“I Anticipate a Replay of the Time of Troubles…”
No. 3 2013 July/September
Alexander Kuznetsov

Alexander Kuznetsov is a Doctor of History and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.

The Political Culture of Russia’s Diplomatic Service

Diplomats are grappling today with a host of problems in a globalized world: countries are becoming increasingly linked; national boundaries have grown more porous; and borders between internal and external processes are disappearing. The foreign affairs of any country do not stand by themselves anymore, diplomats can no longer be guided exclusively by large-scale geopolitical plans or constructs. The development of any one country and the logic of how its central government is built hinges on the surrounding situation in the same way that the global situation depends on the decisions taken by large – and not so large – countries. And, of course, foreign policy professionals cannot be indifferent to events happening within their countries and to whether these events befit the international context or stand at odds with it.

Although global interdependence has intensified, the diplomatic service has always faced the same types of problems. In Russia’s case, the country’s diplomatic corps has always been aware of the links between foreign and domestic policy. Essential to the study of Russian history is a close examination of the political outlooks of diplomats and their attitudes towards domestic processes. Especially remarkable in this sense are the pivotal moments that changed the destiny of the corps, such as the revolutions in Russia in February and October of 1917.


In Imperial Russia, the diplomatic corps, like the entire system of state service, was formally separate from politics. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not intervene in domestic policy-making unless it had a direct impact on international affairs. This remained the standard practice until the adoption of the Fundamental Laws in 1906, when a unified government was introduced and each minister stopped reporting directly to the Tsar.

Typically, diplomats were reserved on political issues and did not publicize their opinions, especially if such personal beliefs contradicted the official stance. However, diplomatic memoirs offer a few tentative reflections of personal political views. For the most part, diplomats wrote their memoirs in the post-revolutionary period and in emigration, at a time of historical revision and reassessment. It is also worth noting that these views would often develop under the influence of an individual’s social background, family upbringing, and the political atmosphere at schools and universities, but were not related to professional activity. Finally, the diplomatic corps was not homogeneous. Notwithstanding the power of corporate ties and interests, the corps consisted of individuals with a broad range of views and convictions, and who had widely differing intellectual capacities and cultural awareness. Also, a considerable number of Foreign Ministry employees had no interest at all in social and political problems.

Dmitry Abrikosov cites a characteristic dissonance in opinions among diplomats at the Russian embassy in London at the peak of the 1905 Russian Revolution. “We debated the situation in Russia at breakfast. Councilor Sazonov [future Minister of Foreign Affairs – author’s note.] advocated harsh measures. Poklevsky was more liberal and Svyatopolk-Mirsky, driven by his inherent cynicism, would claim that everything was changing for the worse. I would rather stick to a moderate course, which meant removing agitators and launching reforms. I think the ambassador [Count Alexander K. Benckendorff – author’s note] was the biggest liberal among us. However, he was very cautious about expressing his opinions and he would tell us on several occasions to stop when our debates stretched too far. He told us then he would otherwise have to reveal his own opinion, which he did not have the right to express since he represented the Emperor. This would typically end our arguments which, like most debates among Russians, were absolutely senseless and could not alter the course of events anyway.

Given this factor, it would be correct both methodologically and existentially to raise the issue of the political culture of the entire diplomatic service rather than discuss the personal outlooks of individual diplomats, as the latter can only illustrate more general tendencies.

Contemporary science interprets political culture very broadly, encompassing a range of values, outlooks, convictions, orientations, and typical images, as well as rules of political conduct and interaction among the government, the individual, and society. If applied to diplomatic service, political culture makes it possible to answer a key question: how interests and corporate values influenced attitudes towards internal developments and processes in Russia.

