On March 1969, two red behemoths stood on the brink of war. On the Soviet side, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were amassed along the southern border and over a million Chinese faced them. The Communist states of China and Russia, allegedly allies against the global “bourgeoisie” order, were now massed along the border of Northern Xinjiang province (China) and Soviet Tajikistan. Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the CCP, wanted territories, including the Zhenbao (Damanskii) string of islands, which had been ceded to Tsarist Russia during the time of the Qing Dynasty. While supposedly standing in solidarity against capitalism, there had been ongoing struggles since the death of Stalin with Mao’s policies, most importantly on China’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. More than just a fight over land, this was a showdown between the personalities of Brezhnev and Mao, and the outcome would ultimately lead to a shift in the Cold War.
While relations between the two power had been souring since the late 1950s, it all but collapsed when the Chinese swarmed a Soviet-controlled position on China’s border. Prefaced by Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1966, which saw the complete radicalization of China’s youth and military, and a series of anti-Soviet remarks from the great leader himself, the situation was tense to say the least. The result was a series of amphibious invasions, artillery bombardments, and mechanized assaults that left nearly 100 dead and many more wounded on both sides. The Chinese took over Damanskii island which started a chain of attacks and counterattacks on both sides. Cruelties were inflicted to soldiers by both belligerents, and the threat of nuclear arms had been raised. On the Soviet side, the fear of a massive Chinese invasion with millions of zealous Maoists rushing into Russia raised a near panic. Diplomatic measures were restored by October of that year and control of the islands would eventually be ceded to China by 1991. While full-out war did not occur, the conflict itself revealed a chink in the unity of international Communism.
Communism in China has been a subject of struggle and contention since it was introduced by the Soviets in the 1920s. Through great hardships and impossible odds, Mao pushed back both the Japanese invaders and Nationalist Kuomintang forces from his country and establish his party in 1949. What followed was a personality cult similar to Stalin’s, with all the trappings of a complete dictatorship. Under Stalin, the Soviets contributed greatly to China’s initial industrial expansion through a mutual-aid alliance treaty; however, this sentiment dissolved when the Soviet dictator died. With Khrushchev and later Brezhnev, Mao found little respect or commonality and relations went froze fast (Freeze, pg. 428). De-Stalinization and The Thaw may have been a great sign to Western nations, but to Mao, it was the ultimate betrayal of Communism and Marxist-Leninism. The denial to help the Chinese build nuclear weapons was used as evidence of racism by Mao, and from all these events, we can see how world war nearly ignited, again.
The fracture of Communist unity was a turning point in the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s eastern bulwark was fractured, with the US on all sides, and a hostile Mao, and later Deng Xiaoping, to its south, they seemed to stand alone. This was compounded by talks between Nixon and Mao in 1972, a nightmarish situation for the Soviet regime. Under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, Soviet gains diminished as economic and party growth continued to decline (Freeze, pg. 440). The great victories in the 60’s faded into a tumultuous period of instability and conflict from the 70’s on to the Soviet’s collapse (Freeze, pg. 445). The Communist experiment was increasingly at risk as the Comintern failed to birth sustainable regimes. Without the undeniable leadership of individuals like Stalin, it seemed that even the Russian Soviet could not get itself together. With the fight at Damanskii and the loss of its Chinese allies, we can see how the misfortunes of the Soviet Union would continue to grow in the years to come.
Freeze, Gregory, L. Russia: A History, Third Edition. Oxford University Press [New York]. 2009.
Mao Zedong, “OUTLINE FOR A SPEECH ON THE INTERNATIONAL SITUATION”. Mao Zedong’s Manuscripts since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China), vol. 8 (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1993), 599-603. Translated by David Wolff. 1959.
“Soviet Report to East German Leadership on Sino-Soviet Border Clashes ,” March 02, 1969, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, SAMPO-BArch J IV 2/202/359. Translated by Christian F. Ostermann. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116975
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5 Replies to “Showdown at Damanskii!”
This is a really great post! I think conflicts like this can get lost or forgotten in the overview of world history but they explain so much about national relationships. Really fantastic post, very informative and beautifully written.
I appreciate your deep dive into the Domanskii islands dispute. It reminds us of the real human costs of the geo-political stand-offs and tensions. It would be interesting to see how this episode was covered by the Soviet press (using the Current digest). Also, check out Anderson’s post on the Sino-Soviet split: https://ap2cr.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/the-sino-soviet-split/comment-page-1/#comment-23
I really like this post! I find the Sino-Soviet split very interesting! Especially the debate of “who was more communist than who,” (I also love seeing sino-soviet cooperation posters that feature both Chinese and Russian!)
Ethan I really enjoyed your post because it was a topic I hadn’t much about previously. Mostly when I think of the Post Stalin area I think of the social shifts in Russia and the Cold War. What I didn’t realize was that while Russia was “fighting” the Cold War with America, they were also feeling pressures from their communist neighbor China. I liked that your post detailed a part of history that probably does not get as much coverage in Western history since it is two countries on the Asian continent.
It is funny to see Marx’s prophecy of communism fall apart. While Marx believed in International Communism doing away with borders, the conflict at Damanskii shows that this is far from the truth. Good research, good post!