Who can I trust after this?

Miriam Dobson

  • Red at Heart: How Chinese Communists Fell in Love with the Russian Revolution by Elizabeth McGuire
    Oxford, 480 pp, £25.00, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 19 064055 2

Beijing, 1920. A young member of the new Communist Party in China, Zhang Guotao, is discussing revolutionary politics with a Comintern representative dispatched from Moscow. ‘Filled with youthful enthusiasm’, the Russian visitor ‘very easily fell in with people that held the new attitudes … And he drew no distinction between Chinese and foreigners, between the yellow and white races … His behaviour showed him to be truly a new kind of Russian emerging from the Revolution.’ For Zhang, the encounter was unexpected. Until the 1920s, as he later recalled, educated Chinese had viewed tsarist Russia as ‘filled with corruption, darkness, despotism and backwardness’. Russia was an aggressive neighbour greedy for Chinese territory. The people themselves were ‘looked upon as curious Arctic creatures, covered with long hair, dressed in heavy furs and given to drinking and arrogance. They were called “Old Hairy People”.’

Khabarovsk, 1931. Seventeen-year-old Liza Kishkina – daughter of a landowner who committed suicide during the Civil War that followed the 1917 revolutions – is nursing a crush on her boss, and playing tennis with him before breakfast. She writes to her mother:

Aunt Shurochka said that the Chinese are a hideous people (which by the way is now considered chauvinism), but it’s the opposite, they’re lovely! Of course I’m not talking about street traders, I’m talking about the ones who work with us as editors for the Chinese literature section. They are so very refined, they’ve graduated from universities, sometimes more than one … We have such a good time with them, they come over all the time, and we go swimming and play volleyball and they are teaching us to play tennis. It’s a wonderful game!

As both Kishkina and Zhang realised, perceptions of the Chinese/Russian ‘other’ underwent a rapid, if never completed, transformation in the 1920s and 1930s.

This transformation is at the heart of Elizabeth McGuire’s engrossing book. She is not the first to approach the history of the Soviet Union and Mao’s China in tandem, yet Red at Heart offers a highly original exploration of Chinese communism, putting the experiences and emotions of the young radicals who lived and studied in revolutionary Russia at the centre of the story. ‘No history that attempts to explain the great attraction of the Russian Revolution for the first generation of Chinese radicals can ignore, or take for granted, this overt mingling of the intimate and ideological,’ McGuire writes. Men and women from these once alien cultures met, tried to understand one another, flirted, had sex, got pregnant, argued, were separated, suffered and – sometimes – survived. In her book, the concept of a Sino-Soviet romance works at the level of metaphor, pointing to a cycle of infatuation and disillusionment that made for intense, interlocked, volatile relationships between the two communist cultures, but it also takes into account the actual love affairs that made Chinese communists so personally invested in the socialist cause, and in the unfurling revolution in Russia.

At the start of the century few could have foreseen the long entanglement between China and Russia. Young educated Chinese were beginning to challenge Confucian tradition, particularly the practice of arranged marriages, but it was initially the US and Western Europe that they looked to for inspiration. In the 1910s and early 1920s, a work-study programme took young Chinese to France, where they found jobs in factories and went to evening classes. Underfed and underwhelmed by the realities of European democracy, some joined communist groups. The young Chinese radicals struggling to get by in France in the early 1920s included the future communist leaders Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, as well as Emi Siao – one of the protagonists of Red at Heart. Keen to stay in Europe but desperately poor, Emi tried his luck first in Berlin and then in Moscow. He arrived there in the winter of 1922 and enrolled as a student at the Communist University for the Toilers of the East. It had been established the previous year, intended initially for young men and women from the ‘backward’ regions of the USSR, but by mid-decade its dormitories hosted nearly three hundred foreign students, many of them Chinese. Soviet leaders were increasingly keen that Chinese students come to Moscow: the German revolution may have foundered, but Soviet internationalists had not lost hope. In May 1925, anti-imperialist protests involving workers and students broke out in Shanghai, Guangdong and other major cities; later that year, the Chinese University opened its doors in Moscow.

