Deborah Kaple

Research Scholar
Email Address:
Office Location: 
353 Wallace Hall

Deborah Kaple is a Research Scholar and Lecturer at Princeton University.  She has studied at Princeton University (PhD), George Washington University (MA), Vermont College (MFA) and Ohio State University (BA).  She teaches a Freshman Seminar on the Cold War, and a class called Communism and Beyond: Russia and China. Her publications include Dream of a Red Factory: The Legacy of High Stalinism in China, and Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir, both published by Oxford University Press. She is the guest editor of a special issue on China and the USSR for Modern China Studies called “The Forgotten Decade: A Retrospective Look at the 1950s,” as well as several articles and chapters on the Soviet Advisers Program in China in the 1950s.  She is particularly interested in the intersection between the organizational politics of communist parties and international relations among the respective states. She is currently working on a book analyzing the origins and consequences of Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” and its particular impact on communist China. She was recently named a Behrman Fellow at Princeton.

What is Communism? How did the Sino-Soviet Friendship in the 1950s work? What effect does the communist legacy have on post-communist nations? 

I am a comparative historical sociologist working on the Cold War, in particular on the USSR and the PRC. I am interested in the organization and the organizational foundations of communist rule, and the effects of communist rule on those countries that are shedding or have shed their communist past. How did a system with such obvious political and economic dysfunctions work for so long? How did its ideas become codified in expected behaviors? Why is communist China so successful, when others have failed? What are the lasting legacies of living under such a system? These are some of the questions we raise in my seminar, Sociology 308, Communism and Beyond: China and Russia. 

In my book Dream of a Red Factory, I investigated the origins of China’s communist system, and found that the Chinese copied the Soviet model of “High Stalinism” as their blueprint for communism. I am interested in knowing what kind of impact the adoption of such a repressive period of Soviet history had on China, and how it informed the Chinese version of communism.  One facet of the command economy that interests me is its tendency to form giant state-run projects.  In this vein, I have studied the building of the Baikal-Amur Railroad, an immense Soviet project to construct a second rail line across Siberia, and I have investigated the Soviet Gulag, Stalin’s far-reaching system of slave labor camps. One important question that frequently comes up in my Freshman Seminar on Stalin’s Gulag was: did the communist system with its centrally planned economy lend itself to the formation of slave labor camps, or was this a Stalinist aberration of the socialist model? This interest led me to translate and annotate the only available memoir written by a Stalin-era Gulag camp boss, which is at the heart of my book Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir.

As a Cold War specialist focusing on the Soviet Union and China, I have a special interest in understanding the mechanics of how one nation reaches out to help another nation develop, and how the lending country can end up looking very different from the receiving country. This has led me to investigate the Soviet advisors whom Stalin and Khrushchev sent to China in the 1950s. I have published articles about the Soviet Advisors Program in China, such as “Agents of Change: Soviet Advisors and High Stalinist Management in China, 1949-1960,” in Journal of Cold War Studies, “Soviet and Chinese Comrades Look Back at the Friendship Decade,” in Modern China Studies,  and “Soviet Assistance and Civilian Cooperation in China,” in Odd Arne Westad, ed., Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1948-1963. I was also the guest editor of an excellent collection of recent articles on the Sino-Soviet Friendship in Modern China Studies called “The Forgotten Decade: A Retrospective Look at the 1950s.”

My current book project, The Failed Friendship: China and the Soviet Union, 1949-1960 addresses a paradox: Why did the Sino-Soviet Friendship so quickly develop and then abruptly end in rancor a decade later? When Mao and the Chinese communists took power in 1949, they were most interested in adopting Stalin’s 1930s techniques of forced collectivization and rapid industrialization. They pursued this aim even though Stalin died in 1953. However, the new Khrushchev regime rejected Stalin’s methods, ended rule by fear and terror, and worked to make Soviet life easier.

In the early 1950s, the new leadership was faced with Stalin’s legacy: a restive Eastern Europe that wanted out of the Soviet Bloc, 2.5 million wrongly-arrested Gulag prisoners demanding to be released, and an impoverished Soviet populace. Khrushchev famously denounced Stalin’s terror in 1956, and the new regime began to ease restrictions and make life better in the USSR by building urban housing, producing more consumer goods like modern appliances and fashionable clothing, offering trips abroad, decreasing censorship in literature and film, and focusing on fun and leisure instead of campaigns and political agitation.  But in China, little attention was paid to the huge change that Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin had wrought in the rest of the Socialist Bloc. The Chinese communists continued to organize enormous Stalin-style political campaigns to mobilize people towards land reform, and carry out thought reform persecutions of intellectuals using the old Soviet technique of “criticism and self-criticism.” While Mao was forcibly collectivizing agriculture, the Soviet government was building daycare centers and community kitchens. Mao undertook “accelerated Stalinization,” devising a CCP campaign to “root out hidden counter-revolutionaries” (80,000 repressed) and forcing peasants into cooperatives during the “Socialist High Tide.” Just like in 1930s USSR, peasants in rural areas would fund industrialization. In short, China was building a Stalinist economy and political system while the Soviets were “de-Stalinizing,” and this made the relationship untenable. I argue that even though the 1950s saw an enormous Soviet outreach of money and materials, and thousands of Soviet specialists working in Chinese enterprises, China and the USSR were rapidly heading down two different paths. Inevitably, this made their relationship difficult; the two countries quickly became incompatible. Once the “Friendship” officially ended, the Sino-Soviet relationship devolved to border skirmishes and armed “incidents” for 30 years. 

Publications List: 

“Agents of Change: Soviet Advisors and High Stalinist Management in China, 1949-1960,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter 2016, pp. 1-26 

“Soviet and Chinese Comrades Look Back at the Friendship Decade,” Modern China Studies, Guest Editor Deborah Kaple, Special Issue on China and the USSR, “The Forgotten Decade: A Retrospective Look at the 1950s,” 2015.

Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir. New York & London: Oxford University Press, 2011.

“Soviet Assistance and Civilian Cooperation in China,” in Odd Arne Westad, ed., Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1948-1963. Washington, D.C.: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Dream of a Red Factory: High Stalinism in China.  New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Socialist Economic Development: The Transportation Bottleneck in China.  China Transport Division, The World Bank, Washington, DC, 1990

 “The BAM: Labor, migration and prospects for settlement,” Soviet Geography 27, 1986.