Politics & Law

Brest and Russia's Ukrainian rabbit hole

09 January, 2023

“Panta Rhei” is the way Heraclitus put it; “Everything flows; you never step in the same river twice.” Alfred North Whitehead’s Process Philosophy expresses the same thought as well as Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to drag Ukraine and Europe back to a bygone era.

By Jerome F Keating


Most Americans probably never heard of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918), But then, how many Europeans or Russians recognize it?


More than a decade ago when visiting Moscow, I was struck by the number of Russian couples that took wedding photos at War Memorial Shrines. No doubt they saw this as a patriotic gesture. Russia, the former Soviet Union’s (USSR) dominant republic had suffered the most casualties in World War II (WWII), and the shrines commemorated those that died “defending the motherland.”


However, since WWII ended more than a half-century earlier, I wondered: “Were these young couples aware of how Stalin had purged many capable Soviet military leaders prior to that war? Were they aware of the Faustian-type bargain that their Bolshevik founders made in the Treaty of Brest?


That period of Russia’s past presents a complex, rabbit hole worth examining especially now as Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to justify “the rescuing of Ukraine.” It’s a grey zone area where, as TS Eliot put it, in The Hollow Men: “Between the idea and the reality, falls the shadow.”


Step back therefore to the shadowy days of 1917 when Bolshevism was on the rise; World War I was raging, and the Central Powers faced a multi-front war. Protests had weakened Russia’s war effort and forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate (February 1917), but Russia’s new provisional government continued the war.


German Kaiser Wilhelm II sensed that Vladimir Lenin’s revolutionary ideas could be of use and allowed him passage from exile in Switzerland through Germany to Finland where he could foment trouble. He did not fail.


Lenin promoted Bolshevism as the next step in a Hegelian dialectic whereby all proletariat/workers would revolt to control production and profit. In pursuing this, could “the end justify the means?”


With the 1917 “October Revolution,” the Bolsheviks brought down the provisional government. However, in order to legitimize and hold power, they still needed to escape the war with the Central Powers.


The Treaty of Brest accomplished that (March 1918). Once out of that war, the Bolshevik Red Army could fight the White Army for control of Russia, and yet the territorial price that they had to pay was enormous. It included Finland, the Baltic States, Georgia, present day Poland, much of Ukraine and more.


Many Bolshevik leaders were against that, but the ideological Lenin threatened to resign if the treaty’s harsh terms were not accepted. They were; Russia exited the war, but would ironically spend the coming century trying to regain what it then gave away.


The Bolsheviks took a new name, the Russian Communist Party (1918), and then formed the Communist International or Comintern in 1919 to promote ideological revolutions abroad. After victory in the Russian civil war (October 1922) they also formed the USSR.


Without Russia’s assistance, the Allies did still win WWI. The November 1918 Armistice was followed by the Treaty of Versailles (June 1919). And while these negated the Treaty of Brest, a new world order had emerged but it was not what the Communists anticipated. “Panta rhei.”


Freed by the war’s end, the people who had previously been under German or Russian rule began forming and re-forming states. One such state was Poland and the Red Army would suffer a decisive defeat in the Battle of Warsaw (1920) as it tried to regain that territory.


The ideological Lenin would die (1924) and a fierce Communist leadership struggle emerged between the ideological Leon Trotsky and the more pragmatic Josef Stalin. Stalin won and Trotsky went into exile.


A decade later, that same Stalin, now President of the USSR, tried a different approach to regain Russia’s lost territory. On 23 August 1939 the USSR and Germany secretly signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact.


Stalin recognized that if a rising Nazi Germany would attack Poland from the west, it could not withstand a Soviet attack from the east. Thus, when Germany invaded Poland (on 1 September 1939), the Soviets followed on 15 September. By 29 September, the two reached their agreed upon point on the Bug River from which they divided Poland and much of eastern Europe.


All seemed to be going to plan but it wasn’t. The river continued flowing. Great Britain and France had earlier realized that their Munich Agreement with Germany (September 1938) was not bringing the desired “peace in our time.” They therefore had pledged to defend Poland’s sovereignty (March 1939), and so they declared war on Germany (3 September 1939). World War II in Europe had now officially begun. The Soviets of course purposely sat on the sidelines preparing for their upcoming invasion of Poland from the east.


Questions that the Communists have never answered are: “Were their leaders so convinced that the workers of the world would ideologically see the light? Or had they like Stalin abandoned ideological principles and simply fought for power and control of land?”


This rabbit hole continued to deepen. Prior to the pact with Germany, the Soviets had been fighting Japan. Thus their August non-aggression pact with Germany freed them to focus on the east and in the final Battle of Khalkin Gol (September 1939) they stopped Japan’s advance.


Japan in turn observed Germany’s quick defeat of France (June 1940) and chose to join the Axis powers (September 1940). This would allow Japan to invade a vulnerable French Indochina in that same month.

Throughout this period, the Soviets continued sowing the seeds of ideological revolution in Europe and Asia. They had already intervened in the Chinese Civil War and now they helped China fight Japan. Did ideology still reign or was it simply “our control is better than your control”?


Ironically, Stalin had another card to play. He made a second, calculated non-aggression pact, this time with Japan (13 April 1941). Whether it was foresight or not, it proved beneficial; two months later, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler would launch Operation Barbarossa and invade the Soviet Union from the west (22 June 1941). The war that the Soviets thought to avoid or delay was on.


Japan, on the other hand, now pursued resources in the south where its navy was strongest and European colonial powers weakest. To secure its efforts, Japan made a preemptive attack on Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941) and World War II in the Pacific officially began. Stalin’s non-aggression pacts had indirectly facilitated both wars.


Such are the complexities that resulted from the Marxist goal. One can still ask: “Was Stalin ever driven by ideological ideals?” Literature, with its thematic approach, often best captures how ideals, power and reality quickly conflict. In Animal Farm, British novelist George Orwell depicts how such struggles end. In the novel’s final analysis, some animals quickly became “more equal” than others.


Today, 70 years after WWII, the Bolshevist ideals are long forgotten; Animal Farm communism won out and a socialist nirvana was never achieved. Instead, two major autocratic one-party states, Russia and China emerged, each seeking to rebuild past empires.


In reviewing Brest, one has to feel that first Stalin and now Putin simply want to push a reset button, by which all will then revert back to a pre-Brest Russia.


Russia has never really faced the consequences of that treaty as well as the reasons why many nations of the later Warsaw Pact voted with their feet and left the USSR when they could.


This goes beyond Ukraine and Europe. Even we in Taiwan cannot escape it. As Putin seeks allies in regaining Ukraine, he has chosen to support the People’s Republic of China with its unsubstantiated claims on Taiwan’s democracy. The rabbit hole deepens.


I have not been back in Russia in more than a decade, but I would imagine that no one discusses the Treaty of Brest, and couples are still encouraged to take wedding photos at historic War Memorial Shrines. 


Jerome F Keating is a consultant, educator, and writer who lives in Taiwan. He is the author of “The Paradigms that Guide Our Lives and Drive Our Souls”

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