Throughout the decade, a steady flow of young people made it to the Chinese University. Some were already committed to the communist cause, like Chen Bilan, the daughter of a landowning family in Hubei, who first encountered radical ideas while studying at a teacher training college, and – inspired by a visiting communist’s talk on ‘the woman question’ – began to speak out against the practice of arranged marriage. She broke with her fiancé and moved with friends to Shanghai, where she began learning Russian and met Qu Qiubai, China’s leading translator of Russian and Marxist literature. Other students at the Chinese University had a rather different political background. In the 1920s, the Comintern’s ‘United Front’ policy meant that Moscow was keen to enrol, educate and perhaps ensnare students associated with moderate socialist and national liberation parties. While in Moscow, Chen may have rubbed shoulders with Jiang Jingguo, the 15-year-old son of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, and Feng Funeng, the 14-year-old daughter of a ‘Christian warlord’ who was in Moscow negotiating with the Comintern. Two teenagers adrift in an adult world, Jiang and Feng conducted a typically doomed teenage romance. Less typically, their romantic exchanges ended up filed away in the Communist Party archive in Moscow.

For all these students, going to the new Soviet capital meant undergoing a deep personal transformation. When they arrived, many chose new names. In the early years, they named themselves after revolutionaries (there was a Lunacharsky, a Molotov, even a Stalin), or after revolutionary concepts (a Barrikadov, an Avangardov, a Proletariev). Jiang Jingguo would simply become Kolya, or Kolya-Kitaets – Kolya the Chinese. Sometimes it meant new outfits: in the early years, students who had arrived via France without warm clothes were given the uniforms of demobbed Red Army soldiers, and for months shuffled around in overcoats and boots several sizes too big. Most important, they tried to learn the new language. With translators thin on the ground, particularly in those early years, their only hope of mastering the language of revolution was to become fluent in Russian. It wasn’t easy.

Nor was it clear what being a revolutionary entailed on a day to day basis. Could students have fun? Was it OK to fall in love? For many, like Chen, the possibility of a more liberated personal life was, after all, what had attracted them to the revolutionary cause in the first place. In Shanghai and other hubs of radicalism, rumours circulated about life at the Chinese University; before they even boarded the train, ‘young revolutionaries came to associate Moscow with exciting romance and/or easy sex.’ ‘Everyone is pairing up. It’s really tiresome,’ the young Feng wrote to Jiang/Kolya in disgust, even though she too had a boyfriend. ‘The female comrades haven’t come here to study, they have simply come to have babies.’ Feng was partly correct: many Chinese women became pregnant during their time in Moscow, and some later left their children at an orphanage known as the interdom or ‘international house’. By the second half of the 1920s, a number of student leaders began to condemn the permissive culture around them and the campus became the site of bitter division. Chen faced criticism because her Shanghai-based boyfriend sent her an embroidered handkerchief – a petty bourgeois accoutrement. The many hours spent learning Russian also became a subject of heated debate. The same students who criticised their classmates for expending so much energy on their personal lives rather than focusing on the revolutionary cause also objected to the hours spent with their heads buried in Russian grammar books. ‘Was Marxism-Leninism a universally applicable, scientific theory,’ McGuire asks,

a set of formulas that could be learned in any language and applied in any culture if historical conditions were right? If so, why not learn them as quickly as possible in translation, get home, and get busy? Or was there something irreducibly Russian about revolution, something revolutionary about Russia, its language and its people? If so, what could be more revolutionary than spending all one’s time studying the language and flirting with Marfa, the proletarian cafeteria worker who had a string of Chinese competing for her affections?

Although the Russians in the Chinese University’s party branch worried that the students were suffering excessively from ‘love fervour’ and had a ‘heightened interest in squabbles and the sex question’ – perhaps a touch of Orientalist condescension from the Moscow communists here? – they also found time to fight over more explicitly political matters, and in 1927 a Trotskyist group formed on campus.

