The Legacies of Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations in Russia

By Khodnev, Alexander S. | World Affairs, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

The Legacies of Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations in Russia


Khodnev, Alexander S., World Affairs


My goals in this article are threefold: to survey the reactions to the ideas and the legacies of Woodrow Wilson in Russia; to define the manifold legacies of Wilson's finest creation, the League of Nations, in Soviet Russian history; and to confront exactly why Soviet Russia's attitudes toward Wilson have been so complicated and, in many ways, so hostile. One of my central questions explores how Russians evaluated the League of Nations, the most popular and tragic outcome of Wilson's efforts at the peace conference in Paris.

My findings argue that Russians, both before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and after, never really understood Wilson. Before the Revolution, Russians were poorly informed about and underestimated Wilson's ideas and politics. They were too preoccupied with European issues in the West and with imperial ambitions in the East. After the Revolution, they overestimated his enmity toward the Bolshevik government. They had, after all, begun an ideological war against Wilsonian internationalism and his creation, the League of Nations. Up to now, Russians have not been able to break out of this cycle of misunderstanding.

Through the twentieth century, what exactly could Russian and Soviet readers learn about Woodrow Wilson and his ideas? Elite perspectives of the legacies of Wilson and the League of Nations have changed with each successive generation of Russians, who for the first time became acquainted with his works before World War I and his presidency.

Until the first Russian Revolution of 1905, the publication of Western books, especially those in the field of law and government that specialized in the analysis of parliamentary systems, was virtually nonexistent in Russia. In that year, the great paradoxes in Russian life - between the results of the "great" reforms in society and economy after 1861, which began to modernize Russia, and the constraints of the old monarchical system of government, which had led to the loss of the war with Japan - resulted in a revolutionary crisis. I should add that this crisis was only made worse by Russia's economic and political backwardness, summarized in the weakness, or absence, of her middle class. This led to the polarization of society and to the unlimited authority of the Russian bureaucracy, brilliantly shown by the great writers, N. Gogol, A. Chekhov, and L. Tolstoy.

In this context, Russia was ready to read Wilson's works by 1905. His book, The State, was published in 1905 in Russia under the editorship of Professor A. S. Yashenko. The foreword to the book was written by the famous Russian liberal scholar, Maxim Kovalevsky, whose works in history, law, and economics were always met with great interest by academics, students, and the educated public alike. Kovalevsky's dedication to the work was meant to direct liberal-minded society's attention to it.

Yashenko and Kovalevsky had studied at Moscow University, where they were members of the school of Count L. Kamarovsky, a Russian professor of international law and a pacifist who was renowned at the turn of the century. The school could be called "Westernist" according to the typical definitions from the cultural and ideological disputes of the nineteenth century. Kovalevsky traveled widely in the United States, in 1881 for the first time and in 1901 for the second, where he acquired most of his liberal ideas in politics and scholarship.

In the preface to Wilson's book, Kovalevsky wrote that the civil and especially political rights of the people presupposed their participation in elections for local and national representative bodies of power, and the protection of their civil and public rights in the law courts. "These are the distinguishing features of that state order which publicists call legal," Kovalevsky wrote.(1) He further examined the methods and approach of Wilson's research about the state, and noted that American authors considered it important to show how the historical contexts of different nations really formed their present governments. …

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