Diplomacy and International Relations in the 20th Century

 Diplomacy and international relations dominated the daily lives of average people more in the 20th century than in perhaps any previous century. Whereas it had been possible for earlier generations to live their lives free of such concerns, escaping the state of international relations in the 20th century was a near impossibility for the majority of the world’s population. The state of international relations and diplomacy was instead their ever-present concern and interest. This heightened importance for diplomacy and international relations to nearly all people in the 20th century is largely attributable to two phenomena that arose essentially side-by-side, namely the rise of modern republican and democratic nation-states in which every citizen plays a part in determining the policies of the government and the increase in technology, especially the technology used for warfare, that, in a sense, made the world simultaneously a “smaller” place as well as a more dangerous one.

Earlier generations of people had had the ability to live lives largely independent of any concern with diplomacy, international relations, or even politics in a more general sense. This was true of the ancient and medieval worlds as well as of the early modern period, essentially right up to the beginning of the 19th century. Although, of course, warfare has existed throughout human history and various peoples have no doubt been subject to the vicissitudes of politics, the whims of rulers, war, and diplomacy, any change was generally gradual and, given the limitations in communication and travel, generations could pass their lives with little or no knowledge of the political situation of the kingdom of which they were ostensibly subjects. Historian William Chester Jordan notes in his history of Europe in the High Middle Ages, for instance, that in that time period few in France outside of Paris would have considered themselves “French.”1

The change from this situation to the one that predominated in the 20th century largely occurred in the 19th century. As with so much that distinguishes the 20th century from previous eras in history, the 19th century was the transition point. It was during this period, under the influence of such events as the American Revolution and the French Revolution, both of which occurred near the close of the 18th century, that the subjects of the various kingdoms of the world began the transition to becoming citizens of the nations of the world, a very important difference in terminology. Individuals of all ranks, races, and economic statuses had a greater say in the policies of their governments than ever before in history. As a result, politics became a greater concern for the average person than it had been at any previous point in history. Political decisions were now in the hands of the people as a whole rather than in being the purview of only kings and the various aristocrats and nobles who surrounded these monarchs. As a result, politics was a greater concern for the private individual than it had ever been before in history.

The 19th century was also in large part the transition point for the second and equally affective major change that brought about the differences in regards to diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century in contrast with previous centuries, namely the advent of a great deal of new technology, especially travel, communications, and military technology.

New technology in travel that arose in the 19th century and advanced significantly in the 20th century includes trains, airplanes, and motor vehicles. Railroad travel enabled materials and men to travel greater distances at greater speeds than ever before. Airplanes also increased the ability to move people and materials quickly and effectively, as well as to bring the war behind enemy lines in combat and reconnaissance. The reconnaissance balloons of the American Civil War in the 1860s led to the stealth craft used by the opposing powers of the Cold War to spy on each other and also led to the omnipresent danger of bombs falling suddenly and unexpectedly from the sky in any given place, making the matters of diplomacy an ever-present reality for all people.2 Similarly, motor vehicles made people all over the world more mobile than ever before.

In addition to these abilities to move people and things faster than ever before over great distances, messages also moved with greater speed than ever before. The telegraph changed the nature of warfare in the 19th century and in the 20th century the advent of telephones, radios, and, later, computers and the internet made it possible to communicate around the world in a matter of seconds. Allied radio messages sent behind Nazi lines during World War II demonstrate the effectiveness of these new communication tools in shaping ideas, diplomacy, and warfare.3

Military technology is perhaps the greatest inventive force in shaping the realities of diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century and bringing these subjects into the homes of otherwise average people all over the world. The Cold War was largely the product of a mutual fear between the Soviet Union and the United States that the other would use nuclear weapons to advance their side in the conflict of ideas. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Islamic terrorist groups or rogue nations with bizarre ideologies such as Iran and North Korea continued to shape diplomacy at the highest levels as well as to bring the concerns of international relations to the minds of average people.

As a result of these two factors, the rise of individual concern in politics and the increase in technology that brought the realities of international relations into homes all over the world, a further element that defined diplomacy in the 20th century emerged, specifically the focus on nearly all-encompassing conflicts in ideology between large blocs of nations. Though it may seem ironic at first glance, the reality is that individual participation in politics, through spreading the concern in these issues wider than ever before, forced a situation in which international relations took on larger proportions than ever before. This can be seen in cases like World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, three conflicts which arguably defined international relations in the 20th century and all of which involved formations of alliances by dozens of nations arranged against an “equal and opposite” alliance of other nations, and all nations participating ostensibly out of a conflict of ideology coupled with a perceived existential threat from the other side.

