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Sergey Radchenko, Two Suns in the Heavens: The Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy, 1962-1967

Washington and Stanford, Woodrow Wilson Center and Stanford University Press, 2009, 316 pp.
Steven M. Goldstein

Full text

1Western analysts have been studying the Sino-Soviet dispute for almost  half a century. Early works were based largely on Kremlinological study of public documents. During the late 1980s and 1990s, the publication of histories and memoirs in China provided additional information and granularity, although actual access to archives was limited to only a few Chinese authors. Finally, the fall of the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe prompted publications of a similar nature, while also providing the opportunity for wider public access to party and state archives that contained minutes of policy deliberations and inter-party negotiations as well as diplomatic reporting, internal speeches, and so on.

2This work by Sergey Radchenko joins another recent work by Lorenz Luthi as a study that draws from these new sources to provide fresh insights into the oft-told story of the dispute.

3Dr. Radchenko begins this book, focused on the 1960s, by posing the question that has been at the centre of past studies: was the dispute a result of ideological cleavages, cultural differences, or clashing national interests (as suggested by the realist paradigm)?

4 If…cultural motives, some of which are notoriously difficult to pin down, are added to the ideologically diluted realist paradigm, the resultant hodge-podge loses its former simplicity until, of course, one comes to the ingenious conclusion that the Sino-Soviet split was about a little bit of everything.

5        This book leans to the side of enlightened realism and does not provide a radically new interpretation of the split. It does, however, offer a much closer look than what was formerly possible. (p. 17)

6This is a puzzling introduction to what the reader can expect as the narrative proceeds. Is “enlightened realism” a description of a variant of a classic approach to international relations that the author has adopted, or is it a description of the policy pursued by one or both sides? Does the comment about the “resultant hodge-podge” and the demurral regarding a “radically new interpretation” suggest that he will abjure interpretation and simply provide fresh data based on newly opened archives?

7As the work proceeds it is obvious that the author is intent on doing more than simply taking a “much closer look” at the events of the dispute. There is an underlying analytical framework to his discussion, but it is one that is more convincing in its analysis of the motivations of the Soviet leadership than it is in respect of the Chinese side.

8Thus, Nikita Khrushchev, who is depicted as an unchallenged foreign policy decision-maker, comes across as largely unconcerned with ideological differences (many of which, we are told, he claimed not to understand). Rather, for him, the dispute was a “power struggle” to maintain his own, as well as the Soviet Union’s, leadership in the international communist movement that had, by the end of Khrushchev’s tenure, become in his mind a clash of civilizations between Moscow and the “‘cunning’ and untrustworthy” Chinese (p. 119).

9His successors, optimistic that they could improve the relationship, but left in ignorance by Khrushchev’s solo management of it, eventually came to the same conclusion, seeing China as “an enemy in the realpolitik sense and in the cultural sense” even as they failed to understand that seeking primacy in the international communist movement only aggravated historical Chinese sensitivities to dominance by foreign powers (p. 197).

10The tracing of the policy process and outcomes that underlay this Soviet approach to the dispute is the strongest and most original aspect of the book. Dr. Radchenko has drawn on a wide range of archival sources from not only the former Soviet Union but also from other bloc countries, as well as the resources made available by the Cold War International History Project. While the broad strokes of the story he tells may not differ greatly from previous narratives, by drawing on such materials as intra-party conversations, diplomatic reports, and minutes of Party leadership meetings (some of which are included as appendices), the author has added important elements of bureaucratic and elite politics, as well as colourful insights into the personalities and thoughts of many of the actors on the Soviet side.

11Indeed, it can be said that, in contrast with other treatments of the Sino-Soviet dispute that focus more on the Chinese side, this study is very much a view from Moscow. This does not mean that the discussion of the Chinese side is slighted; it simply means that it lacks the breadth of resources and clarity of analytical argument found in the discussion of Moscow’s approach.

12As one might expect, Mao Zedong is presented as the dominant figure managing Beijing’s struggle. His motives are, by and large, presented as a mirror image of those of the Soviet leaders. With a view shaped by past humiliations, Mao had “an image of a hostile, dangerous Soviet Union, China’s number-one enemy, not so much as an ideological threat, but as a threat to China’s national security and Mao’s personal well-being” (p. 207). He is depicted as a “revolutionary realist” (p. 69), concerned primarily with enhancing his own power—both in the international communist movement and China. As the author admits, he is

13… a little more skeptical of the power of ideas, and more appreciative of the idea of power. ‘A little’ means that although the power struggle features at the center of this narrative…I subscribe to a multicausal explanation of the split. (p. 18)

14Thus, on the one hand, the analysis of Mao’s motives is, to use the author’s own words, reduced to “a little bit of everything,” while, on the other, it suggests that Mao, like Khrushchev, sought ideological dominance for the purpose of securing greater power—both national and personal.

15It is, of course, difficult to disentangle the line between power and policy in the actions of any politician. Yet, in this reviewer’s opinion, one could equally argue that during the 1960s, Mao’s motives were, on balance, the reverse of what is argued in this study: he was seeking power to realise his revolutionary vision for China, and relations with the Soviet “revisionists” were a threat to that vision. Indeed, much of Dr. Radchenko’s description of Mao’s management of the dispute, as well as some of the linkages with domestic politics that he makes, would substantiate such a view.

16All of which is to suggest that there is much more to be learned about the Chinese side during the Sino-Soviet dispute, and this is evident from the data used in this study. Although there are some revelations about Chinese perspectives from discussions with Soviet diplomats and leaders of other Communist countries, most of the documentation in these sections is familiar and in no way comparable to the quality of sources on the Soviet side.  

17In sum, Sergey Radchenko has delivered on much of what he promised in his introduction. While Two Suns in the Heavens does not offer any radically new interpretation of the Sino-Soviet dispute, it does succeed in using a broad range of new materials to produce an unusually nuanced and insightful analysis of Soviet management of the dispute, as well as a provocative view of Mao’s approach to it.

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Electronic reference

Steven M. Goldstein, « Sergey Radchenko, Two Suns in the Heavens: The Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy, 1962-1967 », China Perspectives [Online], 2009/4 | 2009, Online since 13 January 2010, connection on 28 May 2017. URL :

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