Dmitry Ryabushkin & Harold Orenstein, The Sino-Soviet Border War of 1969 v1 (Helion, 2021)
The thought of two nuclear armed superpowers coming to blows is the stuff of nightmares. When it happens over something as paltry as who owns a small island in the middle of a river, the mind boggles. But that is exactly what happened between China and the Soviet Union in 1969. Dmitry Ryabushkin and Harold Orenstein bring us a story shrouded in mystery and propaganda in a magazine-style book from Helion’s excellent Asia@War series.
Border tensions between China and Russia has deep roots, extending back to the 17th Century when there began a long series of treaties between them. These were discussions over extensive borders, but the fighting that broke out in 1969 centred around a small Island in the middle of the Ussuri River. The authors set that against the wider disagreements between the two communist powers, beginning in the 1950s after Stalin’s death. In the 1960s, the otherwise peaceful coexistence along the border changed to State inspired antagonism; scuffles and brawling followed, and a shooting war was not far behind.
The war began with a Chinese ambush on Damansky Island on 2 March 1969. The authors describe this action in some detail, aided by some remarkable photographs of the event. The Chinese withdrew from the engagement after a few hours, leaving about 20 dead on the battlefield and 31 dead Soviets. The authors add a quite unnecessary section showing photographs of some of the dead Soviets along with descriptions of how they died. The authors include this, they argue, to demonstrate Chinese barbarity driven by their propaganda. The rest of this volume is mostly dedicated to establishing exactly what happened and who was to blame. They follow that with a discussion on the western view of what happened before giving their own thoughts on why this incident occurred. They broaden their inquiry to the geopolitical aspects of the war and the greater clash between Moscow and Peking. While much of that concludes this volume, it also sets the stage for Volume 2 and the much bigger battle sparked by the Damansky Island incident.
The authors had an almost impossible task of seeking the truth from two secretive, totalitarian regimes. That they produced as much as they have is noteworthy, though it is evident that they lean heavily towards the Soviet view of events and sometimes tip into what feels like propaganda. That was hardly avoidable, however, when the Chinese evidence is almost entirely missing. The story of the ambush at Damansky Island is told with admirable clarity, and the maps and illustrations of soldiers and vehicles helps with that. This book will appeal to those interested in modern skirmish warfare and geopolitical issues in the late twentieth century.