October 9, 2021

The inaugural Poss Lecture to the International Churchill Society

By Andrew Roberts

At first glance, Winston Churchill’s stance on Russia seems to fit in well with his detractors’ charges of political inconsistency. He started off anti-Russian until 1914, then he became pro-Russian until 1917 when he became anti-Russian until 1938 when he became pro-Russian until 1939 when he went anti-Russian until 1941 when he became pro-Russian until 1946 when he became anti-Russian until 1949 when he started working for a settlement with Russia. No fewer than six changes of stance, which collectively have been held against Churchill as displaying precisely the kind of general opportunism that his enemies accused him of, both during his lifetime and since his death.

The Poss lectures, the inaugural of which I’m very honoured to have been asked to deliver tonight, will cover three aspects. They will be about the protection and extension of Freedom, the way that study of aspects of the life and career of Winston Churchill can help that, and a defence of his memory from revisionist detractors who are motivated by ideology rather than evidence-based history. I believe that nothing achieves all three of those objectives better than an investigation into Churchill’s lifelong relations with Russia. What I will argue tonight is that in fact, Churchill’s stance towards Russia was entirely consistent from start to finish.

For the first forty years of his life, Churchill’s overall stance was anti-Russian, as one might have expected from a British imperialist at a time when the greatest threat to British India appeared to come from losing the Great Game being played on her North-West frontier against the Tsarist Empire. His earliest reference to Russia appears in his poem Influenza, written in 1890, where one stanza runs:

O’er miles of bleak Siberia’s plains
Where Russian exiles toil in chains
It moved with noiseless tread;
And as it slowly glided by
There followed it across the sky
The spirits of the dead.

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Even as a fifteen-year-old schoolboy at Harrow, therefore, Churchill was cognizant of the Russian Government’s cruelty to its internal exiles. As a young Tory politician he asked a meeting in Southsea in October 1898, ‘Where is the glory of the starving peasant arrayed in purple and in cloth of gold? That is the Imperialism of modern Russia.’ Later, as a Liberal, he stuck to his theme, telling an audience in Llandudno in October 1904 that ‘We remember what Russian despotism means to all who care about liberty; we remember the struggles of Poland and the Finns; we remember the massacres of Kishinev [a Cossack pogrom in 1903 that killed forty-nine Jews] and the horrors of Blagovestchensk [where 5,000 Chinese were massacred in cold blood in 1900] and of the Russian march to Pekin. We know how great nations have trembled all these years at the menace of the Russian power, and how that stern authority seemed established forever on high upon unshakable foundations.’

Two months later, at the Coal Exchange in his Manchester North-West constituency, Churchill spoke of how, ‘We see in the system of the Russian Government – I will pick my words with care — a total violation of all the fundamental Liberal principles which England and Europe and America have discovered and enjoyed.’ (One wonders what he might have said if he had not been picking his words with care.) He also spoke of ‘gross corruption in all branches of Russian administration’ and denounced ‘the weak vacillations of an unfortunate Sovereign’ – Nicholas II – who with extraordinary foresight he likened to Louis XVI of France.

Yet – as we will see again and again – for all Churchill’s strictures against successive Russian governments, he never displayed any antipathy towards the Russian people themselves, indeed quite the opposite. ‘ My whole heart, and that of every liberal-minded man in this country,’ he told his audience, ‘goes out, without stint or grudge, towards those people in Russia, of every class, who are doing their best to achieve a victory for the liberties of the people.’

Then came the Great War, and Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty, naturally ceased his criticisms of Britain’s vital ally on the Eastern Front. He continued speaking of ‘the great Russian people’ in glowing terms and made regular references to the ‘immense resources’ of Russia, especially in her manpower. He even went so far as to claim in late 1914 that ‘We may see a Poland united and in loyal and harmonious relations with the Crown of Russia,’ which frankly was largely wishful thinking.

At a recruiting meeting in July 1915, Churchill spoke of how ‘The Russian armies have devoted themselves with generous valour and energy, and with a tireless self-sacrifice in the common cause beyond all praise and commendation, to maintaining the war. And such has been the fury of the conflict on the eastern front that for the time being the Russian armies, suffering from a shortage of munitions, are experiencing a temporary check on the vigour of their offensive operations.’ Sadly it was much more than a mere temporary check.

