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Russian Imperialism

If, in 1918, the words and deeds of the Bolsheviks inside Russia stirred the imaginations of workers everywhere, so also did their abrupt reversal of their foreign policy. They preached “no annexations, no indemnities,” called on all workers to repudiate the aggressive policies of their governments, and demanded the ending of the war. They published the sordid treatise in which the Allied Governments had secretly agreed to dismember Turkey and divide up the rest of the spoils of war. They renounced Czarist Russia’s century-old aim of controlling the Dardanelles, and voluntarily gave up the Russian “spheres of interest” in China and Persia extorted by force from governments too weak to resist. They proclaimed the right of “self-determination” and allowed Finns, Poles, Esthonians, Latvians and Lithuanians to secede and become independent states. They denounced the annexation of territory and demands for reparations imposed on the defeated countries under the Versailles Treaty, and vigorously attacked the whole idea of backward peoples being exploited as colonies and protectorates by the imperialist powers. They preached internationalism, opposed militarism, and encouraged their followers in all countries to seek the reduction or abolition of armies, navies and air forces.      

All of that was 30 years ago. Now Russia stands forth as a great imperialist power, armed to the teeth, trying to overtake America in atom bomb production, glorifying nationalism and militarism, and entering into the competitive struggle with the same plundering aim as the other imperialist powers.

How far Soviet Russia has departed from the earlier anti-imperialist proclamation of the Bolshevik party can be seen by comparing its present actions and attitude in foreign affairs with the views of Lenin in his work “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” written in 1916. (See “Selected Works of Lenin,” Vol. 5, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1936) Lenin condemned the imperialism of all the powers, but because of the Russian censorship he had to illustrate his case by avoiding reference to Russia and mentioning only Japan. Writing a year later in the 1917 Preface Lenin explained this:- “I was forced to quote as an example – Japan! The careful reader will easily substitute Russia for Japan, and Finland, Poland, Courland, the Ukraine, Khiva, Bokhara, Esthonia and other regions peopled by non-great Russians, for Korea.” (1917 Preface, “Collected Works,” Vol. 5, p. 6.) He instanced Japanese imperialism in Korea. Now by an ironical turn of events Northern Korea is occupied, not by the Chinese from whom Japan annexed it, but by Russian troops (while Americans hold the southern half). Now also Russia has a base on Finish territory; has annexed about a third of Poland (while Poland has compensated itself by taking territory formerly in Germany); and has incorporated the Ukraine as a Republic of the Soviet Union. Estonia has been annexed – the vote endorsing this being taken with Russian troops in occupation; likewise Courland, part of what, between the wars, was independent Latvia, Khiva and Bokhara, conquered by Czarist Russia and reduced to vassal states in 1873 are now republics in the Soviet Union.

Lenin’s statement that “the war of 1914-18 was imperialistic (that is, an annexationist, predatory, plunderous war) on the part of both sides; it was a war for the division of the world, for the partition and repartition of colonies, ‘spheres of influence’ of finance-capital, etc.” (1920 Preface) can as truly be applied to World War II, Russia again being one of the predatory powers, but this time with greater success than fell to the lot of the Czarist regime. Examples in great numbers could be quoted showing the many regions in which the Russian expansionist drive is operating, by methods reminiscent of Russia’s Czarist past and of British, Japanese and German imperialisms in their heyday.

At the Yalta Conference in 1945 and again in August 1946 (See Daily Telegraph, August 13th, 1946, and Daily Worker, August 14th, 1946), the Russian Government revived the old Czarist demand to have a base on Turkish territory from which to control the Dardanelles. This had been preceded some months earlier by a campaign in the Russian Press for the annexation of large areas of Northern Turley. Part of this territory had been ceded by Russia to Turkey in 1921 after a plebiscite had been taken. No one can reasonably quarrel with the Communist argument (Daily Worker, January 12th, 1946) that the vote was a farce because taken whilst Turkish troops were in occupation, but exactly the same can be said of Russia’s annexation of the three Baltic Republics in 1940.

