Please read the General Descriptions and Primary Documents. Time willing, try to sample some of the scholarly analysis. Then discuss what you feel to be the greatest external threats facing the Soviet Union in the 1930s and how the Soviet Union reacted to these threats.
As in the domestic sphere, it is difficult to separate the practical and ideological when looking at Soviet foreign policy in the 1930s. The Soviets were capable of hard-headed recognition of State interests but could not help letting ideological tendencies creep into their analysis of diplomatic affairs. In addition to the stresses of national rivalries, the Soviets assumed that the “bourgeois” states were intent on toppling the lone communist power. Conversely, all of the Soviet Union’s rivals and potential allies could not overlook the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary ideology when formulating their own policies.
Despite the retreat from internationalism inherent with the policy of “socialism in one country,” Stalin and the Soviet leadership were not able to seal off the country from the rest of the world. Possessing the largest land mass of any country in the world afforded the Soviet governments with great advantages, particularly in natural resources, but also posed the challenge of how to defend the extended borders.
In addition to being a great power, in the traditional sense of military prowess, the Soviet Union also was the de facto head of an ideological movement that aspired to upend the political status quo in the most powerful countries of the world. Although we know that Stalin deemphasized the task of international revolution, this was not well understood by contemporary observers who continued to view the Soviet Union as a sponsor of subversive activity everywhere.
Technically, the cause of promoting communism abroad belonged not to the Soviet state but to the Communist International (Comintern) that formed in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. Technically, again, this was a stand-alone, autonomous entity, but the Comintern was headquartered in Moscow and many of its leading, non-Soviet officials were refugees subject to arrest in their native countries, so the Soviet government was in a position to influence, if not dictate, Comintern policy and activity.
Several key events during the 1930s influenced Soviet international behavior more than others, the first being the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933. For the previous decade the Soviets and Germans had enjoyed a cooperative relationship as fellow “outcasts of Versailles.” But the Nazis almost immediately identified anti-Bolshevism (which they closely associated with Jews) as the unifying principle of their foreign policy. Moreover, the circumstances with which the Nazis so easily dismantled the Weimar regime represented the failure of Comintern policy which forbade the German Communist Party, which rivaled the Nazis in influence and paramilitary force, from cooperating with more moderate socialist parties.
In the wake of the Nazi takeover, Comintern adopted a new strategy of the “popular front,” whereby communists were encouraged to work in collaboration with other left-wing parties to prevent fascism. This policy was put to the test when the Soviets intervened to defend the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-38. This proved to be a fiasco, as the Soviets proved incapable of unifying the pro-Republican forces and quickly became more preoccupied with repressing rival socialists than with fighting Franco’s Falange movement.
The third event, to which the Soviets were mere bystanders, was the Munich Agreement of 1938, where the Western leaders notoriously sacrificed Czechoslovak territory to appease Hitler. The Soviets were not invited to the conference, although they had mutual assistance treaties with both Czechoslovakia and France. Before Munich, the Soviets were engaged in negotiations with Great Britain and France on forming a grand anti-Nazi alliance. But Munich convinced the Soviets how untrustworthy the French and British were in fulfilling their commitments. It also seemed that the Western powers were banking on directing Hitler’s aggressive impulses eastward. Munich set in motion a reassessment of Soviet diplomacy which resulted in the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939.
Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov’s speech to the League of Nations (1935): http://www.greatspeeches.net/2013/05/maxim-litvinov-league-of-nations.html
“France-U.S.S.R.: Treaty of Mutual Assistance.” The American Journal of International Law 30, no. 4 (1936): 177-80.
Alastair Kocho-Williams, “The Soviet Diplomatic Corps and Stalin’s Purges” The Slavonic and East European Review (1993) Vol. 86, No. 1, pp. 90-110.
Daniel Kowalsky, “Operation X: The Soviet Union and the Spanish Civil War” Bulletin of Spanish Studies (2014) Vol. 91, Nos. 1-2, pp. 159-178.
Igor Lukes, “Stalin and Benes at the end of September, 1938: New Evidence from the Prague Archives” Slavic Review (1993) Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 28-48.
Robert C. Tucker, “The Emergence of Stalin’s Foreign Policy” Slavic Review (1977) Vol 36, No.4, pp. 563-589.