Five months earlier, so hard-pressed were they by the Germans, that the Russians asked the British Government ‘to arrange for a demonstration of some kind’ against Turkey that, in the words of the editor of Churchill’s collected speeches, Robert Rhodes James, ‘provided the occasion, rather than the cause, of the plan which had been maturing since the first month of the war.’ As the Director of Military Operations, General Callwell, later told the Dardanelles Commission: ‘Mr. Churchill was very keen on attacking the Dardanelles from a very early stage. … He was very keen to get to Constantinople somehow.’ If Turkey could be knocked out of the war, it would have been of inestimable help to Russia, which was fighting a war on three fronts against the Central Powers and the Ottoman Empire.

In his resignation speech as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on 15 November 1915, he told the House of Commons that in January ‘the Russian Government had asked the Foreign Office whether some action against Turkey in the Mediterranean was not possible to relieve the pressure in the Caucasus? In consequence of those communications from the Foreign Office and the War Office, I began to direct the attention of the First Sea Lord and other naval advisers to the possibilities of action in Turkish waters.’ Russia was thus ultimately the start of the cause of the greatest single reversal of Churchill’s life.

The October Revolution of 1917 that brought the Bolsheviks to power also unleashed a torrent of rhetoric from Churchill that was not to be seen from him again until the Munich Agreement over twenty years later. ‘Lenin was sent into Russia by the Germans’, he told the House of Commons, ‘in the same way that you might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or of cholera to be poured into the water supply of a great city, and it worked with amazing accuracy.’ The horrors of Marxism-Leninism made themselves apparent to him early on, and Churchill followed them minutely with an appalled fascination, dedicating himself to warning about them and to strengthening the capacities of the West to defend itself against them. He was accused of stridency and obsession when he was denouncing Bolshevism, not least by his own Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, yet nonetheless all his very worst predictions came to pass and more, and even his most extravagant language and seemingly outlandish predictions were more than fully justified over time, especially when it came to the inexorable bloodthirstiness of Stalin’s purges.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, Churchill’s emotions about Russia closely mirror the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle that people undergo when they or their loved ones are diagnosed with a terminal illness. The first emotion felt is Denial, which was very much the case with Churchill during the Russian Civil War from 1917 to 1920 during which he Denied that the Bolsheviks would win the Russian Civil War, and did everything in his – sadly limited – power to prevent them from doing so.

‘The aid which we can give to those Russian armies which are now engaged in fighting against the foul baboonery of Bolshevism can be given by arms, munitions, equipment, and by the technical services,’ he told a lunch at the Mansion House in February 1919. ‘If Russia is to be saved, as I pray she may be saved, she must be saved by Russians. It must be by Russian manhood and Russian courage and Russian virtue that the rescue and regeneration of this once mighty nation and famous branch of the European family can alone be achieved. Russia must be saved by Russian exertions, and it must be from the heart of the Russian people and with their strong arm that the conflict against Bolshevism in Russia must be mainly waged.’

Once it was became clear in early 1920 that the Whites were probably going to lose the Russian Civil War, however much aid the West gave them, Churchill morphed from the Denial to the Anger phase of his response to Russian Bolshevism. ‘Was there ever a more awful spectacle in the whole history of the world than is unfolded by the agony of Russia?’ Churchill asked in January 1920. ‘It is now reduced to famine of the most terrible kind, not because there is no food — there is plenty of food — but because the theories of Lenin and Trotsky have fatally and, it may be finally, ruptured the means of intercourse between man and man, between workman and peasant, between town and country… The theories of Lenin and Trotsky have driven man from the civilisation of the twentieth century into a condition of barbarism worse than the Stone Age, and left him the most awful and pitiable spectacle in human experience, devoured by vermin, racked by pestilence, and deprived of hope.’

British support for the White Russians ended in February 1920 when the Cabinet decided against direct military intervention, except by the gift of arms to the Whites. The next month he wrote to Lloyd George that, ‘Since the Armistice my policy would have been “Peace with the German people, war on the Bolshevik tyranny.” Willingly or unavoidably, you have followed something very near the reverse.’ Although he could not change the policy, Churchill obtained special Cabinet dispensation to say whatever he liked about the USSR. He certainly exercised it. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in July 1927, for example, he said that ‘There is not one single social or economic principle or concept in the philosophy of the Russian Bolshevik which has not been realised, carried into action, and enshrined in immutable laws a million years ago by the White Ant.’

Yet however evil the horrors of Soviet Communism, such were the exigencies of Realpolitik that by the late 1930s it became clear to Churchill that the USSR would be necessary to counteract the equally evil but much closer and more threatening danger posed by Nazi Germany. This was when he moved from the Anger to the Negotiation stage of the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle, and by 1938 he was advocating an alliance with the USSR that he had so eloquently denounced. Without eating any of his words of the previous two decades, he therefore started to argue that the Russians would need to form part of the cordon sanitaire that hopefully might encircle and tame the Third Reich, despite the fact that the USSR was nowhere contiguous with it, and despite the complications that therefore arose from the Poles’ understandable antagonism to the powers to both their east and west.   

