China's Consulates in the Soviet Far East and Siberia in the Great Terror Years

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Journal Title: Far Eastern Affairs

Issue Edition: Vol. 48 No. 1

Author: Yevgeny G. Kalkayev

China's Consulates in the Soviet Far East and Siberia in the Great Terror Years

Author: Yevgeny G. Kalkayev, researcher, China Department of the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies.

Source: Far Eastern Affairs, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 107-126


DOI: 10.31857/S013128120007509-0

Abstract. The paper examines the position of the Republic China consulates in the Soviet Union in 1937-1938. During the Great Terror period. Chinese consulates found themselves in an ambiguous position. On the one hand, they represented a friendly state and were not closed down as many other foreign consulates were at the time. But on the other, NKVD charged many of their staff with working for the Japanese intelligence service, while the consulates' efforts to protect their nationals were viewed by the Soviet side as hostile.

Keywords: Great Terror, NKVD, China Operation, Chinese community, PCFA, consulates of the Chinese Republic, Soviet Union, Soviet-Chinese relations.

The Great Terror when the Stalin policy of reprisals peaked was inextricably linked to apprehensions that the Leader of Nations felt about the impending war, which seemed virtually unavoidable, and its likely consequences for the proletarian state. Under these circumstances, the efforts to consolidate the uniform Soviet community and suppress the potential Fifth Column took the shape of mass operations of 1937-1938 when hundreds of thousands of people were exterminated.1

The fears of the Party honchos over the subversive activity by hostile states manifested themselves as a whole complex of measures to combat potential spies and saboteurs.2 And the people who seemed most suspicion were foreigners. "It has been established that the overwhelming majority of foreigners residing in the Soviet Union are the organizing source of espionage and subversion," alleged the NKVD instruction of August 22, 1937.3 This agenda was also kept up by regular publications in the press. Just how important those were can be seen from the fact that Stalin personally took part in editing the article "On Certain Perfidious Recruiting Techniques of Foreign Intelligence Services."4

Cutting Down Foreign Consulates in the U.S.S.R.

Active countermeasures were also taken against foreign consulates. Thus, the point of NKVD Order 00698 of October 28, 1937 was to curb hostile activity by the embassies and consulates of the countries considered to be the chief adversaries of the Soviet Union: Germany, Japan, Italy, and Poland. The Order provided for a wide range of secret service operational measures aimed at maximum isolation of these offices, including intense shadowing, reprisals against Soviet nationals known to contact them, and foreigners assumed suspicious.5

In the same year, they embarked on the policy of reducing the foreign consular presence in the Soviet Union. It was based on the principle of consular parity (i.e., equal number of consulates), which the Soviet Union insisted on unswervingly from then on.6 On the one hand, that entitled the Soviet Union to demanding that the countries, which had more consulates on Soviet territory than the U.S.S.R. had on theirs, reduce their number. And on the other, by closing down more of its own consulates, the Soviet Union could also achieve a further reduction of the foreign consular network.

In 1937, it was resolved to close down 14 consulates (five Italian, five German, two Japanese, and two Polish). In early 1938, the process continued; stage two provided for closing down another 17 representations, among them, on top of the remaining German consulates, were those of Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Denmark, and Japan.7

These developments proceeded mostly under the motto of exterminating the "hotbeds of foreign espionage." That was how foreign consulates were described by Andrei Zhdanov, an active opponent of their presence in the country, who had been elected Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission under the Supreme Soviet.8 Besides, as mass reprisals unfolded, removal of foreign representations helped not only conceal from unwelcome attention the goings-on in the country more effectively, but also deprive many foreigners in the Soviet Union of consular protection.9

Discussions of elimination issues and elimination itself frequently went on in a fairly tense atmosphere. Although the officials at the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs were doing their utmost to convince their counterparts that the closing down of diplomatic representations was not directed against corresponding countries, the representatives of those countries, especially those whose nationals resided in the Soviet Union in large numbers, took it badly. Consular agreements and international law were cited to contest the very need to maintain consular parity.10

