Russia and Serbia: a case of betrayal? - an interview with Sergey Romanenko
by Ljubiša Stavric
Sergey Romanenko is a Russian historian with a special interest in the modern history of the South Slav area. He has published two volumes on this subject: The Birth and Fall of Yugoslavia (Moscow 2000) and, more recently, Yugoslavia, Russia and the Slav Idea. In this second book the author explores the relationship between, on the one hand, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation and, on the other hand, the South Slav national movements and their national states in the period between the middle of the 19th century and the start of the 21st. He worked for twenty years at the Institute for Slav and Balkan Studies of the Russian Academy of Science, and now works at the Institute for the Study of International Economy and Politics. He writes for newspapers and acts also as an analyst for the Russian Service of the BBC. This interview took place during Romanenko's recent visit to Belgrade and was published in NIN (Belgrade), 7 August 2003.
What role did Russia play in the rise of the national movements among the South Slavs?
No foreign state, including Russia, played any particular role. These movements arose naturally from resistance to foreign domination. They were not only national but also social movements. Only occasionally did Russia support these movements and states, in an effort to use them against her enemies Austria and Turkey. South Slav politicians too, of course, used Russian policy to further their own interests. Political history should be approached with an open mind, without myths and prejudices.
What are the most striking examples of Russian-Serbian relations?
For example, Russia played a decisive role in the coup of 1903. The murder of Alexander Obrenović was followed by a sharp turn in Serbian foreign policy: the establishment of close relations with Russia. Russia did not enter World War I out of its great love for Serbia, but because of its huge debt and the need to seek control of the Bosphorus Straits. Later, a few months after the October Revolution, Leon Trotsky also tried to use Serbia in pursuit of his foreign aims. He failed, however, and the ties were cut, since the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was anti-Communist and anti-Soviet.
Was the Slav idea present in pre-war Soviet policy? It is known that the Comintern considered Yugoslavia to be an artificial creation of Versailles. However, on the eve of World War II diplomatic relations were restored between the USSR and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Well-known Slavists had emigrated to Belgrade and Prague, and Panslavism had been categorized as belonging to Russian nationalism and counter-revolution. It was only in the 1930s that the history of the South Slavs began to be studied in the USSR. The Soviet Communist Party and Stalin's intelligence services started to exploit the Slav idea in a search for allies. So Soviet policy became interested in Yugoslavia, and the 7th Congress of the Comintern  decided to support Yugoslavia's integrity. It is obvious that the rise of Hitler influenced this decision. It seems also that the Soviet Union played a part in the coup of April 1941, in cooperation with the British intelligence service. Sudoplatov, head of the Soviet intelligence service at the time, writes in his memoirs that at the end of the 1930s the Soviet Union tried to organize a coup d'état in Yugoslavia. This cannot be confirmed as yet, since the archives of the Soviet security service remain closed. The assertion, however, is supported by Stalin's hesitation between Tito and the royal government. It was a difficult choice. [Former Yugoslav diplomat] Vladimir Velebit writes that Stalin at first preferred the latter. Diplomatic relations with the government in exile were maintained throughout the war.
One can read in the Croatian press that Stalin offered Pavelić recognition of the NDH.
This is based on the testimony of a Croatian diplomat who worked in Berlin in 1941. There is no factual evidence for it, but Ante Pavelić wrote in his articles and memoirs that Stalin had offered to recognize the NDH in 1944 in return for access to the Adriatic coast. I would not insist that this is untrue. Given that the Soviet Union recognized the Quisling Slovak Republic and Pétain's Vichy government, I see no reason why they would not recognize the NDH too.
What does your research tell you about Tito? Did his popularity grow in the USSR after Stalin's death?
It is difficult to say. Last year an important book came out containing documents of the Soviet state prosecutor's office from 1953 on. They contain twenty sentences issued in the context of Yugoslavia. Those condemned had declared publicly that life in Yugoslavia was better than in the Soviet Union, and that Tito was the true heir of Lenin. Some later dissidents were condemned for reading Djilas's The New Class. One of them was caught at the Finnish border carrying a notebook with passages from The New Class copied by hand. He carried it with him as if it were the Bible.
In Yugoslavia adherents of the Slav idea were incarcerated on Goli Otok. Yet Yugoslavia played an important role in Soviet-US relations.
The fact is that Stalin joined the Slav idea to the idea of proletarian internationalism and used this to promote the formation of the socialist camp. You may know that in 1946 a Pan Slav congress was held in Belgrade at which Djilas hailed Slav brotherhood. Yugoslavia's subsequent estrangement from this 'fraternity' permitted it to acquire an outstanding position in the USA-USSR relations. In the memoirs written by Josip Vrhovec, who was at one time the secretary of Tito's office, I read that Brezhnev appealed to Tito to intercede with the Americans in connection with Arab-Israeli relations.
For a longtime we in the Soviet Union had little information not only in regard to Tito's socialism, but also in regard to Yugoslavia. There exists a myth that Yugoslavia was a socialist state without camps. It is true that the regime here was more liberal, but it was nevertheless totalitarian and repressive. The truth is that in 1945 the USSR created its twin, and that both died in 1991.
What can you tell us about Gorbachev's attitude towards Milošević?
Gorbachev sought to preserve a reformed USSR and was against all nationalisms. He said that it was immediately clear to him what would be the result of Milošević's nationalism. I seem to recall that [Croatia's former UN ambassador] Mario Nobilo wrote that Gorbachev was more critical of Milošević than Yeltsin was.
There is a view that Yeltsin never forgave Milošević for twice supporting his enemies: in 1991 and 1993.
Romanenko: Yeltsin tended to be emotional in forming his policies, so that is probably true. It is difficult to imagine what would have happened if Yeltsin's Russia had given support to Milošević. In fact we in Russia had several different policies towards Milošević; one conducted by the foreign ministry, another by the ministry of defence, yet another by Yeltsin's administration. There was a group in the state apparatus which supported Karadžić rather than Milošević.
Milošević resigned only after a visit from Ivanov. Do you have any knowledge of what Ivanov told him on that occasion?
According to Gorbachev, the full story will never be known! We too are puzzled by the role Russia played during those days. Did Ivanov support Milošević or Koštunica?
What is the status of the Pan-slav idea in Russia today?
With the fall of Communism we lost both social and political consciousness, so historical consciousness alone remains. Historians like Maykov and Danilevski believe that the way out lies in a return to the 19th century. This means that historical consciousness has taken over as the basic social consciousness. It cannot play this role, however. Russian nationalism, including the Slav idea, was in the 19th century undergoing a natural growth. Contemporary Slavophiles have used the Slav idea in their internal policy, but they also tried to use Milošević in their relations with Europe and the USA. Milošević, for his part, tried to use Russia. It seems that this was the essence of the matter: who will sell whom and to whom at the highest price. Yeltsin writes that he allowed Chernomyrdin to use the idea of an alliance of Russia, Belorus and Yugoslavia. There are those here in Serbia who thought that Russia should start a Third World War in order to save Milošević and his policy. Both sides are now disappointed. It is true, of course, that good relations with Serbian democrats are of great importance for Russian democrats. But there is no need for swearing loyalty to Slav brotherhood and unity. A brother is a brother whatever his nationality.
Translated from NIN (Belgrade), 7 August 2003