1908: A Russian super-spy in Valparaiso Indiana

Thursday, 23 June 2011 14:02 Amy Gwilliam
Among the non-Chinese who played central roles in the history of China was the Russian revolutionary Mikhail Borodin (1886-1851).  An intimate of both Lenin and Stalin, Borodin was dispatched to China in 1923 as the chief agent of the Communist International in support of President Sun Yat-Sen.  Borodin took charge of the defense of Guangzhou against anti-Sun forces and succeeded not only in defending the city but in rallying military support for Sun all over southern China.  Through his personal charisma and organizing skills, Borodin became one of Sun's right-hand men.  In reference to George Washington's French general during the American Revolution, Sun spoke of Borodin as "my Lafayette."

Lover of the brilliant Nebraskan Communist Anna Louise Strong, friend of Sun's wife Soong Ching-ling, close but uneasy ally of Chiang Kai-Shek, hero of no fewer than two novels by the famed French writer André Malraux, and mentioned in poems by the American poet Kenneth Rexroth,  Borodin is still remembered as the most spectacularly successful of all Soviet agents.  Less well-known are the facts that he emigrated from Russia to Chicago in 1906, that he attended Valparaiso University in Indiana in 1908, and that for a number of years in Chicago he ran a school for new Russian immigrants that became a center for Marxist-Leninist propaganda.

Image:Auditorium, Valparaiso University, 1906

We do not know whether Borodin was interested in China in those days or whether he had any contact with Chinese-Americans while in Chicago.  However, his fluent Midwestern English was why Lenin later sent him to China, where Sun Yat-Sen -- also fluent in English -- had requested a Soviet agent with whom he could talk without a translator.  Did Sun ask specifically for Borodin?  He could have met him on his last trip to Chicago in 1910, but we know of no evidence pointing in that direction.

Many of Borodin's early activities were kept secret  But we still hope to learn more about his Chicago days.  We are intrigued by the idea of one of modern history's greatest spies cutting classes at a small conservative  Lutheran university and riding the South Shore Line from Valpo to Chicago so as to attend secret meetings of Bolshevik revolutionaries.