The Russian Revolution as an Origin of the Cold War

The Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath established the pattern of mistrust and mutual fear that would eventually underlie the Cold War. The battle of ideologies was not merely an intellectual conflict between opposing points of view, but rather the justification for a very real, if undeclared, shooting war. Neither side would soon forget or forgive what it saw as the perfidy of the other.

Today, there is a tendency to see the Russian Revolution as synonymous with the “October Revolution,” largely in accordance with the official Soviet view. October was only one phase in a broader phenomenon, and in the grand scheme of things, the least influential phase. The first phase was the February Revolution of 1917, in which the Tsar was compelled to abdicate, both for himself and his son, and the constitutional monarchy was replaced by a nominally republican system. This Provisional Government decided to honor Russian agreements with France and Britain, continuing to prosecute the First World War despite the profound level of war-weariness in Russia. As the year wore on, this government lost what little support it had had, and by the end of October (the beginning of November according to the western calendar), it existed only on paper. The army was in the early stages of wholesale mutiny, the cities had become ungovernable, and the countryside was effectively cut off from all regional authority.

The October Revolution, in contrast, was literally a palace coup that only became possible because of the absence of all other effective authority. A mob of workers with Bolshevik tendencies and mutinous sailors seized the Winter Palace with the aid of shelling from the warship Avrora. Overnight, the Bolshevik wing of the Social Democratic Party (soon to be renamed the Communist party) had taken control of the center of the Russian government, and it alone had the kind of disciplined organization to parlay that control into the foundation of a ruling government.

The third and most profoundly influential phase in the Russian Revolution was the Civil War that followed the Soviet takeover. No other group had had the power to govern Russia, but many groups had enough regional power to assert itself locally, and to make a bid for overall authority. The Soviets rid themselves of the German threat by making peace with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk; among other things, the new Soviet government accepted the creation of a pro-German state in the Ukraine, in part because they were in no position to enforce their power there anyway.

In ridding themselves of the German threat, however, the Soviets exposed themselves to the anger of their former allies in the West. Britain, France and by now the United States saw the separate peace as a betrayal of Russia’s former agreements; moreover, the western allies had given Russia material aid, and they now foresaw the prospect of that aid being abused by a lawless successor state. These countries deployed troops to northern Russia, specifically to the area of the arctic ports through which aid had previously come, in part to secure their property, and in part to put pressure on the new Soviet government.

For their part, the Soviets controlled the primary and secondary capitals, Petrograd and Moscow, and soon they were able to expand upon these bases because of the organizational talents of Leon Trotsky, who managed to build a new army, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, on the foundation of the previously mutinous army of the Tsar. This army had to fight all rivals throughout the territory of the former Russian Empire, from conventional army units that remained loyal to the Tsar and large Cossack formations to non-Marxist socialists. The list of enemies included the western forces in the north, and there were violent battles before the Allies recalled their troops.

The Soviets would not consolidate their hold on the country until 1921; along the way they earned international opprobrium with the murder of the Tsar and his family, so as to rob the remaining White forces of any hope of a restoration. The war was hard-fought, and only won with the aid of total ruthlessness; in consequence, it went a long way toward the transformation of the Soviet leadership from a band of intellectuals to a strange assortment of theoreticians and thugs. Some, like Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the head of the first secret police or Cheka, fall into both categories.

By themselves, these forces did not create the Cold War; after all, it was not after the First World War, but after the Second, that the Cold War emerged. The men who made policy in the latter forties, however, were strongly influenced by the perceptions that arose between 1917 and 1919.

To the West, the Soviets were a brutish, murderous cabal that refused to honor treaties; it did not help that the Soviets served an ideology that was odious to conservative states and liberal democracies alike, and that the Soviets actively sought to export their revolution to the rest of the world – at least in theory. The Soviets were not to be trusted, and accordingly, they were integrated neither into the standard postwar security arrangements nor into the League of Nations. In fact, only one state was prepared to do any meaningful business with the Soviet Union in the interwar period, and that was Germany, which suffered similarly from pariah status and saw in the unsupervised expanses of the Russian steppe the opportunity to perform research and training that was forbidden by the Versailles Treaty. Only the more immediate threat posed by Hitler would suffice to make the West treat with the Soviets directly, and even then, the more farsighted leaders like Churchill saw all too clearly that they were building up on foe in the effort to defeat another.

To the Soviets, the West had shown itself to be exactly the kind of ideological foe that the Bolsheviks had expected it to be. When the Soviets threatened the course of an allegedly imperialist war, and even worse, threatened to take the war materiel that the West had sent to Russia in the first place, the capitalist powers responded with a show of force on Russian soil. Moreover, the supposedly decadent state of the West was demonstrated by the tepid and transitory nature of the western commitment to the overthrow of the Soviet State. The Soviets came away with two other lessons: ideological enemies can never be trusted, so the Soviet Union can only be safe among fellow Communists, and that brute force is the only winning strategy. Under Stalin, these lessons would be applied domestically before the Second World War, and then internationally during and after the war. The Soviet victory in World War II made possible the creation of the Warsaw Pact, but in such adventures as the invasions of Poland, Rumania and Finland in 1939 and 1940, Stalin already showed his intention to expand the Soviet sphere of control even before the Nazis invaded.

In short, the experience of the Russian Revolution showed the West and the Soviets both that the other side could not be trusted, and inspired each to take actions that would only enhance their mistrust.


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