The relations between the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and the Soviet government were complicated from the very beginning. In the early 1920s, a so-called troika (triumvirate) was established within the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs which was granted the right to “decide on personnel issues and appointments.” Purges were launched against persons of “dubious social background,” those who did not demonstrate “Bolshevik endurance” and did not enjoy trust in “the ideological and political sense.”
The lion’s share of those purged and repressed represented the so-called Lenin school of diplomacy. Most of them lost their lives.
By the late 1930s, the USSR maintained diplomatic relations with 30 countries. There were, however, fewer than 500 career diplomats left in the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs. Trials and subsequent repressions against diplomats had significantly weakened the Soviet Union's position in the international arena.
The relations between the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and the Soviet government were complicated from the very beginning. Leon Trotsky, who was appointed the country’s first People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, was of the opinion that, as the world revolution progressed around the globe, bourgeois institutions, including foreign ministries, would disappear along with the very notion of state. Trotsky saw his sole mission in publishing the Triple Entente’s secret treaties, after which he intended to “shut up shop.” However, life demonstrated the utopian nature of such views. In its attempts to emerge from diplomatic isolation, Soviet Russia set course towards a peaceful coexistence of different social systems. People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Georgy Chicherin, an intellectual of noble descent and a former Tsarist diplomat was committed to this new course. The radical purpose of the Third Communist International, founded in Moscow in 1919, was to derail the Western state institutions which ran counter to the objectives of the new diplomatic course. Chicherin repeatedly stressed that the leaders of the Bolshevik party should leave the International's executive committee. The confrontation between the party nomenklatura and the diplomats was growing increasingly evident. In the early 1920s, a so-called troika (triumvirate) was set up within the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs which was granted the right to “decide on personnel issues and appointments.” Purges were launched against persons of “dubious social background,” those who did not demonstrate “Bolshevik endurance” and did not enjoy trust “in the ideological and political sense.”
“The purge is at the centre of it all,” Chicherin wrote in April 1924. “Proletariat troikas are purging non-proletariat organizations. Terrible things are afoot.” He repeatedly addressed the party and government leaders with strong protests against the constant purges within the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, arguing that such methods had already begun to cause irreversible damage to the Soviet state’s foreign political activity and were sure to do even more harm in the future .
Also in 1924, Chicherin notified Lev Karakhan, permanent representative in Beijing, that the troika did not include representatives from the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and had been set up by Joseph Stalin. A number of diplomats got into the hands of “the fairly fierce troika led by the ultra-vile [Nikolai] Podvoisky”. That time, however, Chicherin still managed to have the diplomats reinstated to their posts .
In one of his letters to Stalin, Chicherin stated resolutely: “Our commissariat cannot bear having fine, knowledgeable, tested and well-adapted officers replaced with new ones, who are maladapted and unfit for the role.” .
In 1930, Chicherin was fired and replaced at the helm of the commissariat by Maxim Litvinov. The People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs had by then been stripped of the right to make even the most basic personnel decisions without Stalin’s approval. Chicherin watched the advance of the times he described as “the era of the brilliant mediocre” with great trepidation.
The trials of 1936–1938 and the repressions that followed contributed significantly to the weakening of the USSR’s position in the international arena. Soviet diplomats posted abroad were forced to operate amid a massive anti-Soviet propaganda campaign. Ambassador to Hungary Alexander Bekzadyan reported to Litvinov in June 1937 that, in the light of the mass executions in Moscow, local newspapers were describing the Soviet capital as “the city of death and horror” .
In the 1930s the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs lost the last remnants of initiative and freedom to act. The party was tightening its grip on the diplomatic service. With Germany having succumbed to Nazism, the civil war raging in Spain, the aggressive Japanese militarism and the growing overall international tension, a witch hunt for “German, Japanese and English agents,” “Trotskyites,” “saboteurs” and “enemies of the state” began in the USSR. A commission was set up in 1937 to supervise the Commissariat’s activity. Chaired by Stalin, the commission comprised Vyacheslav Molotov, Lavrentiy Beria, Lazar Kaganovich and Nikolai Yezhov.
