About a "Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals"

17 november 2007

Yuri Dubinin, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation. In 1994-1999, he was Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation.

Resume: Khrushchev was enraged over Charles de Gaulle’s statement about a “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.” He has given instructions to urgently clear it up with the French what their president meant, expressing ideas like that. What if he is hatching plans to break up the Soviet Union?


It was September 1962. My working day was coming to an end when I was asked to immediately stop by the office of Vasily Kuznetsov, first deputy to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. I knew that Gromyko was not in Moscow and that Kuznetsov was acting for him; so, the request meant that something important had happened.


I was an assistant to the head of the ministry’s First European Department. I specialized mainly in French affairs; so, while I was on my way to Kuznetsov’s office, I thought we would discuss them. And we really did.


“[Nikita] Khrushchev has just called,” I heard as soon as I entered the office. “He is enraged over [Charles] de Gaulle’s statement about a ‘Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.’ He has given instructions to urgently clear it up with the French what their president meant, expressing ideas like that. What if he is hatching plans to break up the Soviet Union? So, the assignment is urgent. Take a seat and we will prepare the text of a letter of inquiry.”


It should be noted that the slogan of building a “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals” had been launched by de Gaulle long before September 1962. Moreover, de Gaulle had repeated it so often that these words became a catchword, a kind of credo for French policy in Europe and even more than in Europe, as de Gaulle put emphasis on them even during his stay in the United States. Of course, Soviet diplomats and statesmen had heard those words on many occasions – without giving much thought, though, to what they could mean or how they could be interpreted.

Maybe those words could have been disregarded in September 1962 as well if de Gaulle had not said them in the Federal Republic of Germany during his state visit there (September 4-9), thus sort of putting the idea of a “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals” into the context of the incipient rapprochement with West Germany. In addition, de Gaulle accompanied his statements with barbed ideological remarks. The Soviet Union and West Germany were years away from the normalization of their relations, and Bonn was under harsh criticism from Moscow for manifestations of revanchist sentiments there. Moscow was watching the rapid development of French-West German relations with growing concern. On top of that, Soviet-French relations at the time were far from ideal. So, when Khrushchev heard de Gaulle’s statements, he flew into a rage – and a well-grounded rage, because, even if we disregard where those words were said, they encroached on the holy of holies – the territorial integrity of our country. Irrespective of what the statement might mean, such an unconventional approach to a sovereign state required a reaction. At the same time, the question also arose whether de Gaulle had really put such an extreme meaning into his formula – especially as the Soviet Union had had vast experience of cooperation and personal contacts with this statesman, specifically during Khrushchev’s visit to France in 1960. Perhaps this was why even such an emotional man as Khrushchev instructed his Foreign Ministry to prepare not a note of protest, but a letter of inquiry in order to clear up the issue before bringing in the heavy guns. Yet, Khrushchev asked us to spice up the letter.


It was not at all easy to find a balance between a tough response and a wording that would let de Gaulle emerge out of the difficult situation without losing face. We worked with Kuznetsov deep into the night, but we were not very good at spicing things up. The next day, Kuznetsov invited a leading Russian specialist on Germany, and the three of us continued to work. When the memorandum, intended for the French Foreign Ministry, was ready, it was sent to the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee, which made all the important decisions during the Soviet era. The Politburo approved the memo.


On September 19, the Soviet government gave a stern assessment of de Gaulle’s visit to West Germany. The Soviet news agency TASS came out with a statement headlined “Bonn-Paris Axis Instrument of Revanchism.”


On September 20, Kuznetsov, on behalf of the Soviet government, handed the memorandum regarding de Gaulle’s statements on building a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals to the French Ambassador in Moscow Maurice Dejean.


The first part of the memo was sharply critical: “The Soviet government has taken note of statements made by President of the French Republic de Gaulle during his visit to the Federal Republic of Germany, to the effect that the objectives of a Franco-West German military-political association include the establishment of some new arrangements in Europe ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals,’ with the termination of ‘outdated ideology in the East.’ One cannot but pay attention to the fact that these statements were made in West Germany in an atmosphere of revanchist and military demonstrations.”


The memo said further: “Statements like these cannot but evoke analogies and are reminiscent of the grave past when Nazi Germany also spoke about plans to build a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals and about the establishment of the notorious ‘new order’ in Europe. It is well known what came out of the attempts by German militarism to implement those delirious plans.”


