The Bolsheviks’ Anti-Imperial Overtures

Despite their revolutionary successes in Siberia and the Far East, the bolsheviks in Petrograd faced grave difficulties in the opening months of 1918. Ukraine declared independence in late January, signing its own peace treaty with the Germans and giving the latter a trump card in its negotiations the soviet government. Trotsky’s tactic of prolonging the peace talks to stave off Germany’s annexationist demands and await a European revolution was proving unsustainable. German troops would soon be on the advance. The bolsheviks needed support, and this time their attention turned eastwards.

“Peace and brotherhood of man”. Trudovaia kopeika, 16 January 1918. Source.

It was during this period that the soviet government began contacting Ambassador Liu Jingren directly. These messages contained the kinds of promises the bolsheviks thought the Chinese wanted to hear: The repudiation of imperialism and restoration of Chinese sovereignty over contested territories.





Yesterday, a message from Narkomindel arrived saying that the former Russian ambassador to China in no way represents the current Russian government. Moreover, Chinese Eastern Railway general manager General Horvath has been relieved of his post. It informs the Chinese government of this and requests that the Chinese government form a joint Sino-Russian committee to clarify the CER issue.

At the same time, head of the Far Eastern Section [A.N.] Voznesenskii expressed his earnest wish, in a telephone call with a staff member from the embassy, to discuss the matters set out in the note in a private capacity with the embassy and to schedule a visit with the ambassador. Since he has not been recognised and it is not politic to receive him, a pretext was found for a staff member to meet him.

At one o’clock today, Voznesenskii came to the embassy. His speech and attitude were extremely friendly. He began by saying that he had been appointed the people’s representative to China and planned to take the express train to China on the 22nd. Our staff said that since he had not yet been recognised, he could speak with him only in a private capacity. Moreover, it would be very difficult for the embassy to reply to the note in writing, to its great regret. As for his appointment, this was a diplomatic matter. China is bound to the other Allied countries and must act in concert with them. Despite the warm friendship between the Chinese and Russian peoples, it is not possible to act alone. Voznesenskii said that [M.M.] Litvinov had been appointed representative to Britain and had already been received. Our staff replied that if this was true, it should be clarified with the ambassador and conveyed to the government. Voznesenskii said that he was willing to delay his departure by a week and await Beijing’s response. Talk then turned to the matter of Horvath’s dismissal; the discussion was very lengthy. Voznesenskii averred that Horvath was an imperialist and must leave. If China could accommodate Russia’s request, Russia would do its utmost to satisfy Chinese interests. The details of this discussion are laid out in Telegram No. 14. Then, Voznesenskii said that he had been in China for many years and had always maintained a friendly attitude to China. During our revolution, he had given it his approval and assistance and strongly opposed the various activities of other countries in China. He said that after his arrival, he would first abolish the judicial authority of Russian consulates in China, then raise the issue of returning the concessions.

Voznesenskii was a member of the Shanghai consulate three years ago and was dismissed due to disagreements with the consul. As for the bolshevik representative in Britain, this was reported in the party’s newspaper. To summarise, it wrote that the British Foreign Secretary had informed Litvinov that although Britain had not yet recognised the Russian government, it would consider him Trotsky’s representative in the interim and communicate with him. However, the Russian ambassador to Britain, [K.D.] Nabokov, and his staff refused to vacate the embassy. I approached the British charge d’affaires with this. He said that Litvinov had requested to meet the Foreign Secretary but the latter did not receive him, only instructing a member of staff to do so. I then asked, if this was the case, was Britain not then allowing for discussions with Litvinov? He agreed. Since Britain is now permitting de facto relations with Litvinov, our treatment of Voznesenskii can proceed on the same grounds. Regarding Japan, the bolshevik government has sent Deputy Commissar [E.D.] Polivanov there.

Telegram from Liu Jingren, 12 February 1918 (sent 19 January). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 244-245.
Karakhan et al
(Left to right) Envoy to the UK M.M. Litvinov, Commissar for Foreign Affairs G.V. Chicherin, future ambassador to China L.M. Karakhan and Foreign Trade Commissariat leader Ia.S. Ganetskii, 1923. Source.

