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The Sources of Soviet Conduct

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.

#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 report cites several U.S. Government heavy weights ‘the Secretary of State (James F. Byrnes), the Secretary of War (Robert P. Patterson), the Attorney General (Tom C. Clark), the Secretary of the Navy (James Forrestal), Fleet Admiral Leahy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (General of the Army George C. Marshall, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, General of the Army Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, Ambassador Pauley, the Director of Central intelligence (Hoyt Vandenberg)’. But, is perhaps most notable for its name check of ‘other persons who have special knowledge in this field.’ The most seminal of whom was arguably George F. Kennan.

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.

Stalin makes a speech on Feb 09 1946
Joseph Stalin speaking at the Bolshoi Theatre, February 9, 1946. Kennan’s long telegram began as an analysis of the speech.

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:

It was no coincidence that Marxism, which had smoldered ineffectively for half a century in Western Europe, caught hold and blazed for first time in Russia. Only in this land which had never known a friendly neighbor or indeed any tolerant equilibrium of separate powers, either internal or international, could a doctrine thrive which viewed economic conflicts of society as insoluble by peaceful means. After establishment of Bolshevist regime, Marxist dogma, rendered even more truculent and intolerant by Lenin’s interpretation, became a perfect vehicle for sense of insecurity with which Bolsheviks, even more than previous Russian rulers, were afflicted. In this dogma, with its basic altruism of purpose, they found justification for their instinctive fear of outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifice they felt bound to demand. In the name of Marxism they sacrificed every single ethical value in their methods and tactics. Today they cannot dispense with it. It is fig leaf of their moral and intellectual respectability. Without it they would stand before history, at best, as only the last of that long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who have relentlessly forced country on to ever new heights of military power in order to guarantee external security of their internally weak regimes.

George F. Kennan, the “long telegram”

The cause and consequence of this fear of external threat, and need to provide security for internally weak regimes, is:

[a] neurotic view of world affairs [that is a result of the] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted rather Russian rulers than Russian people; for Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries. For this reason they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned truth about world without or if foreigners learned truth about world within. And they have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.

George F. Kennan, the “long telegram”

Kennan went on to argue, picking up on Soviet involvement in the Bretton Woods Conference (1944) and their subsequent refusal to join the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, a series of events that elicited an ‘anguished cry of bewilderment’ from the Treasury Department:

In international economic matters, Soviet policy will really be dominated by pursuit of autarchy for Soviet Union and Soviet-dominated adjacent areas taken together. That, however, will be underlying policy. As far as official line is concerned, position is not yet clear. Soviet Government has shown strange reticence since termination hostilities on subject foreign trade. If large scale long term credits should be forthcoming, I believe Soviet Government may eventually again do lip service, as it did in 1930’s to desirability of building up international economic exchanges in general. Otherwise I think it possible Soviet foreign trade may be restricted largely to Soviet’s own security sphere, including occupied areas in Germany, and that a cold official shoulder may be turned to principle of general economic collaboration among nations.

George F. Kennan, the “long telegram”

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’:

Soviet policy, as Department implies in its query under reference, is conducted on two planes: (1) official plane represented by actions undertaken officially in name of Soviet Government; and (2) subterranean plane of actions undertaken by agencies for which Soviet Government does not admit responsibility.

George F. Kennan, the “long telegram”

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:

To undermine general political and strategic potential of major western powers. Efforts will be made in such countries to disrupt national self confidence, to hamstring measures of national defense, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity. All persons with grievances, whether economic or racial, will be urged to spelt redress not in mediation and compromise, but in defiant violent struggle for destruction of other elements of society. Here poor will be set against rich, black against white, young against old, newcomers against established residents, etc.

George F. Kennan, the “long telegram”

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:

seal their territories off against Communist penetration (Switzerland, Portugal), or where they compete too strongly, like Labor Government in England, for moral domination among elements which it is important for Communists to dominate.

George F. Kennan, the “long telegram”

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:

The foreign policy of the United States, which reflects the imperialist tendencies of American monopolistic capital, is characterized in the postwar period by a striving for world supremacy. This is the real meaning of the many statements by President Truman and other representatives of American ruling circles; that the United States has the right to lead the world. All the forces of American diplomacy — the army, the air force, the navy, industry, and science — are enlisted in the service of this foreign policy. For this purpose broad plans for expansion have been developed and are being implemented through diplomacy and the establishment of a system of naval and air bases stretching far beyond the boundaries of the United States, through the arms race, and through the creation of ever newer types of weapons.

Novikov Telegram

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 an 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:

Thus the future of Soviet power may not be by any means as secure as Russian capacity for self-delusion would make it appear to the men of the Kremlin. That they can quietly and easily turn it over to others remains to be proved. Meanwhile, the hardships of their rule and the vicissitudes of international life have taken a heavy toll of the strength and hopes of the great people on whom their power rests. It is curious to note that the ideological power of Soviet authority is strongest today in areas beyond the frontiers of Russia, beyond the reach of its police power. This phenomenon brings to mind a comparison used by Thomas Mann in his great novel Buddenbrooks. Observing that human institutions often show the greatest outward brilliance at a moment when inner decay is in reality farthest advanced, he compared one of those stars whose light shines most brightly on this world when in reality it has long since ceased to exist. And who can say with assurance that the strong light still cast by the Kremlin on the dissatisfied peoples of the western world is not the powerful afterglow of a constellation which is in actuality on the wane? This cannot be proved. And it cannot be disproved. But the possibility remains (and in the opinion of this writer it is a strong one) that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.

George F. Kennan, The Sources of Soviet Conduct

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.


Primary Sources

Report, “American Relations With The Soviet Union” by Clark Clifford [“Clifford-Elsey Report”], September 24, 1946.

The Long Telegram by George Kennan

The Sources of Soviet Conduct by George Kennan

Kennan, George F. Memoirs: 1925–1950 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967).

The Novikov Telegram Washington, September 27, 1946. Diplomatic History, 15: 527-538 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7709.1991.tb00146.x

Secondary Sources

Gaddis, John Lewis. George F. Kennan: An American Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2011).

Leffler, Melvyn P.. For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007).

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