It was in a broadcast on 1 October 1939 that Churchill made  his most famous remark about Russia. A few weeks earlier, V.I. Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and Churchill told his listeners, ‘I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest or the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of South-Eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.’ Less than three weeks later, the USSR invaded the eastern part of Poland, and the new frontier was drawn that Hitler was to violate twenty months later in Operation Barbarossa.

On the night of Barbarossa –  22 June 1941 – Churchill stated in a broadcast that, ‘No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the last twenty-five years. I will unsay no word that I have spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolding. The past with its crimes, its follies and its tragedies, flashes away.’

This is not the place to go through the long and complex story of Anglo-Russian relations during the Second World War. It has been done very well several times, including by David Reynolds and most recently in an excellent book by David Owen soon to be published entitled Riddle, Mystery and Enigma which I highly recommend. The struggles over the date of the Second Front, Churchill’s two visits to the Kremlin in August 1942 and October 1944, the moral conundrum he had to face when in 1943 the Nazis produced incontrovertible proof that it had been Stalin and not they who had shot 14,000 Polish officers in cold blood in the Katyn Forest. All these and more will be debated by historians for as long as Mankind is interested in great and terrible events.

Some quotations of Churchill’s – all from 1942 – illustrate well the mixed feelings that he had about his Soviet allies, or perhaps more accurately the difference between what he could say in public and in private. He spoke movingly and sincerely of the sacrifices of the Red Army and Russian people throughout the war, but as before the Revolution, he took care to differentiate between the Russian people and their Government. ‘Everybody has always underrated the Russians,’ he told the Commons in April 1942 of the latter. ‘They keep their own secrets alike from foe and friends.’ Privately however, he also said ‘Never forget that Bolsheviks are crocodiles…. I cannot feel the slightest trust or confidence in them. Force and facts are their only realities.’ He also said in October 1942 that ‘It would be a measureless disaster if Russian barbarism overlaid the culture and independence of the ancient States of Europe.’

Churchill was in full Negotiation mode – both in its literal and in its Kübler-Ross sense – when he was discussing the Percentages Agreement in October 1944, and said in one of the toasts at a Kremlin dinner, ‘I have always believed and I still believe that it is the Red Army that has torn the guts out of the filthy Nazis.’ Similarly, at the time of Yalta, he told the House of Commons, ‘I feel that their word is their bond. I know of no Government which stands to its obligations, even in its own despite, more solidly than the Russian Soviet Government. I decline absolutely to embark here on a discussion about Russian good faith.’ He was being too trusting: Stalin lied barefacedly to President Roosevelt and him at Yalta, especially about the future integrity and independence of Poland. Yet as he asked at Chequers on returning from Yalta, in the immediate postwar world, ‘what will lie between the white snows of Russia and the white cliffs of Dover?’

It was the realization that he had been deceived by Stalin at Yalta that brought on the fourth and penultimate stage of the Kübler-Ross grief cycle: Depression. Churchill was not a black dog depressive, but he did get depressed on those occasions when any sentient being would have, such as the fall of Singapore in February 1942 and the fall of Tobruk in June 1942. It was during this period of Depression about the true nature of the USSR and the Cold War that would inevitably follow that Churchill ordered the Chiefs of Staff to draw up the plans for Operation Unthinkable, for a future war against Russia. The defeat in the 1945 General Election coincided with it dawning on him that Stalin had no intention of honouring his promise of free elections in eastern Europe, and by 5 March 1946 Churchill was ready to turn his Depression into action, when he gave the most consequential speech ever given by any Leader of the Opposition.

Churchill’s belief in liberty shines through in every line he delivered in the Iron Curtain speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, and also realism into the true nature of the Soviet Union which set the West in good stead for the next forty-three years of Cold War. ‘From what I have seen of our Russian friends and Allies during the war,’ he said, ‘I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness.’ He went on: ‘I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.’

In his famous meeting with the celestial version of his father at Chequers in 1947, Lord Randolph Churchill asks ‘Is there still a Tsar?’ ‘Yes, but he is not a Romanov,’ Winston Churchill replies. ‘It’s another family. He is much more powerful, and much more despotic.’ It was Stalin’s despotism that led Churchill to tell the House of Commons in January 1949, ‘I think the day will come when it will be recognized without doubt, not only on one side of the House, but throughout the civilized world, that the strangling of Bolshevism at its birth would have been an untold blessing to the human race.’ That day certainly came, and must be the view of every objective historian, not least thanks to the work of scholars such as Robert Conquest whose book The Great Terror, published in 1968, unveiled the true extent of Stalin’s crimes against humanity and the Russian nationalities.

