The Orders of Friendship in (Post-)Socialist Countries

By Andreas Pacher | 24 March 2017

To quote this document: Andreas Pacher, “The Orders of Friendship in (Post-)Socialist Countries”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Friday 24 March 2017,, displayed on 06 June 2023

Several (post-)socialist governments have established new state awards which all carry the name ‘Order of Friendship’. The term ‘friendship’ here is genealogically related to the Stalinist concept of ‘friendship of peoples’. Western political theories have largely abandoned the use of 'friendship' in international relations. The burgeoning of Friendship Orders in (post-)socialist countries is culturally contingent on a collectivist mindset, while the general popularity of state awards can be attributed to the increasing attention governments pay to public diplomacy.

Deep intimacy between states is today called a 'strategic partnership', whereas political entities that fight each other are 'warring parties', or even 'enemies'. But can an interstate 'friendship' exist, too?

That term was propelled back into international politics when Rex Tillerson, the new U.S. Secretary of State and former CEO of ExxonMobile, was reported to have received the Russian Order of Friendship in 2013. That state award was founded in 1994 as a replacement for the Soviet Order of Friendship of Peoples (est. in 1974). This latter honor, in turn, can trace its lineage back to East Germany’s Star of Friendship of Peoples (1959) and to the Chinese Friendship Award (1955).

A Genealogy of ‘Friendship’ Pivoting Around Stalin

In fact, the past years have witnessed a proliferation of state awards named ‘Order of Friendship’ in (post-)Socialist countries: China is the latest to have established a new ‘Order of Friendship’ (2016), Armenia did so too (2014), as well as Transnistria (2012), South Ossetia (2007), Azerbaijan (2007), Vietnam (2003), Belarus (2002), Tajikistan (2001), North Korea (1999?), Kazakhstan (1995), Uzbekistan (1994), and Russia (1994). Cuba likewise possesses a ‘Medalla de la Amistad’, while former Socialist countries such as Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, too, honored 'foreign' (mostly Soviet) citizens with medals that were similarly labelled. All these honors have in common that they are to be awarded to foreigners rather than domestic personalities.

What can explain the use of this name in these (post-)Socialist regions? Why is the term ‘friendship’ not used to label state awards in any other place of the world? To dig even deeper, why do state awards in general proliferate today?

The most obvious answer is that the term ‘friendship’ is genealogically a derivate of what was still audible in the East German and Soviet versions of the state awards: ‘Friendship of Peoples’. Based on Marx’s and Lenin’s thoughts on fraternity among labourers of all nations, Stalin developed the term ‘brotherhood of peoples’ which mutated into the ‘friendship of peoples’. It was under this official designation that the Soviet Union dealt with its numerous minorities in the 1930s. The term quickly diffused into all parts of the Socialist world ever since then; who could forget the mighty voices of the Red Army Choir solemnly singing 'Druzhby narodov nadjozhnyj oplot’ (‘friendship of peoples – a reliable bulwark’) in the Soviet anthem. . . Patriotic poems celebrated the solidarity between Kazakhs, Volga-Germans, Russians and others, multiethnicity was propagated in photographs of the Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow, and fountains in Berlin and monuments in Kiev are still named after that connective concept.

In the West: Friendship Among Unequals and Princes

Outside the (former) Socialist bloc, however, the term ‘friendship’ had almost vanished from the political realm. That is so despite its persistent prominence until well into Modernity: Aristotle regarded interpersonal friendships as the fundamental bonds that tie a state together, the Ancient Roman Empire’s political elites socialized in clientele-relationships, and feudal princes enfeoffed their vassals in amity. In medieval ceremonies, the lords’ wordings were nourished by Christian pericopes such as John 15,15: ‘iam non dicam vos servos; … vos autem dixi amicos’ (‘No longer do I call you servants; … but I have called you friends’). However, the medieval practices demonstrate that ‘friendship’ was mostly a political instrument used by rulers, hinging on hierarchical verticality and conferred upon subordinates in a downward direction by the prince. The concept of maintaining order among unequals echoed much later in the Soviet Union’s ‘friendship of peoples’; to name just one but hundred examples, the fate of the Soviet-Korean minority (Koryo-saram) elucidates the discrepancy between discourse and practice.

Other than the vertical model, a horizontal one existed, too, in the form of inter-prince (not inter-state) friendships. Kings nurtured amicitia with other kings as expressed in their official correspondences, whose rhetoric would later petrify into formalized termini technici of early modern diplomatic treaties. A still-existing chivalric order of the princely House of Thurn and Taxis, for example, is called ‘Order of Parfaite Amitié’. – However, after Reformation and the subsequent degradation of the Canonic Law’s role in shaping international politics, more room was now left for ‘friendship’ to designate relations among political entities. It was Erasmus of Rotterdam who first contested the sincerity of such political amities, arguing that friendships forced by political alliances or dynastic marriages could never guarantee actual peace.

