Europe in Russia

Refreshing relations between Belgium and Russia; from the birth of Belgium till the Russian revolution. 02/07/2014

July 2, 2014


La Belgique ne regrette rien (Belgium has no regrets) by Edith Wharton


Not with her ruined silver spires, Not with her cities shamed and rent, Perish the imperishable fires That shape the homestead from the tent.

Wherever men are staunch and free, There shall she keep her fearless state, And homeless, to great nations be The home of all that makes them great. 



Waking up in sunny and hot Moscow with a smile on my face and feeling by the way even more patriotic then before. Yesterday evening, the Belgian football team defeated the United States (2-1) at the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil. No big deal you say? Have in mind that Belgium has some internal cultural issues; lobbying to split the country in half. Small memory check; Belgium is a federal state that constituting different regions, and has suffered cases of political instability due to major ethnicity difference between Dutch-speaking Flanders and Francophone Wallonia which has constantly lead to division of the Belgian unity. Going back to the 18th and 19th century, the industrialists Francophone Wallonia were economically and politically dominant over the Dutch- speaking Flanders who were mainly agricultural oriented. Unfortunately as we see today, all these political conflicts have led to a slow growth of the Belgium economy. BUT, these struggles look so far away, as all the people of Belgium are glorious cheering and supporting our Red Devils to victory. With this in mind, it would be a pleasure to refresh some of diplomatic relations between my current employer Russia and Belgium.


Starting where it all began...


It has been over 150 years already since the very first Head of Legation of the Kingdom of Belgium arrived in imperial capital city of Saint Petersburg during the Tsar of All Russians period. Since then, our bilateral foreign relation has gone through difficult European history, which was often painful. But what most people don't know is that Belgium and Russia have enriched each other. In the last decade Belgium and Russia have seen each other as great business partners, and opening new opportunities on different aspects that can be improved in the future. The foundation has been laid, it is up to young diplomatic students like myself to further finish what our past generations started.


When Belgium gained its independence in 1830 splitting off from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Russia despite strong diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of the Netherlands, were relatively quick (during that period) to sign in 1831 and once again in 1839 the treaties that created and recognised the newborn Kingdom of Belgium. In splitting the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Belgian revolution was seen as a danger to the established monarchical order, and also painful family affairs. But this wasn't the key to better relations, since Belgium openly welcomed Polish immigrants and especially the integrations of Polish officers into the Belgian army. Having in mind that Poland at that time as a part of Russia that was trying to unleash a revolution themselves, many of those officers actively participated in vicious attacks against the Tsar. Saint Petersburg did not appreciate Belgium's gesture and relations turned sour for a while.


Despite the difficult start, the bilateral relations improved. This was mainly due to the good family relations of the first Belgian King Leopold I. The King of the Belgians had served in the Russian army in 1813 against Napoleon. Besides lending him certain esteem in Saint Petersburg, this gave the Belgian King knowledge of Russian thinking and politics possessed by few sovereigns of His time. In 1850, Belgium and Russia signed the first bilateral trade agreement and 3 years later genuine diplomatic relations were finally established, securing a stable relation between the two countries.


Even before the creation of independent Belgium, the land has always been an important trading ground for neighbouring countries. With this in mind, I like to refer the image of a butterfly. Where the 2 wings of the butterfly are; France and the other Germany. In the middle, starting from the Netherlands, through Belgium, north east of France all the way to Switzerland which I would refere to as the body act as buffer zones. These buffer zones have always been the best developed due to two cultures merging. Here you can find high development of languages and infrastructures to improve the much needed trade. Belgium developed its full potential thanks to the impetus given by Leopold I. With an already excellent network of river transport and world class port(s), it also developed an advanced industry for the time thanks to its minerals and coal. Belgium relatively a small national market forced the population to look beyond their own borders and neighbours to offer products abroad where only of handful nations at time were capable of producing. Russia on the other hand had huge amount of resources and needed to match, along with an abundance of all types of raw materials. What it needed was to exploit, process and transport them, as we even see in current times. It was inevitable that Belgium would join in this effort.


On the eve of the establishment of political and diplomatic relations, Belgium and Russia has signed a treaty of commerce that was very quickly amended to give the Belgians treatment equal to that enjoyed by the merchants of other Western nations. It is difficult to give a full overview of the Belgian industry that was engaged in Tsarist Russia. Statistics show that Belgium was Russia's leading investors. In 1900, Belgium invested over 831 million gold francs in Russia, compared to 690 million of France and 260 million of Germany. Almost all Belgian industrial sectors were partly and sometimes only involved in Russia. For example, the 'Trans-Siberian express', Belgium was one of the leading actors and promoters of this project. Together both nations were involved in many other engagements, marking this particular period in history as exceptional economical ties.


These exceptional economical ties also extend to cultural ties. For example, during the travels of Leo Tolstoy, he was eager to stay several weeks in Brussels. His stay was particularly memorable in various aspects. First, Belgium was where he learned of the publication of the imperial manifesto abolishing selfdom in Russia. It was also in Belgium that he met the French socialist-anarchist Proudhon, with whom he shared many analyses of property ownership, credit and the misdeeds of capitalism. But his main purpose of visit to Belgium was to study the education system. He visited several schools, took note of what he saw, and questioned everyone willing to give him an answer on this subject, which resulted in a new article on education. The very least I can say is that his stay was very profitable and in return, Belgian writers and other professionals enjoyed great successes in Russia.


In Russia, the slow democratic evolution of imperial Russia did not come without impatience and violence. Nonetheless, Can Russia obtain the full characteristics of Democracy? I believe that a county of this proportion, doesn't need and wants Democracy. But this is can be a great topic for another time. In Russia, the process was marked by numerous dramatic attacks and assassinations, including those of Tsar Alexander II and Stolypin. These were followed by firm and ongoing action by the Russian police that led many progressives to go into exile to conduct their revolutionary activity with greater freedom. As a constitutional monarchy, Belgium seemed particularly hospitable to those referred to, somewhat incorrectly, as 'nihilists'. Several figures of the Russian opposition thus gained renown in the Kingdom by organizing major meetings there that played a prominent role in the history of the movement.


In 1900, the International Socialist Bureau met for the first time in Brussels. Camille Huysmans became the secretary general, before his break with the Bolsheviks shortly after. The second Congress of the Russian Workers' Social Democratic Party was also held in Brussels 3 years later. Lenin's radical positions prevailed there, but here again caused a final split that was a major factor in the Russian history of the beginning of the century by leaving the field open to the most extreme Bolshevism. The presence in Belgium of Marx and Engels, who published their Communist Manifesto in Brussels, served as a magnet for revolutionaries. Young Russians were keenly interested in the Belgian social movement, which in turn was receptive to some ideas of the Russian opposition. This hot bed of activity was tolerated rather well by the Kingdom's government, except when it became violent. The Belgian authorities have always respected and will respect the laws of hospitality to any foreigner "who does not get involved in Belgian politics nor they disturb public order". We cannot leave this subject without highlighting the important role played by Russian Jews and Poles who comprised the 'Russian' emigration in Belgium before the revolution. Many of them settled there, notably in Antwerp; the port and diamond city of Belgium, and Liège; the leading industrial centre.


As far as my knowledge shows, Belgium and Russia have a lot more bilateral relations than we think. Following blog topics will be about times of war(s) and rollercoaster relations. Due to the Russian environment that I am working in, I must admit feeling an extra strong boost to further my Russian knowledge and skills. I can definitely advice my non-Russian colleagues' students to apply for an internship in Russia if interested in anything regarding Russia. Please feel free to comment or add suggestions on the article.


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