Clashing With the Soviet Ex-Master

  • Share
  • Read Later
For a few terrifying months in 1969, tension between Beijing and Moscow threatened to develop into full-scale combat. The spark was a March 2 clash between Soviet and Chinese forces on an uninhabited island in the icy Ussuri River that separates Manchuria from Russia's Far East. The Sino-Soviet relationship had never been quite right. The pair were initially too close (Mao spent two months in Moscow just after the People's Republic was founded), and then too easily became enemies. In the first decade of the PRC, Beijing copied virtually everything from the Soviets, from five-year economic plans to the surveillance teams that watched dissidents and foreign residents. The Soviets supplied MiGs to fight in Korea; Chinese kids learned Russian. China, Mao said, was leaning on one side, toward its northern neighbor. Things began to unravel in the late 1950s. One key factor, oddly, was an internal Soviet affair: Nikita Khrushchev's secret 1956 speech denouncing Stalin. As welcome as his words were to many Soviets, Mao hated them. As China's Stalin (and Lenin), he rejected such a departure from communist orthodoxy and feared Khrushchev's grab for world stature. In 1960, Soviet experts started pulling out of China, leaving behind unfinished projects like the Nanjing Bridge. The dispute turned bloody on the Ussuri in 1969. Chinese soldiers crossed the ice to the island and dug foxholes, apparently trying to provoke a response. Reinforcements arrived the next day, shouting Maoist slogans. The Soviets approached in trucks, dismounted and locked arms, attempting to block the Chinese advance. According to Russian accounts, the Chinese pulled aside, revealing a second, armed line of troops who opened fire with submachine guns. After a two-hour clash, two dozen Soviet soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese were dead. Yevgeny Yevtushenko composed a poem to warn that Russia was ready to crush the Chinese as it had the Mongols at Kulikovo 600 years earlier: There will be enough warrior knights/ For many more Kulikovos. A second incident erupted March 15, this time started by Russians. Chinese casualties apparently totaled in the hundreds. Subsequent clashes occurred in Xinjiang, and belligerent rhetoric heightened fears that war might ensue. China accelerated the move of key industries to the hinterland to protect them from an air attack. Finally the pair stepped back from the brink. In October a Soviet delegation arrived in Beijing to talk peace. The discussions dragged on, but the worst was over. Within a year, China decided to counter the threat by playing the American card. By 1972, Richard Nixon was in Beijing.