VERITAS Research Institute and Archives

by Attila Seres

11 June 2020

Our article takes a look at a curious Soviet booklet on the Treaty of Trianon. Published six years after the signing of the peace treaty, this short work is also unique because it has never been properly looked at and assessed by historians until now.

To understand how the volume originated, we have to go back to one of the main catalysts of Soviet foreign policy following World War I. The Soviet Union was the lone European power that did not participate in setting up the Versailles System. The party propaganda of the Bolsheviks referred to the peace treaties that had come out of Versailles as being “dictated by imperialist thieves” (imperialista rablóbékék). Emphasizing the injustice of the peace treaties also served geopolitical and ideological ends. By exploiting the animosity between the victors and vanquished, the Bolsheviks aspired “to ferment revolution” in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Bolshevik doctrine offered an illusionary alternative to the contradictions of nation-statehood: peaceful multiethnic coexistence among the working class in a spirit of internationalism and within a federal structure similar to the Soviet state system. This foreign policy line – with some fluctuation – lasted until 1933-1934, when Soviet foreign policy took a turn. Thereafter, the Kremlin went from trying to destabilize the Versailles System to supporting the new European configuration that it had ushered in.     

In order to popularize Soviet political argumentation among the masses, the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs initiated a plan to publish the text of the peace treaties in Russian, supplemented with commentary. The Consequences of the Imperialist War series was overseen by legal expert and university professor Juri Veniamovich Kluchnikov (1883–1938) and Andrei Vladimirovich Sabanin (1887–1938), one of the leading diplomats at the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs. The first three books of the series (on the Treaty of Versailles, the Treaty of Saint-Germain and the Treaty of Neuilly, respectively) appeared in 1925, while the book that dealt with the Treaty of Trianon was published a year later. One thousand copies were printed of each booklet, which is a good indication that the series was not meant for internal office use.

Sabanin edited the edition dedicated to Trianon, while Kluchnikov wrote its 25-page introduction. Knowing that their readership’s possibilities for obtaining outside information were structurally limited, the authors delved into the peace treaty between Hungary and the victorious countries in a relatively satisfactory, which is to say comprehensive, manner. Having read the work, we can claim that compared to similar Soviet political works of the era, there are hardly any clichéd phrases; moreover, we did not come away with the feeling that the authors had tried to force-feed us some kind of propaganda. Overall, it is an impartial and objective piece of work. Kluchnikov also presented the Hungarian perspective on the evolution of the peace negotiations and the severe consequence of the treaty. For example, he went into detail on Count Albert Apponyi’s legendary speech of January 16th, 1920, and dedicated an entire chapter to Hungary’s geographic and demographic losses and the effort to salvage the post-Trianon Hungarian economy.

From a certain perspective, Sabanin and Kluchnikov were both considered as “outsiders of the system”, for neither man was a member of the Communist Party. Perhaps it is astounding then that they both enjoyed exceptional bureaucratic carriers in the Soviet era. Their success derived from their talents and skills, which the system depended on. Mostly we can categorize them as “conforming intellectuals” who accepted the framework and advantages of the system while taking maximum advantage of the flexibility that their professional and scientific autonomy provided.

Sabanin began his career at the Foreign Ministry in Czarist Russia in 1908, where he gained extensive diplomatic experience that the Bolshevik foreign policy leadership also wished to take advantage of. Between 1920 and 1937, he was in charge of the Legal Department of the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.

It was in the Kadet Party that Kluchnikov, who had been appointed associate professor at the Faculty of Law at Moscow University during the war, got his first taste of politics. For a short time during the civil war, he directed the Foreign Ministry in Alexander Kolchak’s government (the anti-Bolshevik admiral). After the civil war, he was forced to emigrate. Georgy Chicherin, People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, “coaxed” him into returning. In 1923, Kluchnikov led the International Law Institute of the Communist Academy, which was considered as the preeminent social science research institute in the Soviet Union.

Sabanin and Kluchnikov’s run of success would not last, however, as holding visible bureaucratic leadership positions and “political independence” were a contradiction in terms. In 1937, the writing duo were accused of and arrested for “participating in a counterrevolutionary spy and terror organization”. They were both executed one year later, victims of Stalinist terror.