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The influence of ideology on the foreign policy behaviour of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites, 1945-61

The impossible balancing act

Seminararbeit 2005 11 Seiten

Geschichte Europa - Deutschland - Nachkriegszeit, Kalter Krieg


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The functions of ideology in Soviet foreign policy behaviour

3. Ideology 1945-1953: Stalin, Tito, and the quest for balance

4. Ideology 1953-1961: Khrushchev, Ulbricht, and the loss of homogeneity

5. Implications regarding the responsibility for the Cold War in Europe

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Ideology stood at the genesis of the Soviet Union, which was the first European state based on an idea, rather than on religion, territory or ethnicity. The idea was to free society from capitalism and lead it into socialism and then communism. The ideology, which promised to achieve this end, was Marxism-Leninism. It was declared the official state ideology in the second half of the 1920s and exerted a profound influence on the Soviet Union: “Lenin formulated an ideology that, like a religion, fundamentally moulded Soviet society and culture.”[1] However, Marxism-Leninism was not a static mental construct but gradually changed over time. Martin McCauley[2] notes that “as new problems arose, so the ideology was adapted”. The ideology was always there. The question is whether it had concrete policy implications or was merely used as a fig leaf for Soviet policies.

In order to evaluate the influence of ideology on the foreign policy behaviour of the Soviet Union and its satellites during the phase of 1945-61, I will start with an overview of the specific functions that Marxist-Leninist ideology fulfilled in the context of Soviet foreign policy. This is critical for the understanding of the practical uses of ideology in the policy making process and for the Soviet cause as a whole. In a second step, I will set forth the role of ideology and its different functions during the Stalinist era (1945-53) and up to the building of the Berlin wall in 1961. Special emphasis will be laid on changes in the use of ideology as a foreign policy tool and their respective causes. This analysis is followed by an assessment of the implications on the responsibility for the Cold War in Europe.

2. The functions of ideology in Soviet foreign policy behaviour

While Marxism-Leninism laid the intellectual framework and justification for the Soviet Union, ideology had a number of very practical functions. V. I. Lenin devised his version of Marxism not as a lofty thought experiment but as an effective tool to advance his notion of socialist society. Although the perception of Marxism-Leninism changed in content over time, the utilitarian dimension of ideology remained. In the context of the Soviet Union and its eastern European allies between 1945 and 1961, four main functions of ideology can be identified.

First, Marxism-Leninism was the fabric which made the idea of international communism conceivable in the first place. It was crucial (at least initially) for creating a sense of identity and unity within the communist bloc and helped the Soviet Union to rally its allies behind its back. In order for this to work, of course, socialist ideology needed to be implemented consistently all over the Soviet Union’s sphere of control, be it by persuasion or force. Both, Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev realized the necessity of ideological homogeneity. That they often vacillated between a strict and a more permissive interpretation of communism is evidence of how difficult this balancing act really was. Stalin and Khrushchev never managed to achieve ideological homogeneity within the communist bloc. Instead, they provoked rifts, which were often unnecessary, thus undermining the stability of the Soviet empire.

A second important function of socialist ideology was propaganda. This was exploited as a tool to win over countries of strategic interest by means of carrying the East-West conflict to a metaphorical level. The Cold War was thus waged in the minds of the people. Propaganda played an especially important role in Moscow’s efforts to gain ground in Western Europe, where the local communist parties tried hard to convince the constituency of the benefits of socialism, with marginal success, as it turned out. The force of propaganda was probably most evident in the struggle for supremacy in Germany. Because of its crucial position in the middle of Europe, between the Eastern and Western zones of influence, the Soviets tried especially hard to force this “superdomino”[3] to fall on its side. Khrushchev’s plan to establish East Germany as a “showcase of socialism”[4] was nothing else than a gigantic act of propaganda for all the world to see.

Third, ideology was important for communist leaders to enhance their regime’s and their personal prestige. By decrying their enemies’ system of ideas and lionizing their own, communist leaders strived for respect and approval in their own country and the Eastern bloc as a whole. Each success in the advancement of international communism contributed to the prestige of individual leaders. This is especially true for Stalin during 1947-1948, when the Soviet Union rose from the ashes of World War II to become a superpower, making the Soviet leader “more capable than ever before or after of advancing the communist cause.”[5] The effect of ideology on prestige, of course, also bore in it an inherent potential for conflict. If a leader’s prestige became too high, this would lead to discord with Moscow. Josip Broz Tito’s high standing in Yugoslavia and the Balkans for example, even heightened in the wake of the rift with the Soviet Union, was perceived as a threat by Stalin. Apart from himself, he accepted prestige only if it was to the good of the communist cause.

Finally, the fourth main function of ideology was differentiation from the enemy. Ideology, in that sense, served as an effective method for drawing a demarcation line between “us” and “them” and was therefore essential for the creation and perpetuation of a simplistic black-or-white worldview, which again could be exploited for propaganda purposes. Within the confines of the communist bloc, dissenters could easily be identified as such and publicly denounced accordingly. This applied to individuals and countries alike. On the individual level, for example, Walter Ulbricht in 1958 was able to permanently silence the opposition in the GDR by ousting an “opportunistic factional group”[6] of politicians from the Politburo. This was possible because Ulbricht’s hardcore socialist stance had been boosted by events in Hungary, where the Soviets had cracked down on reformist revolts, out of fear that these would lead to the abolition of communist rule there. The consequences of the differentiating function of ideology ultimately turned against the East. Instead of isolating the enemy, the communist bloc isolated itself, while the “rest” successively grew bigger.


[1] S. Kull, Burying Lenin: The Revolution in Soviet Ideology and Foreign Policy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992), p. 1.

[2] M. McCauley, Longman companion to Russia since 1914 (London, New York: 1998), p. 164.

[3] H. M. Harrison, Driving the Soviets up the Wall (Princeton: University Press, 2003), p. 7.

[4] Ibid. p. 220.

[5] V. Mastny, The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity (Oxford: University Press, 1996), p. 30.

[6] H. M. Harrison, Driving the Soviets up the Wall (Princeton: University Press, 2003), p. 92.


ISBN (eBook)
451 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Yale University – Yale University
Honors (Bestnote)
Soviet Union East European



Titel: The influence of ideology on the foreign policy behaviour of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites, 1945-61