Memorandum by Mr. George F. Kennan of the Division of European Affairs


The Position of an American Ambassador in Moscow

i. scope of activity

Soviet policy in general

When this Government has sent Ambassadors to the Soviet Union it has had a right to expect that they would be welcomed with something more substantial than formal words and that they would be accorded by the Soviet authorities that measure of cooperation which is essential if their missions were to contribute to advancing American-Soviet relations. But the experience of the two Ambassadors93 who have represented the United States in the Union impels one to the conclusion that the Soviet Government has made it a policy to place every possible restriction on the activities and contacts of foreign missions in that city. The Soviet leaders appear to welcome the presence of foreign envoys in Moscow as something contributory to Soviet prestige; but they make it very evident that in their opinion these envoys—like well-trained children—should be seen and not heard.

In this they have little cause to fear retaliation on the part of foreign governments. The Soviet diplomatic missions abroad constitute only one (and not always the most important) of the channels through which Russia’s foreign affairs are directed. The situation in many countries—and particularly in the United States—is such that it is an easy matter for Moscow to circumvent the governments of these countries [Page 447]and to deal directly with private individuals, firms, and organizations. It has its trade delegations, its local communist parties, its foreign newspaper correspondents, and its various disguised agents, to help it in these efforts. Thus the Soviet leaders have been able to proceed to curb the scope of activity of the Moscow diplomatic corps, confident that no retaliatory measures which might follow could effectively disturb their own business with the outside world.

The Foreign Office

In Moscow, as in every other capital, the Ambassador of course enjoys the formal right to have interviews with officials of the Foreign Office. Litvinov himself is relatively seldom to be found there. He spends a great deal of his time abroad, attending sessions of the League of Nations bodies, international congresses, et cetera. He seems to find it advantageous to conduct as much as possible of his diplomatic business directly with the ministers and other leading officials of the European foreign offices; a system which obviates the necessity of taking his own ambassadors or those of other countries into his confidence.

When he can be found in Moscow, Litvinov has frequently shown a reluctance to discuss topics other than those he considers to be major political matters. These seem at present to be the success or failure of efforts to induce other states to take strong measures against Germany, Italy, and Japan. The result is that few of the current problems of Soviet-American relations attract his interest. The same has been generally true of his principal assistants.

The minor Foreign Office officials, to whom most questions of Soviet-American relations are relegated, are not people with whom an Ambassador could have extensive dealings without prejudicing his official and personal dignity. They are largely lacking in influence and they are uncommunicative on principle. The high mortality rate to which they have been subject during the last few years, in the sense of arrest, disgrace, and exile, has done nothing to increase the cordiality and openness with which those who have survived greet the visiting diplomat. In their conversations there is apparent the fear that their rooms contain dictaphone installations. They work in an atmosphere where a resounding rebuff to a capitalist diplomat bears a certain tinge of the heroic, while personal cordiality with a member of a foreign diplomatic mission is a stepping-stone to disgrace and exile. They are given more work than they can possibly do, and develop callousness in the face of the complaints of thwarted and unsatisfied diplomats.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

iii. practical results of the present system

A number of important questions came up for discussion following the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States [Page 448]and the U. S. S. R. These matters were: the question of debts and claims, the desire of this Government to construct an Embassy in Moscow, certain questions involving the functioning of the mission in Moscow, and the question of interference in American internal affairs on the part of the Communist International. All of them were the subject of conversations which terminated unsatisfactorily from the point of view of this Government.

The outcome of the controversy over debts and claims is too well known to require restatement here.94

In the matter of the construction of an Embassy95 the Soviet Government, by refusing to give assurances regarding the cost in dollars of labor and materials needed for construction, made it impossible for this Government to proceed with the execution of this project. The result is that the staff and chancery are still housed in unsatisfactory quarters on a short term lease.

At the time the Embassy was established the purchase of local currency through the ordinary official channels for the needs of the mission and the members of the staff was precluded in practice for the reason that the official rate of exchange of the ruble bore no relation to its buying power. If local currency had been purchased at the official rate the cost of operating the mission and the cost of living for members of the staff would have been prohibitive. For this reason the Ambassador sought to effect arrangements which would permit members of the mission to obtain local currency for official and personal uses through the Soviet Government at a reasonable rate of exchange. He was assured orally by certain Soviet officials that arrangements of this sort would be made. In the end, however, the Soviet Government refused to take any practical steps in this direction. As a result, the mission has been forced to obtain its supplies of local currency from sources outside the country, at rates of exchange which fluctuate highly. It is this situation which is primarily the cause of the difficulties now being experienced with respect to the upkeep of the mission and the compensation of the staff in Moscow.

The Soviet Government declined to allow this Government to determine the districts of its consular offices in the Soviet Union. Since it refused to permit the Consulate General at Moscow to exercise consular jurisdiction over the entire Union, that office was abolished in February 193596 and no consular office has been maintained in the Soviet Union since that time.

The presence of an American Ambassador in Moscow has apparently led to little if any change in the activities carried on in the [Page 449]United States by the Communist International. In 1934 [1935] this Government was compelled to make formal protest in connection with the meetings in Moscow at the VII All-World Congress of the International.97 Despite this protest there is evidence that Soviet leaders are continuing to exercise authority over a certain political group in this country and are requiring members of this group to serve political interests which have nothing in common with those of the United States.