The defining feature of diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century, as with so much of what makes the 20th century distinctive, is ultimately the allegorical shrinking of the world. The concerns of the government became the concerns of the average person. Simultaneously, the realities and concerns of far off lands came into the purview of people far away. These new advances in the political participation of individuals and technology created the unique diplomatic situation of the 20th century.

1 William Chester Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 229.
2 Amrom H. Katz, Some Notes on the History of Aerial Reconnaissance (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1966).

3 Robert Rowen, “Gray and Black Radio Propaganda against Nazi Germany,” New York Military Affairs Symposium, 18 April 2003 (accessed 2 December 2012), http://bobrowen.com/nymas/radioproppaper.htm.

The Silver Age of Russian Culture

The Silver Age of Russian culture during the first two decades of the twentieth century, roughly from 1898 to 1918, was a period simultaneously marked by a burst of creativity and a foreboding pessimism. This dichotomy and the general diversity of the era make it a difficult time to accurately summarize. Russian artists, composers, poets, authors, and other cultural figures of the Silver Age exhibited “aestheticism, mysticism, decadence, sensualism, idealism, and pessimism,” as well as a “sense of uncertainty and disintegration, of deep skepticism about all received truths and certainties, and a pessimistic foreboding … though also hopeful anticipation.”1 In short, there is no easy way to describe the full range of Russian culture during the Silver Age.

The beginning of the Silver Age of Russian culture is generally identified with the publication of the periodical Mir iskusstva, or The World of Art, by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexander Benois in 1898. The periodical, published bimonthly for its first two years and monthly after 1900, was intended “to lead its Russian readers away from Realism … and to introduce them to the freer styles that were flourishing throughout Europe.”2 Diaghilev and Benois saw Russian art of the late nineteenth century as stagnant and overly focused on the concrete. Through The World of Art, they attempted to expose Russian audiences to the art then popular in Western Europe and elsewhere throughout the world, which tended toward the abstract and the innovative. Their hope was that this exposure to new forms of art would act as an impetus for Russians to take up these new styles themselves. Their hopes quickly came to fruition.

“What followed was a cultural explosion,” according to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg: “almost overnight there sprung up in Russia a rich variety of literary and artistic creeds, circles, and movements.”3 While a variety of young artists took up the call put out by Diaghilev and Benois, outstanding figures in the visual arts of this period include, for instance, Mark Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. Chagall pioneered a new form of painting that avoided the extremes of either realism or complete abstraction. According to James Johnson Sweeney, an expert in modern art, “this is Chagall’s contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other.”4 His unique style was a significant influence on surrealism.

Kazimir Malevich, meanwhile, established the foundations for a new style of art he referred to as “Suprematism.” In contrast to other, more representational artistic styles, Suprematism embraced the abstract and instead focused on basic geometric shapes like circles and squares. Perhaps the most well-known exhibition of Suprematist art was Malevich’s 1915 exhibition in Moscow, which he titled “0.10: The Last Futurist Painting Exhibition.” The most remarkable feature of the exhibit, which included a number of Suprematist paintings, was the placement of the Black Square, a solid black square on white canvas, in the icon corner, the place where Eastern Orthodox icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other important religious figures would traditionally be placed in a Russian home. Though initially “most reviewers voiced incomprehension and even scorn in viewing these experiments in abstraction as a new way of seeing,”5 and even Malevich’s friend and coworker Vladimir Tatlin broke with him over the exhibit, Malevich and his Suprematist school continue, like Chagall, to exert a considerable influence on artists even today. In addition to his influence, his popularity has also continued to increase; one of his paintings, Suprematist Composition, painted in 1916, sold for $60,002,500 at Sotheby’s in 2008.6

Closely connected to the new movements in art were the new movements in musical composition and performance; Malevich, for instance, designed the set for the 1913 Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun. In addition to this connection between artists and composers, many of the same themes and styles predominated in Russian music, which tended to focus on “the lyrical and elegaic to the mystical, Dionysian, and even apocalyptic.”7 The composers Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin represent two of the extremes of Russian musical culture in the Silver Age.

In the words of Riasanovsky and Steinberg, “Rachmaninov’s work exudes gentle and lyrical spirituality, aestheticism, melancholy, and fatalism.”8 His two most important choral works, for instance, are both settings for services of the Orthodox Church, one for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and the other for the All-Night Vigil (1915). Ivan Moody, a modern British composer whose work is also deeply influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgical traditions, has written of Rachmaninov’s setting for the Liturgy that “musically, the Liturgy today seems steeped in the spirit of archaic chant inflections, however modern it may have seemed at the time of its composition.”9 This ability to combine the ancient and the modern into a single cohesive whole characterizes the greater part of Rachmaninov’s works.

