The Evaluation of Soviet Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period

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The new Bolshevik government did not seem to survive in November 1917. After 24 years, in the autumn of 1941, few observers thought the Stalinist dictatorship to last out the year. These two facts showed the primary aim of foreign policy of the Soviet government. The other aim was that the world revolution predicted by Marx would happen soon. But it seemed impossible in the mid-twenties.

The Soviet government adopted a high moral tone in its comments on international relations from the beginning. They claimed and often repeated that the uniquely developing nature of the Soviet social and political system made it different any other regime. That’s why the aims and principles were open diplomacy, self-determination, disarmament and the peace of nations in marked contrast to imperialist powers. This approach emphasizes the use of propaganda to apply to the masses over the heads of their government. But more significantly the Soviet government was completely unscrupulous in its conduct of foreign affairs. When it was powerless, peace and disarmament were clearly sensible things to strive for in the public arena, while the USSR established its strength. The USSR followed collective security policy, when it seemed to bear fruit. When the best warranty of Soviet safety was war and occupation, these methods were used instead.

The most important thing about this period is that the Soviet Union was not yet a superpower. Actually, that the Soviet Union was not even a world power, although its territory still covered a large part of the world’s land surface. The Soviet Union was industrially backward and the civil war and famine was the discussion of most of 24 years. By the late 1930s the unusual achievements of the five year plans had immeasurably strength but most knowledgeable sources in the West understood that Stalin’s purges of the armed forces had strongly sabotaged Soviet military potential, as the war with Finland demonstrated. Despite this, the Soviet government’s ideology certainly scared its close neighbours. This was useful to conservative forces in the West even when the USSR was obviously weak.

Soviet foreign policy experts believed that all imperialist powers were automatically unfriendly to the world’s first socialist state. That’s why if an affiance had to be made with a particular capitalist power, it was naturally a question of solution for in Soviet eyes fascism and democracy were just two different forms of the enemy, capitalism.

Communism and the Logic of Soviet Communism

Communism means a shared or general community. It is reproduced from the Latin word – “communis”. In “Republic” Plato described the class of guards in government is committed to serve the interests of the entire society in the ideal state. Like private property of goods would disrupt their owners by promoting selfishness, Plato said the protectors should live not only as material goods but also as a large family sharing spouses and children’s common ownership.

Other early communist views were inspired by religion. The early Christians experienced a simple communism as a solidarity form and a way to leave the earthly beings. Similar reasons then inspired the creation of monastic schemes, where monks pledged to share poverty among themselves and among the poor. Modern communism was inspired by a revolution in technology and economics. It was the Industrial Revolution which happened in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It made great economic productivity gains at the expense of an increasingly wretched working class. It heartened Marx to believe that class struggle inevitably led to a society in which sovereignty and welfare would be shared.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Russia was an unlikely arena for the proletarian revolution which Marx predicted. Its economy was mainly agricultural and its proletariat of industry was not big. Most of the Russians were farmers who farmed land owned by wealthy nobles. Russia was closer to feudalism than capitalism. Lenin’s Russian Social Democratic Labor Party saw an opportunity to use this displeasure to overthrow the autocratic tsarist regime and replace it with a radically different economic and political system.

Lenin was the main architect of this plan. As leader of the revolutionary Bolshevik faction of the party, Lenin made two important changes to the theory and practice of communism, it was later renamed Marxism-Leninism. The first one was that revolution could not be automatically made by the proletariat, but by workers and peasants led by an elite avant-garde party. The Communist Party would educate, guide and direct the masses secretly, strictly organized and disciplined. This is necessary because the masses who suffer from false mind and are unable to notice their real interests can’t be trusted to govern themselves. Democracy should be practiced only within the party, and even then it should be limited by the policies of democratic centralism. This strict discipline was necessary, Lenin claimed, if the party were to lead the masses to revolution and create the next socialist workers’ state. In short, the revolutionary proletarian dictatorship had to be a Communist Party dictatorship in the name of the proletariat.

In Lenin’s imperialism a second and closely related change appears, in which he showed that the communist revolution would not begin in developed capitalist countries such as France and Great Britain. This is due to the fact that the most direct and wild using of workers has shifted to the colonies of imperialist nations such as Great Britain. The capitalist states have collected gains from the cheap resources and labor available in these colonies, and have been able to corrupt workers at home with slightly higher wages and other reforms. Opposed to Marx’s expectations, the communist revolution would begin in economically underdeveloped states like Russia and in the oppressed and exploited colonial states of the capitalist periphery.

