CHEN Zhihong

Hiding their extreme political rivalries, leaders of the revolutionary Right and Left pose before a train at the start of the Northern Expedition. From far left, the Russian agent Mikhail Borodin, a Chinese secretary, Borodin’s wife, Fanya, Madame Lioa Chung-k’ai, the second Madame Chiang Kai-shek (apparently pregnant at the time), Moscow’s General Galen, Chiang Kai-shek himself, his son, Wei-kuo, and Rightist Tai Ch’i-tao. Seated is Chiang’s “evil genius,” the crippled millionaire Chang Ching-chang. PHOTO COURTESY ASIA MAGAZINE.

In the early 1920s the Russian-born Mikhail Borodin, a Bolshevik Party member, became one of Moscow’s most influential foreign operatives in China. As chief advisor to Sun Yat-sen he led the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) to adopt Leninist ideals, and went on to play a key role in Soviet secret diplomacy.

Mikhail Markovich Gruzenberg, alias Borodin, was born in Yanovichi of Vitebsk Province in Russia. He joined the Bolshevik Party in 1903. After the 1905 revolution he emigrated to the United States and set up a school for immigrant children and propagated socialism in Chicago. In the wake of the October Revolution of 1917 Borodin hurried home to place himself at the service of Communist leader Vladimir Lenin. He undertook a series of secret assignments for the Bolshevik Party in Scandinavia, Spain, Turkey, Britain, and Germany, earning the reputation of being a man capable of handling all kinds of complexities.

In the early 1920s Moscow adopted a dual policy toward China, nurturing revolutionary goals and pursuing Soviet national interests. In 1923 Borodin became one of Moscow’s foreign operatives in China. After arriving in China Borodin served as the chief advisor of Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang). He guided the transformation of the Nationalist Party into a Leninist party, playing a crucial role in creating the “united front” between the Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In 1926–27 he was a driving force behind the decisions leading to the Northern Expedition and so-called Great Revolution, aimed at defeating various warlords and achieving China’s unification. Many scholars thus believed that Borodin was an agent of the Comintern (the Communist International established in 1919 and dissolved in 1943) and that the main goal of his China mission was to “make revolution.”

New Russian and Chinese documentation reveals that the Bolshevik Party Politburo, rather than the Comintern, sent Borodin to China. Borodin’s assignments in China went far beyond “making revolution.” A principal agent of Soviet policy toward China, he followed Moscow’s instructions to coordinate his activities with Lev Karakhan, the top Soviet diplomat in China. His monthly reports to Moscow also went through Karakhan in Beijing. In addition to working with Sun, Borodin was involved in almost every important aspect of Soviet operations in China, including secret diplomacy with the northeast warlord Zhang Zuolin and the warlord government in Beijing. In May 1924 Borodin and Karakhan cooperated to make the Beijing government sign the Sino-Soviet agreement on terms satisfactory to Moscow. Consequently, the China Eastern Railway was continuously managed by the Soviets, and the Red Army remained in Mongolia.

After Sun’s death in March 1925, Chiang Kai-shek became the Nationalist Party leader. In March 1926 Chiang acted to restrict the CCP’s influence within the Nationalist Party. Because Moscow’s main strategic goal was to check Zhang Zuolin and the expanding Japanese influence in Manchuria, Borodin urged the CCP to compromise with Chiang. After Zhang expelled Karakhan from China in October 1926, Moscow appointed Borodin to be the top Soviet representative in China. Borodin assumed the overall responsibilities in dealing with the Nationalist Party, the CCP, and the various warlords—including the warlord-controlled Beijing government. Following Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s strict instructions, Borodin emphasized the importance of relying on the Nationalist Party–CCP united front. Even after Chiang’s anti-Communist coup in April 1927, Borodin obeyed Stalin and continuously made efforts to work with the Nationalist Party left wing, represented by Wang Jingwei in Wuhan, until Wang announced a split with the CCP and Moscow in July 1927. Borodin’s China mission failed.

In the same month Borodin left China. After returning to Moscow he was assigned a few insignificant positions, among them an editorship of an English-language newspaper in Moscow. He survived the Great Purge of the 1930s. However, when the Chinese Communist revolution achieved nationwide victory in 1949, he was arrested. He died in a labor camp in Siberia in October 1951.

Further Reading

Chen Zhihong. (2000). Die China-Mission Michail Borodins bis zum Tod Sun Yatsens—Ein Beitrag zur sowjetischen Chinapolitik in den Jahren 1923–25 [Mikhail Borodin’s China mission up to the death of Sun Yatsen: A study of Soviet policy toward China, 1923–1925]. Münster, Germany: Lit Verlag.

Holubnychy, L. (1979). Michael Borodin and the Chinese revolution, 1923–1925. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jacobs, D. N. (1981). Borodin—Stalin’s man in China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Source: Chen, Zhihong. (2009). BORODIN Mikhail. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 192–193. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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