Having seen what he had of the Nazis in the 1930s, Churchill recognised that it was impossible to appease its sister-ideology, Communism. Together they represented the twins of totalitarianism, and democracies could only find security through strength. ‘I tell you,’ Churchill stated in March 1949, ‘it’s no use arguing with a Communist. It’s no good trying to convert a Communist, or persuade him. You can only deal with them on the following basis…by having superior force on your side on the matter in question—and they must also be convinced that you will use—you will not hesitate to use—these forces, if necessary, in the most ruthless manner…that you are not restrained by any moral consideration if the

case arose from using that force with complete material ruthlessness. And that is the greatest chance of peace, the surest road to peace.’ As with so much that Churchill said, this is as true today when facing totalitarianism as it was on the day that he said it 72 years ago.

Only a month later, in April 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested its first Nuclear weapon, and Churchill finally moved into his last phase of the the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle: Acceptance. Not Acceptance of the moral right of the Soviet regime to exist, of course – he was never to accept that – but merely the Acceptance that it could not now be overthrown by conventional methods from outside, which he feared continued to be considered by the Eisenhower Administration. He regretted the lack of moves by his old wartime colleague towards a grand nuclear settlement with the USSR, but rather the reliance on mutually assured destruction and what he saw as a potentially dangerous nuclear arms race.

Although Churchill reached a moment of Acceptance that Russia would remain in the grip of Communism for the rest of his life, he told his private secretary Jock Colville that he would live to see victory in the Cold War. Sadly Colville died in 1986, three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it showed Churchill’s long-term optimism. He displayed a similar optimism in his speech to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on 31 March 1949, when he said of the oppressed millions behind the Iron Curtain that ‘The machinery of propaganda may pack their minds with falsehood and deny them truth for many generations of time. But the soul of man thus held in trance or frozen in a long night can be awakened by a spark coming from God knows where and in a moment the whole structure of lies and oppression is on trial for its life.’

From these and other statements we can be certain that the shade of Winston Churchill was cheering when in November 1989 the Berlin Wall was finally torn down, and Soviet Communism expired shortly afterwards. Similarly, we can be sure that he is mourning the way that the freedoms won at that time were squandered, and that a perverted form of Tsardom has returned to Russia – one that is shorn of any of Nicholas II’s reign’s positive aspects in terms of a personally attractive and decent head of state.

As we survey today the invasion of Crimea, the attempted destabilisation of Ukraine and Estonia, the murder of Alexander Litvinyenko, the poisoning by novichock of Dawn Sturgess and attempted murder of the Skripals, the persecution of Alexander Navalny, and so much else, it is clear that a vicious autocracy has returned to Russia. We should not Deny, Negotiate or Accept the new tyranny there, and although we may be Depressed by it, the correct phase of the Kübler-Ross Cycle for us to revert to is Anger at the ‘foul baboonery’ of Vladimir Putin and his henchmen.

In considering Churchill’s six changes of stance towards Russia during his life, it is instructive to return to that speech he gave during the Phoney war, when he said that in attempting to unravel the riddle, mystery and enigma of Soviet actions, ‘That key is Russian national interest.’ For of course it is Britain’s national interest that provides the key to explain Churchill’s seeming lack of consistency towards Russia. It was in Britain’s national interest to oppose Russia when it posed a threat before 1914, support it when it became an ally against the Kaiser in the first part of the Great War, oppose it when it dropped out of the alliance and advanced the cause of world revolution in 1917, befriend it again when it seemed to provide a bulwark against Nazism, only to oppose it once it showed it was no such thing in 1939, and then ally with it once Hitler had invaded Russia in June 1941.

Every change in Churchill’s stance closely mirrored what was in British national interest, and that was to continue after Stalin showed his true nature after Yalta, and tested a weapon that could destroy the world three years later.

At each and every stage – while never resiling from his love of liberty and respect for the Russian people – Churchill put the national interest first. Far from being inconsistent as his detractors claim, with this key we can see that he was utterly consistent in his attitude to Russia throughout his long life.   

Prof Andrew Roberts took a first class honours degree in Modern History at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, from where he is an honorary senior scholar and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). He has written or edited 19 books, including his biography of Sir Winston Churchill, Churchill: Walking With Destiny. Roberts is also a frequent contributor to Finest Hour magazine.

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