Soviet Foreign Policy in 1920s

From October 1917 to 1921

When the Bolsheviks were flushed with success, their behavior in the international sphere was provocative. The first foreign policy act of the new government was the Decree on Peace reported the day after the Bolshevik revolution and the sensational announcement of the Tsarist secret agreements with other nations. The expectation of world revolution was almost led to the clearly unusual approach to the talks with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk. While the Soviet delegation wasted as much time as possible the communities of the Central Powers were pressed with Bolshevik propaganda. The Germans couldn’t tolerate and forced the Bolsheviks to confirm the wild treaty which denied so much of territory, population and resources of the old Russian Empire after several months of this. Foreign affairs hardly existed within the violent fighting between the Reds and the White armies during the civil war after Brest-Litovsk. By the end of the civil war Soviet Russia was economically ruined and militarily powerless. Soviet Russia was divided from the more developed parts of Europe by a wall of unfriendly states surrounding from Finland in the north, through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to Rumania in the south. Russia was removed from the League of Nations and it was not officially recognized by any major state. The most urgent problem of the Narkomindel was to maintain diplomatic and economic ties with as many states as possible.

From 1921 to 1931

The birth and development of the strange relationship between communist Russia and capitalist Weimar Germany was in the next decade. Talkings between the two countries had been developing since early 1921 and secret connections had already been made in the diplomatic, trading and military areas. The collapse of the World Economic Conference at Genoa in 1922 had led the Soviet and German delegations to finalize the Treaty of Rapallo. With this diplomatic and economic ties were founded between the two countries. The secret military agreements were signed during a few months.

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However the relationship with Germany was not calm. The Comintern’s unsuccessful attempts to inflame the German reform in 1921 and 1923 were not helpful. The Narkomindel was scared at Germany’s compromise with the Entente Powers when she signed the Locarno contracts in 1925 and joined the League of Nations the year after. But the Treaty of Berlin in 1926 showed that both governments found their contacts too useful.

Despite these, the Soviet government benefited some limited achievements. The official recognition by Great Britain in 1924 and by most other nations at least made Soviet isolation less severe. But Soviet papers still gave the effect that the capitalist world was on the point of starting another mixing against the world’s first workers’ state. This approach fed off accidents like the 1927 breaking of diplomatic ties by Great Britain, and the Soviet media often described the League of Nations as hidden conspiracy to offense the USSR. Even the Kellogg Briand Pact of 1928 was actually described as another venture to sabotage world peace! This atmosphere of hysteria was planned for internal spending, specifically as an extra refreshing to Stalin’s economic revolution.

When the 1920s came to an end the Soviet international status seemed more hopeful than at any time since the revolution. The USSR had reached international recognition. It had a useful working link with Germany and its skilled use of propaganda had given her a status of moral captainship. The most enough improvement was the economic disaster which hit the capitalist world in 1929.

Foreign Policy of the USSR under Stalin


In this period the USSR finished a set of neutrality or non-aggression pacts with some of its neighbors. Perhaps the most important were with Poland and France in 1932. These pacts showed USSR’s wish for peace, balance and international acceptance. They demonstrated to be a lively preparation for the realignment of Soviet foreign policy that was begun by events in the Far East.

The Japanese invasion on China in 1931 and then founding of puppet state Manchukuo which located Far Eastern Border were a highly alarming improving for Stalin. It made further Japanese invasion into Siberia seem an obvious possibility. The absence of an exact French and British reply to the Manchurian crisis made Stalin suspect of the West’s aims. A conspiracy of imperialist powers seemed more reasonable to Stalin as a statement of Western movements than simple weakness or inability. Stalin soon continued relations with Chiang Kai Shek, and military power in the Soviet Far East was continuously increased.

The situation was also changing in Europe. The fall of rational politics in Germany as the economic crisis got worse was not at first the catastrophe it later happened for Stalin. The Soviet comment of events in Germany was that the polarization in politics could only finally help to a reinforcement of the KPD and that the Nazis’ short-lived achievement would foretell some type of left-wing revolution. Therefore the KPD was commanded to attack the middle ground of German politics, classifying the SPD social fascists. Stalin was not the only one to underrate the power of Hitler and the Nazis. After a year of complicated signals from Berlin, it became clear in the Kremlin that the German contact was no longer to be trusted. Although economic ties continued, the secret military solidarity was ended by Hitler, the KPD was ruined, the tone of the Nazi media was obviously anti-Soviet, and the expansionist goals of Hitler’s foreign policy were clearly discussed.

