Memorandum by the Counselor of Embassy in the Soviet Union (Kennan)98


Russia’s International Position at the Close of the War With Germany

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The greatest change which the war has brought to Russia’s world position has come not from any development of Russia herself but from the disintegration of the power of neighboring peoples.

Russia’s own overall potential has probably undergone little alteration since 1940. Losses in man-power and in physical property have been substantially balanced off by new compulsory labor forces available from German prisoners and the civil population of conquered areas, by the stricter regimentation of Russian society, by the greater exploitation of woman’s labor, and by the development of new industrial districts.

But there has been an extensive decline in the rival power which confronts Russia across her land frontiers. By the time the war in the Far East is over Russia will find herself, for the first time in her history, without a single great power rival on the Eurasian land-mass. She will also find herself in physical control of vast new areas of this land-mass: some of them areas to which Russian power had never before been extended. These new areas (although their exact frontiers are deliberately kept vague) will probably contain well over one hundred million souls—most of them in the European sector. These [Page 854] are developments of enormous import in the development of the Russian state.

Plainly, such a relative increase in Russia’s power will bring with it a similar increase in her responsibilities. It is now Russia which must be at least morally responsible to the world for the happiness and prosperity of the newly-acquired people, for the development of their resources, the ordering of their industrial and social relationship, the securing of their military defense. But this is not the greatest of the new responsibilities. Russian Government now has a heavy responsibility to itself: namely, to hold the conquered provinces in submission. For there can be little doubt that many of the peoples concerned will be impatient and resentful of Russian rule. And successful revolts on their part against Moscow’s authority might shake the entire structure of Soviet power.

The great question of Russia’s new world position, as seen from Moscow, is whether the Soviet state will be able to carry successfully these new responsibilities, to consolidate its hold over the new peoples, to reconcile this with the traditional political structure of the Russian people, to make of its conquests a source of strength rather than weakness. This is the real question of Russia’s future, as seen from the Kremlin.

Behind Russia’s stubborn expansion lies only the age-old sense of insecurity of a sedentary people reared on an exposed plain in the neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. Will this urge, now become a permanent feature of Russian psychology, provide the basis for a successful expansion of Russia into new areas of east and west? And if initially successful, will it know where to stop? Will it not be inexorably carried forward, by its very nature, in a struggle to reach the whole—to attain complete mastery of the shores of the Atlantic and the Pacific?

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Yet for all this, the Russian machine in eastern and central Europe is not without its weaknesses.

In the first place, it bears the inevitable drawbacks of foreign rule. The peoples of this area are familiar with the devices of puppet government. After their experiences with the Germans it is not easy to fool them in this respect. Moscow would wish that those who accept its authority and convey its will to the peoples in question might pose as independent patriotic leaders of the peoples to which they belong. This is a fond hope. Europe has not spent five years smelling out quislings and collaborationists for nothing; and it is a hard thing today for any man in these areas to conceal or disguise his efforts in the service of a foreign state.

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[Page 855]

There is every reason to believe that in the newly-acquired areas the Russians will continue to put politics before economics, cost what it may. They will not hesitate to ruin the productivity of entire branches of economic life, if by doing so they can reduce to helplessness and dependence elements which might otherwise oppose their power. The resulting decline in living standards will appear to them, in many cases, a well deserved corrective to the smug Philistinism of the peoples involved; and they will be astonished and disgusted at the unwillingness of these peoples to accept a standard of living as low as that of the Soviet peoples.

But, on the other hand, they will also strive—from motives of prestige and military security—to develop to the maximum certain branches of production particularly useful to the state; and they will seek various outward economic effects which can be exploited for propaganda purposes at home and abroad to prove that Soviet rule has been an economic blessing. The development pf all industry that relates to the defense of the state will be forced. This will be done with more energy than discrimination, and with a crude concentration of effort which may well lead to depreciation of subsidiary facilities and to a decline in real working conditions. The latter phenomena, on the other hand, will be combatted with pretentious workers’ clubs, with lottery awards, with prizes to individual workers, and with similar showy benefits which can be easily publicized. Similarly, in the countryside, such devices as the conversion of erstwhile manor houses into rest homes and museums, the building up of individual model collective farms, the creation of individual machine tractor stations, and spectacular mass deliveries of grain during the harvest season will all be used to build up the impression of thriving country life to mask over what will probably be a real decline in agricultural production and in rural living standards. In all of this, outside of branches of production vital to the internal and external security of the state, emphasis will be placed not on the real economic content but on the external political effect. The Russians are a nation of stage managers; and the deepest of their convictions is that things are not what they are, but only what they seem.