One of the main factors that impacted diplomatic political culture was a profound realization that a country’s capabilities in foreign policy depend on the domestic situation. Service at the Foreign Ministry would definitely produce “imperial consciousness,” but also added a specific professional coloring to it. The diplomats were more aware of Russia’s vulnerability to external challenges. They had an acute sense of the country’s internal weakness caused by its social, economic, and cultural backwardness compared with other global powers, as well as the perils of a revolutionary explosion. Russian diplomats were worried about the gap between a small number of educated and cultural elite Russians, and a huge illiterate population.

This kind of social perception prompted diplomats to side with Russian reformers and modernizers. Alexander Gorchakov, who played an active political role during the emancipative reforms of Alexander II, established this tradition. His memoirs indicate that he praised himself for the influence he had exerted on the emperor regarding granting amnesty to all political prisoners and bringing the remaining Decembrists back from exile.

Historian Viktoria Khevrolina writes that one more important feature of the diplomatic corps’s political culture proceeded from the task of “profiling Russia as an enlightened power in the eyes of other governments and nations, and mitigating the negative attitude that the European public at large had towards Russia’s autocratic system.” At times, this forced the typically loyal Foreign Ministry to take a stance that contradicted protective guidelines in domestic policy. Vladimir Lamsdorf recorded in his diary in January 1887 the State Council debates over a bill restricting the publicity of court proceedings. The case in hand was Alexander III’s intention to “annul one of the reforms that glorified the rule of his late father.” Minister Nikolai Giers and legal counselor Fyodor Martens, who represented the Foreign Ministry, tried their best to prove that Russia’s international agreements on the deportation of criminals would no longer be legal if the government changed its system of legal proceedings. This position infuriated Alexander III, who said that the ministry was torpedoing an important reform in order “to solicit permission from Europe.” 

Martens’s diary contains more proof of the diplomats’ professionalism in approaching the problems of foreign policy. As he describes a report Lamsdorf made to Nicholas II on 11 January 1905, one day after the Bloody Sunday massacre in St. Petersburg, he recalls the Tsar asking what Lamsdorf thought about those events. “He had enough courage to tell Nicholas II that he thought the emperor should show himself to the masses of people and receive a delegation of workers at any rate. […] Interestingly, the Foreign Minister had the audacity to tell the Tsar that his government had lost trust in people’s minds and that’s why the emperor should address the nation directly.”MINUS  “WESTERN VALUES”

An important element in the formation of a political culture in the Foreign Service was a diplomat’s gradual transition from understanding his activity as personal service to the Tsar to a more modern awareness of performing a professional and patriotic duty. With Russia’s transition to a parliamentary monarchy where the State Duma had an  influence over government affairs, a new type of diplomatic functionary emerged. While remaining loyal to the commandments and precepts of Gorchakov and Giers, this new diplomat would focus ever more on readjusting traditional imperial foreign policy to the tasks of domestic reforms and redoubling social and economic development. For example, the diplomatic corps sized up Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin’s reforms as the most appropriate from the viewpoint of Russian foreign policy interests.

As the dissonance grew between the protective fundamentals of government policy, on the one hand, and the country’s internal development requirements and its role in the international arena, on the other, the principle of personal service receded, giving way to national interests. While the majority of diplomats maintained an unbending loyalty to the monarch, this very allegiance acquired a different meaning and turned into a broader system of patriotic values, convictions, and outlooks. Maintaining the constitutional monarchy as a system of government was considered an important tool for safeguarding Russia’s international positions, as well as its internal integrity and stability. Nikolai A. Bazili wrote: “As long as huge numbers of people remain uneducated, Russia will have to have strong power. Dynastic bonds are also necessary for maintaining the unity of the empire, which is so huge and variegated that it took a thousand years to build.

The vast majority of diplomats were educated according to the precepts of European culture, which facilitated the proliferation of liberal and moderately conservative ideas in their milieu. The foundations of that education were laid down in the family and at universities. Bazili said he had inherited his liberal views from his father, who was also a respected diplomat. Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky wrote that the Alexander Lyceum gave students an injection of liberalism and the Lyceum as such was widely known as an institution for the “liberal noblemen.