Alexander Scriabin, in contrast, was primarily “influenced by an eclectic mixture of Chopin, Wagner, Nietzsche, symbolism, and religious mysticism” in the form of the Theosophical occultism advocated by Helena Blavatsky; as a result, his work “offers a mix of Dionysian emotions, mystical spirituality, and pure sound.”10 His Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), for example, both revel in the sensuality, emotion, and individualism which Rachmaninov’s compositions sought to transcend.

In spite of the differences between the two composers, however, Rachmaninov and Scriabin retain a number of similarities. Their compositions both draw and build upon previous Russian music and contain a great number of religious, especially mystical, undertones and philosophical influences. In this, they are both examples of the musical currents in Russia during the Silver Age.

Like music, poetry remained an important conduit for self-expression during the Silver Age, just as it had during earlier periods of Russian history. However, also like music, poetry took on a distinctly different flavor during the Silver Age. The poetry of the acmeist school, which favored a principled clarity, simplicity, and personal theme to poetry, for instance, focused on subjects such as “love, beauty, and sadness.”11 The first published work of Anna Akhmatova, one of the most preeminent of the acmeist poets, for example, “reads like an intimate diary of a woman in love.”12 Consonant with the acmeist focus on simplicity and individuality, “Akhmatova speaks about simple earthly happiness and about simple intimate and personal sorrow.”13 Like Russian music of the Silver Age, and in great contradistinction to earlier ages, poetry of the period reveled in the sentimental, the emotional, the sensual, and above all else the personal.

Though each of the great figures of the Silver Age of Russian culture is unique in a variety of ways and different from his or her contemporaries in style, approach, and interest, there are a number of features which bind all of the great artists, poets, composers, and other cultural creators of the Silver Age together and which allow them to constitute a single and important age in Russian culture. The Russian cultural Silver Age is characterized by both a radical departure from previous currents in Russian culture and a remarkable continuity with previous themes. The Silver Age perhaps stands out most especially for the vibrant creative spirit that ran throughout the arts and for the focus on intimacy, personality, and the individual. When the Silver Age finally ended with the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in 1918, a period of great cultural growth and exploration closed on a terrible note that, with its consistent undertones of foreboding, it perhaps expected all along.

1 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 450.

2 Michelle Potter, “Mir iskusstva: Serge Diaghilev’s Art Journal,” National Library of Australia News Vol. 15 No. 10 (July 2005): 4, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2005/jul05/

3 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 450.

4 James Johnson Sweeney, Marc Chagall (Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969), 7.

5 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 456.

6 Sotheby’s 2008 Financial Highlights ~ Sales of $5.3 Billion in a Down Year,” Art Knowledge News, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Sothebys_2008_Financial_Highlights.html

7 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 453.

8 Ibid., 454.

9 Ivan Moody, “Rachmaninov: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,” Hyperion Records, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/al.asp?al=CDH55318

10 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 454.

11 Ibid., 451.

12 Leonid I. Strakhovsky, “Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love,” American Slavic and Eastern European Review Vol. 6 No. 1/2 (May, 1947): 2.

13 Ibid.
Moody, Ivan. “Rachmaninov: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Hyperion Records. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/al.asp?al=CDH55318
Potter, Michelle. “Mir iskusstva: Serge Diaghilev’s Art Journal.” National Library of Australia News Volume 15 Number 10 (July 2005): 3-6. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2005/jul05/
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Sotheby’s 2008 Financial Highlights ~ Sales of $5.3 Billion in a Down Year.” Art Knowledge News. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Sothebys_2008_Financial_Highlights.html
Strakhovsky, Leonid I. “Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love.” American Slavic and Eastern European Review Volume 6 Number 1/2 (May, 1947): 1-18.
Sweeney, James Johnson. Marc Chagall. Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969.

The Reforms of Peter the Great

Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov, remembered today as Peter the Great, enacted a great number of sweeping and radical reforms of Russian government and culture throughout his reign as czar in 1682-1725. His reforms, implemented with the goal of transforming Russia into a state more in line with the European thought of the Enlightenment, so widely and deeply impacted every facet of Russian society that approximately a century later Count Egor Kankrin was able to write that after the reign of Peter the Great “we must be called not Russians, but Petrovians. … Russia should be called Petrovia and we Petrovians.”1 The longest lasting and most drastic of the reforms included the building of a Russian navy, movement of the capital of Russia from Moscow to the newly-built St. Petersburg, alterations in the government of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the adoption and enforcement of Western dress and grooming standards.

The establishment of a Russian navy was “one of [Peter the Great’s] passions.”2 He dreamed of establishing Russia as a maritime empire like those of the West and spared no expense in making his dream a reality. According to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, “he began from scratch – with one vessel of an obsolete type, to be exact – and left to his successor 48 major warships and 787 minor and auxiliary craft, serviced by 28,000 men.”3 Peter, in fact, traveled in person to London to learn shipbuilding from the shipwrights there because he had been “told that the theory of shipbuilding was better understood in England” than anywhere else in Europe.4 When he began to build his own navy upon returning to Russia, he remained directly and personally involved in the building as well as the utilization of the ships.

