The British Political Elite and the Soviet Union, 1937-1939

By Louise Grace Shaw | Go to book overview

3

The Foreign Office and the Soviet Union, 1937-38

Between May 1937 and March 1939, developments within the Soviet Union took a dramatic turn. Consequently, Stalin's dictatorship received greater attention from the British Foreign Office in London and the embassy in Moscow. 1 This chapter discusses the information officials collected. It examines their opinions of the Soviet Union and Anglo-Soviet collaboration, and provides a background to the decisions taken in London. What it reveals is that, despite the weaknesses and horrors of the Soviet Union, attitudes towards collaboration were still ultimately determined by distrust, especially ideological distrust, and the willingness to overlook it.

Throughout this period, officials in Moscow worked very hard to accumulate information about, and describe accurately the condition of, the Soviet Union for those in London. 2 Though, to a certain extent, the Soviet Union remained an enigma, officials were able to provide London with a largely accurate and certainly insightful portrayal of developments and views within the country. Officials did not know what went on inside the Kremlin, 3 but one should not underestimate the amount they did learn. 4 The British ambassador in Moscow Viscount Aretas Akers-Douglas Chilston, in particular, gained a great deal of knowledge about the country and its rulers. At the root of his portrayal during this period was what he considered to be Moscow's 'callousness and crude mendacity'. 5 The Soviet Union was not what many political idealists thought it to be. Chilston highlighted the rigged elections 6 and the poor social record of the supposed leaders of socialism. 7 Though Moscow continued to mislead and claim that developments inside the Soviet Union had 'shown the whole world that with the Bolsheviks there is never any discrepancy between word and deed', 8 in reality, Chilston explained, life for Soviet citizens was hard. He reported at the end of 1937, for example, that 'such important foodstuffs as flour…potatoes, white bread of the poorer qualities…and Sudak (a staple item in the diet of the

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