June 6, 2023
General view of a protest demonstration against Curzon's Ultimatum in Moscow, 1923. Photo: rgakfd.ru

General view of a protest demonstration against Curzon’s Ultimatum in Moscow, 1923. Photo: rgakfd.ru

Exactly one hundred years ago May 8, 1923the head of the English trade mission in Moscow presented Soviet People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Chicherin memorandum signed by him British colleague Curzon. It went down in history as “Curzon’s ultimatum”, to which the answer was given, which was new in diplomatic practice, by all the people.

“We are not afraid of the bourgeois ringing, we will answer Curzon’s ultimatum!” “Don’t play with fire, Mr. Curzon. Keep the gunpowder dry!” Such examples of the proud response of the Soviet people to the vicious threats of imperialist Britain were conveyed to us in their works by Ilf and Petrov, as well as Bulgakov. A diplomatic note from foggy Albion brought to the streets of Moscow (of course, not without the guiding role of the party) thousands of people who, in expressing their indignation, were not shy in words and expressions absolutely not from the diplomatic lexicon.

The ultimatum of the memorandum, which stirred up the masses, was mainly that the Soviet government had to give a positive answer to the claims of the British in 10 days. If not, then London threatened to terminate the trade agreement concluded with Moscow in 1921. The People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs responded on the third day, May 11: “The path of ultimatums and threats is not the path of settling private and minor misunderstandings between states.” Who will argue about ultimatums – no one likes them. But the British diplomats, of course, caught the key phrases: “settlement of private and minor misunderstandings.” At the same time, the Soviet representative in London, Leonid Krasin, was instructed to settle the problems that were troubling the British.

Lord Curzon, British Foreign Secretary in the early 1920s.

Lord Curzon, British Foreign Secretary in the early 1920s.

What was done. And in a note dated May 23, the Soviet government practically satisfied all the demands of the British, but no noise was made from this. Both sides were too interested in maintaining trade relations, so the matter was practically “hushed up”. This is what Mikhail Bulgakov recorded in July: “The sensational conflict with England ended quietly, peacefully and shamefully.”

But in a hundred years, it makes sense to look again at the text of Lord Curzon’s “ultimatum” in order to understand what features of British diplomacy time has no power to change.

The formal reason for the “memorandum-ultimatum” was the detention of British fishing trawlers fishing off the Russian coast in the White Sea. The “noble indignation” of London was caused by the fact that, contrary to, as they claimed, the generally accepted practice of providing for a 3-mile zone of territorial waters, into which strangers cannot enter without permission, the Soviet government introduced a 12-mile zone. But here the British were clearly cunning.

Back in 1911 British Ambassador to St. Petersburg George Buchanan on behalf of his government, he protested to the Russian side in connection with the fact that the tsarist government began to expand its territorial waters from 3 miles to 12. And received exhaustive explanations. The length of a state’s territorial waters, he was told, is determined either by international treaties or by domestic legislation. And since Russia is not bound by any treaties, its territorial waters, from the point of view of international laws, are determined solely by the range of its coastal artillery. Buchanan spoke about this in his memoirs, specifying that Prime Minister Stolypin, in a conversation with him, refused to comply with Britain’s condition – not to detain its ships outside the 3-mile zone.

So the Bolsheviks who came to power did not invent anything new, but followed the practice already known to the British from tsarist times. But they pretended that it was so blatant that it did not fit into any framework … In short, they checked whether the new government would adhere to the norms that the previous government, but already overthrown, had established.

Much of Curzon’s ultimatum deals with the Russian government’s “anti-British propaganda”. Here you need to take a closer look: what, in fact, did not like London so much?

The British were especially sensitive to the activities of Russian representatives to undermine their positions in regions that were especially sensitive for London – “the territory covering Persia, Afghanistan and the Indian border region.” The fact is that the British got the opportunity to read Russian diplomatic mail, so they were well aware of what forces and how Russia supported in the traditional British “patrimonies”. And the memorandum contains very detailed secret information about the work that the emissaries of Moscow conducted in these regions.

Let’s say the memo cites report of the Russian representative in Tehran to the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs in February 1923: “a good group of workers has been organized who can act energetically enough in an anti-British direction …” Or a quotation from the report in the same February of the Soviet representative in Kabul, Raskolnikov, who wrote that it was necessary to use all necessary means “in order to intensify the undoubtedly existing crisis by creating gap between Afghanistan and the British. And the same Raskolnikov in another dispatch “begs the commissariat not to limit its activities” in India and not to cut extraordinary expenses.

A separate section of the “ultimatum” – according to activity of the Soviet government in India. Indeed, what right did Moscow have to interfere in the British colonies? Help form anti-colonial forces, prepare Indian students “as communist agitators.” Moreover, Russia conducts the same activity “in the wide expanse of Egypt, Turkey, the British dominions and even Great Britain.” Form disorder. Who allowed them?

Today we have no shortage of complaints: the Anglo-Saxons are frankly and even brazenly interfering in our affairs, and we are all phony… The Soviet government, as we see, was not phony.

And all these indignations of the “ultimatum” were stated against the background of an active struggle against Soviet Russia and subversive activities against it, which Britain never stopped. It’s just a different topic. But the meaning is clear: “And what are we for?” Therefore, if you read the text of the “ultimatum”, it does not sound as menacing as it was exposed publicly. Other notes are also clear: we are interested in continuing trade cooperation, but you put us in unacceptable conditions…

In a word, today you can look at this memorandum like this: just two years after the end of the civil war, Soviet Russia was talking on an equal footing with the British Empire, creating sensitive problems for it. So Lord Curzon wrote his dispatch: well, it can’t be like that, we will be forced to break the trade agreement … So they decided in Moscow: well, why not give in on something? So it’s unlikely that everything then ended “shamefully” for us.

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