianity to socialism. But in Russia these ideas have always taken specific local forms, which Westerners have often seen as barbaric heresies or brutal aberrations, be it Orthodoxy, Peter I’s autocracy or the Soviet socialist experiment.
Ideological disagreement was a major component in conflicts between Russia and the West. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Russian tsars saw themselves as defenders of true Christianity, Orthodoxy, against Catholicism. Yet military conflicts between Russia and the West were usually accompanied by appeals for peace. Muscovite tsars repeatedly declared their desire to stop the shedding of Christian blood during wars with their Western neighbours, notably Poland. Catherine the Great and the tsars who followed her regarded themselves as members of the European family of monarchs, guarding order and stability against revolutions. In the 19th century, the official aim of Russian interference in European affairs was to stop revolutionary chaos and violence in both the West and in Russia.
In many respects, the Cold War fits the pattern of typical conflicts between Russia and the West. Ideological differences were a major driving force in the conflict; weapons of mass destruction made peaceful coexistence a necessity. There were moments of dangerous confrontation, such as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, but the superpowers retained a dialogue which helped avoid nuclear war. The current confrontation with the West instigated by Vladimir Putin differs from the Cold War in two important aspects. First, it lacks the ideological component that rationalised the past conflicts. But the Russian leadership has also replaced the productive rhetoric of peace with zero-sum thinking. Blurred aims make the present crisis a new and dangerous development.
‘Western troops tried to stifle the Bolshevik revolution at birth’
Rodric Braithwaite, British Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1988-91) and author of Armageddon and Paranoia: the Nuclear Confrontation (Profile, 2017)
People will argue about when the Cold War began until kingdom come. Was it with Stalin’s refusal to pull back from the East European countries his armies had occupied by the end of the war? Was it Churchill’s announcement in March 1946 that an Iron Curtain had fallen across Europe? Or Truman’s announcement in March 1947 that America would stem the advance of communism in Greece and beyond?
European neighbours used to see Russia as an unattractive despotism and then as a massive military threat. Most welcomed the overthrow of the tsar in 1917. But then Lenin came to power, trumpeting hostility towards the capitalist world, sending armies into Poland in the hope of sparking revolution in Germany, fomenting revolt in Europe’s empires in India, Africa and Asia. Stalin never abandoned those ambitions, though he suspended subversion (though not espionage) against his allies during the war.
The West responded in kind. British, French, Japanese and American troops tried to stifle the Bolshevik revolution at birth. Fearful of Bolshevik attempts to infiltrate British institutions, the British Chief of Staff compiled lists of frontline veterans he could call on to put down revolution. In May 1945 Churchill asked his generals for a scheme to eject Soviet troops from Eastern Europe: they rightly called it ‘Operation Unthinkable’. The US and British sent spies and saboteurs into Eastern Europe: most were betrayed and executed.
The American relationship with Russia was special. The tsar sent a fleet to support the North during the American Civil War. Americans had always disapproved of his regime as a matter of republican principle, so they were the first to recognise the republican government set up in February 1917. But their hostility towards Lenin’s godless regime was instant and noisy and continued even after they eventually recognised the Soviet Union in 1933.
If you trace the chain of causality right back, you end up with Adam and Eve. But if forced to choose, I’d say it was the Bolshevik coup of October 1917 that marked the biggest change in Russia’s relationship with the West.
‘The arrival of the English Merchant Adventurers in 1553 merits a mention’
Tatyana Zhukova, Teaching Fellow in Early Modern History at the University of Edinburgh
Russia’s relationship with the West has always reflected its geopolitical aims and aspirations. Yet, if I were to choose one event that changed Russia’s relationship with the West (specifically England), then the arrival of the English Merchant Adventurers on the shores of Archangel in 1553 merits a mention.
In Russia the merchants found fertile ground for their commercial ventures, chiefly the sale of English woollen cloth. The English Muscovy Company, established in 1555, quickly expanded its base of operations from Archangel to Moscow and then to the southern trading hub of Astrakhan. Exemptions from taxes and customs, alongside other special privileges, further aided English mercantile interests, though the merchants often found themselves at the centre of a diplomatic tussle between their host and home nations.
While the English government viewed its relationship with Russia purely as a trading partnership, Russian interest in their new Western ally was political and they sought a military alliance. The difference in aims led to episodes of tension, the effects of which were mainly borne by the merchants: threats of expulsion, revocation of privileges and extortion by local officials. In times of friendship, however, the tsars could also be generous. The English merchants were permitted to heat their houses in the summer, an action forbidden to most of Moscow’s inhabitants as a fire precaution in the mostly wooden city.
Although it was Russia’s first diplomatic relationship with a Western European power, it left little political legacy, as both states were not yet the imperial Goliaths of later centuries. It did, however, mark an important change in Russian foreign policy, one that began to look towards the West. After all, it was not just goods but engineers, physicians and apothecaries who journeyed to Moscow aboard English ships. As a testament to this legacy, you can still visit the old English Court, housed in the original 16th-century headquarters of the Muscovy Company, located just a few metres away from Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.
‘The cultural innovations of the 18th century were certainly more transformative than the Cold War’
Julia Leikin, Assistant Professor of History, Higher School of Economics, Moscow
The juxtaposition of Russia and ‘the West’ is a long-standing trope of historical writing on the country, yet it is deceptive in several ways. A conceptual map of Europe along an east-west axis only began to emerge in the 19th century. This opposition also suggests a unified ‘West’ during a period when religious, political and cultural differences were more divisive than unifying.
The cultural innovations that situated Russia within the society of European states in the 18th century were certainly more transformative than the ideological opposition that defined the decades of the Cold War. During that century, the ‘Europeanising’ efforts of successive Russian monarchs revolutionised the country’s institutions and the habits and mores of its elite. People and buildings received new façades, as nobles and townspeople were told to adopt European dress and shave their traditional beards, while palaces and residences were built in a variety of classical styles. Foreign artists were invited to court to capture these changes in their new secular paintings, while mansions and gardens built in a European style were filled with objets d’art imported from Europe. These changes were on display along the streets and embankments of the country’s new capital St. Petersburg, the metaphorical ‘window to Europe’.
Other changes were equally significant. Switching to a European-style calendar system, reorganising state bureaucracy, modernising the army and creating a navy had the cumulative effect of making Russia a player in European affairs. A century later Russia’s status as a European power was confirmed when the country took its seat at the Congress of Vienna.
Russia’s transition from a country once described as a ‘rude and barbarous’ kingdom into a European monarchy was a major source of tension within Russian society. The golden age of Russian literature, made possible by the reforms of the 18th century, was followed by intense debates over the country’s national character. These concerns worked their way from high culture into politics, coming to an end only when the Russian revolution sought to remake the country and its people.