The cog that slipped: Chiang Ching-kuo’s Russian odyssey

This is the original text of a piece that The Diplomat ran as the lead article in the October issue of their magazine. Although the editor was nice enough to give me this slot as it gave me more space, I still had to hack away mercilessly to the get things down to just under 4,000 words. Alas, that still proved too long or, rather, my admittedly meandering intro did not fit with their usual more straightforward style. That said, the editor herself called it “lovely” and expressed regret at having to chop it. I’ve restored it (and the corresponding ending) here, along with the other cuts that I made, plus a couple of extra things that I hadn’t included in the first place. There really was just so much fascinating material that it was very difficult for me to pare it down. The tangential stuff (on the Soviet literary scene, for example) was an obvious place to start but as an inveterate tangentialist, I still found it tough. The Diplomat version is behind a paywall, and I am posting this here with kind permission from the editor. 

Chiang Ching-kuo and his wife Faina on holiday circa summer 1935. In his biography of Chiang, Jay Taylor states that this “treat provided only to the most favored workers and cadres” took place in the Crimea. Uralmash Senior Staff Scientist Sergey Ageyev says it was actually in Sochi.

For a fortnight in summer, clouds of fluff float through Russia for thousands of miles, from the Siberian steppes to the border with Finland. This is the seed of the balsam poplar, planted to fleck the drab canvas of postwar Soviet urbanization with green.

The policy worked well – the flecks becoming brushstrokes. Hardy, fast growers, the poplars were also efficient C02 absorbers, a bonus as the Soviet Union continued its frenetic industrialization. Unfortunately, directives to plant only male trees were ignored – hence the fluff.

As a hub for industry, Yekaterinberg experienced an assiduous poplar-planting drive and is thus beset by the airborne irritant on an unparalleled scale. The fluff came late this year, a reprieve for the participants in the four FIFA World Cup games hosted by the city.

Weeks later, it’s everywhere: wafting along the metro line; tickling the sheen of department store floors and, most of all, clogging up gutters in clumps like the barbershop leftovers of a million shorn Tolstoys.

It can be found at Uralmash heavy machinery plant, too, though in smaller quantities. This is surprising, considering the “father of factories,” as it was known, is engulfed by verdure. Once, the whole district was forest. Visiting in 1932, when the city had been renamed Sverdlovsk, and construction of the plant was ongoing, the writer Mikhail Prishkin was dismayed by the encroachment onto the original pine woodlands. “We walked in the place where one engineer had lost his way in the forest last year,” his memoir records. “Now here some forgotten trees stick out among the city.”

As one of the facilitators of this incursion, the engineer V. Anfimov was also not without regret for the destruction of what had been a rustic lifestyle of wild berries and mushrooms, haystacks and horses, earth houses and frolicking youngsters.

Yet, Anfimov had no doubt of the necessity of this mechanical assertion of man’s will over nature. In his diary, which documented half a century of life at the plant, he included the following verse:

Here, here sometime about thirty years ago

There was a forest everywhere, roads ran …

Well, now instead of the forest – the boulevards, Parks, houses, shops, stadium …

All these streets, squares, gardens,

We made, we planted

Our works were put

Here when we raised our city!

If Anfimov’s tone was triumphant, the novelist Lev Ovalov was positively zealous in his depiction of life in and around the factory. In his novel Zina Demina, which was penned just five years after Prishkin’s visit, the berries still abound, factory employees hunt before work and forest rangers fish and splash in the nearby lake. Far from a few forlorn stragglers, Ovalov’s forest “wraps the working settlement up with an endless unstructured space.” It is a willing recipient of the concrete monster’s advances for which it “parts, yielding to the settlement.” Finally, in the most rapturous passage, we are told that “One can walk a day, and a night, and another day, and another night, and the forest will still drag on.”

Sergey Ageyev, senior staff scientist and unofficial historian of the Uralmash Museum introduces some of the factory’s history.

Sergey Ageyev, senior staff scientist and de facto historian of the Uralmash museum admits Ovalov’s account was somewhat fanciful. “Not everything was accurate,” Ageyev says of the novelist who worked for a time at the factory. “But some details about working life were right, though, of course, in compliance with the ideology of those days.” The most obvious example is novel’s depiction of an almost symbiotic union between factory and surroundings, an attempt to paint socialism as part of the natural order.

But it is the characters that are truly interesting. For in the eponymous heroine Zina, a factory worker, and her lover Zhou, the son of a governor of Nationalist China, we have the fictionalization of an extraordinary footnote to pre-war Sino-Soviet relations.

When Nikolai Vladimir Elizarov joined Uralmash in 1932, he stood out. Diminutive and ebullient, he was the only Chinese in the city. Moreover, he carried an air of distinction. Even those unaware of his background noticed the energy and commitment he put into every undertaking.

