Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Did the Soviet Union Instruct Southeast Asian Communists to Revolt? New Russian Evidence on the Calcutta Youth Conference of February 1948

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Did the Soviet Union Instruct Southeast Asian Communists to Revolt? New Russian Evidence on the Calcutta Youth Conference of February 1948

Article excerpt


There has been considerable speculation among historians of the Cold War and of Soviet policy towards Indonesia, right up to the present, concerning the communist-sponsored Southeast Asian Youth Conference held in Calcutta in February 1948. There, it has been claimed by some, 'orders from Moscow' were passed to the Southeast Asian communists, giving rise to the rebellions in Indonesia, Malaya and Burma and the increased unrest in the Philippines and Vietnam which occurred later in 1948, actions which were aimed at seizing power from the national bourgeoisie and turning these countries into socialist states. (1)

Recently declassified archival documents of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (of Bolsheviks) [CC AUCP (B)] concerning the Calcutta conference and Soviet policy towards Indonesia do not corroborate this theory. Instead, they allow us to construct a more complex picture of Soviet policymakers attempting to collect information on a region about which they were relatively poorly informed, encouraging more links with it, and yet remaining uncertain if not cautious in their assessment of the immediate prospects of local parties there.

Speculations by Western scholars

Ruth McVey's The Soviet view of the Indonesian revolution, written under the auspices of Cornell University's Southeast Asia Program, remains the most serious analysis of the early period of Soviet policy towards Indonesia. (2) McVey states that the Soviet policy towards the newly independent Republic of Indonesia, proclaimed on 17 August 1945, clearly changed at the beginning of 1948 and links the communist uprising in Indonesia (the Madiun uprising of September 1948) with this change.

The Soviet archival documents corroborate McVey's opinion that towards the end of the Second World War, the USSR had no clear-cut Asia policy and certainly no Indonesia policy. Indonesia at that time was on the periphery of Soviet interests in Asia. After the colonial war started in Indonesia between Dutch troops on one side, and the Indonesian national liberation movement on the other, the USSR inclined to the Indonesian side. Although the Indonesian liberation movement was led by the national bourgeoisie, it was directed against Western domination in the region and this was the main argument for the Soviet Union to support those fighting for national liberation. At the same time, McVey points out, the Soviet leaders considered that the united front should remain under the leadership of the bourgeois nationalist movement. (3) She explains this decision as due to the Soviet leadership not believing in the possibility of a communist victory in any Asian country at that time, not even in China. (4)

Late in 1947 and through early 1948, as McVey states, Soviet policy drastically changed. She links this change with the establishment of the Cominform and the declaration of the Zhdanov 'two camp doctrine', which divided the world into two opposing camps--socialist and capitalist. The independence of former colonies, now ruled by representatives of the national bourgeoisie, was declared fake. Real independence could be reached only under the leadership of left wing, especially communist, groups and such independence had to be followed by radical social reforms and the creation of people's democracies. The Chinese concept of 'new democracy' and the Chinese revolution was gradually but increasingly being proclaimed as a new ideal for Asian peoples. (5)

Western scholars, even those who doubt that the Soviet Union issued any overt orders for revolt in Southeast Asia in 1948, base their analysis of this period mainly upon the political rhetoric on the colonial question as seen in Soviet official publications, as well as the general Cominform line. (6) They do not give any concrete or archival evidence to prove changes in the Soviet attitude towards the situation in Asia or Soviet subversive activity in Southeast Asia. …

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