Thus, the closure of Japan's and Germany's consulates was fiercely confrontational and frequently involved a wide range of pressurizing techniques. One of the tougher episodes of this standoff was the closure of the German consulate in Kiev. In January-February 1938, the entire operating staff of the representation was arrested; NKVD officers often tampered with door bells and locks in the officials' apartments, practiced blackouts, switched off telephones, stopped water supply. Several apartments were flooded with sewage water through toilet cisterns. Each official was obtrusively shadowed.11 Similar measures were proposed for closing down Japan's consulates as well.12 On May 1, 1938, the PCFA declared inoperative the consulates in Blagoveshchensk and Khabarovsk, yet the consuls and staff refused to vacate the premises. Assuming that the official invitation to leave will evoke no reaction, People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov suggested applying to them "the same measures that NKVD has recently used with regard to the German consulate in Kiev and the Italian one in Odessa."13

Against this background, the Soviet treatment of the consulates of the Chinese Republic seemed nothing short of unique. The history of Soviet-Chinese relations had abided in numerous conflicts until the period under examination. Some role in that was played by the White Guard émigrés who had settled in China, and the activity of Chinese communists sent from the Soviet Union. Nor can one ignore the standoff at the Chinese Eastern Railway in 1929 that degenerated into a military operation. However, as Japan's aggression in China progressed, the situation started to change. The Chinese Republic required considerable aid in its straggle against invaders, and the last thing the Soviet Union wanted was to see China defeated in the war. In that case, the chance of Japan assaulting the Soviet Union would have increased manifold. The countries started looking for points of rapprochement, which resulted in the Soviet-Chinese Nonaggression Pact signed in 1937, and the Soviet Union started rendering significant financial and military-technical aid to the fighting Chinese Republic.14

By 1938, the Soviet Union had had ten Chinese consular offices in operation. Five of them in Central Asia had connections with the authorities of the Chinese Province of Xinjiang that the central government had practically no control over. They were located in the Kazakh SSR (in Alma-Ata, Zaisan, and Semipalatinsk), and in the Uzbek SSR (in Tashkent and Andizhan), and occasionally were referred to in documents as West Chinese. The other five consulates of the Chinese Republic were on the territory of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, in Far Eastern Territory (Vladivostok, Khabarovsk Blagoveshchensk), in Chita, and in Novosibirsk.15 Four of them, moreover, had the status of consulate general, and the diplomatic office in Chita, that of consulate.

As other countries' consular offices continued to close down in droves, it looked somewhat ambiguous that so many Chinese representations were still functioning. So little wonder that in early February 1938 Litvinov called Stalin's attention to the fact. "We as yet have done nothing about consular relations with China, considering that country's special situation at present," the People's Commissar wrote in his letter. "Since, however, we are cutting down the number of all countries' consulates, it is difficult to leave intact the Chinese ones...."16 Litvinov pointed out that the Bolshevik Party CC Politburo Commission for Xinjiang deemed it desirable to preserve all the five Soviet consulates in that province, and therefore, proceeding from the principle of parity, the Soviet Union could not close down West Chinese consulates on its territory. But the other Soviet consulates in the Chinese Republic were in the Japanese occupation zone, and "so," he wrote, "we might suggest that China close down at least two of the five consulates it has, the one in Novosibirsk, and one more wherever it prefers."17

But the proposal was not welcomed by the top Party leadership. When in late March 1938 the Chita Regional Party Committee raised the matter of closing the consulates of China and Manchoukuo in the region, the People's Commissar had already changed his tone. He wrote to Stalin, "With regard to cutting down the number of Chinese consulates in the Soviet Union, I wrote to you on February 8 of this year, No. 5042. Apparently, given our current relations with China, it appears unwise to reduce its consulates here."18 That is, if the text is anything to go by, Litvinov had never got his February proposal approved, and justly interpreted that as a signal that the overall Soviet policy toward consulates did not extend to the Chinese Republic that was "special."

