The KGB & the Sino-Soviet Split

KGB Maj. Gen. Yuri Drozdov, the legendary chief of Directorate S (Illegals), reflects on his time as KGB resident under diplomatic cover in Beijing from 1964 to 1968. Drozdov navigates the directed chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and warns Moscow that China is planning for military action against the Soviet Union.


After my return from Germany, despite positive results at work, I was unable to find a place in Illegal Intelligence’s central apparatus. I was a newcomer for them – experienced, but still a newcomer, and such men weren’t selected with enthusiasm. Along with that, the leadership at that time knew of my views on organizing work and using illegals, which was taken by certain ranking officers in 1963 warily and with caution.

I didn’t argue and was sent by the Cadres Directorate to Operational Staff Qualification Courses (USO). Training in classes and an abundance of free time gave me the possibility to verify the correctness of my views and familiarize myself with the views on organization and intelligence collection of other intelligence officers.

KGB illegal Yuri Drozdov with his wife in 1957, the time of this service in Germany.
KGB illegal officer Yuri Drozdov with his wife in 1957, the time of his service in Germany.

Time went by, and the escapades of our mail office gradually became more diverse. Someone, probably without ill intention, jokingly started tossing the Chinese newspaper Zhenmin Zhibao in Chinese into our post office box. No one in my family paid attention to it. But in the service they remembered this immediately when in 1963 at Cadres I was offered to interrupt my training and begin preparation for duty in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Why the choice fell on me, who hadn’t mastered Chinese, I don’t know, but the acute aggravation of Sino-Soviet relations required the organization of intelligence work on China, which we had ceased in 1949, among other things, having transferred our agent networks over to the Chinese security organs. We committed an impermissible error for any intelligence service to please the wishes and requests of temporary allies. The faultiness of this step has effects to this day.

The task assigned me was a difficult one. After all, from 1949 Chinese intelligence and counterintelligence officers underwent training in Soviet Russia and were frequent guests at Lubyanka. We bore our souls to them and revealed intimate secrets, but didn’t pay attention to certain peculiarities in the actions of the Chinese leadership.

Diplomats and intelligence officers specializing in China still remembered that after his coming to power, during the first parade at Tiananmen Square, Mao Zedong said to Zhou En-Lai, “So? The impossible has been enacted with Soviet help.” To which Zhou replied, “And now to hold out with their help.” “We’ll hold out, but will you be considering them permanent allies?” Mao retorted.

This seemingly harmless exchange of opinions wasn’t accidental; it reflected Mao’s true outlook. As became known in the course of following observations and data collection, just barely recovering after the last civil war and having taken power into their hands, already in 1952 the Chinese leadership launched deeply clandestine intelligence work on the USSR and prepared a packet of territorial demands on the Soviet Union. To all this were added sharp disagreements on issues of leadership and the tasks of the international communist movement, issues also burdened by relations between the heads of both countries.

Bidding me farewell to my work in Beijing, General Aleksandr Sakharovsky, chief of the First Chief Directorate, asked me to be cautious and patient, to re-check everything, to not forget the history of China and its relations with Russia, and also to remember the particulars of the Chinese psychological makeup, which largely determined their attitude to other countries and their behavior with foreigners. At the end of August 1964, I departed for Beijing.

And so I spent the years from 1964 to 1968 in China. This was perhaps the most critical time in Sino-Soviet relations. Our China specialists and the Chinese themselves called it a “good-bad” period until May of 1966, and then a “bad-bad” time.

Gradually, under the cover the USSR embassy in Beijing, there gathered a small collective of intelligence officers, who step-by-step engaged in the work of securing our leadership with necessary information. It was here that we also didn’t get by without amusing incidents. We were asked ever more often for serious political and operational information, and that demanded the introduction of significant changes in our forms and methods of activity. Not all the officers, recalling that “Russians and Chinese are brothers forever,” were ready for that. By force of circumstance, I had to prepare and carry out an operation on my own. Its results gave a positive effect. The intelligence leadership thanked me for the information, but also reprimanded me for personal participation: “Direct,” they said, “and make corrections, but don’t go yourself.” I wasn’t offended by the severity of the reaction. I should have acted that way in order have the right to guide others.