As has been mentioned it was the Bolsheviks who exposed the secret treaties of the first world war. In the second world war it was the Russian Government which had its imperialist claims embodied in a secret agreement signed by America and Britain at the Yalta Conference in 1945. As a coalition of entering the war against Japan Russia was to be allowed annexations and spheres of influence at the expense not only of Japan but also of China. Russia’s ally! Under the agreement, which was made without the knowledge of the Chinese Government and was not published until a year later, Russia not only received the strategically important Kurile Islands and Southern Sakhalin, rich in timber, minerals and oil, but also received recognition of Manchuria as a Russian sphere of influence though it was Chinese territory until annexed by Japan in 1931.

The agreement was subsequently published by the British Government (Command Paper 6735, 1946). The relevant clauses read as follows:-

1. The status quo in Outer Mongolia – the Mongolian People’s Republic – shall be preserved.

2. The former rights of Russia violated by the treacherous attack of Japan in 1904 shall be restored – namely,

(a) The southern part of Sakhalin as well as all the islands adjacent to it shall be returned to the Soviet Union.

(b) The commercial port of Dairen shall be internationalised, the pre-eminent interests of the Soviet Union in this port be safeguarded, and the lease of Port Arthur as a naval base of the Soviet Union restored.

(c) The Chinese Eastern railway and the South Manchurian railway, which provide an outlet to Dairen, shall be jointly operated by the establishment of a joint Soviet-Chinese company, it being understood that the pre-eminent interests of the Soviet Union shall be safeguarded and that China shall retain full sovereignty in Manchuria.

3. The Kuriles shall be handed over to the Soviet Union.

Clause 1, referring to Outer Mongolia, meant that the Government of China would be expected to conform recognition of the independence of this formerly Chinese territory. The required recognition was given in January, 1946. Outer Mongolia, nominally independent, is now a close military and economic dependence on Russia.

The Kuriles and Sakhalin had been objects of the rival Japanese and Russian imperialists since 1875, Russia being forced to leave the former and the southern half of the latter after her defeat by Japan in 1904-5.

The granting of the Russian claim to Port Arthur is described as a “restoration” – so it was, but not to the original owners. After the Chino-Japanese war, 1894-5, Japan annexed it from China but was expelled by Russia, France and Germany on the plea that the occupation threatened independence of Peking; in spite of which China was then forced to lease it to Russia. Dairen likewise was, under pressure, leased by China to Japan in 1915.

Members of the Chinese Government were quick to protest against the Yalta secret agreement as being “contrary to the Atlantic Charter.” (Times, February 25th,1946), and the following news item indicates that some of the Chinese are still not prepared to accept it:-

“The Chinese People’s Political Council yesterday adopted a resolution urging the Chinese Government to demand the return to China of Port Arthur and Dairen, which have been occupied by Soviet forces since the collapse of Japan.” (Sunday Despatch, March 14th, 1948.)

The fact that the Yalta Agreement contained the face-saving clause about China retaining “full sovereignty in Manchuria” deceived nobody, least of all the Chinese Government, and the following shame-faced comment was made by the London Observer (February 17th,1946):-

“The surrender at Yalta of China’s rights in Manchuria to Russia as the price of the latter’s entry into the war on Japan was no matter for pride, whatever the gain in the seeding victory … the fact remains that China’s rights in a region more important to her than any disappeared. Dr. T.V. Soong obtained some modifications of the Yalta terms in the subsequent Russo-Chinese Treaty. But since then Russia has stripped Manchurian factories of machinery and still fails to withdraw her troops. Urgent diplomatic pressure in Moscow is our immediate due to China.”