The Start of NKVD China Operation and the Consulate General of the Chinese Republic in Vladivostok

The specific role played by the Chinese Republic in indirect support of Soviet security, however, did not mean that the friendly spirit automatically extended to the Chinese community in the Soviet Union. The rapprochement of the two countries occurred during the mass reprisals of 1937-1938, when extrajudicial punishment involved both hundreds of thousands of the so-called anti-Soviet elements, and hundreds of thousands of those who were identified as "counterrevolutionary national elements."19

Most Chinese residents in the Soviet Union did not easily fit the image of the ideal Soviet citizen. The majority of them were low-skilled workers who often changed their employment area. A lot of them were engaged in nonproduction activity, including commerce, arrived in the Soviet Union illegally, and were mixed up in smuggling or crime, including den keeping. The negative image was aggravated by the traditionally close-knit and isolated nature of the Chinese community and poor command of Russian.

Besides, the very affiliation with ethnic minorities, should they have ties with another state, had by then become a major sign of potential threat.20 And in case of the Chinese one could speak of ties with were controlled by the puppet state of Manzhoukuo and Japan. Add to this the fact that a good deal of the Chinese lived in the Far Eastern region next to the border,21 and the sum total of these factors made Chinese an almost ideal target for the repressive operation against a specific ethnic group.

However, large-scale arrests of Chinese in the Far East at the end of 1937 were not immediately included in the context of the ethnic operation. The pretext for that was the case about a provocation being prepared that was forged by the Far Eastern NKVD Directorate. Falling back on information about the upsurge of anti-Japan sentiment among the Chinese expressed in threats, assaults, and vilification of Japanese, NKVD officials overlooked the fact that this was happening against the background of an acute phase in the Sino-Japanese War. Cheka men in the Far East interpreted the unrest of the Chinese community as the result of provocation by Japanese agents. According to them, the purpose of those provocations was assassination of Japanese nationals (preferably, diplomats) so as to give Japan an excuse to declare war against the Soviet Union.22

In this connection, on December 22 and December 23, People's Commissar for Internal Affairs Nikolai Yezhov dispatched two directives to the Far East. The first one provided for immediate apprehension of "all Chinese, regardless of their citizenship, who displayed provocative activity or terrorist intent," the second one was an order to do away with dens in the region. These directives were what provided the reason for launching an anti-Chinese campaign in Far Eastern Territory. Even though nominally they affected only criminals, in practice mass arrests of thousands of people implied no proof of the guilt of individual detainees. From the end of December 1937 and to the end of March 1938, the major populated localities of the area witnessed several waves of arrests.23 Under Yezhov's orders, mass arrests of Chinese in the Far East ceased after June 10, 1938.24 By then, over ten thousand persons had already been arrested in the region.25

As to the case hearing procedure, the second directive provided for examining the cases of Soviet nationals "exposed as persons engaged in anti-Soviet activity, spying, smuggling, and active criminals" by threes (i.e. within the framework of the operation against anti-Soviet elements), while foreign nationals exposed as similarly guilty were to be sent out of the Soviet Union on court orders. As for the rest, that is those who, according to investigation, were not involved in similar doings, they were to be tried likewise and banned from living in Far Eastern Territory, the Chita and Irkutsk Regions.26 Thus, under the initial directives of the NKVD leadership, extrajudicial inquiries were to concern primarily Chinese who were Soviet nationals, while the subjects of the Chinese Republic, including those suspected of heinous crimes, were to be deported.