Those in the know were perhaps even more impressed. For the young Elizarov was Chiang Ching-kuo, son of China’s President Chiang Kai-shek. That such a man was prepared to graft among the hoi-polloi – which, despite their grand words on fraternity, few Bolshevik luminaries ever did – immediately allayed any prejudices his colleagues had. Initially resentful at a foreigner walking into a management role, factory worker Maria Anikeyeva admitted that “the Chinese … is very smart.” She and her husband Fyodor grew to respect and retain a deep affection for Chiang. “It always seemed that he was trying to open you up completely,” she observed. “We never saw him unhappy.”

They were not alone. “People liked him,” says Ageyev. “He was a smart guy. Most importantly, he managed to penetrate the working environment and understood all of its values.”

Thanks to Jay Taylor’s biography, The Generalissimo’s Son, and Yueh Sheng’s account of his time at the Comintern Sun Yat-Sen University in Moscow (Sunovka), we have a detailed understanding of Chiang Ching kuo’s 12 years in Soviet Russia. However, discrepancies between sources exist.

Arriving in Moscow as a 15-year-old in 1925, Chiang excelled at Sunovka under the tutelage of the Trotskyite Karl Radek. According to Taylor, students were handed a list of Russian names after settling into their dormitories, and Chiang randomly ended up with Nikolai Vladimirovich Elizarov.

Actually, that’s not right,” says Ageyev. “He lived with Mark Elizarov, the husband of Lenin’s sister [Anna Elizarova]. His surname was taken from the family, and the patronymic from Lenin’s first name, Vladimir. As for ‘Nikolai’ – that was Lenin’s pen name. When he first began publishing, Lenin signed his name as ‘Nikolai Lenin’. That’s how Chiang got his Russian name.”*

Similar claims about Chiang’s residence with the Elizarovs appeared in a popular Russian-language biography of Chiang Kai-shek called The Fate of the Chinese Napoleon, which was published in 1989. Yet Vladilen Vorontsov’s book is riddled with mistakes and attempts to downplay the economic success that Taiwan was at the time enjoying.(A particularly ludicrous claim was that the country had “failed to achieve significant success in switching its export to more modern products.”)

It’s true there were a lot of inconsistencies and inaccuracies in that book,” says Ageyev. “Firstly, he wrote that Chiang was involved in the construction of the plant, but when he arrived, the plant was already functioning. Moreover, he was a senior manager and never had tools in his hand,” he adds.

But the part about how Chiang got his Russian name is correct. A friend of the Elizarov family confirmed these details with me.”

Fyodor Anikeyev, left, and his wife became close friends of the Chiangs and were frequent guests at their apartment, where Chiang Ching-kuo is said to have danced traditional Russian jigs and belted out songs in his adopted language. Anikeyev was also Faina’s shift manager and served as the matchmaker for the couple. He was renowned as one of Soviet Russia’s foremost machine assembly experts.

Chiang graduated from Sunovka a year early as one of the top five candidates and went on to the Central Tolmatchev Military and Political Institute in St. Petersburg – then Leningrad – where he finished top of his class. In what became a familiar refrain throughout his time in Russia, he was described as “very talented” and “the best student at the Academy.” He was also trained in propaganda at a language institute, another detail missing from the biographies.

He then became an airforce graduate, though not as a pilot but as a political commissar,” says Ageyev. It is not completely clear why he did not pursue a military career, but Taylor cites concerns that becoming a Soviet officer might have compromised his career in China and thus his usefulness to the Russians. The Comintern also clearly wanted him “to learn about the life of the proletariat,” as Chiang himself acknowledges in the autobiography he compiled for candidate membership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

They wanted him to experience the lives of the workers – to understand socialism in practice,” says Ageyev. “It’s rather like Xi Jinping being sent to work with pigs during the Cultural Revolution, to get rid of all those bourgeois ideas.”

After a stint at the Dynamo Electrical Plant – where in addition to exhausting shifts as a machine-tool operator, he took evening classes in engineering and delivered lectures in military science to his colleagues – he also worked on a kolkhoz in a village near the city of Ryazan. This was doubtless a deliberate ploy by the authorities. The farms in this region were among the few exceptions to the havoc being wreaked nationwide by collectivization, and were thus perfect propaganda tools. Apart from the uncouthness of the peasants, Chiang had no criticisms of the “model farm.” Remarkably, within months, the peasants had elected him chairman of the commune.

Then come the lost months and, here again, there is considerable divergence between sources. According to his autobiography, Chiang was sent to the Altai region of Siberia, where he worked “side by side with professors, students, aristocrats, rich farmers and robbers.” Although he didn’t call it the Gulag, he refers to an “exile.” The diverse social strata of his coworkers who, in Chiang’s words, were all there due to “an unlooked for, unexpected misfortune” is also revealing.

