How did the USSR parse and explain an ostensibly uber-communist movement which was dedicated to overthrowing the leadership of the country's communist party? Did they see this as 'Trotskyism', or some other kind of deviation?

The cleavage between the PRC and USSR was firmly established by 1966. The Soviets were a major target of cultural revolution rhetoric. What did the Soviets 'say back'?

3 Answers 3


There's a PHD thesis and book chapter, both by Elizabeth McGuire on this matter. Soviet reaction was mixed, confused and ambiguous. The Cultural Revolution contained deeply anti-Soviet elements, and accused them of revisionism and deviation from Marxism-Leninism, but it came at a very inopportune time for USSR, which hampered any clear, official response. Because at the time, Brezhnev has just ousted Khruschev and was attempting to undo many of the latter's de-Stalinization (i.e. revisionism), and yet the Cultural Revolution was accusing the USSR of being revisionist. Thus the USSR was stuck between denouncing Khruschev's revisionism and defending itself from China's charges of revisionism. At the same time, China was being roundly criticized and mocked by the West, so attacking China risked being seen as being sympathetic to the West and attacking the shared Marxist-Leninist ideological foundation.

To put it bluntly, the Cultural Revolution is the doing of a madman clinging to power, and had no ideological basis. Mao was threatened by the failed Great Leap Forward and also saw that a USSR-style bureaucracy will easily do away with paramount leaders, no matter how prestigious they are or once were, as Khrushev was. So he leveraged and built on his popular appeal to purge his political enemies. In effect, China was insane during this time. How do you argue with, or defend yourself from criticisms from insanity? One account from a Soviet delegation to China said that, surrounded by red guards chanting anti-Soviet slogans, they tried to respond by singing the Internationale, but the crowd responded by singing The East is Red. The insane are impossible to engage, as they will deny any common ground, and also avoid forming any coherent argument to respond to.

Reaction was understandably muted, and consisted of the following:

  • Satire, as one might react to absurdity such as the Cultural Revolution. The aforementioned incident with the Soviet delegation was satirized in the song "Tau Kita" "Tau Ceti" (there is a poor English translation here). Sometimes this ridicule required no effort at all; in 1966 Literaturnaya gazeta ran an article that was a direct reprint from a Chinese paper, about a watermelon salesman who solved the rotting problem by applying Maoist ideology.
  • Lamentation. China was once a strong ally of the USSR, having fought a world war together and being the recipient of technologies and expertise. The development was viewed as tragic and impudent, as an inferior giving up Soviet tutelage.

    Komsomol’skaia pravda wistfully lamented their departure: "Now, there is no photograph of the Soviet emblem on the door of number 422."

    This is a way of indirectly criticizing China without being seen as directly attacking an ideological ally.

  • Graphic reporting of the atrocities. Soviet papers did not hesitate to report the most gruesome aspects of the Cultural Revolution, such as its torture of even modest individuals obliquely related to the revolution's targets, like Russian language middle-school teachers, and the desecration of symbols of Soviet friendship. Such incidences were meant to repulse the reader without engaging the uncomfortable ideological issues, although this was also risky due to the similarities with Stalinist atrocities, particularly after Brezhnev took power.

  • Eventually the USSR did form a coherent argument highlighting the differences between itself and China, although this was done with care since the two were more similar than not. This narrative focused on the Cultural Revolution's driving forces, of students (even non-party members) and the army supporting a single leader outside the party, and the absence of the working class and the party, hence this could not be a true Communist-style revolution. The Cultural Revolution also lead to the formation of a new narrative: that socialism was culturally inclusive, and should celebrate Western cultural legacy, and this stood in stark contrast to the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.

  • Another response was patriotism motivated by fear, as incidents such as the Damansky island one stoked fears of Chinese military or ideological attack. Events such as embassy workers being harassed or Chinese tourists vandalizing Lenin's mausoleum were followed by patriotic reports. There were many jokes around this time owing to nervousness of China's numerical superiority:

    How will the war between the USSR and China end? With the unconditional surrender of the USSR after it has taken 400 million Chinese as prisoners of war.

    Such tensions served to unite the left and right elements within Soviet politics against the foreign foe, and helped turn the debate from ideology to patriotism.

Eventually, such reactions, muted as they were, proved fatal to USSR itself since once the foreign boogeyman was gone, the same criticisms could be turned inward to USSR itself, to which there was no good response.

  • 6
    The alternative joke I recall was: "How are we going to fight the Chinese?! There are 5 of them for each one of us!" -- "Numeric superiority is not everything. Look at the Israelis who beat the Arabs despite being outnumbered 100:1." -- "Yeah, but do we have enough Jews?"
    – sds
    Dec 15, 2014 at 4:52
  • Since you already mentioned Vysotsky, you should also really add his OTHER anti-Chinese song (this one, NOT coded as "aliens"), "Vozle Goroda Pekina" ("Near the city of Pekin")
    – DVK
    Dec 22, 2014 at 14:25
  • This is discussed (including USSR's general reaction to Cultural Revolution) in "Владимир Высоцкий: козырь в тайной войне, By Федор Раззаков"
    – DVK
    Dec 22, 2014 at 14:27
  • @DVK I am a bit surprised you'd suggest Раззаков as a source. Have you read his books? I've sampled one and wouldn't trust him to tell me the time of the day. Apr 23, 2016 at 6:31

They usually called them "Maoists" and made comparisons to fascism. But overall I would say there was no extensive coverage of the events in the press and propaganda. The majority of the people just did not know anything about the events.

The things were not reported as very much important in the USSR, they were covered more like something happening far away, like in Africa or in Latin America.

I have read an adventure novel based in Maoist China, which included episodes like the Chinese removing Soviet labels from equipment prevuously shipped from the USSR to China so to cover up its origin out of ideological considerations and forcing women to wear male clothing, banning for instance, high heels.

I think these were among the most top points of criticism:

  • That the cultural revolution was unfriendly to the USSR, who made so much good for Chinese development and that they now want to cover up all Soviet help.

  • The inconviniences related to ban on women's style of clothing and make-up. A lot of satire was on that one can confuse a woman for a man in maoist China.

  • Inefficient economic practices, like setting up metallurgical ovens in any village or killing the sparrows.

  • The hostilities and cult of personality themselves.

  • 1
    1+ for an interesting answer. IMHO this may be a case where it would be OK to link a Russian-language source if you can't find an English-language one.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 15, 2014 at 2:25
  • I'd be very interested to hear more about the novel. Do you remember the title or the author?
    – Ne Mo
    Dec 16, 2014 at 16:13
  • 2
    @Ne Mo "Beyond the Great Wall" by Mikhail Demidenko, 1978 royallib.com/book/demidenko_mihail/za_velikoy_stenoy.html
    – Anixx
    Dec 16, 2014 at 16:18

My answer is based on my own personal experience (in 1966 I was 12 years old and was reading newspapers and watching TV in Soviet Union). The coverage was strictly negative. They were showing the excited mob of "Red Guards" (Russian media was calling them "khunweibins" which is probably a transliteration from Chinese, the term "Red Guards" had a positive connotation in Russian at that time) on TV with derogatory comments. Similar comments were used to describe the Great Leap Forward. At times there was a feeling of an imminent war with China.

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