At the same time, it is not easy to equate European education and liberalism in diplomatic political culture with Westernism as an ideology or a guideline of foreign policy. The official doctrine that put Russia in the same category as ‘civilized’ countries united by their affiliation with European culture did not incorporate ‘Western values’ in its ideological interpretation. For instance, a close defense and political union between Russia and France was based exclusively on mutual strategic interests, not common values. Indeed, the Russian elite was repulsed by France’s republican, anticlerical state system.

Russian diplomats, who had learned from a long history of conflict with European powers, above all Britain, personally saw the distinctions between Russia and the West in terms of cultural and religious self-identity, as well as foreign policy interests. The Foreign Ministry said in a report to Nicholas II in 1897 that Russia’s Eastern policy was conducted “in full compliance with the captivation the Russian State has among peoples of the Orient as a guardian of the supreme ideals of order, law, and justice – in contrast to the self-serving intentions of the enlightened Occident, the activity of which has inseparable links to the ideas of occupation and violence.

Such understanding underscored the practical activities of Russian representatives in the East. An interesting case of this is found in the correspondence between the ministry and the Russian legation in Bangkok in 1913. When the ministry suggested that control over the legation should be transferred to the French minister in Siam while the Russian minister was on vacation, the head of the legation, Georgy Planson, sent detailed objections to Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Neratov. He referred to differing Russian and French interests in that part of the world. Planson strongly warned that “giving the French an opportunity to feel free in the Imperial legation where confidential codes are kept might frustrate the Siamese King and government, who are afraid of the French and hate them. As for Russia, they treat it with great respect as a remote, but genuine friend.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a new elite was burgeoning in Russia that was not imbued with the cosmopolitan spirit so characteristic of the previous century. A ‘national consciousness’ was taking shape among the diplomats. It relied on a perception of Russia as a non-aligned and self-sufficient factor of world politics. Prince Lev Urusov wrote in his diary: “The fright spelt by Russia’s genuine might is really immense. Ever since I started travelling abroad, from the first day I was convinced that we Russians scare foreigners. They are scared as if we were an unknown void, a country of huge dimensions, a fast-growing nation, a land where the cult of the soul goes hand-in-glove with the cult of vodka and the whip; where the propensity for Asiatic idleness and habits all of a sudden gives way to Leo Tolstoy; a country of unbridled opportunities, a nation where the future – and just imagine its greatness – reigns more powerfully than the present. They are simply inherently unable to understand us and hence they fear us. Sophisticated European minds accustomed to drawing up hardboiled constructs are mulling over our sudden alterations between weakness and strength. We do not fit into any standard, we speak different languages, and each of us can be loved separately, but we should be feared when we stand together.

Yet on the whole nationalistic moods were not widespread among Foreign Ministry officials. The multiethnic composition of its staff and the general level of diplomatic culture generated an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect among people of different ethnicities and religion. Besides, the very nature of the diplomatic profession entails critical analysis and realistic weighed assessments of political facts facilitated by the formation of a worldview organically intolerant to extremism on either ethnic or religious grounds. Many Russian diplomats, especially Baltic Germans, were repulsed by and protested against nationalistic ‘Great-Russian’ tendencies that appeared in the policies of Alexander III and Nicholas II in the form of infringements on the rights of the population of Poland, Finland, and other ethnic provinces. Roman Rosen, a notable ambassador at the time, spoke in rather harsh terms in his memoirs about the “narrow nationalism of the Slavophile school” that was characteristic of the domestic policies of Russia’s last two tsars. Rosen believed that this policy was not only unfair, but also detrimental to the unity of the empire. He compared the policy to the rule of Alexander I, who showed “liberalism and generosity towards non-Russians, and who was a sagacious statesman with farsighted wisdom.