Stalin was anxious at this breakdown in the USSR’s international status. Therefore Stalin began to change his foreign policy towards some form of compromise with those capitalist powers which also felt threatened by a reviving Germany in Europe and Japanese attacks in the Far East. The first clear sign of this change was the softening of tone to the League of Nations which the USSR joined on September 18, 1934. After this, the policy of collective security was followed by the Soviet powers and especially by Litvinov.


Although the political relations with Nazi Germany were very bad, economic relations exist between the two nations. For example, on March 20, 1934, another important trade agreement was signed. In 1935, 1936, 1937 and 1939, when Soviet and German officials held their ordinary economic meetings, the Soviet side might suggest an opportunity to improve political relations. These suggestions were rejected by the Germans. However, it is clear that Stalin was willing to secretly prosecute the Nazis while publicly advocating collective security. A final decision on the way to go was made later, while the defense capability of the Soviet Union continued to increase. Stalin moved westward in 1935, when the USSR signed the mutual assistance pacts with France and Czechoslovakia. In view of the political geography of Eastern Europe, it was rather mysterious how the USSR should actually burden Germany in an international crisis: the illusion of having a counterweight seemed sufficient for the French and for the Soviet Union indeed an advance. The agreements contained a clause clarifying that the USSR should act only at the request of the French. In line with this diplomatic reorientation, the Comintern also changed its tactics and instructed its puppet communists to support the Popular Front’s policy of cooperating with every political party that was anti-fascist. From 1934 to 1939, however, Stalin hardly benefited from his new policy. Again and again the British and French decided not to stand up to the aggressive movements of Italy, Japan or Germany, the three powers that had created the AntiComintern Pact until 1937, which was clearly directed against the USSR. It is not the right place to analyze the appeasement policy, but it is not hard to imagine what conclusions will be drawn in Moscow when Italy took over Ethiopia, Japan occupied more China, and Hitler re-established the Rhineland in 1936. 1938. Was this a Willful attempt by Britain and France to force the aggressive states against Russia, as the Soviet press constantly asserted? Stalin was able to accept otherwise, for four soviet proposals for an international conference between March and September 1938 had simply been ignored by Great Britain and France. The Munich Agreement of October 1938 was almost the last straw for Stalin, because he had assured the French during the summer crisis, the support of the Soviets. But the French ignored their allies in the USSR and followed the British leadership in handing over the Sudetenland to Hitler. The Soviet Union was again excluded from European decision-making, although it was in the league and had concluded treaties despite mutual support with France and Czechoslovakia. The USSR had no common border with Czechoslovakia, and Stalin had recently cleaned the Red Army officer corps, which made it unlikely that Soviet intervention would be effective. However, this did not change the fact that unlike Great Britain and France, the USSR could publicly present itself as the only power ready to stand up to Nazi aggression. Whether this was a bluff or not, all we know is that the bluff has never been called. The USSR had also managed to obtain considerable propaganda salaries from the Spanish Civil War. Why did Stalin involve the USSR in this war, which was so far from the borders of the Soviet Union? There are multiple possibilities. He may have wished:

  • create a Soviet satellite in Spain;
  • Preserve the democratically elected republican government;
  • prove his belief in collective security by helping to thwart fascist aggression; or
  • show that the USSR is now an international force to be reckoned with.

The first two seem to be the most unlikely, but a combination of the others can provide an acceptable explanation. Although the USSR signed the Non-Intervention Agreement, large amounts of military aid were sent to the Republic, but never enough to guarantee the Republican victory. Perhaps Stalin showed his usual caution by testing the resolve of Britain and France, who were ready to step aside and let the republic take their chances without them. What else has Stalin taken from the Spanish episode besides the propaganda value? An unexpected bonus was the gold reserves of the Spanish government. More important, the three years of the war gave him additional insights into the attitude of his ally, France, and his collective security partner Britain. From a Soviet point of view, it was obvious that these two powers would be taking rather severe risks to their respective strategic positions rather than acting effectively against Italy or Germany. Unfortunately for the USSR and unlike Hitler, Stalin could not fully benefit from the military experience gained in the war, as he murdered a number of the officers who had served in Spain and ignored the lessons the Germans had learned so well.