These debates were ended by the arrival of Stalinism. Karl Radek, the Trotskyist rector of the university who had encouraged the libertarian atmosphere on campus, was fired, and later arrested and shot. His Stalinist successor, Pavel Mif, still insisted on the primacy of the Russian language, but flirting was now out. (Marfa, presumably, went back to serving lunch unharassed.) Purge committees were set up on campus, and Mif’s acolytes were enlisted to select possible purge candidates from within the student body. By the early 1930s, the Chinese University had closed down. In its place, small numbers of Chinese students were enrolled on top-secret courses where they were instructed in underground work. In 1936, Wang Ming, a close associate of Mif, inaugurated an unsuccessful programme which took teenagers from the interdom and tried to turn them into Comintern operatives.

Mif and Wang had hoped to create a centralised communist party in China that closely resembled, and would loyally follow, the Stalinist example. As Mao’s control gradually tightened, the ability of the Comintern to dominate the Chinese Communist Party waned. But McGuire’s book suggests that Russian influence on Chinese communism was more personal and more enduring than might be assumed. Between 1945 and 1969, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party had 14 members: nine had lived in Moscow for a time; a further three – Mao was one – had biological or adopted children there. Almost all Chinese leaders had a ‘biographical investment’ in Soviet Russia. For those who had spent long stretches of their youth in Moscow, their identity as revolutionaries was inseparable from their experience of coming of age in the Soviet metropolis. (Admittedly, it didn’t always work out like this. Although he had denounced his father and flirted briefly with Trotskyism, Jiang Jingguo finally left the USSR and communism behind in 1937, eventually becoming the president of Taiwan.)

Now an established writer, Emi Siao, among others, worked tirelessly to establish the new Sino-Soviet Friendship Association, writing pamphlets, delivering speeches and organising exhibitions. Initially, the programme seems to have been successful: in the first decade, nearly 82 million copies of translated Russian novels and collections were sold and more than six hundred films were imported from the USSR. Young Chinese read socialist realist novels with titles like Cement; they became fans of Soviet movies; they went ice skating and listened to the music of the Piatnitsky Choir from loudspeakers. Brought in from the Soviet motherland, these cultural products were politically correct, but they also featured ideas of love and beauty more prominently, and perhaps more ambivalently, than contemporary Chinese work. The Sino-Soviet relationship thus continued to be something other than a platonic friendship: in the imagination of a second generation of Chinese, ‘Russia and romance’ were once again conflated. The Chinese who went to study in the USSR in the 1950s sometimes had a more complicated relationship with Russia and Russians – why did Soviet students drink so much, why didn’t they do more political work? – but there were still plenty of Chinese and Russians falling in love with one another.

If the first two-thirds of Red at Heart show that the relationship between Chinese and Russian communists was deeper, more entangled, more passionate than previously assumed, the final third gives a heart-rending account of what happened as that relationship broke down. Here, the Sino-Soviet split – often presented as a rapid and total rupture – is considered in the context of an ongoing relationship. Inviting us to see the Sino-Soviet story ‘as a cross-cultural interpersonal romance that began in the 1920s’, McGuire argues that once communists were in power in Beijing, ‘the stakes for its relationship with the Soviet Union rose dramatically, and with that came pressure and volatility – particularly for the Chinese Communist Party elite.’ (McGuire gives less attention to the perspective of those who propelled the breakdown: why did the relationship sour? Why was the crisis critical this time?) As the revolutions drew apart, those whose lives straddled the two cultures faced harsh choices: wives (it was usually wives) had to decide whether to follow their husbands back to China; and, later, Chinese (or half-Chinese) children raised in Soviet institutions had to decide where they would make their homes as adults.