Top Foreign Ministry officials who sided with constitutional law and order during the revolutionary events of 1905-1907 were faced with the complicated task of transforming a corporate consciousness. Russia’s diplomatic elite had its own ideas about the situation in the country at a critical time for the state. Moreover, the elite sought to wield definite influence on the situation while taking account of foreign policy issues. Izvolsky visited a number of European capitals after becoming foreign minister. During those visits, he discussed the international situation with Russian ambassadors “in light of the domestic and foreign problems Russia was experiencing.” As a result of the conversations, the minister agreed with Russian ambassadors in Paris, London, and Rome – Alexander Nelidov, Alexander Benckendorff, and Nikolai Muravyov, respectively – regarding a plan of action that Izvolsky wanted to recommend to Nicholas II. This was de facto the first time that the Foreign Service took an independent stance on a fundamental problem concerning Russia’s internal development. Such a stance ruled out any doubts: the diplomatic corps was recommending “reasonable concessions” to the “moderate liberal party,” so that the influence of political extremists on both the left and the right could be neutralized. Interaction with the mass media and the State Duma required that the Foreign Ministry employ more staff capable of maintaining an open dialogue with public and political quarters. Alexander Giers, whom the new minister put in charge of the press department, was one of the people actively promoting these efforts. In essence, the Russian diplomatic service started to recruit for the first time real associates and allies from the ranks of moderate parties represented in the State Duma – the Octobrists and the Kadets.

Izvolsky wanted to engage Nicholas II with “a fruitful mode of thinking” as he supplied him with appropriate information borrowed from the Russian and foreign press, and from the diplomatic post. For instance, in his report on talks with Germany’s State Secretary Bernhard von BЯlow, Izvolsky wrote with a sense of tactfulness typical of an experienced diplomat: “Our domestic affairs could be the subject of a formal discussion, but Prince von Buelow did not lose this opportunity, too, for disproving a legend that Emperor Wilhelm was ostensibly trying to impact these affairs – in the reactionary sense, naturally. As a disciple and adept of Bismarck, Prince von Buelow cannot be suspected of doctrinal liberalism, but he says that he is becoming more convinced with every passing year that people’s representation is the only possible form of state organization in the current situation. That is why he definitely tended towards a moderate political course, which Mr. Stolypin is translating into life so persistently, and which combines the firmness of executive power with a gradual restructuring of the country on the basis of the reforms granted by Your Imperial Majesty. ‘Please note,’ Prince Buelow told me, ‘Emperor Wilhelm, who is often charged with absolutist tendencies, in reality always observes the constitutional forms existing in Germany and Prussia.’

Izvolsky said that he had used foreign policy arguments in his discussions with Nicholas II to push him towards moderate reforms. “As Foreign Minister, I called the Emperor’s attention to the impression that our internal crisis produces on cabinets of ministers and public opinion in Europe. I said the policies of Goremykin’s cabinet are unanimously denounced abroad and no one expects a normal situation to return in Russia unless new people are brought into government offices and the policymaking changes. The factor impedes a whole set of steps in foreign policy on our part and impairs our opportunities in receiving loans, and the Finance Minister will certainly confirm this.” Indeed, Izvolsky was the only member of Ivan Goremykin’s cabinet who conducted talks with the leaders of the first State Duma – without informing the court – on reaching a compromise between them and the government, thereby eliminating the political crisis.

The most farsighted diplomats realized the consequences that the government’s protective course could bring about. An ability for a sober analysis and assessment of the situation in the host countries enabled members of the corps to do the same with respect to their homeland and to come up with relevant conclusions and forecasts. The Russian minister in Beijing, Ivan Korostovets, recalls in his memoirs a conversation with Russian ambassador in London, Count Benckendorff, while the latter was in St. Petersburg. He expressed what would later prove to be a prophetic view on the prospects for Russia’s domestic situation. “Living abroad doesn’t impede my observations about what’s happening in Russia because I come here quite often and have a chance to watch people’s moods when I live at my estate. My conclusion is that there is revolutionary propaganda among the grassroots, anarchy, and connivance by the authorities. Taken together, this can jolt the strongest of organisms. Our state system relies on inertia and traditions, but a strong kick would be enough to launch devastation. I don’t know which form the Russian turmoil will take, but it might be quite unexpected. I anticipate a replay of the Time of Troubles of the early 17th century, the arrival of impostors, destruction of property, or some other extreme social experiments.