The second part of the memo contained a question to Paris: “But if we assume that the statements by the President of France imply the establishment of cooperation among all European states in the interests of ‘peace and progress from the Atlantic to the Urals,’ then the question arises: Why do these statements refer to the Soviet Union not as the whole state, but only as part of the Soviet Union, namely the territory to the Urals, although the territory of the Soviet Union stretches far beyond the Urals. So, it remains unclear what really is behind those statements.”


The memo ended with the following words: “Since the aforementioned statements by the President of the French Republic refer directly to the Soviet Union and its territory, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the U.S.S.R., acting on behalf of the Soviet government, would like to receive explanations from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France as to what meaning is put into these statements. We would be grateful if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France gave such explanations.”


Time passed, but Paris kept silent.


The Politburo decided to remind the French government via the Soviet ambassador in France, Sergei Vinogradov, that we were waiting for a response to our memo.

On October 24, Vinogradov visited the Foreign Minister of France, Maurice Couve de Murville, and, referring to instructions from the Soviet government, conveyed the request to him. Yet, even that did not cause the French to break the silence and give a response.


On January 29, 1963, Vinogradov visited de Gaulle and handed him a letter from the Soviet government with its considerations concerning the January 22 signing of a political treaty between France and West Germany, known as the Élysée Treaty. The letter made no mention of plans to build a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals; nor were they mentioned during Vinogradov’s conversation with the Gaulle. At the same time, at the end of the main part of their conversation, the French president said an interesting phrase: “There will come a time when we will build Europe together with the Soviet Union.” This capacious and forward-looking thought with a broad geopolitical dimension attested to de Gaulle’s all-embracing approach to relations with our country and to European affairs.


Several more months passed. In mid-1963, I was appointed First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in France. I quickly established good contacts with the Foreign Ministry of France, and the French began to more and more often send via me important information and operational reports, which Vinogradov forwarded on to Moscow. Finally, on December 30, 1963, the head of the Pacts Service, one of the key departments of the French Foreign Ministry, Jean de La Grandville (earlier, he had been Minister-Counselor at the French Embassy in Moscow), in a conversation with me raised the issue about the meaning of the expression “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.” He did that on his own initiative, which means, on instructions from his bosses. The following are quotes from my notes of the conversation with de La Grandville: “In my opinion,” he said, “the political absurdity of such an expression is obvious. Upon receiving your letter of inquiry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France for a long time discussed how to reply to it. In the long run, at the initiative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we prepared a draft document and sent it to the Élysée Palace [the official residence of the French president. De La Grandville’s words meant that the draft was sent to de Gaulle].” “The project,” de La Grandville continued, “was not approved. Then, [Foreign Minister] Couve de Murville told us that there would be no reply at all. Meanwhile, officials at the Quai d’Orsay [the Foreign Ministry] now avoid using the phrase ‘Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals’.”


These notes are kept in the archives of our Ministry. I am grateful to historian Dr. Marina Arzakanyan for telling me about them after she came across them during her work in the archives. Recollections of those events inspired me to write this article.


I had been acquainted with Couve de Murville for years. He had always been a true doer of de Gaulle’s will, and, of course, it was only with de Gaulle’s knowledge that he could instruct the Foreign Ministry staff to stop using the phrase that was directly associated with the name of the French president.


So, the French did answer our question, although not as quickly as we would have liked them to. Their straightforward answer put an end to any interpretations that could damage the relations between our two countries. I must give credit to the form they chose for the reply. Even the best pens at the French Foreign Ministry would have hardly expressed in the formal language of a memorandum what de La Grandville told me as eloquently as he did.


The main result of our demarche was that from then on de Gaulle never spoke of a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. At the same time, on many occasions, including during his lengthy official visit to the Soviet Union in 1966, he reiterated the need for close cooperation among all European countries, including, of course, the Soviet Union (by that time, de Gaulle had learned to call our country its proper name), as a foundation of international peace and security.


Not long ago, I discussed de Gaulle’s statements about a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals with a leading French political analyst, Academician Thierry de Montbrial. He told me that, not knowing anything about our demarche, he himself had studied the essence of this formula by de Gaulle and concluded that it was simply a result of the ill-thought-out application by de Gaulle of his knowledge of geography, which he had received at school.


Anyway, our demarche helped to clear up our relations of mistrust with France. The response to our letter, given by de La Grandville, fitted well into a period of the improvement of Soviet-French relations, which began in mid-1963 and which has led Russia and France to their present political partnership.


As regards cooperation among all European countries, its deepening is now becoming an increasingly imperative demand. Russia and France have every reason to play a leading role in the development of this process and to jointly build a Europe of the future.

Last updated 17 november 2007, 12:11

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