Today's Russia is pursuing the same aims as in 1946: autarchy for Russia and Russian-dominated adjacent areas by a leader, under pressure from nationalistic backers, who has miscalculated the situation.
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#OnThisDay in 1946, Clark Clifford and George Elsey delivered the Clifford-Elsey Report to President Truman. Although written to comply with the President’s ‘directive to prepare a summary of American relations with the Soviet Union’, the report was only one of several key documents written at this time which would fundamentally re-frame US-Soviet relations.
The cause of Kennan’s notoriety was a result of what became informally dubbed the ‘long telegram‘, due to it being ‘at a little over 5,000 words… the longest telegram sent in the history of the State Department.’ The missive had been sent earlier in 1946, on February 22nd, and was stimulated by the public response to a speech given by Stalin, who spoke at the Bolshoi Theatre on February 9, 1946; the night before the symbolic 1946 Supreme Soviet election.
The speech was, if anything, routine and of similar timbre and content to Stalin’s previous statements for public consumption. However, then as now, there was a media cycle and an enterprising journalist picked up the transcript and before long it was being touted in Time magazine as ‘the most warlike pronouncement uttered by any top-rank statesman since V-J Day.’ To be fair to the press corp, they were not alone in experiencing shock and alarm at Stalin’s pronouncement, given the context of the speech — Soviet rejection of Bretton Woods, the climate of atomic espionage, and the constant flip-flop between Soviet self-restraint and belligerence. Interviewed many years later, Elbridge Durbrow, Chief of the US Mission in Moscow, summed up the BosWash view that held: Stalin’s speech had said ‘to hell with the rest of the world.’
Then as now, when faced with adversity and an uncertain environment, senior leaders try and find their bearings by issuing a series of please explains to their subordinates and people on the spot. In 1946, this took the form of a cable from Elbridge Durbrow and ‘Doc’ Matthews, who could not understand the lack of communication from their man on the spot, Keenan, and demanded updates to explain this hitherto unfelt public reaction to Stalin’s speech:
We should welcome receiving from you an interpretive analysis of what we may expect in the way of future implementation of these announced policies.
Gaddis 2011, p. 217.
Kennan, following an apology ‘for this burdening of telegraphic channel’, gave a comprehensive response. In this author’s view it is a mix between a polite “com’on guys, I cannot believe I’m explaining this which is why I had not cabled earlier” and scholarly excitement in actually being asked one’s opinion on a topic by senior leadership.
What followed, and this is important to keep in mind as we shall return to it later, was a potted history of the Russian psyche. One which argued that not matter the ruler, Tsar or Dictator, religious or secular, Imperial, or socialist, it was a country always to be governed by a particular kind of leadership:
The cause and consequence of this fear of external threat, and need to provide security for internally weak regimes, is:
This need to dominate not only internal, but adjacent areas and project the autocratic spirit, created a state within a state — or as Keenan put it, ‘on two planes’:
This ‘subterranean plane of action’ engages in everything the ‘official plane’ refuses to acknowledge is really happening. These ghost agencies are single-minded in their efforts to:
Perhaps most alarmingly, Keenan observes, is that direct opposition is not the only path that leads to conflict with the Soviet Union. Conflict, or Soviet efforts to undermine, also occurs when countries:
The tendency to only conceive of the world as a zero-sum-game essentially guarantees a perpetual state of conflict, because there is no path to peace other than through complete submission. As a result, whether in a state of war, cold-war, or peace, relations with Russia, Keenan argued, ‘should be approached with same thoroughness and care as solution of major strategic problem in war, and if necessary, with no smaller outlay in planning effort.’
Although the contents of the Long Telegram were classified at the time, it circulated widely and, inevitably, leaked via Soviet Intelligence. It was read by Stalin who commissioned a similar telegram to be sent from Washington to Moscow. In the Russian retort to Keenan, it stated:
Fast forward to 2022, and it can be said that history does not repeat, but it does rhyme. In Vladimir Putin’s recent statement on the situation in the Ukraine, we see the familiar rhyme of Russian fears of Western imperialist tendencies striving for world supremacy. A zero-sum game in which the ‘official plane’ and ‘subterranean plane’ of the Russian state are mobilised in what they deem to be the defence of their country.
But in reality, today’s Russia is pursuing the same aims as in 1946: autarchy for Russia and Russian-dominated adjacent areas by a leader, under pressure from nationalistic backers, who has miscalculated the situation. The surge in people trying to leave the country in the face of the partial mobilisation is an extraordinary outpouring of public sentiment in a country that is quick to crush dissent.
As a historian, I have long since learnt the first rule of analysing the past is not to make predictions about the future. Thus I will leave the final words to a predictive voice from the past, one that may have taken a little over forty years to come to fruition, but was proven right in the end with the collapse of the Soviet Union:
Good night and good luck.
Lenin, Trotsky and Kamenev celebrating the second anniversary of the October Revolution by L.Y. Leonidov is licensed under Public Domain.