In the conventional political history of Sino-Soviet relations, 1926 and 1927 were years of increasing strain. Stalin and the Comintern supported an alliance formed in 1923 between China’s nationalist Kuomintang party (KMT) and the Chinese Communists to oppose the European “imperialists” and the warlords who dominated northern China and unify the country. But the KMT was split between pro- and anti-Communist factions, and there were divisions within the Soviet leadership about the alliance as well: Stalin’s great rival Leon Trotsky opposed it.
Things looked simpler in Moscow, however, to those outside the Politburo. The Soviet public, reading in newspapers about the heroic struggle of Chinese revolutionaries against imperialism, gathered that a great victory was close, and this seemed to be confirmed when Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT forces entered Shanghai in March 1927. “Shanghai Has Been Taken!” trumpeted the headline on the front page of Pravda. The KMT and the Communist-led Shanghai workers were said to have formed a triumphant alliance and declared a general strike “in honor of the nationalist forces.”
According to Elizabeth McGuire’s Red at Heart, this was the heyday of the Sino-Soviet romance, when young Chinese students fell in love with Russia and revolution, not clearly distinguishing between the two, and strangers on Moscow streets blew kisses at them. Sergei Tretiakov’s new anti-imperialist drama Roar, China! was playing at Moscow’s Meyerhold Theater, and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky “bawled out/…louder/than the trumpets of Jericho” his solidarity with the Chinese revolution.
Then came disaster. In the “Shanghai massacre” of April 1927, Chiang turned on the Communists, killing and arresting many, and the fledgling Chinese Communist Party, isolated and discredited, had to go underground. It was a terrible blow for the Moscow-led Comintern and the Soviet leadership, both of which were deeply invested in the Chinese struggle—potentially the first big gain for world revolution since the disappointing fizzling of revolution in Western Europe after World War I. Stalin, personally responsible for the Chinese Communist strategy of working for revolution from within the KMT rather than against it, suffered a humiliating setback. The Soviet public was disappointed, and Trotsky, who had criticized Stalin’s China strategy, was proven correct. Many Chinese Communists were disillusioned with Moscow, but the disillusionment went both ways. In Moscow, one of those Chinese students who had been feted just days before had a tomato thrown at him.
McGuire takes the idea of a Sino-Soviet romance seriously, indeed literally: Red at Heart is about Chinese and Russians falling in love with one another, the children they had, and the complications that ensued. In the language of current academic fashion, her book is a contribution to the history of emotions. As she points out, “marriage” and “divorce” are terms often used metaphorically…
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