Generalizing all my experience and knowledge on relations between the China-USSR-USA triangle, I can only agree with the conclusion that Pietro Cuaronni came to in the book Russians and Chinese: The Crisis of the Communist World: the tense environment in the Far East and in Southeast Asia was a reflection of the then-conflict between the United States and Russia. This is a very serious subject for examination, but if we analyze in this light the actions of political leaders from 1945 to the present day, the underlying cause will become clearly visible. This is a warning for the future: in the course of the US psychological war against the USSR, which resulted in cranking up expenditures on military objectives, our country was dragged into an arms race, and not bringing the matter to open conflict, it went onto a path of self-destruction. The question of “who-whom” in economic war, beginning in 1946, began to actively play out in the international political arena in the largest psychological war operation in history, which had as its goal depriving the USSR of its greatest ally – the People’s Republic of China. In his article “Who Won the Cold War” (New York Times, November 1992), George Kennan confirms this.

Serving as another confirmation of this are materials from a round-table conference of American China specialists, scholars, and politicians that was held at the end of 1949 and beginning of 1950, where two questions were discussed: “Under what conditions will China move against Russia, and How to turn traditional Sino-Russian enmity to the North.”

At that time in China, none of this was visible to us, but the Center sensed this and directed our attention toward Western representatives, the quantity of whom in Beijing was constantly increasing.

In the China of 1964-65, the so-called “Socialist Education Program” was well underway, which envisioned the exposure of regime opponents among supporters of “Soviet revisionism” and the preparation of the populace for participation in building socialism, taking into account the specifics of the revolution’s development in China. At that point it was hardly clear to all Chinese that this was the warm-up after the Great Leap Forward. Panic in society was growing. In the autumn of 1965, being summoned to Moscow, I flew with one of the representatives of the Swiss Labor Party who worked in a party school in Shanghai. A conversation was struck, and he let it slip that the students of this school were studying the management of great masses of the population with books published in Hitler’s Germany. And he emphasized that the Chinese were readying a new great purge of their party ranks and the entire population. The intelligence leadership directed us to closely monitor the development of the situation in the PRC.

Here comes the sun!
Here comes the sun!

On May 26th, 1966, Beijing University graduate student Wai Guan-Mei hung over the wall of a building her wrathful Da Zi Bao impugning a clique of Mao’s opponents, who were seeking to turn China onto a path of Soviet revisionism and American imperialism. The direction of the struggle and the enemies had been indicated. Thus began the Cultural Revolution, lasting around ten years, the goal of which was the reevaluation of the old and a search for new ways of socio-economic development of the country while preserving foreign policy attributes and a course of building socialism. If inside the country blows were dealt against supporters of Liu Shao and Lin Biao’s group, then in the sphere of foreign policy the main blow was against the USSR, although this was accompanied by loud chatter in the direction of American imperialism, which was waging war on the Vietnamese people.

I didn’t think to touch upon this subject, but the February 15th, 1992 publication in Komsomolskaya Pravda of the article “How We Kept Our Finger on the Red Button” brought me back to 1967 – the year of the greatest tension in the Sino-Soviet crisis.

In the course of 1966-67, the situation around representatives of “Soviet revisionism” continued to be strained. Several times our officers were subjected to attacks by Red Guards. I spent almost an entire night not far from the gates of the trade delegation in my new Moskvich, which was covered with glue stuck to all sorts of Da Zi Bao proclamations and its tailpipe wrapped with straw (burn, revisionist, you’ll set yourself aflame if you start the motor). The tension grew. The Red Guards treated the embassy compound to a two-week physical and sound blockade that forced us, with the help of other diplomatic missions, to carry out the evacuation of family members.

In order to lower the tension, we decided to organize solemn mourning and send off to the Motherland three Soviet air defense operators who had died in Vietnam. On the square in front of the embassy building, to the surprise of the Red Guards, we arranged a mass gathering and through a loudspeaker told all of Beijing that we were bidding farewell to our soldiers who had defended the skies of Vietnam. A car with the bodies of the fallen passed before a line of Soviet mission personnel, the gates opened, and it slowly moved toward the airport through a parting crowd of earlier-frenzied Red Guards. They more or less quieted down for a few days, and then tried to storm the embassy complex, where they overwhelmed the consulate building and burned down the porter’s booth. In the building of the embassy itself, all the first-floor windows were broken. The provocation was clearly calculated at breaking diplomatic relations. But Russian nerves proved sufficiently strong. The subsequent meeting of Kosygin with Zhou Enlai at the Beijing airport removed the acute tension for some time.

Not long before the storm of the embassy by the Red Guards, our officers were able to spend time in Hai-Lung-Chiang and Harbin Provinces and meet with our elderly fellow countrymen. One of them told how Chinese authorities had evicted him from the plot of land he owned and turned it into a giant sandbox, as seen in tactical courses at military academies. The area on the land was a representation of a section of neighboring Soviet territory. The 84-year-old Amur Cossack officer was very puzzled by this.