In addition to these outstanding problems there have been a number of other points of contact in which the attitude of the Soviet Government has manifested itself.

In the field of commerce definite progress has been made since the establishment of diplomatic relations toward the recovery of that share of Russia’s imports (approximately 20%) which the United States enjoyed during the late twenties but which had been largely lost by 1933. Because of the general decline in Soviet foreign trade, the actual volume and value of trade is of course still considerably below what it once was, yet the commercial agreements concluded with the Soviet Government have given American-Soviet trade a stability which it lacked before recognition.98

Although the general trend of the trade has been satisfactory, many of the practices of the Soviet Government have proved irritating to American business men and the Embassy frequently has been called on to give advice and assistance in this connection. It is believed that in many instances the Embassy’s services in this field have been very useful to American interests. The Soviet Government, however, still clings to practices and methods of doing business which frequently arouse resentment in foreign countries. An example of these practices is provided by the efforts which are frequently made by Soviet officials to utilize business connections in order to get possession of foreign plans, charts, and diagrams, by the use of which Soviet factories can themselves undertake production of commodities previously purchased abroad. In 1935 written assurances were given by the Soviet Foreign Office to the Embassy to the effect that American nationals about to depart from the Soviet Union would be permitted to be present during the examination by the Soviet customs of drawings, plans, and similar documents in their possession.99 Nevertheless, in the current year we have Witnessed the violation of these assurances in the case of engineers of the Radio Corporation of America working [Page 450]in the Soviet Union and the retention by Soviet authorities of drawings, plans, et cetera for periods long enough to permit copies to be made. There is good reason to believe that papers taken by the Soviet authorities from American citizens have led to the infringement of important American patents.

In the field of general protection of the welfare and interests of Americans in the Soviet Union, the United States has fared no worse than any of the other great powers which have recognized the Soviet Union, and considerably better than most of them. In particular, we have been spared the problem of numerous arrests—with subsequent detention incommunicado—of our nationals on vague political charges.1 Nevertheless, the control of the movements and activities of individuals in the Soviet Union and the methods through which this control is exercised are such that a great many appeals have been made to our representatives to assist Americans in cases where the latter considered themselves to have been mistreated.

A very common source of complaint has arisen in connection with visas to American citizens. Difficulties in this field have been increasing with the increase in suspicion of—and hostility towards—foreigners in general. Soviet officials have shown themselves extremely dilatory in passing on visa applications. It is not unusual for Americans who are willing to pay for the telegraphic handling of visa applications to wait several weeks before receiving a reply. Time after time, Americans traveling in Europe have applied for visas at the Soviet Embassy or Consulate General in a certain city, have been unable to await the issuance of a visa, and have proceeded to some other point after having received assurances that the visa would surely be waiting for them there, only to find that the Soviet mission in the second city knew nothing whatsoever of the matter. During the past summer, many cruise passengers who had been granted Soviet visas were held up at Soviet ports and were refused permission to go ashore during the vessel’s stay. No satisfactory explanation of this treatment was forthcoming from the authorities nor were the efforts of the Embassy to assist these people always successful.

Even officers of the Embassy in Moscow and other bearers of American diplomatic passports have at times experienced considerable difficulty in obtaining visas to enter the Soviet Union. Although officials of the Soviet Embassy in Washington have stated that visa applications of bearers of American diplomatic passports do not have to be referred to Moscow, the American Military Attaché at Riga was held up for months during the past summer waiting for action on his application for a Soviet visa. Similarly, Mr. Page, also of the Legation at [Page 451]Riga, was forced to postpone his departure for his new post at Moscow because of the failure of the Soviet Legation in Riga to act on his visa application over a period of several days.

The Embassy at Moscow has had to investigate a large number of visa difficulties and to extend whatever assistance it could to the Americans involved. The officers of the Embassy have the impression that the officials of the Foreign Office to whom they are compelled to address themselves are powerless to influence the action of the authorities in most of the cases, and that the matter is almost entirely in the hands of agencies—presumably the secret police—to which the Embassy has no access.

In these matters there is quite evidently no desire to discriminate against Americans, who are generally treated no worse, and sometimes considerably better, than nationals of other countries. Nor is there any reason to believe that instances of this sort represent a deliberate policy of the Foreign Office. On the contrary, it is probable that they are frequently as much of a nuisance to the Foreign Office as they are to the foreign missions. But the helplessness of the Foreign Office, which seems to act merely as a shock absorber against the protests of foreign powers, can not be regarded as relieving the Soviet Government of responsibility for an attitude toward the outside world which it has itself inculcated into the minds of Soviet officials.

  1. For another section of this memorandum describing the growth of the anti-foreign campaign in the Soviet Union and its impact upon the American Embassy in Moscow and its activities, see p. 398.
  2. William C. Bullitt and Joseph E. Davies.
  3. For failure of the negotiations in regard to claims and credits, see pp. 166 ff.
  4. Concerning the inability to reach satisfactory arrangements for the construction of an Embassy building in Moscow, see pp. 268 ff.
  5. See Department’s telegram No. 27, February 6, 1935, 2 p.m., p. 177.
  6. For correspondence on this subject, see pp. 218 ff.
  7. For correspondence concerning the commercial agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union effected by exchange of notes signed August 4, 1937, see pp. 405 ff.
  8. See footnote 46, p. 394.
  9. For commencement of such arrests and detention of American nationals by the Soviet Government, see pp. 491 ff.