However, as Taylor observes, there are no references to this alleged nine-month side-trip in any of the Soviet archives. It is even missing from the chronology that Chiang provided in the autobiography. “Yes, there is this tale about him almost dying of hunger at a gold mine but I think it’s fake,” says Ageyev. “When he was hired, there was not a single statement made about the mines in the application form.”

Furthermore, based on the autobiography, Taylor has Chiang working two spells at Uralmash – a brief stint in late 1932, cut short by one of several illnesses he suffered while in Russia (probably related to diabetes and exacerbated by heavy drinking) – then a second five-year period following the Siberian episode. Again, Ageyev says the records don’t support this.

Regardless, while the “exile” seems unlikely to have been an invention – at least not on Chiang’s part – the circumstances remain unclear. In Moscow, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) representative to Comintern Wang Ming – later known for his “28 Bolsheviks” challenge to Mao Zedong – was irked by Chiang’s presence in the capital.

Chiang’s status as a scion of the Kuomintang (KMT) leader was doubtless a factor, as were his Trotskyite leanings, which he had renounced soon after his mentor Radek was removed as rector of Sunovka. Several times, Wang bent the ear of Comintern top brass, recommending an extended vacation for his compatriot. While the Comintern would not have acted solely on such requests, it seems rather coincidental that “a gold mine in Siberia” is exactly what Wang had suggested.

Wang Ming was not a big fan of CCK, perhaps partly because of the latter’s popularity with Chinese of all stripes in Moscow. He agitated on more than one occasion to get Chiang carted off to Siberia. He would later briefly emerge as a rival to Mao Zedong back in China before being reduced to a fringe figure in the CCP. He was fortunate enough to escape with his life and eventually returned to Moscow in 1956, where he lived, penning the odd diatribe against Mao, until 1974.

Taylor has another theory. “Odd as it may seem,” he writes, “it is likely that following his illness on first arrival in Sverdlovsk, the authorities sent Ching-kuo to Altai not as a punishment but for his health – to get him out of the terrible pollution.”

Ageyev is dismissive. “I have strong doubts that the climate in a mine would be better than here,” he says.

Chiang certainly did work in two different roles at Uralmash – first as a deputy supervisor, then as the editor of the factory news bulletin. It was in the former capacity that he met Faina Vakhreva. “Though she came from peasant stock and knew nothing of Chinese values, she tried her best to integrate,” says Ageyev. “For this reason, Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling were very fond of her.”

Faina’s family had fled Belarus for the Urals during WWI. “We suspect that she might have been Jewish,” says Ageyev, citing the virulent antisemitism of Grand Duke Nicholas, who in 1915 was appointed commander of the Russian army. “Nicholas saw all Jews as spies and carried out mass relocations to 300 km beyond from front lines.”

However, it seems just as likely that the were Russian-subject Baltic Germans or any one of a number of ill-defined “enemy subjects.” Igor Sitnikov, a Russian former resident of Taiwan who claims to have interviewed Faina shortly before her death in 2004 believes she was Finnish from the way she spoke broken, heavily accented Russian.

There’s no hint of that,” says Ageyev. “Russia is a multinational country with all types of accents. I can also tell you that her work application shows that she wasn’t very literate, so she would obviously sounded quite different to an educated Russian.”

Dimitriy Safonov, the director of the Uralmash museum concurs. “She was probably born near the border with Lithuania, so the dialects would be mixed,” he says. “Besides, it’s obvious that when one is in a foreign language environment and doesn’t have a chance to speak to a native speaker for all those years, an accent develops.”

Brought up by her elder sister, Faina initially lived in dormitories and worked as a milling machinist, producing small parts. As his friend Fyodor Anikeyev was her shift manager, Chiang had the perfect excuse for an introduction.

Faina’s best friend was Tatyana Karelina, a speed skater who set five world records over a 16-year career. She also scooped gold and silver in the 1000m and 3000m respectively at the 1950 World Championships in Moscow and won a national cycling championship the following summer. Dubbed the “Ural Lightning” and the “Queen of Uralmash” her twin career as plant worker and athlete was a propaganda boon for the Kremlin. Her skates take pride of place alongside her photo in a display cabinet at the Uralmash museum.

Tatyana Karelina’s skates.

In Ovalov’s novel, renamed The Morning Shift in a second edition, the protagonist Zina Demina jilts her lover Zhou, refusing to return with him to China. “She was too much involved in socialist competition,” says Ageyev referring to the peculiarly Soviet phenomenon of pitting various state industries and employees against one another in a kind of relentless gamification of the workplace. “Because of her dedication to the competition, when Zhou asks her to go back home, she refuses,” says Ageyev. “But in reality it was different. Tatyana kept up a correspondence with Faina for the rest of her life, asking when she would return to Russia, but she never did.”