During a conversation, a representative of the company Krupps in Beijing called the Russians idiots who couldn’t see what was being done under their noses. He expressed concern, since he had been where Soviet citizens were no longer permitted. Krupps is steel, and steel is needed for war.

My Western colleagues who observed Sino-Soviet border relations carefully made it known that the Chinese were strengthening their group of forces on the border with the USSR.

We processed this and other data and sent reports to the Center, having set forth a request to verify the information by means of space, radio-technical, military, and border guard intelligence. No answer followed.

In the autumn of 1967 I arrived at the Center for vacation, where my direct superior announced that my reports would give him another heart attack. I was silent. In our unit I was told that an alarming report was sent to the highest levels, whence it returned with the dread resolution:

Check – if it is not confirmed, punish the resident.

They checked, and everything was confirmed. No one apologized; it wasn’t practiced.

In 1969, in the area close to the old Cossack’s plot of land, the famous armed conflict [Damansky Island] occurred.

Soviet KGB Border Guards on Damansky Island, site of fierce battles with Chinese forces. 1969.
Soviet KGB Border Guards on Damansky Island, site of fierce battles with Chinese forces, March 1969.

There have been more than enough warnings made to put us on guard in recent years, as well as in relation to a series of phenomena we painfully endure today. Are we again repeating the mistakes that led to June of 1941, and are we not confirming the truth that the Russian muzhik is wise after only after an event takes place? Meanwhile, the warnings of an intelligence service are suffered at the price of the incredible labors of its officers.

All that I experienced in those tense (in every sense) years is material for a separate large book. Its time will likely come. Work in China gave me the opportunity to understand this country and even love it for its uniqueness. Many Chinese friends of mine remain there, and I hope they still remember me. Today, with much recognition I recall our ambassadors S.V. Chernovenko, S.G. Lapin, the diplomats F.V. Mochulsky, Y.I. Razdukhov, A.A. Brezhnev, and others who helped me adapt to a new country where it’s impossible for a European to dissolve in the crowd.

In the hard years of the Cultural Revolution in the PRC during the second half of the 1960s, I had good relations with diplomats from both socialist and capitalist countries. The wave of extreme nationalism that crashed on the foreign diplomatic corpus at that time brought us closer together and made us help one another at difficult moments.  One of the victims of the Cultural Revolution was Lyudmila Malova, the wife of one the diplomats from the East German embassy in Beijing and a good acquaintance of my wife. In the “Friendship” store on Wan-Fuzin Street, one of the Chinese extremists, either half-drunk or intoxicated on patriotism, seriously wounded her when he swung a meat cleaver at her lower jaw. She fell to the floor, soaked in blood, and with screams of “Death to Soviet revisionists!” he attempted to rip open her stomach, seeing that she was pregnant. Store employees managed to detain the attacker. Lyudmila Malova was immediately taken to the hospital, where she was rendered aid; the child was saved. Later she and her husband told us how she was visited in the hospital by deputy foreign minister Wan Bin-An, who expressed regret that “the wife of an East German diplomat became a victim,” but entreated her to “wear the scar she received in the fight with Soviet revisionism with pride.”

In the days of the Cultural Revolution, the embassies of Great Britain and Mongolia in Beijing were also stormed. A “solidarity” of European diplomats that naturally arose then helped the English to endure a difficult time. Apparently this explains the fact that an advisor of this embassy, Mr. Wilford, sent me and some other Soviet diplomats an invitation of Her Majesty’s Government to visit England at a convenient time. Unfortunately there wasn’t a suitable occasion for such a visit. Whatever the countries we represented, during subsequent meetings in Europe, America, or Southeast Asia, we always found a way, even in difficult matters, to come to a beneficial compromise.

At the end of my tour of duty I was sent a request by Yuri Andropov: aside from an operational report, I should also describe my impressions of work in China and the environment there. Over the course of a month I labored over my notes “Four Years in China,” setting out everything that I considered necessary. This “unique” work was read by the KGB leadership and the Politburo, Andropov told me as he returned it marked with multicolored notes and underlines. Evidently it is still is preserved somewhere in an archive, now and then reminding those interested about those far-off times. I keep a red enamel metallic sign, made by idle Red Guards, with the address of the USSR embassy in Beijing with the inscription: “Soviet Revisionist Street, No. 1.”


Work Translated: Дроздов, Ю.И. Вымысел исключен. Записки начальника нелегальной разведки. Артстиль-полиграфия. М: 2009.

Translated by Mark Hackard.

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