But soon things changed. On January 31, 1938, the Politburo, making a decision on continuing the current ethnic operations and starting new ones, included in them also a separate Chinese line. On February 1, Yezhov sent out ciphertext # 233 composed on the basis of that resolution.27 In practice that meant sanctioning new arrests of Chinese all over the country, including in the areas where those were not yet made on a massive scale, and also examining all cases of the arrested (foreign nationals included) extrajudicially (according to the so-called album procedure).28

As for Chinese consular representations, already while the China Operation was being initiated in Far Eastern Territory, the local NKVD Directorate placed the Consulate General in Vladivostok practically in the center of this wild plot. Thus, one of the first reports sent to the center by deputy head of the NKVDD Kagan that alleged preparations for a provocation began with information about the Chinese consulate in Vladivostok organizing anti-Japan work among the members of the Chinese community and encouraging traders, water carriers, and auxiliary workers to boycott Japanese and the Japanese consulate.29

Reports were also coming in to say that apart from occasional verbal attacks and threats to Japanese, some Chinese contemplated murdering Japanese nationals. They allegedly planned similar acts under the impact of talk by certain Tuan Qiyuan Jiang30 and Jiu Jia Ting at the consulate. In particular, a waiter at the Golden Horn restaurant, Mao Yu, confessed that Tuan Qiyuan Jiang and Jiu Jia Ting "fanned up resentment against Japanese in him, the result of which was Mao Yu's decision to assassinate the Japanese consul."31 After conversations at the consulate about the war, a similar desire allegedly swept also one Lti Zhi Kong arrested in late December; he gave evidence to the effect that he kept a revolver "with a view to assassinating the Japanese consul and lurked in the street in the hope of meeting the man."32 Thus, the staff of the Chinese Consulate General became the protagonists of the Japanese provocation concocted by the Far Eastern Cheka men.

Subsequently, the number of accusations directed at the consulate merely increased. In late February 1938, the leadership of the Territorial NKVD Directorate reported to the center the "provocative stand" of the acting consul general in Vladivostok, Wu Aicheng. This resulted from Wu's failure to deny refuge to his fellow countrymen, when, after yet another large-scale wave of arrests that had broken out on February 22, some 1,000 Chinese decided to seek shelter in the consulate premises, telling the consul that they would not budge until he took measures to save them from arrests.33 Wu Aicheng did not have the heart to oppose them and allowed putting up the Chinese in every cellar, storeroom, and closet of the representation, as well as giving them food.34

Reporting that to Yezhov, Head of the Far Eastern NKVD Directorate Lyushkov noted that "the current situation stirs up the remaining part of the Chinese resident in Vladivostok and inspires in them a recalcitrant mood with regard to our measures,"35 that is to say mass arrests. Lyushkov blamed the situation on Wu Aicheng saying that "judging by some information, this concentration of Chinese is the result of organized work by the Chinese consul." And to make his allegations more credible, he added that, according to an anonymous information received earlier, Wu Aicheng was himself a Japanese secret agent.36

Recruiting Consulate Staff and Using Consular Ties during the Ethnic Chinese Operation

A look at even a portion of 1938 reports by regional directorates and republican people's commissariats of internal affairs suggests that at the time of the Chinese ethnic operation all consulates of the Chinese Republic in the Far East and Siberia were charged with various degrees of subversive activity, espionage, and sabotage.37

On the one hand, that was the result of normal counterintelligence work disorganized under conditions of virulent spy hysteria; under the influence of the country leadership's guidelines that work was being done not just with the kind of fervor normally expected from this kind of agency, but also with liberal resort to forgery and machinations. The result was that by arbitrarily equating suspicion or opportunity of crime commission and intent, or even concrete deeds, NKVD officials effortlessly multiplied unfounded charges.

On the other hand, the very practice of mass falsifications in ethnic operations provided fertile ground for turning foreign consulates into convenient targets for similar accusations. Investigators who had to churn out case materials in quick succession almost automatically presented any contact with diplomatic offices as proof of the arrestees' criminal ties with foreign countries. And although when investigated Chinese cases mostly revealed evidence of contact with diplomatic representations of Japan or Manchoukuo, the consulates of the Chinese Republic likewise came under fire.