Further concessions soon followed. On 20 February, Narkomindel intimated that it was willing to abolish the Boxer Indemnity, something that the Chinese had been attempting to do since the November Revolution. Then, on 23 February, party newspapers in Harbin and Vladivostok carried an article by Voznesenskii promising that the CER zone would be run by joint Russian and Chinese soviets if China lifted its embargo at Manzhouli.

On 24 January, the hoped-for meeting with the embassy – represented by secretary Li Shizhong – finally took place in Voznesenskii’s home. He introduced Polivanov as his deputy, with whom the embassy could consult once he himself had left for China. Polivanov proceeded to do most of the talking and the minutes from the ensuing five-hour discussion are excerpted here.

Li began with Polivanov’s background:


Polivanov is the nephew of the former Minister of War [A.A. Polivanov]; he is still young; correct, prudent and modest, completely unlike a bolshevik.

Polivanov’s opening words were carefully chosen:


China and Russia have followed each other in revolution. Examining this history, Russian was pregnant with revolution before China was, but through our many upheavals it was East Asian China that was unexpectedly more progressive than us. I am sure that the citizens of China welcome our democracy, for the people of China and Russia are brothers and should proceed in unison to achieve our various goals. I am close to China and greatly wish for our two republics to depend on each other.

E.D. Polivanov, linguist, “completely unlike a bolshevik”. Source.

He then touched on the matter of the CER. Here, Polivanov made a faux pas in suggesting that Russia should continue to jointly administer the CER, but turned it around to encourage the Chinese to eject the anti-bolshevik “imperialists” using the railway zone as a base:

波云:所云政治關系,即反抗帝制派者。帝制派如顧[庫]使,如霍中將,雖經兵工會政府明令褫職,尚據此中東鐵路為反對革命之地位,且唆動中俄惡感。彼輩素與帝制政府同謀侵華土地,奴華人民,其待遇華工,可為一証。中華民國何反加庇護… 中國人民歷受外國帝制派資本家之抑壓,奚不利用此不可多得之時機,好自為之耶。

Polivanov: Fundamentally, in the Russian view the CER question is a political one and should be resolved cooperatively by China and Russia.
Li: The former imperialist government used it as a means of invading the far east. Now that you [and your party] are the most fervant anti-imperialists, how can you speak thus? The CER is a purely commercial entity… Why not let it operate freely?
Polivanov: What I meant by political was in combating the imperialists, imperialists such as Kudashev and General Horvath. Although the soviet government has ordered their dismissal, they are still using the CER as a base to oppose the revolution and stir up ill will between China and Russia. Their ilk always plotted with the imperialist government to violate Chinese territory and enslave the Chinese people. Their treatment of Chinese workers is proof. Why would the Chinese Republic then aid them… The Chinese people have suffered the oppression of foreign imperialists and capitalists, why not use this precious opportunity to look after your interests?

Polivanov subsequently turned to the abrogation of secret treaties, drawing on the Persian example as an oblique reference to China’s semi-colonial status. Perhaps if Russia renounced extraterritoriality, other countries would follow?


This has been the guiding principle of the soviets, that of all the secret treaties concerning the China question signed between the imperialist government and other countries, those impeding the freedom and independence of the Chinese people have been published and abrogated. And in the soviet government’s declaration to the Muslims and peoples of the east, it has also stated that the various harsh laws by which the imperialist government oppressed the peoples of the east are abolished. For example, Persia was originally in the British and Russian spheres of influence, almost becoming a British or Russian dependency, but since the soviet government abrogated the various Russo-British treaties and withdrew the Russian troops stationed in Persia, not only has the British government been unable to object, according to the latest news from London, Britiain is following suit. China’s position is greater than that of Persia and, like Russia, is a republic. Moreover the friendship between the Chinese and Russian peoples is greater than that between the Persians and Russians. The soviet government certainly wishes to help the Chinese people. Previously, when I travelled to Japan [in 1915-1916], I passed through Fengtian and saw that the Chinese legal system had greatly improved and its police was well-organised. My intention is that the mixed courts can all be abolished. On the Russian side, the judicial authority of the consulates in China should be eliminated and the Russian police in the concession withdrawn, to be replaced with Chinese patrols. In sum, Chinese sovereignty should belong to the Chinese.

