The future leader of Taiwan spent his formative years as a passionate communist, studying and working in the Soviet Union.
Novelist Lev Ovalov made that much clear in Zina Demina, his 1937 novel based on life at Uralmash. In his description, berries abound, factory employees hunt before work, and forest rangers fish and splash in the nearby lake. 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 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. 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 Vladimirovich 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 Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek. That a 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 Sun Yat-Sen University in Moscow (Sunovka), a Communist International (Comintern) school, we have a detailed understanding of Chiang Ching-kuo’s 12 years in Soviet Russia. However, discrepancies between the 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. 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. A friend of the Elizarov family confirmed these details.”
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 air force graduate, though not as a pilot but as a political commissar,” says Ageyev. It is not completely clear why Chiang 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 [current Chinese President] 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, Chiang took evening classes in engineering and delivered lectures in military science to his colleagues – he also worked on a kolkhoz, a collective farm, 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 caused 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 Chiang didn't call it the gulag, he refers to it as 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.
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, his future wife.
Faina’s family had fled Belarus for the Urals during World War I. “We suspect that she might have been Jewish,” says Ageyev, citing the virulent anti-semitism 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 front lines.”
Brought up by her elder sister, Faina initially lived in dormitories and worked as a milling machinist, producing small parts.
Tatyana Karelina, Faina’s best friend, was a speed skater who set five world records over a 16-year career. She also took gold and silver in the 1,000 meters and 3,000 meters, 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 a plant worker and an 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.
As his friend Fyodor Anikeyev was Faina’s shift manager, Chiang had the perfect excuse for an introduction. They married in March 1935 and the next year when he returned to China, she went with him.
“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 [Chiang Kai-shek’s wife] were very fond of her.”
Ovalov’s novel, renamed The Morning Shift in a second edition, gives the relationship a different ending. 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 Averbakh 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.”
Averbakh (left) and Gorky chat
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 outspoken critic of Averbakh’s intolerance was Mikhail Bulgakov. His career was ruined by repeated attacks, yet he had the last, posthumous laugh, satirizing RAPP and foretelling Averbakh's downfall in his magnus opus The Master and Margarita.
Indeed, 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.
“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.”
Rigid dogma and repulsive personality aside, Averbakh was a formidable intellectual and rhetorician. It is a further testament to Chiang’s own capabilities that, as a non-native Russian 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,” Ankiyeva said.
After their marriage in 1935, the Chiangs lived in a communal apartment suite. Next door 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 gulag.
Ovalov, whose real name was Shapalov, achieved fame in 1939 with the publication of the first of his immensely popular Major Pronin novels. Although detective fiction fell out of favor under Stalin because of the perceived threat its mass appeal posed, Ovalov made his protagonist an expert in counterespionage 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.
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.”
“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.”
Sergey Ageyev, senior staff scientist at Uralmash, shows a historical display at the factory.
By far the most controversial aspect of Chiang Ching-kuo’s life is the question of his transformation from zealous Bolshevik to rabid anti-communist.
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 anti-communist who remained his right-hand man for almost half a century. Then, from 1950 to 1965, after the KMT government fled to Taiwan, Chiang Ching-kuo served as the eminence grise behind the various branches of Taiwan’s security apparatus. In that post, 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.
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. First, 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.”
“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 [the notorious secret police headquarters in Moscow], when some of his best friends were executed, when he witnessed hundreds of people being arrested but at the same time, and such awful people like Averbakh being well-received, there was a transformation in his mind. I don't find that surprising.”
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 Tukhachevsky, 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. 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 an agent of the Soviet Union.
Chiang and Uralmash colleagues with the composer Sergei Prokofiev.
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.
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 re-establishing ties. It is likely that he was playing tit-for-tat with Moscow, both sides hinting – Chiang to the United States and Brezhnev to China – that they had options, but it shows the considerable latitude he maintained.
In 1971, Foreign Minister Chou Siu-kai publicly broached the possibility of relations with the Soviet bloc nations, earning himself a demotion. The rebuke seems to have come from Chiang Kai-shek, and it is telling that on Chiang Ching-kuo’s ascension to the presidency in 1978, Chou was reinstated as a policy adviser. There was sufficient concern in the United States about a possible accommodation between Moscow and Taipei for American media to press Chiang on the issue in a interview shortly after Washington’s diplomatic rupture with Taipei in 1979.
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 observes that “today’s nationalists are, for the most part, reformed Communists.” 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.
Having once been one of Stalin’s “cogs” who keep the “great state machine running,” Chiang espoused a brand of autocracy that was similarly premised on the primacy of the nation over the 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 with 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.
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. The true essence of the man remains amorphous and elusive.