This kind of NKVD attitude to representations of the countries whose nationals became objects of persecution as part of ethnic operations was also encouraged by Yezhov's directive of February 1. Point Four of said ciphertext 233 provided for identifying and removing "all those connected with foreign missions, embassies, consulates, concessions, and other foreign establishments."38 That is including Chinese in the general list of "spy and saboteur contingents" nominally implied also viewing Chinese consulates as sources of threat.

As I have shown, the very pretext for launching a campaign of reprisals against Chinese in the Far East linked the Vladivostok consulate and the imaginary provocation. As the operation unfolded, accusations against the consulate staff snowballed. For instance, whereas at the end of February the only thing reported was some anonymous information about Wu Aicheng's work for the Japanese, in April Lyushkov reported that Wu Aicheng and the consul general in Khabarovsk, Quan Shien,39 gave orders to have Japanese spies arriving in the Soviet Union sheltered in the Chinese hospital.40 There were other charges, too, made against the Khabarovsk consul general. Lyushkov informed the center that NKVD agents in Khabarovsk "noted Qiuan Shien's nipponophile sentiment," and registered instances of the Khabarovsk consul general meeting with an "identified Japanese spy," whose role was played by one Song Yu Ting, a cook at the Japanese consulate.41

There was also a fat file on Qian Jiadong, who was consul general in Novosibirsk from the end of 1937, and until then had held a similar post in Khabarovsk. A special summary report signed by the head of the NKVD Directorate for Novosibirsk Territory G.F. Gorbach, with a reference to agents' materials, mentioned the ties of the Chinese diplomat with the Japanese and German consulates, and also the large-scale intelligence work he was engaged in. It said that in Khabarovsk Qian, by means of "questioning Chinese nationals who visited the consulate [...] identified NKVD secret and official staffers and communists of the Chinese nationality. He found out the number of Chinese nationals and Chinese with Soviet citizenship within Far Eastern Territory. He discovered and looked for skilled specialists and workers among Chinese, in particular, blast furnace operators and railroad workers who worked on trains, steam engines, and at locomotive depots."42 Besides, he displayed interest in information about Chinese internees. And after instructions allegedly received from the Japanese intelligence service, he started gathering information about the Red Army and Navy units and weapons, railroad, motorway, and military construction, Koreans residentbi in the Territory, and even the address of Blucher and the Bolshevik Party Territorial Committee secretary, as well as that of the canteen where they ate.43 It was also mentioned that Qian helped the Japanese buy up Soviet banknotes, which were afterwards used for intelligence work.44

According to Gorbach, Qian Jiadong continued in the same vein in Novosibirsk as well, where he likewise sought new contacts with Chinese nationals and internees,45 went on paying special attention to the army and gathering information by personal observations and from the public press.46 Among Qian's contacts, as Novosibirsk Cheka men alleged, were supporters of Japan, both in the Soviet Union and in China. In particular, Novosibirsk consulate secretary Zhang Wenyuan and his counterpart in Vladivostok Huang Tichu, who were described as Nipponophiles engaged in intelligence activity.

Charges of setting up intelligence cells on U.S.S.R. territory against Qian Jiadong were reiterated in the report by head of the Altai Territory NKVD Directorate S.R Popov. The report said that in 1936 Qian demanded from one Lu Fa who had arrived in Novosibirsk to collect his national passport that he "organize a group of spies and saboteurs from Koreans and Chinese internees resident in Barnaul." To the same end, the Chinese consul allegedly sent to Barnaul an internee, name of Zhi Wu Li. Eighteen members of the group, according to the investigators, "repeatedly toured the cities of Tomsk, Biysk, and Tashkent in 1936-1937 and gathered information about the location of military units and defense industry enterprises." While Lu Fa "systematically visited the Chinese consul in Novosibirsk to hand over to him whatever information he had gathered.. .. The group members who had settled at various Barnaul enterprises were tasked with having prepared a number of acts of sabotage by the moment of military complications between Japan and the U.S.S.R."47

