From the early 1600’s to WW I the United States and Russia pursued their national interests in peace and friendship. This changed after the Russian Revolution of 1917, which gave rise to the Soviet Union (USSR, or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The result was the Cold War.
The change was not instantaneous. After 1918 the U.S. withdrew from international ventures, while Soviet Russia was fully occupied with internal organization. Many American companies did excellent business in providing the USSR with heavy industrial equipment for the “Building of Socialism”.
With the coming of the Great Depression and the start of the New Deal, Soviet Russia even acquired somewhat of an inspirational status in the Roosevelt administration. Not much was known of Stalin’s murderous policies as he shrouded the country in secrecy, so U.S. supporters of socialism could look with envy on the “red comrades” on the other side of the Atlantic. This made the alliance with Soviet Russia against Nazi Germany more palatable once U.S. participation in WWII became inevitable.
Russia did the bulk of the land fighting against Hitler, at enormous cost. Americans fought hard in other theatres, but also were the primary providers of arms and supplies to the Allied effort. These respective contributions laid the ground work for the coming Cold War.
Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe was a natural consequence of Nazi aggression. Having experienced German invasion in both World Wars it was a strategic necessity for Russia to set up a chain of friendly buffer states between Germany and its own territory. This was recognized by allied leaders at the Yalta allied conference, at which the future “zones of influence” of the victors were set.
The United States, on the other hand, ended the war as the first and greatest industrial power of the planet. Victory had opened huge potential markets for American goods and investments, and the U.S. government intended to keep then this way. Both Russia and the U.S. needed zones of influence – one for strategic defense, the other for market access.
Neither country wanted to expand its national territory. The U.S. had acquired Cuba and Philippines earlier in the century, and had given them back. Similarly Russia had returned large chunks of Manchuria to the Chinese. There was no casus belli on that count.
The spoiler was ideology. Russia was also the USSR, a communist power dedicated to world revolution – which meant the elimination of the very capitalism which America was extending over the globe. The U.S. did not question Russia’s right to exist, and Russia reciprocated. Their rivalry was in which way – communist or capitalist – any other country, in Europe, Asia or Africa, would go. That was a zero sum game, because what one won the other lost. The battle was about peripherals, not mutual destruction. But peripherals were the prize, so both sides played hard.
The above explains why the Cold War never became “hot” – in the sense that WW II was hot. Winning over some small country to capitalism or communism was important, but not important enough to risk New York or Leningrad being nuked. It was, nevertheless, a nasty and expensive rivalry, and the only way to resolve it is for ideology to go away. America would not abandon free enterprise. Was Russia willing to give up communism?
The question could be phrased differently: did Russia choose Communism freely because Russians liked and wanted it, and so would not give it up. Or had they accepted it under duress, because there was no other choice?
There may not be a clear answer, but two facts stand out,
The first is that Lenin, founder of the USSR, had lived outside Russia since 1900 (save for two short years after 1905). During that time his preoccupation was not with Russia per se, but with Russia as the object of Marxist revolution. The theory and practice of revolution, not the fate of the people subject to it, were his main concern. Russia just happened to be the proving ground.
The second is that once revolution was initiated, Lenin almost immediately installed state terror as the main guarantee of popular obedience. After him Stalin expanded it almost without limit, until every Soviet citizen lived in constant fear of arrest, imprisonment or summary execution. No one knows how many lives were snuffed out to support Soviet ideology, but a middle estimate is 20 million. That number alone invalidates the notion that Russia chose communism.
In the late 1980’s Russians were, belatedly, given that choice. Military failures and a collapsing economy forced the government to ask the people where the country should be going. The answer was clear. In 1991 the activities of the Communist Party were suspended and a few months later the USSR ceased to exist. The people had put an end to Marxist Russia. The Cold War was over. America and Russia were no longer enemies.
Their relationship since has been up-and-down, which was to be expected. Russia might have abjured Communism, but it was still run by the (former) red Comrades. The U.S. had a parallel share of “unredeemed” Cold Warriors. But both generations are now passing away.
This is timely, for the world also has changed, and the new challenges will require both powers to cooperate. This will be the subject of my third article on Russia.
Born in Poland, Jacek Popiel was educated in Africa, Canada, and the United States. He speaks five languages. His career spans military and international business development in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, North America, and Japan. He is currently a freelance writer and political consultant.