On coming to power in 1917 the Bolsheviks relinquished all the Czarist claims and rights to spheres of influence and oil concessions in Northern Iran (then known as Persia). In 1946, with Russian troops in occupation, the Iran Government was forced to agree to the re-imposition of much the same Russian privileges. The form taken by this new Bolshevik imperialism was the setting up of a joint Russian-Iran company to exploit the oilfields for 50 years, the important point being, however, that majority control would be in Russian hands for 25 years. For the next 25 years the control would nominally be equal but not until the expiry of 50 years would the Iran Government have the right to buy out the Russian half of the shares. The text of the clause relating to the first period reads: “In the course of the first 25 years of the activity of the company 49 per cent. of the shares will belong to the Iranian side, and 51 per cent. to the Soviet side ..." (Published in “Soviet Weekly,” September 18th,1947) When Russian troops left (after complaint had been made to the United Nations) the Iran Government, backed by the American and British interests, which have their own oil concessions in other parts of Iran, repudiated the agreement with Russia. Doubtless Russia’s claim will be received when the Russian Government considers the moment opportune.

Another example of Russian imperialism was the treaty imposed on Finland which ceded to Russia the province of Petsamo and leased “territory and waters for the establishment of a Soviet naval base in the area of Porkkala-Udd.” (News Chronicle, July 23rd, 1946.) In March, 1948, further demands were being made.

During the lifetime of the League of Nations the Russian Government never failed to point out that the so-called League of Nation’s mandates were only another name for the old avowed annexations of colonial territory. When the United Nations replaced the League, and the Italian colonies came up for disposal, the Russian Government promptly made a proposal “for international control of two parts of Libya, with a Russian administration in Tripolitania and a British or U.S. one in Cyrenacia.” (Daily Worker, April 30th, 1946.) The claim was, however, not favoured by the other powers, and was withdrawn.

Forgetting the early Bolshevik arguments against the stupidities and dangers of reparations, the Russian Government pressed its claim for 10,000 million dollars as reparations from Germany.

Another aspect of Russian imperialism has been the setting up of subservient governments in the countries on Russian borders in Eastern Europe. This was defended by Premier Stalin in statement to the Moscow “Pravda” in 1946 (reproduced in the Manchester Guardian, March 14th, 1946). Speaking of the Eastern European countries through which Germany had attacked Russia he said: “Is it to be wondered that the Soviet Union, in its desire to safeguard itself in future, is making an effort to secure in these countries governments loyal to the Soviet Union? How can one, unless one is mad, qualify these steps and aspirations of the Soviet Union as expansionist tendencies in our State?”

It may seem a plausible argument, but it is precisely the one used by every expanding Empire as an excuse for “protecting its frontiers”; as for example by the British imperialism in India and Egypt, by Japan, and by Czarist Russia itself.

A last illustration of Russian imperialism strikingly shows the gulf that separates the outlook of the present regime from its own early proclamations. In January, 1948, the American Government published German documents, captured in 1945, which purported to disclose the secret agreement between Russia and Germany after the pact of 1939 was signed by the two Governments. According to the Daily Herald (January 22nd, 1948) these secret agreements “divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, gave the Baltic Republics to Russia and provided for the partition of Poland … Russia’s claim to naval and military bases on the Dardannelles as part of the ‘carve up’ is recorded.”

In 1918 in a somewhat similar situation the Bolshevik Government was able to make the most devastating of all answers, it answered the secret treaties of the Czar’s Government by renouncing them. It showed the sincerity of its protestations against imperialism by giving up all claims and by evacuating all territories seized against the wishes of inhabitants. The Bolshevik regime was held in high esteem by workers in all countries because it could show clean hands to contrast with the loot-laden talons of all the governments powerful enough to enforce their claim of spoils.

Not so in 1948! Now the Russian protests against the imperialism of other governments have a hallow ring because the Russian Government is itself gorged with loot. Instead it had to combat the secret documents published in U.S.A. by producing a parallel volume purporting to expose the secret negotiations between the British and German Governments in 1939. “These negotiations were designed to secure a broad political agreement with Hitler, including the division of spheres of influence throughout the world. Germany was to be given the predominant influence in South-East Europe.” (Daily Worker, February 16th, 1948.)

Unable to show by deeds that their hands are clean the Bolsheviks have perforce to fall back on the cynical plea – for that is what it means – that they are no worse than the other brigands of predatory capitalism.

And what will be the verdict of history on the melancholy decline from the idealist principles of 1918 to the sordid practice of thirty years after.