Thus, at the time of the occupation of the body of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Stalin, apart from a certain success of the propaganda, had absolutely nothing to show for his collective security. Worse, Nazi Germany, now immeasurably stronger than 1933, had not been able to accommodate. As a sign of the dangerous position of the USSR, in 1938 and 1939 Japan had made very strong attacks on the Soviet Far East. The USSR won the battle for Lake Khasan in 1938 and Khalkin-Gol in 1939, causing the Japanese to think about every possible adventure in the region. Despite a neutrality agreement with Japan in April 1941 Stalin could not be sure of its Far East border until the end of 1941, when his brilliant agent Richard Sorge told him in Tokyo that the Japanese had other plans. Despite the isolation and ignorance of 1938 and early 1939, Stalin suddenly found himself in an extraordinary position to be wooed by the two European blocs of power. The last moments of collective security policy took place between March and August 1939. This began with another failed proposal by the Soviet Union for an international conference that continued when an Anglo-French military delegation unsuccessfully tried to negotiate the way to a joint agreement with the USSR and ended up with the ‘bomb’ of the Nazi-Soviet pact on the 23rd of August. Why did Stalin decide to become an ally of Hitler and not Britain and France? A key factor must have been the total lack of resolution that these two powers have demonstrated over the past six years. Was it in any way credible that one of them would be Poland’s guarantee for Poland in the face of increasing German pressure? Neither Hitler nor Stalin believed it. To Stalin’s great but temporary happiness, his attempts to improve Soviet German relations had suddenly borne fruit. Hitler was anxious to prevent all Anglo-French moves to include the USSR in a military pact, and he planned to attack Poland on 1 September. Ribbentrop made Stalin an offer that could not be denied. The Soviet-German trade agreement of 18 August was soon followed by the non-aggression pact of 23 August. The secret sections of this pact essentially stated the USSR in eastern Poland, the three Baltic states and Bessarabia. The treaty has also postponed the likelihood of war with Germany for some time. All that Britain and France could have offered was the possibility of a war with Germany in the near future and probably on the same side as the old enemy Poland. Stalin had learned in 1938 the value of the mutual aid pacts with the French. What other decision could he make under the circumstances?

23 August 1939 to 22 June 1941

Over the next 20 months, Hitler expanded his control of most of Europe through military power,economic penetration, and alliance. In early summer 1941 he was ready to launch his long-held attack on his temporary ally, the USSR. How had Stalin used his time? Extensive deliveries of grain, oil and other important strategic materials had been sent to Germany under the trade agreements between the two governments, but the Germans had only sporadically sided with the agreement. On September 17, the Red Army occupied its assigned zone in Poland. Between November 1939 and March 1940, Finland was ceded to the USSR, and by the end of 1940, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had been incorporated. The USSR had gained a lot, but it had lost the moral superiority it had falsely claimed since 1917, and had now demonstrated Soviet imperialism, which after 1945 was so pronounced in Eastern Europe, the war against Finland, and a rapid restructuring program was in the Act implemented. It is clear that Stalin expected and fought a war with Germany, but during this time he did everything he could to appease Hitler. Although there were some difficult positions in the Balkans between Stalin and Hitler, the USSR agreed to join the Tripartite Pact, linking them to Japan, Italy and Germany in a vague but grandiose plan that promised Stalin profits in Central Asia. Supplies of strategic material to Germany lasted until a few hours before the German attack on the USSR. It seemed as if Stalin was trying desperately not to apologize to the Germans for an attack, though there is no doubt that Stalin received highly classified information about German plans. It is still a mystery why Stalin, who trusted no one and murdered millions, could not accept that Hitler would attack him if he did. Perhaps even dictators tend to wishful thinking, and certainly there was no one in Stalin’s court who could risk his career and his life by contradicting him. On June 22, 1941, after twenty years of fear of intervention by the Foreiu, the ‘first workers state of the world’ was again attacked by a coalition of imperialist powers, led this time by Nazi Germany. The catastrophe with which Operation Barbarossa began came within a few weeks and a few kilometers before the destruction of the Soviet Union, and probably even Stalin himself, but here one can neither categorize the terrible suffering of the Soviet people during the Great Patriotic War nor negotiate the emergence of the Soviet Union USSR as a superpower after 1945.


How can we detect the achievement or unsucces of Soviet foreign policy in the interwar period? If the main aim of the Soviet leadership had been to refrain being attacked it had faile by June 1941. But much of the maneuvering of the Narkomindel within the whole interwar period had been from a status of powerlessness. The USSR could seldom influence world events and actually was often disregarded at key moments, while being seen as valuable at other times. Indeed the Soviet Union provided real advantage from its economic relationship with Germany during the period and that the secret military connections had been useful. The non-aggression pact with Hitler had also given Stalin an opportunity to enlarge his borders. Probably this union had given Stalin a breathing aria, but one is called to ask if the time eraned was used completely. Paradoxically, it was Stalin who must take the obligation both for the disaster which almost crushed the USSR in 1941 and for main win which could not have been won without the industrial foundation created in the 1930s. For Stalin the lesson was clear. The Soviet Union had to be economically and militarily powerful before it could survive and play an important role in world affairs.

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