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Chiang’s time at Uralmash was his relationship with those charged with “taking care” of him. There was a fine line between ensuring his well-being and watching for signs of recidivism into “incorrect” ideology. To ensure this balance was struck, he needed to be surrounded by “the right people,” says Ageyev. As a hardline Trotskyite, the literary critic Leopold Averbakh was not a natural choice.

A reviled figure, Averbakh destroyed the careers of several prominent writers – most notably Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose dystopian satire We became the first work to be banned by Soviet censors. Though Averkbakh had not played a hand in that, as head of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP), his 1929 campaign against “bourgeois” writers culminated in exile and poverty for Zamyatin. Other victims of the campaign were less fortunate.

He was,” says Ageyev, “an odious and offensive personality – a demagogue with powerful figures behind him.” These backers included his brother-in-law, the notorious NKVD head Genrikh Yagoda and the writer Maxim Gorky with whom he penned a bizarre paean to the White Sea Canal construction, a forced labor project overseen by Yagoda, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of convicts. “Quite why Gorky supported him, I don’t know,” says Ageyev. “Perhaps he was losing his mind.”

Leopold Averbakh and Maxim Gorky share a word in happier times.

As a symbol of oppression in artistic life, RAPP was loathed by most writers, albeit silently. Not everyone bit their tongue. Boris Pasternak commented that “Soviet literature is in slavery,” a pun on the Russian word rab (раб), meaning slave. Another courageously outspoken critic of Averbakh’s intolerance was Mikhail Bulgakov. Averbakh had taken the great novelist to task as early as 1923, branding him someone “doesn’t pretend to disguise himself as a fellow traveler.” Three years later, in a tract called About Proletarian Literature, which he lambasted Bulgakov as “the most prominent representative of the right wing.”

Bulgakov’s career was eventually ruined by repeated attacks, and he was particularly wounded he had the last, albeit posthumous, laugh in his classic satire The Master and Margarita. The novel begins with the execution of Mikhail Berlioz, the head of a writer’s association called MASSOLIT, and the character can be seen as an allusion to Averbach and his ilk. Along with Berlioz, the character of Ariman – another literary critic – has also been seen as representing Aberbakh, the name, which is borrowed from a Zoroastrian demon, supposedly alluding to his malevolent character.

Strangely, Bulgakov enjoyed the protection of Stalin, who was incensed to learn that the writer’s play The Days of the Turbins had been taken out of the repertoire of all theaters. The play was a dramatization of an earlier novel The White Guard, parts of which had appeared in a literary journal called Rossiya, which the authorities shut down before the serialization was complete. As with The Master and Margarita, the full text was not published in Russia until more than 25 years after Bulgakov’s death in 1940. Unlike Averbakh and like-minded proletarian-literature zealots, who saw the novel and play as a sympathetic elegy to the bourgeois refugees it depicted, Stalin greatly admired the work. And while he refused to grant Bulgakov’s request to emigrate, Stalin eventually permitted the writer to eke out a living as an assistant director at Konstantin Stanislavksi’s Moscow Art Theater. (In a later, uncompleted novel, Bulgakov sent up the legendary director’s “method acting” techniques, which he saw as both an obstacle to the actors’ performances and damaging to the few of his plays of his that the company managed to stage.)

It is interesting to ponder whether Stalin’s paradoxical and seemingly arbitrary taste for certain “bourgeois” writers such as Bulgakov may have been Averbakh’s undoing. “Stalin got tired of Averbakh because the Central Committee, meaning Stalin himself, was supposed to govern Soviet literature – not a person called Averbakh,” says Ageyev. “That’s why, in 1932, this association was dismissed and the Union of Soviet Writers established. Despite Gorky’s protests, Averbakh was not included in the management of this union.”

As with nearly all such moves by Stalin, the snub and subsequent reassignment to Uralmash as secretary of the plant party committee signaled the beginning of the end. It took a further five years, but with Yagoda and Gorky dead, Averbakh was unprotected. He went the same way as many of his victims – dispatched with a shot to the back of the head after a summary trial. Bulgakov’s prognostication about a sticky end for the likes of Averbakh had been eerily prescient. “This is where they came for him,” says Ageyev. “He desperately started criticizing Trotsky, but it didn’t work. Everyone close to Trotsky was terminated, including the Komsomol First Secretary [Yefim] Tsetlin, another person looking after Chiang in the early days.”

An information board with a short biography of former Komsomol head Yefim Tsetlin who was an early mentor to Chiang. The bio ends, like so many of the era, with the dates of his arrest and execution.