Another person named as a Japanese secret agent was Zhang Wenyuan, a Novosibirsk consulate official mentioned earlier on in connection with Qian Jiadong. According to the local NKVD Directorate, he headed the spy-and-saboteur cell of Chinese turncoats and smugglers after the Japanese consulate in Novosibirsk was closed down.48 And, say, the cook of the railroad restaurant, Song Gui Tang, was allegedly connected with the vice consul in Chita, Zhang Chen.49 As the NKVD Directorate for the Chita Region reported, Song was in charge of gathering information about passing troop trains and military freight, and also about the units and aircraft fleet deployed in the city.50

According to 1938 reports from regional NKVD Directorates, a considerable portion of the arrested Chinese were secret agents planted by the Chinese consulates in the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s. Obviously, that was the legacy of the period of troubled relations between the Chinese Republic and the Soviet Union. Japan was hardly ever mentioned in these cases, but the thing typically implied was work in China's favor.

For instance, one of the reports spoke of Li Ya A, a gold digger, who was said to have confessed that back in 1920, while leaving Harbin for the Soviet Union, he had been recruited by a Chinese agent, and later, in 1925, had been re-recruited by an official at the Chinese consulate general in Blagoveshchensk. It was pointed out that on orders from the latter Li allegedly involved in espionage another dozen Chinese, and received 20,000 rubles for collecting military information.51 Another example is the story of one Chang Chyucheng (Vysotsky) who confirmed at the investigation that he had been recruited in 1930 by the doorman of the Novosibirsk consulate of the Chinese Republic. Chang Chyucheng was alleged to have been passing to his supervisor information about the local airfield, aircraft, and food stores.52

Another name mentioned among the originators of spy networks was Geng Kuang who was 2nd secretary of the Chinese Embassy in Moscow in the first half of 1938. According to the NKVD Directorate for the Chita Region, as the consul in Chita in 1934, Geng Kuang recruited Chinese national Dong Hong, a carpenter at the lumber mill, so that the latter would "gather information about the position of military units, the airfield, and the location of the artillery regiment."53

The result was a clear-cut picture painted by the NKVD reports of late 1937 and early 1938 of all the Chinese consulates in the Far East and Siberia acting as the strong points of ramified adversary networks. In the view of the painters of that picture, the networks had in part been formed earlier to work for the Chinese secret services, but in 1937-1938 the vast majority of those worked in the interests of Japan.

The appearance of a large body of similar charges resulted from gradual inclusion of the Chinese within the scope of ethnic operations. Back in 1937, the concoction of a pretext for the operation in the Soviet Far East was accompanied by accusations against the Vladivostok consulate. The Soviet services' resent merit of Chinese representations also deepened after the reaction of the latter to mass arrests. I will dwell in more detail on that later, while here I would merely remind the reader that the attempt to resist NKVD measures on the part of Wu Aicheng must have been the reason for charges of espionage against him. It is also worth noting that Yezhov's directive 233 that formally included the Chinese line in ethnic operations not only provoked new accusations against consulates by this very fact, but also specifically focused the attention of NKVD officials on consular and embassy ties.

The trademark NKVD methods of forgery, in which the leaders of the Far Eastern NKVD Directorate and Cheka men elsewhere were very well versed, allowed the staff of Chinese consulates to be charged with a wide range of anti-Soviet activity kinds.54 Just as easily they got any confessions from the arrestees; resort to illegal methods (from psychological pressure and deceit to physical violence) became perfectly commonplace at the time.55

However, one can sometimes detect signs of falsification by merely looking at documents attentively. A researcher cannot fail to get suspicious learning that professional Japanese scouts, when preparing a provocation to unleash a war, repeatedly disclosed the end goal of these acts to rank-and-file executors. It is also worth noting that the local NKVD Directorate had reported organization of similar provocations before, in particular that was the charge made against the participants of the so-called Korean Insurgent Organization,56 yet no evidence of real attempts on the life of Japanese diplomats had appeared. Or, for instance, despite the cited reports by the head of the NKVD Directorate in Altai Territory, Qian Jiadong could not have handled the passport of Chinese Lu Fa in Novosibirsk in 1936, given him errands, or sent the recruited persons anywhere. At the time Qian worked in Khabarovsk, and he was not transferred to Novosibirsk until the end of 1937.

