The Sino-Soviet Split


Mao Zedong and Stalin (BBC News

On February 24th, 1956 Nikita Khrushchev gave his “Secret Speech” “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” to the assembled delegates of the Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress. In it, Khrushchev harshly criticized Stalin both politically and personally for the violent nature of his government, the cult that surrounded him, and his frequent use of purges to eliminate threats both real and imagined. His speech to the Twentieth Congress marked a shift from the unfettered adoration of Stalin to one of “de-Stalinization:” an attempt to revert back to the views of Lenin, which Khrushchev and other de-Stalinizers criticized him of having strayed from. But this shift in policy created problems on the international front for the USSR, particularly with Communist China and its leader, Mao Zedong. The tension between the Soviet Union and China–two of the world’s largest Communist powers–emerged out of Kruschev and Mao’s differences on Marxist orthodoxy, as fears in Russia that their place as unquestioned leader of the Communist bloc would be challenged by a surging China.

As a strongman leader who aimed to modernize China in order to protect them from an imperialist and aggressive West, in many ways, Mao Zedong sought to emulate Stalin. Mao was incensed by the policy of de-Stalinization, viewing it as a form of historical revisionism. He also was angered by Khrushchev’s policy of peaceful coexistence with the West, believing that he was far too accommodating to hostile Western powers. In addition Khrushchev’s refusal to help China develop nuclear weapons exacerbated tensions between the two. (Freeze 428)

Mao Zedong also sought to modernize and industrialize China in a way that was unique to a Chinese brand of Communism; creating angst and distrust in a Russia that emphasized a common path to socialism for all bloc countries. One of the best primary resources we have on these developing tensions between Soviet Russia and Communist China is the CAESAR, POLO, and ESAU Papers, declassified writings from the CIA on Sino-Soviet relations. In the Esau papers, the CIA notes and analyzes these tensions in regards to Chinese policy and how it diverged from official Soviet policy. They assert in regards to China’s divergent policy:

“The appearance of Communist China’s commune program in the fall of 1958 introduced a basic source of discord into Sino-Soviet relations which persists to the present day. Conceived as the instrument for achieving rapid economic and social development leading to the early advent of the Communist society, the commune epitomized a distinctive Chinese road to socialism and Communism which diverged sharply from Soviet precedent and experience.” (pg. 92)

The CIA also noted how Chinese policy could potentially be attractive to Eastern European Countries in the Soviet bloc, intensifying tensions between Russia and China. The CIA writes that into consideration needed to be taken:

“The appeal – to Stalinist elements in Eastern Europe of China’s hard-line approach to economic development; admiration for the spectacular achievements claimed for the “great leap forward”; esteem for the apparently high level of party morale and popular enthusiasm generated by China’s unorthodox program promising the early attainment of Communism; and, perhaps, an awareness of the advantages of a second ideological center within the bloc as a counter weight to Soviet dictation and control. For our purposes, it is more important to note the existence of this phenomenon as a disruptive factor in bloc politics inviting prompt and vigorous countermeasures from Moscow.” (pg. 96)

The possibility of the Chinese version of Communism appealing to other bloc countries did worry Moscow as they viewed that it could possibly jeopardize their dominance in the Communist world. And “prompt and vigorous countermeasures” were taken. In 1960 all Soviet personnel were withdrawn from China as relations became much more antagonistic as the two countries competed with each other for leadership of world Communism. (Steinberg 583)


Russia A History, Third Edition. Gregory L Freeze

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. Oxford University Press, 2018.




4 thoughts on “The Sino-Soviet Split

  1. Anderson, great post! I think you did a great job explaining why Chinese communism was seen as such a threat– it wasn’t complying with the Soviet view of a world revolution with its unique form of Communism. I like how you used so many declassified CIA sources, were you able to find any Soviet sources on the topic?


    1. Agree with Caroline — your analysis of why Chinese communism would be so threatening to the Soviets is really strong. It is counter-intuitive in some respects, as you would expect communist regimes to stick together! But then the Yugoslav example also reminds us that the Soviet might have been first, but they weren’t the only communist / socialist option. I really like the way you used the declassified CIA sources — and yes, it would be interesting to see how the rift was covered in the Soviet press.


  2. Excellently written post on an interesting topic, Anderson. It is odd to me that the Chinese considered Khrushchev’s reversion to a more Marxist-Leninist conception of communism a case of historical revisionism when, if anybody, Stalin was the one guilty of such a thing. Part of me thinks that perhaps the main reason Mao was preferential towards Stalin’s methods was that he himself, was in many ways a tyrannical strongman, much like Stalin. Do you agree or do you think the difference of opinion is rooted in much more complex sociocultural or other factors?


  3. You had excellent sources in your blog post that really added a backbone to support your argument. This post is interesting to read after talking about Ethan’s post in class about the showdown at Damankii over disputed territorially claims. A lot of tensions can be seen between these two communist powerhouse nations and it is very intriguing to think about what could have happened if the tensions were scaled up and made globally.


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