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Stalin and the Far East: A Selection
A focus on Stalin and the Far East as a research category is quickly undermined by its heterogeneous parts. For this list, even limited to the main countries on Stalin’s playing field, we have a wide range of partners, topics, considerations, etc. Since materials in Stalin’s personal foreign policy archive in opis’ 11 of fond 558 were mostly organized into country files, my selection comes mainly from these, chosen both for historical importance and usefulness in showing how Stalinist foreign policy was conducted. There are still many “blank spots,” whole files that have not yet been declassified. There is no reason to expect them anytime soon. “Korea,” for example, has not been opened, so below I provide no materials on Korea. On the other hand, China, Japan, India and Mongolia are all well-represented, showing off various phases and styles of Stalinist diplomacy.
China was probably Stalin’s highest hope and priority for would not a socialist victory in the world’s most populous country almost guarantee the success of the world revolution? But China between 1911 and 1949 was never a unitary entity, so it had to be captured piecemeal through a multilevel game. These documents make this clear, as Stalin negotiates with generals, secretary generals, foreign ministers and warlords. Although the crushed revolution of 1927 was a huge humiliation for Stalin, compounded by Trotsky’s taunts, he remained engaged with the China question, following the factional infighting of both the Nationalist and Communist parties as they fought out their enmity across China during the Long March. By 1936, the Communists had installed themselves in Yenan and could receive military aid directly from Mongolia, including “foreign-type ammunition” to camouflage provenance. A year later, the Japanese invaded China proper across the Marco Polo Bridge and Chiang Kaishek requested emergency aid. Stalin and Molotov assented wholeheartedly, knowing that widespread war in China could delay a Japanese attack on the Soviet border.
Folders 321, 324 and 325 show a steady parade of Nationalist politicians and generals coming to Moscow to beg proudly for desperately needed war materiel. The Sino-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty of August 1937 was an early fruit of this process that sent hundreds of airplanes and hundreds of advisors to China as well, but when Chiang offered a 50-year alliance in April 1939, Stalin penned in “boorishness” (khamstvo) in the margin and left it at that. As aid to Chiang dwindled, both arms and cash continued to flow on a more modest scale to the Communists. The contents of Folders 322, 326, 327 and 328 remain classified and unavailable, filled with crucial materials for understanding relations with both the KMT and the CCP at the highest levels in the 1940s. By the time we reach Folder 329, the Communists had won the civil war, so the chronological file contains stenograms of Stalin meetings with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi, the top Politburo members. The two conversations with Mao are the only ones for which we have records during Mao’s only visit to Moscow in late 1949 – early 1950. On his departure, capped by the conclusion of the Treaty of Friendship with the USSR, Mao hosted a reception at the Metropole Hotel. The invitation to Stalin, sent by the Chinese Ambassador and preserved in Folder 329, invites both the Soviet leader and his wife, dead since 1929, to the affair. This was China’s diplomatic debut in the socialist world! The following twenty files are all closed, sealing off our knowledge both on Stalin’s continuing relations with the PRC, but also his handling of the Korean War, since “Korea” follows “Kitai” in Russian. The next open files concern “Kuba.”
Aside from Stalin’s complex role in the great battle for China waged between the two Parties, an interesting sidelight is provided by Folder 323, Stalin’s relations with the Chinese Governor (Duban) of Xinjiang province in the Chinese Northwest. Not only did the Soviets provide Governor Shen Shicai with essential military aid to end the challenge from Muslim cavalry, but then Stalin also began to provide oil drilling equipment for Xinjiang. The grateful Governor responded with urgent entreaties to be allowed to join the Soviet Communist Party. This courtship went on from 1934 to 1938, when the wish was finally granted during a visit to Moscow and a personal meeting with Stalin. But the honeymoon did not last long and soon Stalin betrayed Shen to Chiang Kaishek, as an intriguer who might play into the hands of the Japanese.
This experience of encouraging and cultivating separatist individuals in the Sino-Soviet borderlands would be repeated several times, most notoriously by Stalin’s flirtation with the Manchurian Communist leader Gao Gang, who is rumored to have proposed that Manchuria become the 17th Soviet Republic at a 1949 Politburo meeting in Moscow. The Mongolian leader Tsedenbal would make a similar suggestion for Mongolia a few years later. Since Tuva, lying between Mongolia and Xinjiang had been absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1944, a clear and realistic example was apparent for those who sought their fate through union with the Union.
