Borodin helped Stalin win China; Borodin: Stalin's Man in China, by Dan N. Jacobs. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. $25.

Amid today's ferment in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, it is instructive to look back at the first example of Soviet involvement in a third-world revolution. Dan N. Jacobs' biography of Michael Borodin provides such a glimpse.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, they expected their revolution to spread to Western Europe. As these hopes faded, they turned to China, their first test, first success, and first failure.

At the start of the 1920s Sun Yat-sen, spiritual leader of Chinese nationalism, longed for "a new Lafayette" to help him wrest his country from the warlords who had carved it into feudal fiefdoms. He looked to the democratic West, but no help was forthcoming.

Thus, the frustrated Sun proved receptive, if wary, when a succession of Soviet envoys proffered support. In 1923 he tentatively accepted their offer of arms and military advisers, and Moscow sent Michael Borodin to persuade him to ally his nationalist Kuomintang with the then tiny Chinese Communist Party.

Borodin had no previous connection with Chinese affairs. He had been born Mikhail Gruzenberg in the Pale to which czarism confined Russia's Jews. As a youth he took part in the turn-of-the-century Marxist movements, but in the repressive period following the 1905 revolt he fled to America. For a decade, he and his wife ran a Chicago school, where immigrants came to learn English. Then the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 beckoned. He returned to Russia and emerged as a Comintern agent, smuggling funds into Latin America.

He was much more than a courier. He was a professional revolutionary, one of that extraordinary band of ruthless romantics -- spinners of theory, yet committed to action -- who became legendary figures in the fierce, brief glow fo their revolutionary times, only to end up in Stalin's prison camps where the fire was extinguished.

Borodin had a commanding presence and, as one American journalist said, he talked and acted like an oracle. He overcame Sun's initial reluctance. Step by step, he built a coalition of the most disparate elements: labor unions and merchants, students and laborers, peasants and landlords, ambitious officers and insubordinate troops. "He importuned, coaxed, patched, manipulated" and somehow held his coalition together, says author Jacobs. Borodin played warlord against warlord while the Russians trained Kuomintang forces to sweep back the warlords' armies.

Sun thought he had found his man. A group of Americans seeking to warn him against Borodin, asked: "Do you know that 'Borodin' is a pseudonym? Do you know his real name?" "I know," answered Sun, "Lafayette." The Western press called him "the mastermind of the Chinese revolution." Some of the leading Western journalists covering China became Borodin's admirers.

But Borodin was neither Lafayette nor mastermind nor oracle. He took his orders from Moscow, and the orders became more and more confused. Stalin, embroiled in the struggle for power at home, made China policy a pawn in his game of wiping out opponents. When Sun passed on in 1925, leaving the field open for a power struggle within the Kuomintang itself, Borodin's coalition came apart. It was only a matter of time before Chiang Kai-shek, graduate of the military academy that Borodin and Blyukher had set up, seized control, turned on the Chinese Communists, and sent the Russian advisers packing.

The break came in 1926-27. Surviving Communists set out on the long march into the hinterland and brought forth a defiantly independent Mao as their leader, while Borodin, wracked by illness and the sense of failure, fled across the Gobi Desert by auto caravan.

Back in Moscow, he accepted the role of Stalin's scapegoat for the collapse in China. In return, Stalin showed uncharacteristic mercy. He spared Borodin throughout the purges of the 1930s. Borodin lived out the '30s and into the 1940s as editor of the Moscow Daily News, an English-language newspaper founded by his pro-Soviet American friend of China days, Anna Louise Strong. In Stalin-style tunic and Stalin-style moustache, he paced the Moscow newspaper office, a caged lion, snorting contempt for this warlord or that as he thumbed the pages of the Shanghai Evening Mercury or some other paper from China, but never openly discussing China.

In the end, however, China was his downfall. In 1949 Mao seized power -- against Stalin's wishes, a fact that was not generally known at the time. Anna Louise Strong came from America with a manuscript praising Mao's triumph. She sought out her old friend Borodin, all the while innocently blurting out her enthusiasm for Mao to everyone she met in Moscow. One night the secret police came for both of them. After five days in Lubyanka prison, the bewildered Anna Louise was expelled from the country. Borodin ended his days in a Siberian prison camp. His name was expunged from all Soviet sources for 15 years. In 1964 a local Moscow newspaper briefly announced his posthumous "rehabilitation."

It is, as I said, an instructive story, or stories, both Borodin's and China's, and it is a pity that so little is known about it. Borodin was secretive, and neither Soviet nor Chinese sources yield frank accounts, for obvious reasons. The author had to make do with what he could obtain, and at times his tale deteriorates into arid speculation about Borodin's moods or his strategy in maneuvering among Chinese factions. Nevertheless, this is a story worth pondering today, not only in the light of Russian and Chinese history, but in the broader framework of third-world nationalism.

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