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February 27, 2014

Q&A with Austin Jersild: The Sino-Soviet Relationship

by Jim Stevenson

The 1950 Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance marked the beginning of a tense period between the former Soviet Union and China, contrary to the name of the treaty. As Moscow sought to build a strong communist ally in the Soviet Bloc’s Cold War struggle against the United States, Russian Imperialism rose to become a wedge that would alienate China, frustrate Bloc member nations and eventually collapse the Soviet Union. Austin Jersild, associate professor of history at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, delves into this fascinating aspect of relations in his new book, The Sino-Soviet Alliance. He tells Daybreak Asia host Jim Stevenson how recently opened Russian and Chinese archives are revealing intricate details of mutual frustrations seen in a wide variety of source material.
 

STEVENSON: The archives must provide some amazing insights for researchers and scholars, having the availability to a lot of these archives now, and gaining a picture of these relationships that we didn’t have before.
 
JERSILD: I just love that part of my work. Archival research is very fun, it’s very interesting. It is hard work and sometimes it is very slow and you kind of wonder about the nature of the progress that you are making. There are new opportunities here, new sources.
 
STEVENSON: At the risk of oversimplifying, it would seem the Soviets had wanted to at least make China somewhat in their own image. But did they underestimate the Chinese?
 
JERSILD: There was an ongoing problem there that was evident in some of the terms that eventually the other Bloc parties and the Chinese in particular used to describe the Soviets. They talked about great power, chauvinism or even kind of traditional Russian chauvinistic attitudes that were evident among the advisors themselves who maybe looked at China in a kind of condescending way as a traditional sort of Eastern and backward land, and that they were trying to enlighten and kind of culturally improve. All of this was very insulting to the Chinese and they began to talk about these things openly. They began to communicate with the other Bloc parties about these things.
 
STEVENSON: I wonder if that had an impact on some of the other members of the Soviet Bloc and eventually help to hasten the fall of the Soviet Union.
 
JERSILD: I think that is definitely part of the long term picture. In the short term, the East and central European parties were not going to side with the Chinese. There was nothing there for them especially in the vision of The Great Leap Forward as it is unfolding from 1958 to 1960 and a huge famine in China in 1961. But yes, in the longer term, globally, this is huge. The Sino-Soviet split is one of the biggest if not the biggest event in the history of socialism, of the history of the Cold War.
 
STEVENSON: How would you categorize the state of Sino-Russian relations at this point, is it a matter of what the Russians can learn from the Chinese now?
 
JERSILD: That is an interesting transformation. A common slogan in the 1950s was the importance of learning from the Soviet Union. It was a ubiquitous Chinese slogan. That is absurd now. We can’t imagine a public campaign of that sort today. What can the Russians learn from the Chinese? That is an interesting question. They can learn a lot obviously, like we all can. But the problem I think from the Russian perspective is that there still remains a kind of disbelief that an Eastern society, part of Asia, could be so much more productive and better than them. That history, I think, is difficult for Russia to overcome when now, as you say, the relationship has been reversed. If anything, there is more from Russia to learn from China than there is for China to learn from Russia.