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There remains to mention perhaps the greatest difficulty which the Russians will have to face in controlling the newly won areas; a difficulty inextricably entwined with all those that have been mentioned above. This is the question of personnel and manpower. In the west, the countries of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany up to the Oder and Neisse, Ruthenia and Slovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia have a total population of roughly ninety-five million people. This does not take into account [Page 856] Bohemia and Moravia or Austria, where the Russians also obviously intend to exercise considerable influence. None of these peoples are Russian-speaking and only about sixty percent of them use Slavic languages. To administer them and to hold them in submission as reluctant members of a Russian security sphere will take probably a greater administrative and police force than was necessary even in normal times; and this last must have numbered in the millions.

Here the Russians are faced with a dilemma. If they rely extensively on local officials they run the risk of eventual disaffection, intrigue and loss of control as soon as they remove their military forces. If they try to use Russians in their places a number of difficulties arise. In the first place they have not got enough of them who know the languages and customs of the other peoples. If they try to maintain large numbers of them for long periods abroad, to learn these customs and languages and to obtain really valuable experience, they run a strong risk of their becoming corrupted by the amenities and temptations of a more comfortable existence and more tolerant atmosphere. They can attempt to combat this, as they do at present in the case of their diplomats abroad, by concentrating them in closely controlled Soviet communities and forbidding them to have unsupervised close personal contact with the local population. Or they can send them abroad for brief periods only. But in neither case is it easy for the individuals concerned to obtain the thorough experience of a foreign tongue and a foreign system of thought which they require if they are to be useful as administrators.

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All in all, therefore, it can be seen that Russia will not have an easy time in maintaining the power which it has seized over other peoples in eastern and central Europe unless it receives both moral and material assistance from the West. It must therefore be Russian policy in the coming period to persuade the western nations, and particularly the United States (1) to give its blessing to Russian domination of these areas by recognizing Russian puppet states as independent countries and dealing with them as such, thus collaborating with the Soviet Government in maintaining the fiction by which these countries are ruled; and (2) to grant to Russia the extensive material support which would enable the Soviet Government to make good the economic damages caused by its costly and uncompromising political program and to claim credit for bringing economic as well as political progress to the peoples in question.

If it seems at first sight remarkable that the Kremlin should hope to win the support of democratic peoples for purposes so contrary to [Page 857] western democratic ideals, it should be remembered that the Russian views all currents of public sentiment as the sailor views the winds. He is convinced that even if he cannot sail directly against them he can at least use their power to tack in general directions contrary to that in which they blow. It would not appear to him impossible to exploit western enthusiasm for democracy and national independence in order to further the interests of authoritarianism and international oppression. He knows, to use a classical expression, that “mankind is governed by names”; and he has no compunction in adopting to his own use any slogan which he finds appealing to those whom he wishes to influence.

Furthermore, in the particular case of the United States, the Kremlin is counting on certain psychological factors which it knows will work strongly in Russia’s favor. It knows that the American public has been taught to believe:

That collaboration with Russia, as we envisage it, is entirely possible;
That it depends only on the establishment of the proper personal relationships of cordiality and confidence with Russian leaders; and
That if the United States does not find means to assure this collaboration (again, as we envisage it), then the past war has been fought in vain, another war is inevitable, and civilization is faced with complete catastrophe.

The Kremlin knows that none of these proposals is sound. It knows that the Soviet Government, due to the peculiar structure of its authority, is technically incapable of collaborating with other governments in the manner which Americans have in mind when they speak of collaboration. It knows that the Soviet secret police have no intention of permitting anything like the number of personal contacts between the two peoples that would be required to lead to a broad basis of personal confidence and collaboration. It knows that throughout eleven years of diplomatic relations between the two countries it has been the United States Government in at least 99 cases out of 100 which has taken the initiative to try to establish relationships of confidence and cordiality; that these efforts have met almost invariably with suspicion, discourtesy and rebuff; and that this will not, and cannot, be otherwise in the future. Finally, it knows that the type of intimate collaboration for which Americans yearn is by no means necessary for the future of world peace. It knows, as a body thoroughly versed in the realities of power, that all that is really required to assure stability among the present great powers for decades to come is the preservation of a reasonable balance of strength between them and a realistic understanding as to the mutual zones of vital interest.