Sergei Sazonov took over Izvolsky’s line. Like his predecessor in the ministerial office, he often joined the Tsar and members of the cabinet to debate foreign and domestic policy problems. He would recall later in his life that these problems “would intertwine so tightly that it was impossible to separate them.” Sazonov actively supported the policy of pro-Duma ministers, thus siding with the opposition to Grigory Rasputin and other people who wielded a reactionary influence on Nicholas II.

In summary, there are no grounds to think that diplomacy was divorced from politics, although the specificity of the position demanded that diplomats acted exceptionally in the spirit of loyalty to the existing state system. Naturally, any overt display of oppositionist moods was out of the question. Georgy Chicherin, a former employee of the Foreign Ministry who joined the revolutionary movement, stands out as a rare exception in the history of the diplomatic corps. Yet the objective circumstances of the last stage in the history of tsarist diplomacy and the search for better ways to secure national interests prompted diplomats to side with liberal reformist circles seeking to direct the country along the path towards peaceful, evolutionary, and creative development.

The need to avert or, at least, to delay the outbreak of a world war, which Izvolsky began saying was practically unavoidable already in 1910, was a crucial problem. Diplomats would mostly debate two patterns for resolving the task and these patterns also reflected certain views of Russia’s internal political development. Conservative officials believed that the road to durable peace was through a drastic improvement in Russian-German relations based on “monarchical solidarity.” The opposite school, to which most diplomats belonged, followed the pattern effective at the time that stemmed from the Russo-French alliance. Representatives of the latter trend recognized the strength of relations with Germany as a condition for maintaining peace, but they turned down the possibility of concord on ideological grounds. Izvolsky would tell his colleagues: “If some people think a new Holy Alliance will be cobbled together while I am minister, they are deeply mistaken.“RUSSIA’S INTEGRITY STANDS ABOVE EVERYTHING ELSE”

The Foreign Ministry’s independent civic position stood out during the February 1917 revolution when the diplomatic service was no longer subject to stringent state guidance and had to make its own political choices. The diplomatic service recognized the Provisional Government. Ambassador to the U.S., Yuri Bakhmetev, was the only high-ranking diplomat who resigned, ostensibly because of “monarchic convictions.” All the others immediately said they were ready to cooperate with the new authorities. Vassily Krupensky, the ambassador in Tokyo, wrote a private letter to Grigory Kozakov, the chief of the Foreign Ministry’s department in Vladivostok, to ward off charges of disloyalty to the Provisional Government: “You should be well aware of my indignation over the things that were happening in Russia at the time. Therefore, the claims about my sympathizing with the previous regime are totally groundless.

Career concerns partly dictated such behavior. Yet the main motives were the diplomats’ deep inherent estrangement from the Romanov dynasty and the sense of patriotic duty that demanded bringing the war to a victorious conclusion. Georgy Mikhailovsky cites facts that convincingly prove the indifference of the diplomatic corps to the plight of the Tsar after his abdication and their unwillingness to leave Russia after February 1917, in spite of the traditional attractiveness of diplomatic posts abroad. Another noteworthy fact is that the political chaos produced by the February 1917 revolution did not split the corps. On the contrary, the political uproar forced diplomatic quarters to be even closer on the basis of professional and corporate values. The vast majority of the foreign ministry’s staff refused to join any political parties, despite targeted propaganda, sometimes conducted directly inside the ministry.

During the October 1917 coup, Foreign Ministry officials, including even low-ranking clerks, acted unanimously when they rejected Leon Trotsky’s proposal to collaborate with the Bolshevik government. Foreign Ministry personnel played an initiative role in organizing a strike of civil servants in Petrograd.