Rigid dogma and repulsive personality aside, Averbakh was regarded as a formidable intellectual and rhetorician.** It is a further testament to Chiang’s own capabilities that, as a non-native speaker, he was considered second only to the RAPP head in eloquence, his lectures on international affairs drawing large audiences. “He was so clever, so knowledgeable,” Anikeyeva said.

After their marriage in 1935, the Chiangs lived in a communal apartment suite. Next door to them was the young writer Ovalov, and his illustrious neighbors provided the substance of his novel. In his early years at least, Ovalov fared better than Averbakh at flying under the radar. Later, he too was to suffer for his art, serving 15 years in the the Gulag.

Ovalov, whose real name was Shapalov, achieved fame in 1939 with the publication of the first of his immensely popular Major Pronin novels.

As innocuous as it may now seem, the detective genre was a risky business for writers in Stalin’s Russia. From the 1920s onward, these incredibly popular novels were suppressed because of the threat their mass appeal posed to Party control of literature. As Catherine Theimer Nepomnyashchy has pointed out, another reason for the crackdown was that the genre “upholds the prevailing social order.” Traditional Western sleuths fight crimes against private property, so these tales functioned as “an affirmation of the capitalist structure.”

Yet, Ovalov was canny enough to make his protagonist an expert in counter-espionage working for the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. The censors could hardly fault a hero who tackled counter-revolutionary misdeeds. Ovalov may even have drawn on personal experience. “It’s possible that he was one of those keeping an eye on Chiang,” says Ageyev.***


Major Pronin, left, and his creator Lev Ovalov (born Lev Shapalov). After his release from the Gulag, Ovalov continued writing detective fiction, with one of his later novels about a “Russian James Bond” apparently falling foul of the censors. In the 1990s, a Captain Pronin cartoon became popular, spawning books and video games. The protagonist was depicted as the Major’s grandson, though the cartoon’s creator admitted not really knowing anything about the original stories.

Aside from the chaperones, everyone seemed to be watching the Chiangs. “Faina once gave an interview saying they were controlled and followed 24/7 – at work and outside,” says Ageyev. Things appear to have gotten worse after Chiang was appointed editor of the bulletin.

There are many reports about Nikolai Elizarov, filed with the ministry of home affairs by journalists at the paper, saying they saw a spy sitting next to them,” says Ageyev. “One contains 19 pieces of proof that Elizarov was a spy. Most of these ‘proofs’ were quite ridiculous, including that he had two surnames and that he bought vodka and food for the staff. ‘Where was he getting his money?’ they wondered. It must have been from Chinese intelligence!”

Further suspicion was aroused by several botched attempts by the Chinese Embassy in Moscow to contact him surreptitiously. “Maria Anikeyeva said they were always trying to restore connections,” says Ageyev. “It wasn’t difficult to find an Asian in the Urals, but the embassy sent covert emissaries. They were detected, arrested and their fate was probably rather regrettable,” he says.

Interestingly, we also have reliable information that Japanese intelligence tried to approach him, perhaps to take him hostage and put pressure on his father. Everyone wanted to manipulate Chiang Kai-shek – he became a pawn in a game,” says Ageyev, pointing out that his adoptive son Chiang Wei-kuo served in the Wehrmacht in Nazi Germany. “That’s why Ching-kuo was kept here.”

Left: Chiang Ching-kuo’s enrolment form for the Uralmash plant. It is interesting to note that his year of birth is given as 1909, when it was in fact 1910. Perhaps the mistake came from a misunderstanding because of the Chinese custom of adding an extra year to a person’s age (to reflect the year of pregnancy).
Right: Chiang’s handwritten application for membership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Walking around the Uralmash Museum is an intriguing experience. On the ground floor, photos of former PRC presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao overlook a display cabinet with artefacts related to Chiang’s life at the factory. It features his original staff enrolment form complete with signature, his application for CPSU membership, photos with Faina and colleagues, and a photocopied manuscript of Ovalov’s novel. Images of workers from China who were sent to the factory for training in the 1950s are on a wall close by and, on the back wall, there are banners thanking Uralmash and Russia for technical cooperation and training.  

Tomorrow we’re hosting a delegation from Taiwan and next week we’ll have the governor of Heilongjiang Province. In fact, if you take a look at the guestbook, nearly all of the records are in Chinese,” says Ageyev. “The most interesting thing is that when Chinese visitors come, they’re most interested in the Taiwanese stuff and the same for the Taiwanese – they’re curious about our relationship with China.”

He chuckles as he recounts some of the more amusing incidents that he has witnessed, several of which involve Taiwanese visitors who seemed determined to impose their own take on what Chiang’s years at the plant must have been like.

