Soviet Foreign Relations in the 1950s & 1960s


A review of Red Globalization: The Political Economy of Soviet Foreign Relations in the 1950s and 1960s, by Oscar Sanchez-Sibony.

Oscar Sanchez-Sibony’s dissertation, “Red Globalization,” argues that the Soviet Union, paradoxically, was pro-trade.  Ever eager for engagement in the world economy, the U.S.S.R. was hindered only by a domestic system inherited from the prewar period.  That system itself was as much a product of global factors as of any deliberate strategy for autarkic import substitution.  In the postwar period, the Soviet Union passively fielded the advances of decolonizing countries attempting to emulate it, and did its best to oblige them.  But the goal it pursued most aggressively and successfully was increasing trade with Europe and Japan.

Sanchez-Sibony builds his case with patience and writes in an accessible conversational style with a distinctive voice.  He draws upon theories of international political economy elaborated by scholars such as Michael Dohan, Grigorii Khanin, Jeffry Frieden, to respond to traditional historians of the Cold War such as John Lewis Gaddis, Vlad Zubok, and Odd Arne Westad.

Though Sanchez –Sibony rues the relative neglect of economic history, his method – focusing on “humdrum” daily decisions rather than “Cold War flashpoints” (p. 11) – draws on decades of social history that has emphasized the everyday and the ordinary.  And his findings contribute to a general effort among cultural historians to show how eager many Soviet leaders were to engage with the West.  Like them, he is trying to shake off Cold War assumptions once and for all.

Though “Red Globalization” is designed to illuminate the postwar period, Sanchez-Sibony argues persuasively that the devastation wrought by the Great Depression in the prewar period was critical in shaping subsequent Soviet economic diplomacy.  He devotes his first chapter, “The Soviet Union Confronts the World Economy, or Vice Versa,” to showing that collectivization was not intended as an import substitution strategy, but rather was a response to the overall breakdown in the system of world trade – one not terribly different from that of other grain export economies like Australia or Canada.   Currency depreciation, abandonment of the gold standard, and declining foreign trade were global phenomena, not exclusively the product of Soviet ideological and political processes.  The autarkic structure of the Soviet economy, then, was shaped as much by international forces as domestic ones.

Sanchez-Sibony moves on to the postwar period in his second chapter, “Enter the Soviet Union: Soviet Foreign Economic Relations in the 1950s.”  Massive growth rates in foreign trade in the postwar era can be attributed not just to increased trade with – and pillaging of – Eastern Europe, but mainly to decolonization, which yielded a host of former colonizers searching for raw materials and former colonies in need of industrial imports.

Soviet aid to the developing world was no more a sinister strategy for global domination than similar U.S. programs.  The main difference was that that, beyond a clear emphasis on growth in the public sector, the U.S.S.R. was no more (or less) concerned with influencing the domestic politics of its Third World allies than the U.S.  The actual amount of foreign aid dispensed by the Soviet Union was small – altogether less that U.S. aid to Israel alone – but if it seemed threatening it was perhaps because the Soviet Union and its partners engaged in quite a bit of bluffing.

In chapter three, “The Soviet Union Acquiescent: Soviet Foreign Economic Relations in the 1960s,” Sanchez-Sibony argues that the Soviet Union was hardly aggressive or expansionist, but rather sought to engage with and even mimic the capitalist countries – behavior that he terms “acquiescence.”  Whereas Cold War historians zeroed in on high-profile gestures such as military aid to Castro, Sanchez-Sibony quotes Khrushchev castigating Castro for failing to consider the profitability of building a steel works at Soviet expense.

In desperate need of hard currency for imports, the Soviet Union pushed exports – and yet even in the area of raw materials like timber and coal to Europe (never mind trucks to Mali or airplanes to Ghana), it faced complaints about quality from importers, which it sought frantically to address.  Despite obstacles, Soviet trade did grow steadily.  Sanchez-Sibony offers a detailed case study of Soviet-Japanese negotiations over the export of raw materials to explain how economic factors moved Japan to flout U.S. political sanctions against trade with the Soviet Union.

In chapter four, “Pulling a Standing Mule: The Domestic Dilemmas of Foreign Economic Relations,” the author plays fresh archival material off well-established knowledge regarding the operation of the Soviet domestic economy to illuminate the effects of the system on foreign trade.  Soviet industrial managers hated producing for export, because “export orders took resources and production out of the industrial black market and shined an international spotlight on its quality” (p. 250). On the other hand they were hungry for imports – which, when they did receive them, they often misused or wasted them. Gosplan, intent on a rational system of foreign trade capable of operating in the world market, was caught in the middle.

In the final chapter, “The Useful Soviet Union: Soviet Economic Relations with the South,” the author shows the Soviet Union involved in the difficult business of trading in the context of established relationships between colonies and their former colonizers.  Attempting to develop domestic industry, India, for example, first tried to import western equipment but was short on hard currency, and therefore turned to bartering with the Soviet Union, from whom it expected highly advantageous terms.  The Soviet Union, the Indians thought, should buy Indian products now in exchange for credits that India would use to procure Soviet industrial equipment later.   Here as elsewhere Sanchez-Sibony shows a Soviet Union that is actually first approached by a second country; attempting to capitalize on the opportunity, the Soviet Union tries its best; the partners are nevertheless perpetually dissatisfied.  And the economic or geopolitical benefit to the Soviet Union was dubious.

Sanchez-Sibony thus concludes a sustained attack on the basic assumptions that have governed many studies of Soviet foreign relations.  The Soviet Union consistently sought engagement with the world economy, from Stalin to Brezhnev.  The basic notion that trade was beneficial never changed.  The Soviet Union learned from experience, and did manage to increase foreign trade in the postwar era, even though its domestic economy was stacked against it.  Autarky was an unfortunate circumstance; in its heart, the Soviet Union was pro-trade.

Elizabeth McGuire
San Francisco State University

Primary Sources

State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) (Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii), Fond A-5446: Council of Ministers of the USSR (Sovet Ministrov SSSR)
Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI) (Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv noveishei istorii)
Russian State Archive of the Economy (RGAE) (Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv ekonomiki)  Fond 99: Economic Research Institute of Gosplan (NIEI) (Nauchno-issledovatel’skii ekonomicheskii institut Gosplana)
Ministry of Foreign Trade (Ministerstvo vneshniaia torgovlia).  Statistical compendium of foreign trade for the year ~.  (Vneshniaia torgovlia SSSR za ~ god.  Statisticheskii obzor)  Moscow:  Vneshtorgizdat, 1958-1971.
Khlevniuk, Oleg V., Arfon Rees, R. W. Davies, P. Kosheleva, L. A. Rogovaya.  Stalin i Kaganovich.  Perepiska, 1931-1936 gg.  Moscow:  ROSSPEN, 2001.
Newspapers and journals such as: Ekonomicheskaya Gazeta, Mirovaia ekonomika i mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2009. 319 pp. Primary Advisor: Sheila Fitzpatrick.


Image: Design Composite by Oscar Sanchez.

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