Under strong Soviet influence since 1921, the Mongolian People’s Republic was the oldest satellite of Soviet power. Early documents in the collection detail the campaign against the lamas, monastic followers of the Mongolian version of shamanistic Buddhism, who comprised more than 10% of the male population in the 1920s. By 1933, Stalin had equated the lamaseries with the Russian Orthodox Church, to be tamed and plundered. In line with these plans, tantamount to cultural revolution for Mongolia, Stalin sent the General Secretary Genden a rifle for shooting wolves “of both the human and non-human kind.” Genden’s resistance to this plan would be his downfall. By 1935, a military pact had also been signed, but Stalin wanted a more extensive agreement that would allow the Red Army to be stationed openly on Mongolian soil to deter the Japanese, just across the border into Manchuria. The next leader, Amar, acceding to power in 1936, would deliver this, but would not live to see its fruits, in the successful repulse of Japanese attack at Khalkin Gol / Nomonhan in August 1939. Stenograms of postwar meetings with Choibalsan, Amar’s successor, and Tsedenbal, who followed Choibalsan, round out the collection.
The Japanese selection is even more eclectic as wartime materials seem to have gone elsewhere or are, as yet, unclassified. Correspondence with Molotov in 1926 makes clear the close connections between China and Japan policies. In the 1930s, the Soviet spy network had reached its apogee providing materials entering Japan from abroad and leaving Japan in many directions. In this collection we see purloined cables from both an American ambassador and a Japanese military attaché. Such dishonest activities carried out by Soviet agencies could only make Stalin suspicious that others were doing the same. In July 1937, Stalin proofread a Pravda article about Japanese spies. In October, the 170,000 Koreans of the Russian Far East would be deported to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on little notice for potentially harboring spies in their midst. This was Stalin’s first ethnic deportation, setting the example for many to come. Such were the fears and fates of the prewar.
The Soviet-Japanese non-aggression pact is not documented in this collection, except for the brief mention by diplomat Saionji who had participated in the Matsuoka delegation to Moscow in March-April 1941. He reminded Stalin of his 1940 statement, identifying himself as an “Asian.” In contrast, there are important materials here for an analysis of the Soviet decision to attend the 1951 San Francisco peace conference, but not to sign the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Folder 405 also details Stalin’s sending of a New Year’s greeting to the people of Japan for 1952, wishing them freedom from their American and capitalist overlords. In reaction, a steady stream of newspapermen and parliamentarians began to arrive in Moscow, seeking an audience with Stalin, in order to achieve a rapprochement with Tokyo. The conclusion of a peace treaty with Moscow, on Tokyo’s terms, remains the Holy Grail of Japanese diplomacy (together with a seat on the UN Security Council).
The materials on India cover a very different story, but one which reveals much about Stalin’s handling of revolutionary parties in waiting. Although the CP India had been dominated by Maoists in 1949, hoping to spread peasant revolt in the province of Telangana throughout the country, the Nehru government’s successful suppression soon led to a split in the Party that only Stalin’s authority, it appeared, could heal. The top leaders of the fractions were summoned to Moscow, smuggled in on a Russian freighter. First, they were interviewed for hours by a team of top party members, headed by Malenkov. The stenogram of this interrogation, along with an analytical memorandum, and biographical information on the leaders was sent to Stalin, who then invited the visitors for a talk. It lasted three hours as Stalin led the Indian comrades to the realization that they needed a shared program to unite the Party. Stalin himself ended up composing it. With program in hand, the Indians returned to India, but the split continued. This would not have bothered Stalin much, as he had decided to work with Nehru, generously described in the transcripts as “not a puppet.”
Thus, in this selection, through Stalin’s eyes, we observe the situation in the key Northeast Asian countries and India. Stalin meets the leaders of the pre- and postwar era, both state leaders and out-of-power Communist party leaders. With state leaders, his constant goal in the unstable interwar and postwar was to conclude binding agreements to Soviet advantage. With Communist parties striving for power, he attempted to forge shared vision by the codification of party programs. Documents always remained central to Stalin’s vision, leaving us this treasure trove that will be even more valuable after additional declassifications.