Some years ago when Taiwanese journalists came to make a documentary, they asked about his supposed participation in the construction,” says Ageyev. “We assured them that he was never involved, but they had this scenario in their head and weren’t prepared to change it. They just filmed the documentary in accordance with this preconception,” he adds, shaking his head.

Then there was a group from Taipei who insisted on seeing the room where he worked. We don’t know the exact room so we just made a guess. They sat there at the desk, imagining him doing the same, so they could go home and tell everyone they sat in the seat of Chiang Ching-kuo.” As he reflects on this strange little fantasy, Ageyev shrugs, arms out to the side and palms facing upward in a “what-can-you-do?” type motion. “It made them happy,” he says.

Chiang with Uralmash staff. The photo was taken during work on a project to build pipes for the Moscow Metro. Are the same parts that Chiang’s team worked on still functioning? “I haven’t heard anything about them being replaced!” says Ageyev.

There’s also a photo of Chiang’s friend Ankiyev. “He was a famous machine assembly expert – experienced in the whole science of assembly,” says Ageyev. “He became the head of the assembly shop and it the 1950s, he was posted to Beijing to work in the trade representative office and was responsible for shipments from Uralmash for Chinese industry. Because Chinese didn’t have this heavy industry at the beginning. Because of the strong British influence in the south of China – Shanghai and Canton – they already had some light industry but in the north of the country – Heilongjiang – they received heavy machinery for metallurgical production from Russia. Anikeyev made a great contribution.”

By far the most controversial aspect of Chiang Ching-kuo’s life is the question of transformation from zealous Bolshevik to rabid anti-Red.

In 1927, responding to news of the Shanghai Massacre, a bloody crackdown against the CCP by his father, Chiang publicly denounced the Generalissimo as a “counter-revolutionary” and “traitor.” In a subsequent press statement he wrote, “I do not know you as my father anymore.”

Yet, on his return to China, at barely 30 years old, he helmed a dogged counter-revolutionary initiative in Gannan, southern Jiangxi Province, supported by Wang Sheng, a staunch anticommunist who remained his right-hand man for almost half a century. Then, from 1950 to 1965, as the eminence gris behind the various branches of Taiwan’s security apparatus, Chiang oversaw the imprisonment, torture and execution of thousands of alleged subversives. While their persecutor had once been a faithful adherent of the German economist’s teachings, many of these supposed “Reds” knew nothing of Marx. Although, Taylor insists that Chiang was “not brutal” by nature, he had no qualms in realizing his father’s order to “not let one guilty escape, even if a hundred are mistakenly killed,” a prescription which almost verbatim matches an order by Lenin during the Red Terror.

Chiang and Uralmash employees with the composer Sergei Prokofiev. “It was a kind of fashion at the time for outstanding figures from arts and culture to visit factories or groups of workers,” says Ageyev. “It was known as ‘the meeting of working environment and culture.'” The composer gave a series of concerts and lectures at the factory’s University of Musical Culture on one of his returns to Russia in 1935. The following year he was to settle in Moscow permanently after more than 15 years of self-imposed exile in the Unites States and Europe. During this time he was at work on Peter and the Wolf.

How do we reconcile these two sides of Chiang – the zealous Bolshevik and the orchestrator of Taiwan’s White Terror? Did his orthodoxy come under duress? This seems unlikely. Firstly, Stalin was still backing Chiang Kai-shek at that point – at least outwardly. Indeed, this was a bone of contention with the Trotskyites who had long scorned the Generalissimo’s revolutionary credentials. Moreover, Chiang remained openly Trotskyite until the aforementioned repudiation, a much riskier proposition than support for his father. The truth, as usual, is more nuanced.

Based on what people who knew him told me, I believe he was sincere,” says Ageyev. “He was deeply involved in Communist ideals and even became a Soviet citizen,” he says.

Of course, if he hadn’t conformed, he could have been executed. So, to start with, he was a genuine Communist, but after he visited Lubyanka, when some of his best friends were executed, when he witnessed hundreds of people being arrested but at the same time, such awful people like Averbakh being well received, there was a transformation in his mind. I don’t find that surprising.”

Dimitriy Safonov, the director of the Uralmash museum, stands in front of a table of CCP memorabilia, including a portrait of Mao Zedong.

In Counterrevolution in China, Thomas Marks presents much the same view, noting that Chiang had first-hand experience of Stalinism at work and “knew [it] to be a monster.”

Along with Radek, most of Chiang’s friends and mentors had been executed or exiled by the time he left Russia in 1937. Tsetlin was shot shortly before Chiang’s return to China, as were all four of his Komsomol successors, including Lazar Shatskin, with whom Chiang was also well acquainted. Bukharin suffered the same fate the following year. The civil war hero Mikhail Tukhachevksy, who had taught Chiang military strategy at Tolmatchev was executed three months after his star pupil’s departure.

