Immortal Meals #16: Stalin Meets China September 24, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
An immortal meal from 30 July 1949,* which took place at Stalin’s dacha in Kuntsevo. Present were Stalin himself, several politburo members and a number of the leaders (minus Mao) of the Chinese communist party, including Liu Shaoqi (obit 1969) . The reception is interesting from several points of view: a) because rarely have so many mass murderers been gathered together in a single room (forget being a fly it would have been better to have been a limpet mine on the wall); b) because of the hopeless task of trying to get two superficially similar but actually entirely different worldviews into synch; and c) for a particularly excruciating toast made by Uncle Joe at the end of meal that led to recriminations and offence.
Before this though some background. In the immediate post war period, and with a surprising lack of perception, the USSR had supported the Chinese Nationalists rather than Mao’s long marchers. The 1949 visit was an attempt to set the record straight as the China we know today came into being: Mao had triumphed in the field and the contrite USSR now wanted to back the red horse. The Chinese communists were torn. They longed to be loyal Stalinists (before the great schism in the house of Marx in 1956, Mao and co were surprisingly loyal to the ‘fatherland’), but they also had Chinese pride and a sense that their pride had been treated cavalierly by the Moscow comrades.
The Chinese and Russians had proved themselves quite able to misunderstand each other in the days before this reception: something made all the more enjoyable by a Stalin-provoked bust up between the two most important members of the Chinese mission, Liu Shaoqi and Gao Gang; one that would eventually, back home and several years later, lead to GG’s suicide. (It is always wonderful when authoritarian types get angry with each other, the stakes are so deliciously high). However, at the reception new and most wonderful levels of incomprehension were reached. Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, who had joined her fellow Chinese at the end of their trip, toasted the health of Comrade Stalin, a toast that curiously Stalin rejected, saying that everyone was to die and that the unity of China and Russia must not depend on one man!
This was quite possibly seen as being rude by the Chinese, but better was to come. Stalin now gave his own toast claiming that the USSR was the elder brother and that China was a younger brother but that sometimes the younger brother overtakes the elder brother. ‘let’s toast to the younger brother surpassing the elder’. It sounds harmless enough doesn’t it? Liu Shaoqi, however, refused point blank to join the toast and much of the Chinese delegation followed his lead! Shi Zhe the official translator noted simply, of the excruciating awkwardness of the situation: ‘I will never forget it.’ Stalin must, meanwhile, have ground his teeth: not many people slighted him and got to draw breath a month later.
The Soviets did get their revenge, just on a longer timetable… When Mao, visited the USSR in the winter of 1949 he was treated to a ballet entitled The Red Poppy, which includes Chinese communists being butchered and a generally patronizing Russian view of China. Stalin must have loved to see Mao squeam.
Other momentous meals: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
*note that there is some doubt about the exact date. It may have been the day or two days before.
24 Sept 2014 Mike Dash writes in with the next blows in Russia’s most difficult inter-communist relationship: I enjoyed reading your account of Stalin’s factious encounter with Mao in 1949. It’s worth mentioning that it was only the first in quite a series of bizarre get-togethers orchestrated as the two sides engaged in tit-for-tat bouts of humiliation and one-upmanship. During the Chinese second visit of 1949, which you mention briefly, Mao spent several weeks cooling his heels in a remote dacha outside Moscow where the sole recreational facility was a broken table tennis table. On a return visit in 1958, Khrushchev was amazed at the coolness of the senior Chinese officials who gathered to meet him at the airport. “No red carpet, no guards of honor, and no hugs,” interpreter Li Yueren recalled—and worse followed when the Soviets unpacked in their hotel. Remembering Stalin’s treatment of him all too clearly, Mao had given orders that Khrushchev be put up in an old establishment with no air conditioning, leaving the Russians gasping in the sweltering humidity of high summer in Beijing. Mao had plainly done his homework ahead of this visit, and he he had discovered that the portly Russian—who weighed over 200 pounds and when disrobed displayed a stomach resembling a beach ball—had never learned to swim. Mao, in contrast, was a fine swimmer whose bouts of exercise in the Yangtze featured frequently in his part’s propaganda. So when he turned up at the talks of August 3 dressed in a bathrobe and slippers, Khrushchev immediately suspected trouble, and his fears were realized when an aide produced an outsize pair of green bathing trunks and Mao insisted that his guest join him in his outdoor pool. A private swimming pool was an unimaginable luxury in the China of the 1950s, but Mao made good use of his on this occasion, swimming up and down while continuing the conversation in rapid Chinese. Soviet and Chinese interpreters jogged along at poolside, struggling to make out what the chairman was saying in between splashes and gasps for air. Khrushchev, meanwhile, stood uncomfortably in the children’s end of the pool until Mao, with more than a touch of malice, suggested that he join him in the deeper water. A flotation device was suddenly produced—Lorenz Lüthi describes it as a “life belt,” while Henry Kissinger prefers “water wings.” Either way, the result was scarcely dignified. Mao, says Lüthi, covered his head with “a handkerchief with knots at all the corners” and swept up and down the pool while Khrushchev struggled to stay afloat. After considerable exertion, the Soviet leader was able to get moving, “paddling like a dog” in a desperate attempt to keep up. “It was an unforgettable picture,” said his aide Oleg Troyanovskii, “the appearance of two well-fed leaders in swimming trunks, discussing questions of great policy under splashes of water.” Mao, Taubman relates, “watched Khrushchev’s clumsy efforts with obvious relish and then dived in the deep end and swam back and forth using several different strokes.” The chairman’s personal physician, Li Zhisui, believed that he was playing the role of emperor, “treating Khrushchev like a barbarian come to pay tribute.” Khrushchev played the scene down in his memoirs, acknowledging that “of course we could not compete with him when it came to long distance swimming” and insisting that “most of the time we lay around like seals on warm sand or a rug and talked.” But he revealed his true feelings a few years later in a speech to an audience of artists and writers: He’s a prizewinning swimmer, and I’m a miner. Between us, I basically flop around when I swim; I’m not very good at it. But he swims around, showing off, all the while expounding his political views…. It was Mao’s way of putting himself in an advantageous position. The results of the talks were felt almost immediately. Khrushchev ordered the removal of the USSR’s advisers, overruling aghast colleagues who suggested that they at least be allowed to see out their contracts. In retaliation, on Khrushchev’s next visit to Beijing, in 1959, Taubman relates, there was “no honor guard, no Chinese speeches, not even a microphone for the speech that Khrushchev insisted on giving, complete with accolades for Eisenhower that were sure to rile Mao.” In turn, a Chinese marshal named Chen Yi provoked the Soviets to a fury, prompting Khrushchev to yell: “Don’t you dare spit on us from your marshal’s height. You don’t have enough spit.” By 1966 the two sides were fighting a barely contained border war.