Beginning of the declaration “To All Toiling Muslims of Russia and the East”. Izvestiia No. 232, 22 November 1917 (O.S.). Source.

Li then addressed a sore point in Chinese diplomacy: Russia’s relations with Japan. Polivanov’s reply was far from satisfactory, but presaged the formation of the Far Eastern Republic.


Li: Now that there are no diplomatic secrets, could you tell me of your policy towards Japan?
Polivanov: There are two. One, the principle that China’s politics and economy should belong to the Chinese. Next, to allow Japan to expand its settlement plans in Siberia. The first secretary of the Japanese embassy has been informed of this.
Li: Both these policies seem contradictory. Japan will be the strongest imperialist country in the world after the European war, and its influence in the far east is also the most [?]. Why would you still increase their strength in Siberia? In China one could almost call them the master of the house, if they were to violate your first policy, how would you help the Chinese people?
Polivanov: Your words are true, but through force of circumstance there is no other way. Also, this is only a temporary tactic, for we are planning to encourage the Japanese people in revolution, to topple the Japanese imperialist government.

Towards the end of the conversation, Polivanov brought up China’s interests in Mongolia and brought up the machinations of former tsarist diplomats there. Coincidentally, Ambassador Liu had also been discussing Kozakov in an earlier communique.


Polivanov: When the Chinese Republic was established and Mongolia sent troops to invade China, this was instigated by the former head of the eastern branch Kozakov and ambassador to China Krupenskii. Kozakov proposed that Russia give financial support to the Bogd Khan. I had heard of this when I was at the Russo-Japanese alliance talks; now, in the Narkomindel archives, I have seen proof. I expect you did not know this?
Li: I have not heard of it.
Polivanov: Kozakov and Kruspenskii can be said to be the most active in plotting against China. The treaty between China, Russia and Mongolia ostensibly made Mongolia independent, but secretly turned it into a Russian dependency. We also plan to abolish this treaty, either giving Mongolia complete independence or allowing it to stay part of the Chinese Republic.
Li: Out of these two plans, which in your personal opinion is best?
Polivanov: Mongolia is remote and the people backward, akin to an ancient autocratic confederation. In this world, it naturally cannot govern itself independently. Why not allow the citizens of the Chinese Republic to civilise and educate it first and, once the autocracy is overturned, to allow it to be fully independent?

Letter from Liu Jingren, 28 February 1918 (sent 4 February). Ibid., pp. 267-270.
Mongolian Prime Minister Tögs-Ochiryn Namnansüren in St Petersburg, 1913. Source.

The concessions that Narkomindel was willing to make were breathtaking. They encompassed many of the mainstays of Chinese “rights recovery”: An end to extraterritorial justice, the re-negotiation or even return of the CER concession, writing off the Boxer Indemnity, even a free hand in Mongolia. Li was naturally cautious – if anything, the leniency towards Japan set off alarm bells – and asked Polivanov for a public statement. Polivanov and Voznesenskii demurred, the former calling for “more negotiations” and the latter for recognition as the new ambassador. Only in summer 1919 would such promises be publicised in the Karakhan Manifesto.

Even if the Chinese had been willing to rise to the bait, however, their position within the wartime Alliance was an obstacle. As Ambassador Liu’s note of 19 January showed, they had to follow the Allies’ lead in parlaying with the bolsheviks. But the outbreak of the Civil War and the end of WWI made this increasingly untenable. Japanese-sponsored White forces threatened border security, and the Shandong question at Versailles shook Chinese trust in the western powers. Soviet carrots could well become more tempting than any incentives or punishments the Allies could offer.

4 thoughts on “The Bolsheviks’ Anti-Imperial Overtures

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