Yet it is clear that Chiang never completely discarded his Russian training and love for the culture and country. He continued to speak Russian with his wife even in Taiwan until finally deciding that as an avowed anticommunist, it might not be a good idea, at least not in public. He was fond of Russian poetry though, interestingly, it was the verses of the great Ukrainian national hero Taras Shevchenko that he continued to recite right up to his dotage.

Furthermore, any Damascene conversion he underwent was not immediate. As late as 1945, he was milking his old connections to meet with Uralmash officials in Heilongjiang. In Jiangsu, he was to mirror the “hearts and minds” tactics of the Communists, leading to accusations by KMT officials that he was “at best a CCP fellow traveler, at worst a an agent of the Soviet Union.”

While Marks insists “nothing could have been further from reality,” it’s not hard to see why suspicions were aroused. From the Cadre Training Course he established in Gannan and its successor, the Political Warfare Cadres Academy in Taipei, to the commissar system that so irked his U.S. allies, Chiang brought the theory and training he had garnered in Russia to bear.

Banners from labor organisations in China thanking Uralmash and Russia for technical cooperation and training.

In the 1960s, with relations between Beijing and Moscow frosty, there were several semi-official visits to Moscow by Republic of China officials. The journalist and probable KGB agent Victor Louis met Chiang in Taipei in 1968, conveying generally positive impressions and hints at trade opportunities on his return to Moscow. For his part, Chiang went so far as to raise the possibility of reestablishing ties. It is likely that he was playing tit-for-tat with Moscow, both sides hinting – Chiang to the U.S. and Brezhnev to China – that they had options, but it shows the considerable latitude he maintained.

Either way, the contention by one experienced that Asia correspondent that these tentative contacts “came to nought, and relations with the Soviet bloc reverted to the frosty distance that had characterised them since 1949” 1 is certainly wide of the mark. As the late China scholar Anthony Kubek observed in relation to these exchanges, “Desperate situations sometimes require desperate measures” 2 Officials officials later affirmed that more than 30 intelligence exchanges between Taipei and Moscow occurred from 1968 to 1969.

Several semi-official visits to Moscow by ROC officials took place during the same period, and when two cabinet ministers were permitted to attend a tourism conference in Bulgaria in 1969, Beijing fulminated while Western diplomats noted “a genuine thaw.” 3

Uralmash is the world! A painting from the lobby of the museum. The bald figure in the middle bears a striking resemblance to Averbakh.

Then, in the 1980s, with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan-yew as a conduit, Chiang maintained communications with Deng Xiaoping, his one-time Sunovka classmate. If Chiang’s father was a pragmatist, constantly angling for advantage from his alliances, and his successor as president, Lee Teng-hui, a political shape-shifter, Chiang Ching-kuo was perhaps the most enigmatic of all.

In A People’s Tragedy, his seminal work on the Russian Revolution, Orlando Figes has observed that “today’s nationalists are, for the most part, reformed Communists.” 4 While this would be an oversimplification of Chiang’s political metamorphosis, it is clear that the rigors of his early “revolutionary” training imbued his transition to authoritarian nationalism with its own logic.****

An aerial view of the Uralmash plant.

Having once been one of Stalin’s “’cogs’ who keep our great state machine running,” Chiang espoused a brand of autocracy that was similarly premised on the primacy of nation over individual. That many Taiwanese did not identify with China was as irrelevant to him as the desires of the people in the non-Russian borderlands were to Stalin and his fellow “Great Russian” chauvinists.

While propaganda and indoctrination were his preferred tools – in the 1970s and ’80s, Taiwan exported these to right-wing bedfellows in Latin America in a bid to rein in the excesses of their death squads – Chiang was not averse to more stringent measures. That he had no compunction in resorting to terror is peculiarly tragic, given his personal experience of extrajudicial tactics. In the end, like the torturers and killers of the Soviet secret services who had learned by example from their Tsarist persecutors, and with whom he was personally acquainted, Chiang tweaked and reapplied familiar methods.

Boris Muzrukov, director of Uralmash from 1939 to 1946/47. Muzrukov subsequently went on to become manager of Mayak, the first Russian nuclear facility, where highly secretive work on an atomic bomb began. All five uranium-graphite reactors at the facility were commissioned under his management. Seeing this portrait for the first time, my interpreter Ekaterina was gobsmacked: “He is the spitting image of my husband,” she said. The hubby in question is Boris Muzrukov’s grandson. That she was assigned as my interpreter was a quite remarkable coincidence. Although Ekaterina obviously knew about this family history, neither she nor her husband had been to the museum before. There is also a statue of Muzrukov outside the plant.

