Vladimir Bukovsky remarked that without a guide through the “labyrinths of the Soviet soul,” studies of socialism “are simply useless—or worse, they make the subject even more obscure. “ Were it not for the fact that Adam Ulam has been interpreting the Soviet Union since long before Bukovsky made his comment, one could suspect that Ulam wrote Dangerous Relations to prove Bukovsky right. It is surprising that the Director of Harvard’s Russian Research Center could pay so little attention to how the Bolshevik leaders explain their conduct both to themselves and to the world at large, but then intellectual idiosyncracy appears to be Ulam’s trademark.

Dangerous Relations reflects Ulam’s long-standing misperception that Marxism­Leninism has nothing to do with Bolshevik behavior. As Ulam conceives it, the real problem in Soviet-American affairs is the clash between “the moralistic and legalistic strain of the American approach to foreign relations” and Soviet fondness for “old-fashioned” concepts such as “spheres of influence.” Ideological “incantations” are therefore irrelevant, and the billions of words the Bolsheviks have uttered on the subject are apparently to be considered nothing more than reflections of an elaborate Russian plot.

The error in Ulam’s notion can be symbolized in a single word: grain. Year after year the failures of Soviet agriculture bring the country to the verge of wide-scale famine and require the diversion of vast quantities of hard currency. The Soviet leaders know perfectly well how to reduce these payments (which in the Bolshevik view could be much better devoted to buying military hardware or foreign technology), since they can hardly avoid noticing that minuscule private plots produce a vastly disproportionate quantity of food (“In this area government trade is markedly inferior to that of the private entrepreneur,” Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, May 17, 1983, p. 2). Yet private production is discouraged and harassed, and Kommunist shrilly denounces anyone who makes bold to suggest the slightest accommodation to individual initiative in the interest of feeding the population. The obvious explanation is that the communist leaders are so besotted by ideological fanaticism that it is not Marxist-Leninist theory that they deem irrelevant, but the actual performance of their socialist system.

There is no reason why the same ideological motivations should not apply with equal force in the field of foreign policy, particularly in light of the Bolshevik insistence on the “indissoluble interconnection between the foreign and domestic policy of the socialist state” (A. Gromyko, “V. I. Lenin and the Foreign Policy of the Soviet State,” Kommunist, No. 6, April 1983, p. 16) and the consistent Soviet view that “the art of Bolshevik leadership requires a knowledge of [Marxist-Leninist] theory” (On the Organization of Party Propaganda in Connection with the Publication of the History of the C.P.S.U.(B) Short Course, p. 12, Moscow, 1939). And so, when Andrei Gromyko writes that “Leninist descriptions of the basic divisions of imperialism. . . even now help us work out differentiated policies with respect to such capitalist countries as the USA, West Germany, England, France, Italy, Japan and others” (Kommunist, No. 6, supra, p. 12), there is not the slightest reason why we shouldn’t believe him. As Donald Zagoria put it in The Sino-Soviet Conflict, 1956-1961 (Princeton, 1962):


Ideology and reality have become so interconnected in the Communist mind, it seems, that discussions about reality are never free from ideological assumptions and terminology.


Ulam, however, chooses to disregard all of this. Because he considers Marxist· Leninist ideology irrelevant, he cannot possibly explain either the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (which is, of course, the political incarnation of Marxism-Leninism), or the nature of the Soviet state (which is nothing more than an administrative arm of the Communist Party). It is therefore hardly surprising that he makes a hash of Soviet foreign policy.

Thus, Dangerous Relations continues to mirror Ulam’s previous appraisal of the Communist Party (The Rivals) as nothing more than a Russian version of the Moral Rearmament movement:


In the face of. . . Americanization, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union since the 1930’s had propagated and enforced an essentially traditionalist system of values and morals. . . Except for the socialist label and the discouragement of religion, there was little in the required morals and motivations that a Victorian businessman with no democratic sympathies could have objected to in Stalin’s Russia.


Interpretative subjectivism on such a scale tends to leave the reader breathless, but one suspects that even without democratic “sympathies” a Victorian businessman might have objected to the obscene revels with which the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934 (“The Congress of the Victors”) celebrated the “successes” of the Party’s civil war against millions of enterprising and hardworking peasants (“the liquidation of the kulaks as a class”). He might also have found something repellent in the Great Terror (which swept away more than half the participants at the Congress of the Victors), the vast apparatus of spies and informers (including their use to further what Robert Conquest accurately called the “conscious Stalinist aim” of producing “disintegration of family loyalty”), the Purge Trials, the gulag, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the recurrent campaigns against Jews as disloyal “rootless cosmopolitans,” the promulgation of virulent class hatred which continues with unabated fury to the present day, and the oppression or annexation of the Soviet Union’s neighboring states. He might also find it curious that Ulam talks about a “system of values and morals” in connection with a gang of political thugs whose ethical views were and are expressed by the succinct rhetorical question: Partii eto nado, prichem sdes ‘moral’? (The Party needs it, so why bring ethics in?).

Similarly, Ulam speaks of the Soviet government as if it were an independent instrumentality with its own goals and “national interests.” In fact, no one has ever successfully contended that the Soviet state is anything more than a puppet of the Communist Party; by treating it as if it were like other governments—however authoritarian—Ulam has committed the political equivalent of trying to describe a shark by referring only to its dorsal fin.

The result is a consistent misinterpretation. Ulam tells us that during the period immediately following World War II (i.e., the era of the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War, among other things), “far from being ready to set on a course of conquering the world for Communism, the U.S.S.R. badly wanted and needed peace.” We are also solemnly informed, on the basis of a citation to a single Soviet source and in the teeth of considerable evidence to the contrary, that from 1974 onward the U.S.S.R. was trying to instill “respectability and moderation” in the Palestine Liberation Organization. And Ulam ultimately finds himself in the position of complaining helplessly that the “makers” of Soviet foreign policy are inexplicably “unable to emancipate themselves completely from some (to an outsider often irrational) dogmas.” The dogmas, of course, are the very Marxist-Leninist postulates that Ulam has repeatedly pronounced irrelevant but from which the Soviet leaders have not the slightest desire to “emancipate themselves.”

We are also presented with what can only be described as a highly misleading myth; in Ulam’s view the U.S.S.R. did not, and presumably does not, “see itself as yet strong enough to be friendly with the democracies.” So the problem, apparently, is not that Soviet ideology is implacably hostile to the bourgeois class, capitalist economy, and democratic political systems, but that the Bolsheviks are simply too stupid to realize their strength and too frightened to be “friendly.” Perhaps if we offered to give back Alaska. . .

Anyone who wants to understand Soviet foreign policy would do better to ponder the comment of an émigré Soviet historian:


Many people, particularly among Western historians, are inclined to view Soviet imperialism and Soviet foreign policy as an organic continuation of the imperialist policy of Czarist Russia. Other people, particularly among Russians themselves in the free world, are inclined to reject any connection between the two policies. Both views, which are perfectly explicable psychologically, are derived from subjective emotional perceptions. To identify the foreign policy of Imperial Russia with the foreign policy of Soviet Russia is to overestimate the capabilities, scale, character and purpose of Czarist foreign policy activity and to underestimate the. . . internationalist, intercontinental scale and ideocratic character of Soviet Communist imperialism. The foreign policy interests of Czarist Russia were territorial and strategic and encompassed Eurasia; they were accordingly local. The interests of the U.S.S.R, on the other hand, are ideological, and are accordingly global


If American policymakers were to rely on Ulam’s interpretations they would rapidly find, as the  old Trotskyite metaphor puts it, that Dangerous Relations provides not a lifebelt, but a noose.