The Treaty That Saved Soviet Russia

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Ninety years ago Monday, Soviet Russia, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in the city that today is located on the western border of Belarus. The treaty marked a notable change from diplomatic agreements of the 19th century in that the Germans imposed humiliating terms on the new government of Vladimir Lenin.

Russian losses were perceived by the Western allies, including the United States, which had recently entered World War I, as a sign of what would happen to the rest of Europe if Germany emerged victorious from the prolonged trench conflict. Thus, the later Paris Peace treaties that ended World War I imposed particularly harsh penalties on Germany, which then sought redress through a new world war.

For the Russians, the treaty represented the fulfillment of the Bolsheviks' promise to pull themselves out of the World War I. Terrible losses, transportation bottlenecks, acute hunger, and long lines for food in major cities had brought about the collapse of the Russian monarchy a year earlier. The interim provisional government, led by Alexander Kerensky, attempted to honor Russia's commitments to its allies, France and Britain, and continue fighting. The Petrograd Soviet, dominated by Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries until the fall of 1917, meekly accepted that policy. Only a Bolshevik government promised peace.

Once Lenin took power and appointed Leon Trotsky as his foreign commissar, the Bolsheviks decided to broach the idea of a separate peace with the Germans. A delegation led by Adolf Ioffe was sent to Brest-Litovsk, the headquarters of the German Eastern Front. To illustrate the nature of the new state, Lenin dispatched a representative from each stratum of the population: a sailor, soldier and worker, and for good measure a peasant was located en route and persuaded to join the delegation.

They received a cold reception from the aristocratic Prussians, including German Foreign Minister Richard von K?hlmann and the chief of staff of the Eastern Front, General Max Hoffmann. Also present were the foreign minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Count Ottokar von Czernin, and Turkish leader Talat Pasha. But almost from the outset, the Bolsheviks insisted that all lands occupied during the war should be returned to their previous owner without indemnities. Ioffe suggested that those under dispute should have referenda to determine ownership on the basis of self-determination.

In truth, the Bolsheviks had no intention of reaching an early agreement.

Trotsky believed that revolution in Europe was imminent and thus there was good reason to postpone a treaty until the German government collapsed. His suggestion of a six-month armistice was brusquely rejected, but on Dec. 15, a four-week armistice was agreed by the central powers and Soviet Russia.

When talks were resumed, Hoffmann took out a map and demanded some 150,000 square kilometers of territory that had once belonged to the Russian Empire. It embraced practically all the territories of the Baltic states as well as Eastern Galicia. An added problem for the Bolsheviks was the arrival of a separate delegation representing the Central Rada of Ukraine, which had proclaimed independence on Jan. 22, 1918.

The Bolsheviks then had a brief but furious debate on how to respond to German demands. Nikolai Bukharin considered a revolutionary war would be the best option, modeled on the experience of revolutionary France. Lenin insisted that the German terms be accepted, bitter as they were. He put his ideas on paper in a pamphlet titled "Theses on the Question of the Immediate Conclusion of a Separate and Annexationist Peace." The title was ponderous but the thinking was rational.

But the Central Committee instead opted for the solution of its foreign commissar. Trotsky declared that the Bolsheviks should not sign a peace under such duress but should stop fighting nonetheless. He termed this monumental diplomatic folly "neither peace nor war." The Bolsheviks put this idea to the Germans and then walked out of the peace conference. One week later, General Hoffmann ordered a new German advance, only to discover that the Bolsheviks had not even bothered to destroy bridges to slow them down. Within 24 hours, Dvinsk and Lutsk were occupied.

Trotsky then changed his mind. A message was sent to the Germans by radio but went ignored for the next three days. The new state of Soviet Russia was about to collapse. After five days, however, the Germans sent a response that in addition to the original peace proposals they should retain all the lands occupied on their five-day march. Russia was to lose Poland, most of Belarus, Ukraine and Finland, in addition to the Baltic states. The Bolsheviks were to lose a third of the population of the former Russian Empire, half its industry, and valuable supplies of coal and iron ore.

Lenin nonetheless insisted that the terms be met and threatened to resign otherwise. The Soviet government ratified the proposals but Trotsky refused to go to Brest-Litovsk and sign them. When the respective delegations returned to the town on March 1, the Bolsheviks were represented by Grigory Sokolnikov, who would later become a victim of Stalin's purges, allegedly for signing such a humiliating document. Brest-Litovsk was a dictated peace.

The Bolshevik government then collapsed in disorder when the Bolsheviks' allies, the Left Social Revolutionaries, withdrew from the government. Border cities were no longer considered secure, and in the wake of the treaty the capital was transferred from Petrograd to Moscow. But the treaty saved the Soviet state and the countries that ceded -- with the exception of Ukraine and Belarus -- gained their independence for the next two decades.

Russians do not remember Brest-Litovsk with fondness, but the treaty was a landmark both for its Machiavellian nature and maintaining Bolshevik rule for the next 73 years.

David Marples, a professor of Russian history at the University of Alberta, Canada, is the author of "The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991.