His Man in Canton

Borodin; drawing by David Levine

In the Chinese united front of the mid-1920s, the Soviet agent Borodin has been a protean figure. Bringing Leninist skills, arms, and advisers to Canton, he seemed to be the priceless ingredient that finally catalyzed Sun Yat-sen’s revolution. Borodin drafted the Kuomintang’s constitution and taught it how to be revolutionary long enough to take power. He really put the Kuomintang (KMT) in business. By rights there ought to be a bronze statue of Borodin at one of those big intersections in Taipei.

Dan Jacobs, however, seems a bit shrill when he opens his book with “Borodin, the Bolshevik conqueror of half of China.” He has written a readable and judicious summary of Borodin’s career as depicted in English and Russian sources, a worthy achievement made possible by entirely neglecting the much more extensive sources still in Chinese. He should not claim too much. Bringing Borodin’s career into verified form is a contribution even if it leaves him still badly out of focus.

First, on Borodin’s early career, Dan Jacobs makes plain that he began as a true Bolshevik, in on the ground floor of Lenin’s movement. Borodin’s original name was Mikhail Markovich Gruzenberg (1884-1951). A Russian Jew from Riga, he was among the first hundred Bolsheviks to follow Lenin from 1903. He joined him in Switzerland in 1904. He already spoke Yiddish, Russian, German, and Latvian and was an able fixer among the fanatically disputatious social democrats. At the Bolshevik conference in Finland in 1905 he met the Georgian Koba-Ivanovich-Djugashvili, later to be known as Stalin. They worked together at the Stockholm conference in 1906, where Borodin at age twenty-one was a rising young revolutionary leader. But then one of those funny things happened. He had to go back to square one and start over.

In 1906 Borodin was arrested by the Tsarist police and deported to England. He soon crossed over to Boston. By 1908 he was attending Valparaiso University at Valparaiso, Indiana, and in 1909 he began teaching English to immigrants at Hull House in Chicago. He also ran his own night school, the Berg Progressive Preparatory School. This American career, complete with family, gave him a self-taught education plus perspective and flexibility. It made him an Americanized Russian, which made all the difference when he got to China and dealt with Americanized Chinese.

When Borodin returned to Russia in July 1918, after twelve years abroad, he saw Lenin again, then worked conspiratorially for six months in Scandinavia. After the Comintern (CI) was set up in 1919 he soon became one of its top agents. He carried funds for CI work to Germany, Switzerland, and Holland and tried to get Carl Sandburg and Jane Addams to smuggle funds to Chicago. Coming back to America he went to Mexico City and helped found the Mexican CP in 1920. After helping also to organize the second CI congress in Moscow, Borodin worked mainly…

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