A fresh appraisal of Chiang’s years in Russia does not exculpate him; rather, it gives us a better insight into the complex psyche of a remarkable historical figure. His precise role in Taiwan’s transition to democracy is controversial. Much like the ephemeral orbs of poplar fluff melting into Yekaterinburg’s summer haze, the true essence of the man remains amorphous and elusive.


* Lenin’s nom de plum was actually just ‘N.’, but it was later supposed that this stood for ‘Nikolai’, so the name was commonly associated with him. 

** As an interesting aside, there is a further connection between Averbakh and Chiang. Averbakh was the nephew of Yakov Sverdlov, the first head of state of what would become the Soviet Union. His brother Zinovy (another uncle to Averbakh) was adopted by Gorky for reasons that remain mysterious. (It was rumored that Gorky might in fact be his biological father.) Zinovy took Gorky’s birth name of Peshkov as his surname and went on to become a well-known French general and close friend and confidante of Charles de Gaulle. He studied at the Sorbonne and fought in WWI, where he lost his right arm. In spite of his injury, he was awarded the rank of general – even though he never actually achieved it through merit. After he was appointed head of the French Military Mission in China in 1943 by Free France – de Gaulle’s government in exile – he became a close friend of Chiang Kai-shek. Because of his rapport with the Gimo, he was personally despatched by de Gaulle as an envoy to soften the blow of the break in relations between Paris and Taipei in 1964. Chiang’s affection for Peskov came from the latter’s wit and charm, and the KMT leader respectfully called him ambassador even though, as some wags pointed out, General Peshkov the French Ambassador to China was neither a general, nor a Peshkov, nor French, nor an ambassador! Peskov was also the Triple Entente representative in Yekaterinburg in WWI while his brother was the de jure leader of Soviet Russia. “It is said that when they communicated on the telephone, it was only swear words,” says Ageyev. “But life is life – it was civil war!”

*** It may seem strange that two well-known writers found themselves contemporaries at a factory in the Urals at the same point in the 1930s, but this was in keeping in the nature of Soviet Russia, where the strictures of socialist realism in all fields went hand in hand with an attempt to blur the line between artists and workers. The Proletkult movement was an early expression of this and Gorky, of course, was the chronicler par exemple, of the working poor. The apotheosis was Pavel Bazhov’s The Malachite Box, which blended fairytale magic with with “workers’ folklore.” A street in Yekaterinburg bears his name, and Sergei Prokofiev’s 1954 ballet The Tale of the Stone Flower was based on one of his stories. Prokofiev was another figure from the arts whom Chiang met when the composer gave a series of concerts and lectures at the factory’s University of Musical Culture on one of his returns to Russia in 1935. A photo of Uralmash employees, including Chiang, flanking Prokofiev can be seen in the Uralmash museum.

**** In his 1953 novel “A Pail of Oysters,” which was banned in Taiwan under the KMT, Vern Sneider makes an obvious reference to Chiang Ching-kuo and other senior KMT officials who trained in the Soviet Union. In a secret meeting with an underground Formosan “third way” activist, Mr. Chou, the American journalist Ralph Barton is told, “The larger, most powerful, and the faction which is controlling the party, consequently the Government is made up of a number of ex-Communists. Other members of this group have been trained in Russia. A very powerful figure in it has lived almost half his life there. While they are anti-Communist, still they grew up and were trained in Communistic methods. They seem able to think only in Communistic terms, which is certainly a limitation. And they say, in effect, the way to fight communism [sic] is with Communistic techniques … In their training they learned that anyone who criticizes the Communists is a reactionary. Since they changed politics, but not tactics, anyone who criticizes their views is a Communist. It’s merely a substitution of words.” (Sneider, V., “A Pale of Oysters,” Camphor Press, Manchester, UK, p.140.) As Yueh Sheng documents in his memoir (see p.2), the list of KMT figures who spent formative years in the Soviet Union, either at Sunovka or the Moscow Military Academy, is a long one. Interestingly, one of Mr. Chou’s chief objections to the KMT government is that the “Communist faction,” is stifling free-trade. Although the Leninist party structure, ideology and propaganda methods of the party are relatively well-known and documented, less has been written about the infiltration and effect of Leninist “total social control” on industry. For an interesting treatment of this issue and how it played out along ethnic lines, see this paper by National Taiwan University scholar Ming-Sho Ho.  

  1. Long, S. Taiwan: China’s Last Frontier, Macmillan, London, 1991, p.148.
  2. Kubek, A. Modernizing China: A Comparative Analysis of the Two Chinas, Regnery Gateway, Inc., Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 220.
  3. Share, M., Where Empires Collided: Russian and Soviet Relations with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao, The Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 2007.
  4. Figes, O., A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, The Bodley Head, London, 2017, p.824.

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