While the initial wave of repressions in the early 1930s only affected some of the diplomats, by the end of the decade the scale of the purges had increased dramatically. This is illustrated by the fact that for the 30 countries with which Russia maintained diplomatic relations at the time, the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs had fewer than 500 career diplomats. Those subjected to the purges and repressions largely represented the so-called Lenin school of diplomacy. The majority of them lost their lives. Some diplomats posted abroad decided not to return to the USSR, lest they should be arrested. Many leading Soviet diplomats were arrested, sentenced and executed in 1937–1938, including such experienced envoys as Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, Dmitry Bogomolov, Yakov Davtyan, Leonid Stark and Konstantin Yurenev.
On May 3, 1939, Litvinov was replaced by Molotov as the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Molotov immediately initiated personnel reshuffles in the Commissariat. In particular, a group of Litvinov’s closest associates was arrested on May 4. Litvinov, however, was spared .
On July 23, 1939, a People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs meeting adopted a resolution which mentioned that the Commissariat had been purged of “ill-suited, dubious and hostile elements” within a very short period of time. In his 1939 letter to the Political Bureau, Litvinov mentioned vacant ambassadorial positions in Washington, Tokyo and a number of other foreign cities.
Five deputy commissars had been prosecuted by the summer of 1939. The repressions affected 48 Soviet envoys. In particular, four former and active deputy commissars were sentenced and executed: Lev Karakhan, Nikolai Krestinsky, Grigori Sokolnikov and Boris Stomonyakov. Those repressed and executed also included: the ambassadors and permanent representatives Sergey Alexandrovsky, Alexander Bekzadyan, Mikhail Karsky, Christian Rakovsky, Karim Khakimov, Konstantin Yurenev, and Yakov Yanson; the Soviet trade representative in Sweden and Germany David Kandelaki; and 30 heads of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs departments and 28 heads of consulates. The consulates in China, Mongolia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria suffered heavy losses. More than 140 members of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs administration and foreign offices were repressed.
In the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs central office, only one out of the eight departments remained headed by an appointed chairman; the others were led by acting chairmen. The Commissariat lost its leading diplomats: Legal Department heads Mark Plotkin and Andrey Sabanin; Head of the Consulate and Personnel Departments Iosif Tumanov; Head of the Second Western Department David Stern; and Head of the Economic Section Boris Rozenblum. The repressions continued in 1940, when Georgy Astakhov, Head of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs’ Press Department and Charge d’Affaires in Germany, was arrested and subsequently executed.
Fyodor Raskolnikov, former commander of the Baltic Sea Fleet awarded with two Orders of the Red Banner and a career diplomat who had headed the Soviet representative offices in Afghanistan, Estonia, Denmark and Bulgaria, decided not to return to the USSR. In his open letter to Stalin, he strongly criticized the policy of repressions, under which “people believe, or pretend to believe, any ‘intercepted’ document as if it was unquestionable evidence.”
“Fully aware of the fact that, what with our personnel depletion, every cultured and experienced diplomat is especially valued, you have lured into Moscow and destroyed, one by one, virtually all the Soviet ambassadors,” Raskolnikov wrote. “You tore down the entire administration of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.” Charge d’Affaires in Romania, Fyodor Butenko, also refused to return .
The vacant positions in the Commissariat’s central and overseas offices stayed vacant for a long time. By early 1939, the Soviet embassies in the United States, Japan, Poland, Romania, Spain, Lithuania, Denmark, Hungary and Bulgaria were still without ambassadors. In the central office, only one of the eight department heads had been appointed. The new personnel were selected based on the information contained in their personal files, which was absolutely not indicative of their suitability for diplomatic service. During interviews, candidates demonstrated insufficient knowledge of history, foreign languages and international politics. Ivan Maisky, the Soviet envoy to the United Kingdom, wrote in 1937: “People who come over here are totally inexperienced in the art of diplomacy which, in a centre like London, is fairly complex and sensitive.”.
Litvinov wrote prophetically to Stalin about the risks of leaving the country without a diplomatic corps in the face of the looming threats. Diplomat Alexandra Kollontai would later mention in her memoirs that a number of the Soviet Union’s foreign political failures had been down to the diplomatic service having been “bled dry.”
The Soviet diplomatic service suffered more losses during the repressions of the early 1950s. The years of perestroika saw the publication of a memorial book devoted to the Soviet diplomats who had been purged from the 1930s till the early 1950s. In 1989, a memorial plaque for the repressed diplomats was set up inside the building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.
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3. Там же.
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