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  • Soviet Foreign Relations “Hard” and “Soft,” 1917–45
  • Vladimir Solonari
Sabine Dullin, La frontière épaisse: Aux origines des politiques soviétiques (1920–1940) (The Thick Border: On the Origins of Soviet Politics [1920–40]). 360 pp. Paris: Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2014. ISBN-13 978-2713224560. €24.00.
Jean-François Fayet, VOKS: Le laboratoire helvétique. Histoire de la diplomatie culturelle soviétique durant l’entre-deux-guerres (VOKS: The Swiss Laboratory. A History of Soviet Cultural Diplomacy between the Wars). 598 pp. Chêne-Bourg: Georg éditeur, 2014. ISBN-13 978-2825710340. 35 CHF.

These two amazing books examine from different perspectives one large theme: the Stalinist state’s interaction with the outside world. In the big scheme of things, they tell a similar sad story: Soviet movement away from relative openness to, and search for contacts with, “the West” toward increasing self-isolation and self-adulation from 1920 through the early 1940s. Sabine Dullin focuses on the history of Soviet borders, not so much their movements in space and time as their construction and consolidation and their changing meanings in Soviet official discourse and policy. Paraphrasing Peter Sahlins, she sees “the border as a process of learning the rupture in the contiguity, as a complex process of establishing a difference that ends up in the creation of a system” (21).1 Narrated in this way, the story of the Soviets’ (mostly [End Page 702] but not exclusively western) frontier offers us fascinating insights into the evolution of the Soviet regime and society in general.2

One of the many fortes of this profoundly researched and beautifully written book is the elegant and persuasive way it reminds us of the many roads open to the Soviets in the earlier phases of their regime that were either never tried or abruptly abandoned. To begin with, the very existence of borders was initially perceived by Soviet leaders, bent on spreading proletarian revolution all over the world, as a temporary and inconsequential nuisance. As Julian Marchlewski (Iulian Markhlevskii), who was one of the Soviet negotiators with Poland in Riga and in 1921 led the Soviet delegation in negotiations with Finland over the delimitation of borders, put it, only “hyperborean troglodytes” would obsess over each piece of land. (He was ostensibly referring to his Finnish counterparts but might have had some of his Soviet colleagues in mind too [98].) The exact trajectory of borders was a matter of secondary importance as long as revolutionary crisis was certain to make them all obsolete in the apocalypse of universal emancipation. If borders still somehow mattered, it was more due to the opportunities they offered as outposts for revolutionary agitation rather than as protective barriers over lands under the control of the Soviet regime.

Even in this very early stage of Soviet border policy, however, revolutionary élan coexisted with a more sober and traditional view of things, as represented, in particular, by Georgii Chicherin, head of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs (Narkomindel). Chicherin’s influence steadily grew as time went on. In the first three years right after the Civil War, frontiers became institutionalized and regularized. Increasing emphasis on protection and sovereignty led to the appearance of what Dullin calls a “thick border” area consisting of two zones: 500 meters along the border and an additional 7.5 kilometers right next to it. The first zone was reserved for the deployment of GPU (State Political Administration, later Unified State Political Administration [OGPU]) troops, the second for rear services for these troops; in both, a strict regime of surveillance over residents and their movements prevailed. Paradoxically, in the early to mid-1920s, the renewed emphasis on security in expectation of a new war coexisted with [End Page 703] the establishment of a relatively flexible regime of transborder cooperation. The USSR negotiated agreements with neighboring states for common usage of pastures and fisheries by residents on both sides of the border as well as for easing restrictions on transborder petty trade (123–26). These measures were designed to help the local population adapt to the new borders without putting an additional burden on the resources of the state...


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pp. 702-711
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