In order to make his dreams of a powerful Russian navy come true, Peter also had to capture coastal land for Russia, which was largely landlocked when he began his reign. To that end, he undertook a war with Sweden beginning in 1700, capturing the Baltic coast and establishing St. Petersburg and the port city of Kronstadt in 1703.5

In addition to being strategically located, closer to the sea than Moscow and acting as a “Window into Europe,” the establishment of St. Petersburg also fulfilled another dream of Peter the Great.6 Especially upon his return from Western Europe, Peter saw his capital city, Moscow, as insignificant and antiquated, a relic of a time long past. When he compared it in his mind with the great cities of Western Europe, such as Paris and London, he thought Moscow too religious and medieval to be the capital city of the great European empire which he sought to make of Russia.

After capturing the Baltic coast from the Swedes, Peter immediately set to work transforming a piece of swampland in the area into the new, glorious, and clearly European capital from which he desired to reign. Peter demanded that his new capital be the priority of the entirety of his people. He ordered that “no stone house was to be built in the rest of the empire till a certain number had been set up in the new capital.”7 He had the buildings, including the homes of the Russian aristocracy and his own palace, built in the European rather than the Russian style of architecture. He sought to keep his new capital free of the domed architecture and iconographic art which dominated the skyline of the old capital in Moscow.

In a similar effort to free Russia from its Orthodox Christian religious past and bring it more into line with contemporary European religious and philosophical thought, Peter also significantly altered the governance of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ostensibly in an attempt to avoid events like those which had led to the schism of the Old Believers just a little over a decade prior to the beginning of his reign, Peter abolished the Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and, in 1721, replaced it with a council of bishops, following the model of the Protestant churches in Germany. Historian Paul D. Steeves describes the council, called “the Most Holy Synod,” as consisting “of a board of bishops which supervised church affairs and which was, in turn, supervised by a secular government official, the Procurator General, appointed by the Czar.”8 As a result of this new form of church government, “the Russian Orthodox church [sic] thus became little more than a department of state for the remaining two hundred years of the existence of the Czarist state.”9

In addition to the abolition of the Patriarchate and imposition of the Most Holy Synod on the Church, Peter also established his dominance over the Church in a number of other ways. One of the most objectionable, from the standpoint of the Church leadership, was the decree contained in his “Ecclesiastical Regulation,” the same document which established the synod, that “any priest who discovered, in the confessional, evidence of treason or of anti-government plans” was obliged “to pass on such information to the police.”10

In addition to this violation of the privacy of the sacrament of confession, Peter also passed a number of rules which, in his attempts to Westernize Russia, impinged greatly on the individual freedoms and traditional ways of life of the Russian people. Perhaps the most famous of these new rules was a law against growing beards. Peter saw the beard a symbol of the old Russia which he sought to uproot. In addition to personally shaving the faces of five of his closest advisers, Peter also “ordered that none should enter his presence with beards, on which he put a tax.”11 Similarly, he ordered that his aristocrats and others replace their traditional Russian clothing with the styles then current in Europe.

As can be seen from just these few examples of the reforms he implemented, Peter the Great despised the traditional Russia he had grown up in, seeing in it and all of its symbols an antiquated way of life. He sought to bring Russia into the European fold and spared no expense – nor focus on seeming minutiae – to accomplish his goal. Many of his reforms, such as his attempt to move the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, would be reversed by his successors. Other of his reforms, such as his tax on beards, appear hypocritical in the light of the European thinking he set as his standard even while using his autocratic power to accomplish these ends. And still more of his reforms, such as his meddling in Church government, can be seen as little more than ill-advised power plays. On the other hand, however, a large portion of his reforms, such as his building of a navy and establishment of Russia as a maritime power, had overwhelmingly positive and permanent effects on his nation. There is no way to characterize the person and reign of Peter in unambiguous terms other than, perhaps, with the descriptor, used in a neutral sense, which his people would attach to his name after his death: “great.”

1 Count Egor Kankrin, quoted in Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 211.
2 Ibid., 227.
3 Ibid.
4 Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 198.
5 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 221.
6 Robert Wipper, “Ivan Grozny: Excerpts,” in Thomas Riha, ed., Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 109.
7 Pares, 219.
8 Paul D. Steeves, “The Russian Church,” in Tim Dowley, ed., Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity (Carmel: Guideposts, 1977), 458.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Pares, 198-9.
Dowley, Tim. Editor. Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity. Carmel: Guideposts, 1977.
Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Riha, Thomas, editor. Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969.