Published Date

January 1, 1945

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 46: Our Russian Ally (1945)

The USSR is a continent in itself—a continent that covers one-sixth of the earth’s land area, spans Europe and Asia, and partakes of the civilization of both. Not only is Russia continental in expanse, but it also possesses some of the richest natural resources of any country in the world. No country is entirely self-sufficient. But two countries at least approach self-sufficiency. They are the United States and the Soviet Union.

Russia has iron, coal, bauxite, manganese, and oil—the principal raw materials needed for modern industry. It also has a wide variety of foodstuffs and raises many of the crops necessary for the manufacture of textiles—such as flax, wool, and cotton. It is a large producer of gold, which it can use abroad to purchase things it does not produce at home.

But Russia, like the United States, is not entirely self-sufficient. Curiously enough, Russia lacks much the same things we lack—notably natural rubber and tin. Synthetic rubber, however, was produced in considerable volume by the Russians before the war. Russia must also import what Europeans call “colonial” products, such as coffee, cocoa, and palm oil.

Until the Soviet government launched a program of industrialization to “catch up with and outstrip the capitalist countries,” Russia also had to import machinery, as well as many kinds of manufactured goods—mostly from the advanced industrial powers, Germany, Britain, and the United States. And it had to pay, sometimes in foreign exchange, for the services of technicians, principally American and German, who were brought in to help the USSR build up its industries.


A tempting prize

The fact that Russia’s vast natural resources had been largely unexploited before World War I made her a tempting prize for more advanced industrial powers. Russia was like China, Romania, or Latin America, inthat the advanced industrial powers wanted to obtain her raw materials—especially oil—and also hoped to find a market in Russia for their manufactured goods. Before World War I, some of Russia’s resources were developed by foreign capital—German, French, British, Belgian, American. It was invested in Russian railways, tramways, public utilities, and some mining and industrial enterprises, as well as in Russian government bonds.

Why didn’t the Russians finance their own economic development? Again we must remember that before 1914 Russia was predominantly a backward agricultural country. True, a few factories had started after 1861, when the freeing of the serfs provided a supply of cheap labor. Since then some industries had shown notable growth. But the ruling group were landowners, not industrialists. Their capital was in the form of land and livestock, not in ready cash. Moreover the big landowners feared industrialization and the growth of cities because they felt that factory workers would undermine their power. So they preferred to put such money as they had back into the land or into imported luxuries.

The drive to the open sea

Not only is Russia a “continent,” but it isalso a landlocked and icelocked continent, with few exits to the high seas. Russia’s landlocked character explains her periodic isolation from the rest of the world. Look at the map of Russia today, and you will see that Russia has no direct outlets except on the Pacific Ocean and the White and Arctic Seas. To reach the Atlantic her ships must travel along devious routes: in the north via the Finnish Gulf, the Baltic Sea, and the North Sea; in the south through the Black Sea, the Dardanelles, and the Mediterranean.

The vastly increased use of the airplane and the air-consciousness of the younger Russians may serve to break down this isolation. But until modern times Russia’s geographic “remoteness” from the rest of the world and her inaccessibility except by land or air routes have had afar-reaching influence on her history.

Russia’s development as a national state stems from the principalities that grew up about towns like Kiev and Moscow, built on rivers that served as highroads of trade in the Middle Ages. Kiev has been called the cradle of Russian history. It. was also the cradle of Russian Christianity.

But it was Moscow, more centrally located than Kiev, that became the nucleus of Russia’s political organization. From the Middle Ages on—except for a period of two hundred years, when the capital was located in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad)—Moscow served as the capital of the country. It was from this central area, the heart of a landlocked continent, that the Russian peoples spread out to the north, south, and east in a constant search for food, furs, secure frontiers, and always for warm-water ports. This search for outlets to the sea is a very notable trend in Russia’s history.

One czar is a Soviet hero

This trend grew particularly noticeable while Peter the Great was czar in the years 1689 to 1725. Peter was a great empire builder, and today he is regarded in the USSR as one of the heroes of Russian history—in spite of the fact that he was a czar. A man of broad vision, ruthless in the fulfillment of his purposes, Peter laid the basis, in many ways, for the development of a modern state in Russia. He was one of the first Russians to visit the Western world and to recognize the need of learning from Westerners. He visited the seaports of Holland, studied their shipyards, and began to build a merchant marine and navy for Russia. He reorganized and expanded, the army.

There did not seem much point in building a navy unless Russia could have access to the open seas. Peter the Great promoted Russia’s expansion to the sea in two directions. In the west, he fought the Swedes—who at that time ruled Fin-land. He founded St. Petersburg, a city built on swamps, and described it as Russia’s “window” on the Western world. In the south, he fought the Turks to win bases for Russia in the Crimea, on the Black Sea, and on the Sea of Azov.

Throughout its history the Russian state has wanted to control certain strategic positions in the Baltic and in the Black Sea which might be used against it by hostile forces. That is why the Russians have sought at times to gain control of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles—the narrow straits which are the outlet from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. That is why they have tried to dominate Finland and the Baltic states and to prevent other countries—notably Germany—from gaining a foothold there.

Far Eastern pioneers

Not only has Russia sought to get ocean outlets in the west, but she has staged a powerful drive to obtain outlets on the Pacific Ocean too. Fur traders, hardy pioneers, and political exiles sent to Siberia by the czarist government opened up this rich region, displaying many of the same qualities that the Americans developed during the days of covered wagons. The men and women who settled Siberia and the Russian Far East hoped either to find a refuge there, better living conditions, or merely freedom from the restrictions of autocracy. Many of them, like the American pioneers, had bold visions of the future. Some of them pushed on into Alaska and even as far down the coast as San Francisco.

At the end of the nineteenth century the Russians reached their goal by building two ports on the Pacific—Vladivostok and Port Arthur. They lost Port Arthur, however, as a result of the 1904-05 war with Japan. During the past 20 years, new pioneers have opened up the Arctic region, which may assume great strategic importance as a link between the northeastern-most outposts of the USSR and the northwesternmost outposts of the United States.

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