In 1969 China and the Soviet Union confronted one another for possession of Zhenbao Island. The strategic value of the island was derisive. The battle was brief but bloody. Chinese propaganda highlighted the incident, but concealed some disturbing details. It is, even today, a sensitive issue for the authorities. And an historic fact largely neglected by the young chinese generation.
Zhenbao is an island in the Ussuri River, which demarcates the Sino-Russian border. This tiny piece of land has been occupied by the Russians for decades. When the relations between the two countries deteriorated at the end of fifties, China called in vain for a solution to this border disagreement. On the night of March 1st 1969, about 300 soldiers of the People's Liberation Army land on the Island. Several men in a Russian patrol are killed. Attacks and counterattacks ensue. 58 Russians soldiers die. The true amount of casualties on the Chinese side will never be made public, but historians estimate they reached several hundreds. China finally won the rights to the island after negotiations between leaders of PRC and USSR in september 1969.
Zhenbao battle was a bloodbath for the People's Liberation Army. Those responsible for this absurd escapade are probably to be found among the top state executives - namely Lin Biao and Mao Zedong. The decision to attack Zhenbao followed a political strategy rather than a military logic. In the middle of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, it helped divert the people's attention toward an external enemy.
A few months ago, an Ukrainian academic contacted us. He was looking for posters illustrating the Damanski Conflict (the Russian denomination for Zhenbao). Dimitri - that's his name - even asked me if I had the opportunity to go to Harbin, a capital city of northeast China, where some veterans of the contact are still living. Indeed, they could help to answer some unanswered questions, like what were the exact number of Chinese casualties. Dimitri is an international specialist of this conflict. He recently published a remarkably detailed chronology of the events.
Chinese propaganda posters on Zhenbao show soldiers in a snowy landscape. Slogans are elusive for the most, making the best of encouraging vigilance at the borders. Soviet soldiers are neither represented nor cited. Dimitri tells us that China published a series of some ten posters in tribute to ten heroes of whom five of them died defending China's right to the island.