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Britain and the Soviet Union

From the 1917 Russian Revolution, British policy-makers became increasingly concerned about Bolshevik imperial ambitions in Central Asia, particularly Persia and India. That Soviet foreign policy until the late 1930s (and perhaps beyond) was largely defensive was irrelevant in the British official mind. Of overriding concern was its Marxist-Leninist underpinning, an ideology which transformed tsarist expansionism operating within (and thereby upholding) Europe’s traditional balance of power politics into a proponent for worldwide revolution, whose primary target, it was feared, was the British Empire.6

Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the world’s first communist country, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, certainly did not allay British fears, particularly with his ideological assertion that imperialism was ‘the highest stage of capitalism’. For example, Lenin informed the Russian Communist Party in 1918 that ‘international imperialism, with its capital’s entire might [...] could not under any circumstances, on any condition, live side by side with the Soviet Republic’. Overthrowing capitalist imperialism became a central tenet of Soviet communism that his eventual successor Joseph Stalin would uphold.7 In 1922, the Comintern (Communist International) committed itself not only to cooperate with but also to unite and train national liberation movements around the world. One of its resolutions proclaimed that ‘colonial revolutionary movements’ had ‘extreme importance [...] for the international proletarian revolution’.8

British policy-makers were also aware of (but less worried about) the Soviet agreement with Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the KMT in China. In January 1923, after being refused assistance from Western powers, Sun secured funding and equipment from the Soviet Union and the Comintern. In 1924, the Soviets persuaded Sun to allow the CCP (and other political factions) to join a united front to liberate China from Western imperialism and the warlords. By mid-1925, a number of supposedly expansionist moves—including a KMT-organized but Soviet/Comintern-directed boycott of British goods, Soviet support of at least one Chinese warlord in north China, and the dissemination of communist propaganda by the KMT branch in Malaya—soon forced Whitehall to reassess Soviet imperial ambitions in China.9 The Hong Kong government was also suspicious of Chinese communists from the early 1920s, when they first became active in the colony, and the Hong Kong police regularly suppressed their activities.10

After Sun died on 12 March 1925, his close ally, Chiang Kai-shek, became the leader of the KMT and took command of the Nationalist Army. One year later, Chiang initiated the Northern Expedition, a campaign to unite and rule the whole of China. By 1928, Chiang had broken ties with the Soviets and led a successful coup against the Chinese communists, purging them from the KMT, the army, and the expedition. One British Foreign Office official exclaimed, ‘Our prayers for a Russian downfall in China have been answered beyond our wildest expectations’. By 1928, Chiang had also defeated the warlords and successfully unified China under his leadership. This marked the beginning of the KMT government’s one-party dictatorship of the Republic of China (ROC) (inaugurated on 18 April 1927) as well as the beginning of the Chinese Civil War (1927-1937 and 1946-1950) between Chiang’s KMT and Mao Zedong’s CCP.11

British celebrations of the ‘Russian downfall in China’ were certainly premature. The purge ensured that Hong Kong was to play a role in the civil war, especially as the CCP was forced to move its southern China headquarters from Canton to the colony. And despite its official neutrality in the civil war, the Hong Kong government regularly cooperated with Kwangtung authorities to capture suspected communists, who, if repatriated to Kwangtung, were often detained, tortured, and killed. Nevertheless, the Chinese communist movement (and thereby fears of Soviet influence) in southern China was saved from decline by the onset of the Sino-Japanese War.12

As in Hong Kong, Cyprus policy-makers also feared the reach of Moscow, specifically regarding the combination of the Comintern’s pronationalist strategy and the development of Cypriot left-wing and labour movements. The economic difficulties which followed the First World War facilitated the formation of Cyprus’s first proper trade unions by 1920. By 1924, these burgeoning unions concerned British authorities so much that the Cyprus government exiled a number of labour leaders, including Dr Nicolas Yiavopoulos, one of the founders of the Cypriot communist movement. Nevertheless, in 1926, the KKK was formed on a platform which stressed the improvement of working-class conditions as well as calling for Cyprus’s independence as a part of a Balkan Soviet Federation. The latter proposal proved politically debilitating for the KKK in the face of widespread support for the enosis movement in the Greek-Cypriot population—a lesson its successor party certainly took into account.13

By the 1930s, Britain’s primary focus on the Soviet Union was supplanted by the rise of other revisionist powers. In 1934, the British Foreign Office’s Committee of Imperial Defence ranked the Soviet Union below Germany and Japan as the most immediate threats to the British Empire. Nevertheless, as Best has put it:

[f]rom the very inception ofthe Bolshevik revolution in 1917 to the German attack on Russia in June 1941 the idea that the Soviet Union and communist ideology posed a serious menace to British interests in Europe and the empire was a constant that never disappeared from the minds of many politicians and civil servants in Whitehall.14

 
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