Potential Enemies as Friends

Thomas Morus’ ‘Utopia’ (1516) suspected that the term ‘friendship’ hides a fear of ‘enmity’, an ambiguity that was vigorously reiterated by Jean Bodin in 1576: ‘To say that equality is the mother of amity is to abuse the ignorant, for there is no hatred so bitter, or enmity so deadly as that between equals’. Coupled with Erasmus’ humanist critiques, theories began to clearly distinguish a ‘public friend’ (amity) from a ‘private friend’ (friendship), while religious wars and the Ottoman presence in Europe made friendship a useful concept to keep peace with what would otherwise be a hostile Other.

Political friendships had hitherto been prerogatives of an individual sovereign; however, Hobbes preluded a weighty intellectual turn. His work transformed the sovereign into an abstract entity, the state, which was claimed to exist independently from the individual ruler. This modern translatio imperii from a living human being to an abstract notion invested the right to ‘determine who is a publique friend, who an enemy’ to that unreal construct. Sovereignty thus lost its humane face, gradually leading to a fading away of ‘friendship’ in (Western) theory of international relations, only to be later picked up by Marx and his followers in political agitations . . .

This, however, cannot have been the end of the story. How then could the proliferation of ‘Orders of Friendships’ in the past twenty years be explained? Why do entities such as Armenia, Tajikistan or South Ossetia that do not officially adhere to Socialism anymore still use a concept that historically spawned out of a Stalinist phraseology? And why do state awards in general enjoy such a popularity that we see new ones established by governments not only from the former Socialist bloc, but from all parts of the world almost every year?

Collectivist Societies Craving for Friends – and Foes

Irrespective of leftist ideologies, the term friendship did not completely vanish from the political realm. Carl Schmitt remains one of the most well-known thinkers of recent times who contended the friend-enemy-antithesis to be constitutive of all politics. This theory substantiated the term ‘enemy’ in abundance while leaving the ‘friend’ as a hollow contrast (Smith, 2011). Combined with a realist thinking of archaic might that claims politics to be detached from morals (Gismondi, 2004), this mindset has enjoyed a vigorous reemergence among illiberal democrats not only in Central and Eastern Europe.

The fact that awards of friendships spring up like mushrooms in this region is not only nourished by the lingering historical presence of Socialist discourses – for history and its discourses have no reset-button –, but also by cultural factors. According to the World Values Survey, all these countries harbor collectivist societies, and these tend to make marked distinctions between ingroup and outgroup members (Triandis, et al., 1988). People tightly attach themselves to groups and crave for benefits only for the fellows of their own collective, while preferring to exclude outside members. The dichotomy of friend-foe is therefore much more salient in collectivist than in individualistic societies. It is thus essential, also in politics, to clearly determine who is a ‘friend’, which implies – as apprehended by Thomas Morus – that the excluded ones are (potential) enemies.

Public Diplomacy

Beyond superficial terminology, there is a reason why state awards in general are gaining popularity. If diplomacy is the ‘mediation of the Other’ (Der Derian, 2009), then that ‘Other’ has increasingly been identified not only with the heads of states and diplomats of other countries, but also with their general publics. These private individuals and mass audiences are the targets of so-called public diplomacy, in which governments strategically attempt to foster relationships not with other governments, but with foreign publics. State awards are a useful means to signal shared values with these ‘Others’, to communicate a willingness to engage foreign non-state actors, and to manage relationships with opinion leaders outside one’s boundaries. The bonds created by ceremonies of state awards bestowals stir up gratitude, praise or honor, all of which are emotions that entice targeted actors from other countries – the CEO of a large energy company (such as Rex Tillerson in 2013) being such an example.


Despite its prominence in Ancient, Medieval and early Modern periods, the concept of ‘friendship’ has almost completely vanished from Western political theory. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a dozen of state awards labelled ‘Order of Friendship’ came into existence in (post-)Socialist countries, most recently in China in 2016. Their appellation can be traced back to the Stalinist concept of ‘friendship of peoples’, and to the collectivist societies’ need to determine ingroup (friends) and outgroup members (foes). The general popularity of state awards parallel the increasing importance of public diplomacy which is about governments strategically fostering ties with foreign individuals and foreign publics, rather than with foreign governments. Friendship, however, is not necessarily simply an abstract label; as experienced by the Russian essayist Andrei Bitov, citizens of the Soviet Union “hid behind terminologies and translations about ‘friendship of peoples’, but the reality was different; indeed, what we had were actual friendships.”


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