Russia’s stance toward Turkey during World War II

May 9 is set to be marked with great commemorative ceremonies in Moscow, being the 70th anniversary of what Russians call Victory Day, the date of the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union during a campaign of World War II that Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War. On April 30, I was with the former Russian ambassador to Ankara, Dr. Pyotr V. Stegny, who held this position between 2003 and 2007, and who discussed the Russian perspective on Turkey during World War II.

During that time, Stalin feared that Turkey might take sides with Germany and attack the Caucuses. For this reason, he ordered Red Army troops to be stationed along the northeastern borders of Turkey. At the same time, the world was watching the Battle of Stalingrad, as it appeared that the outcome of this battle would determine the course of the war. Stalin was deeply in need of correct analysis regarding Turkey’s stance, which is why then-Soviet Ambassador to Ankara Sergei Vinogradov, was called urgently to Stalin’s residence near Moscow in 1942 for consultations.

According to Stegny, at a dinner with various Politburo members, Stalin offered a glass of vodka to Vinogradov and told him to drink. After he had drunk, Stalin asked him, “So, will Turkey start up a war against us?” In a resolute voice, Vinogradov answered: “No. The Turks will not enter the war.” Stalin then offered him another glass of vodka, and asked, after the ambassador had drunk from this glass, “But really, will the Turks go to war against us?” Once again, Vinogradov responded with a strong, “No.” By the end of the second glass, Stalin told Vinogradov, who showed not even a hint of drunkenness, “Alright, return to Ankara, but don’t forget the responsibility that you have shouldered here.” Trusting Vinogradov’s perspective on the Turkish front, Stalin decided to move his Red Army troops away from the borders with Turkey, and over to the Stalingrad front. As a result, these new, well-rested Red Army troops helped bring about a victory in Stalingrad. Vinogradov had received information about Turkey’s decision not to enter the war from Turkish sources. Vinogradov was known to sometimes play chess with the Turkish foreign minister at the time, but as, of course, the Turks did not share state secrets, he did not come by the information this way. What was actually significant was the information Vinogradov was able to elicit from the leanings of the Turkish people and the leaders at the time.

After World War II came to an end, Vinogradov was awarded, on Stalin’s orders, the Lenin Medal, one of the Soviet Union’s most prestigious awards. He was one of only two diplomats to receive this distinguished award, and the red-penned document ordering that it be presented to him is still preserved.

This story of the meeting between Stalin and Ambassador Vinogradov was also described in 2013 by former Soviet diplomat Dr. Yuri Dubinin, though Stegny’s recounting had more detail.

Since the era of Catherine the Great, the most important aim of Russian foreign policy was to somehow take control of the Turkish straits. Despite Tsar Nikolai II’s relatively vague stance, he also supported this general policy. The Bolsheviks supported the efforts of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from the Treaty of Sevres to the Treaty of Lausanne. Later, a note sent by Stalin to Turkey on Feb. 6, 1949, lost its standing just two months afterwards, and Soviet recognition of the unity of Turkish land became the basis of Russian policy on Turkey from then onward. Ties between Turkey and Russia celebrate their 95th anniversary this year. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected in Antalya and Alanya on May 16 in recognition of this.

During the Soviet era, researchers of Turkish history worked in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg. But nowadays, the numbers of academics who know Ottoman Turkish in the Russian Federation has dwindled. The topic of Turkish history is not so alive anymore. Perhaps this is because the profession of a researcher is no longer seen as a way to make a reasonable income.