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Those who had spent time in the USSR eventually found themselves vulnerable to the violence of the Cultural Revolution. Once Liza Kishkina had recovered from her crush on her tennis-playing boss, she married the communist leader Li Lisan. More than most, the couple experienced the vicissitudes of the Sino-Soviet love affair. Li arrived in Moscow from China in 1930 a discredited leader, but once resident in the Soviet capital he worked for the Comintern and the Foreign Workers’ Press. After his marriage to Liza in 1936, they lived at the Lux Hotel. In 1938, their harmonious life was shattered when Li was arrested. After twenty months in Taganka prison, he was – unusually for the time – released. In 1945 he was reinstated as a member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and immediately returned home. Liza followed him, first to Harbin and then to Beijing. In the 1950s Li and Liza were a celebrated example of the Sino-Soviet family. They lived well: Li was a member of the ruling circle; Liza taught Russian at a time when it was all the rage (Mao’s wife took private tuition from her ahead of a state visit to Moscow); their eight-room house was home to a cook, a nanny, their two daughters, a Russian and a Chinese grandmother and a dog. Even in these good times, marriage across borders could be painful: Liza felt isolated despite the presence of the many Russians who visited the People’s Republic in those years. ‘The period of the 1950s,’ she would later write, ‘is now called the “honeymoon” of the Soviet-Chinese friendship, but in fact there never was a time without conflict.’ Li pressed Liza to take Chinese citizenship, which she did, reluctantly. It wasn’t enough. As the Cultural Revolution gained momentum in early 1967, Liza and Li were denounced. Their home was raided, their dog’s lifestyle – he slept on a mattress and drank milk – taken as a sign of bourgeois excess. Li was interrogated both at home and at mass meetings known as ‘struggle sessions’. In one of the most painful passages in the book, Liza reads an entry from her daughter Alla’s diary:

I opened the first page and sat down in a state of shock. My daughter had written that she had just learned of the contents of the presentations by Tsi Ben’iuia, member of the Cultural Revolutionary Committee, who had announced at a meeting with rebels and Red Guards that Li Lisan is not a ‘paper tiger’, but a real counter-revolutionary who maintains secret contacts abroad, and Li Sha [Liza] is a major Soviet spy … ‘Is it possible that my mom whom I trusted absolutely, is actually so vile, so wretched?! Tsi Ben’iuia said it openly, which means it’s true. Who can I trust after this?’

In due course, Li, Liza and both daughters were arrested. In June 1967, Li was murdered; Liza survived eight years in prison. Aged 101, she died in a Beijing hospital in 2015, a survivor of an already vanished world: the widow of a Chinese communist born at the dawn of the 20th century, the daughter of a Russian landowner crushed by wars that followed the Bolshevik revolution.

For last year’s centenary, historians reflected on the legacies of the October Revolution. Historians’ ‘transnational turn’ has fostered a new set of interests, including the way the socialist experiment in the Soviet Union shaped the experiences of radicals and revolutionaries across the globe. McGuire’s fascinating book is an excellent example. Two aspects stand out. First, she conjures up a revolutionary intersection in the 1920s and 1930s when it seemed that global revolution might sweep away the old borders between states, the deep hostilities between peoples (Zhang’s ‘yellow and white races’), and the traditional divisions between women and men. Second, in her evocation of 1950s China and its new mass culture, we glimpse an alternative to the ‘American Century’: thousands of fans flocked to see Soviet movie stars on tour and young Chinese sang along to Russian love songs on the radio. Ultimately, the Soviets failed to create a mass culture to rival Hollywood (as Kristin Roth-Ey put it, they ‘built the media empire that lost the cultural cold war’), but a century after the Revolution, Sino-Russian alliances continue to offer a counterweight to American domination. Journalists, McGuire noted in a recent journal article, speak even of a ‘bromance’ between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. She argues that the ‘fundamental reorientation, by which two countries with mutually incomprehensible cultures and geopolitically clashing agendas became deeply, and irrevocably, related’ was one of the most durable legacies of 1917. It’s a provocative and original way of thinking about the connections between revolution, romance and international relations. Yet while its origins may lie in the 1920s, the values on which this 21st-century relationship rest seem very different from those that sparked the Chinese-Russian ‘love affair’ in the first place.