Undoubtedly, the new authorities did not seek political support on the part of a state institution imbued with the spirit of the old regime, and they expected diplomats to temporarily perform ‘technical’ functions. Vladimir Lenin wanted to disassemble the old government machinery, which essentially doomed the tsarist foreign service. Diplomats realized that the era of old diplomacy was coming to an end in Russia after they had met with Trotsky.

Nonetheless, a patriotic stance regarding conduct in the war played a decisive role in how the Foreign Ministry behaved in October 1917. Notwithstanding unsuccessful attempts to prevent, or at least to put off, the outbreak of a global conflict, the Russian diplomatic corps was firmly convinced that the huge sacrifices Russia had suffered during the bloodiest war in history could be justified only if there were a decisive victory. Foreign Ministry officials “admitted that Russia would be weakened after the end of the war, but they believed that if this country remained a committed ally, a common victory would open up prospects so bright for it on the international stage that a new Russia would certainly outshine all wartime and postwar trials soon enough.” That is why any attempts to reach a separate peace with Germany in these conditions could not be viewed in any other way than “high treason.”

   Therefore, diplomatic antagonism to Bolshevik power was predestined long before October 1917. Assumedly, those diplomats would have taken the same position regarding any other political regime that wanted to make a separate peace with Germany. It is not accidental that Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Petriayev told his colleagues after the resignation of Minister Pavel Milyukov that none of the top officials would continue to occupy posts in the ministry if a separate peace accord became a reality.

The civic courage of diplomats in the post-revolutionary period testifies to the decisive influence of patriotic values on political culture. While siding with the anti-Bolshevik movement in Russia or after finding themselves in emigration later, most of those diplomats believed that the period of revolutionary upheaval would end and Russia’s national interests would remain unchanged. The diplomats wanted to preserve Russian unity and integrity in spite of abrupt turns in development and to safeguard the legacy accumulated over centuries of the existence of a ‘historical’ Russia. Letters were exchanged between members of the so-called Council of Ambassadors dealing with heated debates over the international situation in the 1920s and 1930s. Remarkably, despite strong hostility towards the Soviet government, these diplomats managed to maintain positions that defended Russia’s historical national interests.

Former Russian minister in London, Yevgeny Sablin, wrote: “I belong to a group of compatriots who believe that Russia’s integrity stands above everything else; however frightful the plight might be of all those who are over there and who serve the supreme interests of the Russian State, which I served as a diplomat, Stalin’s power should be preferred to all other experiments in our homeland. As for the crust of separatists, we should fight them fiercely.” Yelim Demidov, a former head of legation in Greece, spoke in the same vein. “In essence, the hardest mainstays of the fight against Communism are Russia’s foes. Occupying the top positions among them are Germany and Japan that overtly pursue self-serving goals. Italy and Poland are next in line. So how could we possibly struggle against the Soviet government together with those who crave for land appropriations at Russia’s expense? If looked at from this angle, doesn’t conspiracy with foreigners to overthrow the Soviet government mean a betrayal of our own Fatherland?

This train of thought proves graphically that the political culture of the diplomatic service of the Russian Empire placed patriotic values and professional interests above class and ideology preferences or antipathies. Those diplomats identified themselves with the Russian state as such, and this made up the essence of their service. Political affiliations did not matter. By its political culture, the diplomatic corps could be ascribed – with some reservations – to the social group of “educated specialists and residents of big cities,” about which James Billington, an American historian of Russian culture, wrote. Billington noted the cementing role the group played in the development of liberal values in the Russian Empire in its final years. Moreover, the Foreign Service embodied the historical continuity of the Russian state because of its professional specificity and position it held in the state system. From this viewpoint, the development of a diplomatic political culture, based upon enlightened patriotic values, goes far beyond the framework of a particular period in Russian history. Indeed, it has a universal significance that is still relevant today.