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But it is no concern of the Soviet Government to disabuse the American public of prejudices highly favorable to Soviet interests. It is entirely agreeable to Moscow that Americans should be indulged in a series of illusions which lead them to put pressure on their government to accomplish the impossible and to go always one step further in pursuit of the illusive favor of the Soviet Government. They observe with gratification that in this way a great people can be led, like an ever-hopeful suitor, to perform one act of ingratiation after the other without ever reaching the goal which would satisfy its ardor and allay its generosity. As long as these prejudices can be kept alive among large sections of the American public, the Kremlin will not give up the hope that the western democracies may, for the time being, be used as the greatest and most powerful auxiliary instrument in the establishment of Russian power in eastern and central Europe.

It is this hope which lies behind all Russian action in the question of international security. Russia expects from an international security organization that it will effectively protect Russian dominion in this belt of puppet states. It expects the organization to enlist automatically the support of the western democracies against any forces which might undertake the liberation of the peoples in question. In addition to this, it expects to be repaid immediately in the form of credits and economic assistance for its generosity in consenting to join an organization of this nature at all.

There are undoubtedly thoughtful people in the higher councils of the Soviet Government who see the preposterousness of this program and the possibilities for its failure. But they apparently still represent the weaker voice in the councils of state. And why should it be otherwise? Others can always talk them down by pointing to the extraordinary record of patience and meekness which the western allies have thus far exhibited. They can point out that there has been no act of Russian power, however arbitrary, which has not evoked an approving echo and at least some attempt at defense on the part of a considerable portion of the American and British press. They can point to the unshakable confidence of Anglo-Saxons in meetings between individuals, and can argue that Russia has nothing to lose by trying out these policies, since if things at any time get hot all they have to do is to allow another personal meeting with western leaders and thus make a fresh start, with all forgotten. Finally, they can point again to the fact that “getting along with the Russians” is political capital of prime importance in both of the Anglo-Saxon countries and that no English or American politician can pass up any half-way adequate opportunity for claiming that he has been successful in gaining Russian confidence and committing the Russians to a more moderate course of action. In other words, they consider that Anglo-Saxon opinion can always be easily appeased in a pinch by a [Page 859] single generous gesture, or even in all probability by a few promising words, and that western statesmen can always be depended upon to collaborate enthusiastically in this appeasement.

As long as a number of Stalin’s leading advisors are able to use these arguments and to point to an unbroken record of success in reliance upon this line of thought, the Soviet Government will continue to proceed on the theory that with the western countries anything is possible, and that there is no reason to fear that serious difficulty will be encountered either in reconciling the western world to Russia’s program of political expansion in Europe or even in obtaining western assistance for the completion of that program.

It should always be borne in mind in this connection that before its own people the Soviet Government is committed to nothing with respect to the western allies. In its own unceasing press campaign against reactionary elements and “vestiges of fascism” abroad, it has carefully kept a door open through which it can retire at any moment into a position of defiant isolation. Through the puppet government system which it has employed for the domination of eastern and central Europe, it can always withdraw the battle lines of its political power without damage to its own prestige. In such extremity, it would be principally Moscow’s stooges that would take the rap before world opinion; this is what stooges are for.

Should the western world, contrary to all normal expectations, muster up the political manliness to deny to Russia either moral and material support for the consolidation of Russian power throughout eastern and central Europe, Russia would probably not be able to maintain its hold successfully for any length of time over all the territory over which it has today staked out a claim. In this case, the lines would have to be withdrawn somewhat. But if this occurred, the nuisance value of Soviet power in the western countries and in the world at large would be exploited to the full. The agents of Soviet power might have to abandon certain districts where they now hold sway; but they would, to use Trotski’s vivid phrase, “slam the door so that all Europe would shake”. Every difficulty that could conceivably be created for the western democracies by communist parties and communist claques would be used in this baring of the fangs; and the world would have cause to remember Molotov’s warning at San Francisco that if the conference did not give Russia peace and security on her own terms, she would seek it and find it elsewhere.

Should the western world stand firm through such a show of ill temper and should democracies prove able to take in their stride the worst efforts of the disciplined and unscrupulous minorities pledged to the service of the political interests of the Soviet Union in foreign countries, Moscow would have played its last real card. It would [Page 860] have no further means with which to assail the western world. Further military advances in the west could only increase responsibilities already beyond the Russian capacity to meet. Moscow has no naval or air forces capable of challenging the sea lanes of the world.

But no one in Moscow believes that the western world, once confronted with the life-size wolf of Soviet displeasure standing at the door and threatening to blow the house in, would be able to stand firm. And it is on this disbelief that Soviet global policy is based.

  1. Copy obtained from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N.Y.