Thus accusations could rest not only on falsified materials, but also on those selected in a rather slipshod fashion, and fairly contradictory ones. Nevertheless, both the leadership of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, and that of the country turned a blind eye to that, because ethnic operations were in keeping with Stalin's general idea of combating the potential fifth column and threats to the country's security.

The Consulates of the Chinese Republic and Members of the Soviet Foreign-Policy Office

Despite the fact that the predicament in which Chinese consulates found themselves in 1937-1938 was largely due to the work of NKVD agencies, it would be wrong to overlook the interaction of consulates with members of the Foreign Affairs People's Commissariat. For it is the latter that Chinese diplomats had to turn to for matters related to the Chinese community. However, one should not forget that a major part of the context for these relations was the difficult situation in which the Soviet foreign policy department existed at the time. The increasingly frequent verbal attacks on Litvinov on the part of the Party leadership, the worsening relations with NKVD, and arrests of many of the People's Commissariat staff - all of that seriously affected the work of both the central apparatus and the regional branches of the PCFA.57 One of the consequences of that state of affairs became the fear of decision-making that paralyzed diplomatic staff. For instance, an agent of the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs in Novosibirsk did not even dare authorize medical assistance to the Chinese consul's wife who was in labor without an OK from NKVD.58 That could not fail to affect the contacts between Soviet and Chinese diplomats.

A telltale conversation which graphically exposed the position of the Chinese consuls with regard to arrests of Chinese nationals and the response of representatives of the Soviet Foreign Policy Office took place on October 17, 1937, between Chita consul Jiao Jihua and diplomatic agent PL Ryzhov. By then, i.e., already at the height of the Great Terror, but before the NKVD Chinese operation started in the Far East, over a thousand Chinese had been arrested in various parts of the Soviet Union. Typically, they were charged with espionage for Japan. In his consular district, Jiao Jihua was in charge of several dozen were put in custody, and possibly even over a hundred,59 and the diplomat tried to complain that he was practically deprived of any chance of protecting the interests of the Chinese Republic citizens.

The reason was that the consulate was isolated and poorly informed. It did not receive the necessary notifications about Chinese nationals being arrested, and if similar information did come from some other sources, the diplomatic agent through whom the consulate was to maintain contact with other Soviet bodies in many cases could not make inquiries even about the charges made and the identity of the arrestees.60 Jiao also reminded Ryzhov that he had not received the data about the total number of arrested Chinese, and also complained about body search performed on all those visiting the consulate. Under these conditions, said the consul, his presence in Chita "was pointless, for it failed to fulfill its purpose."61

Speaking of the commonest charge, Jiao pointed out that he found it hard to believe that the Chinese nationals arrested, who were largely illiterate, could seriously engage in espionage, and called the attention of his interlocutor to the fact that if they were criminals, they should be tried. "So why don't your authorities let the Chinese consul attend the court hearings, the way you do when you try German nationals?"62 he rightly wondered.

Ryzhov could not say anything about timely information in response, still less about open trials, but he observed rhetorically that the Soviet side had never concealed information about arrests of Chinese engaged in espionage, and did not intend to do so.63 After that, the diplomatic agent even went over to the offensive saying, "You should see better than anyone, Mr. Consul, that a Japanese spy today, whatever his passport, is an enemy of our peoples. This obligates not only us, but you as well, Mr. Consul, to fight against similar enemies. It would be right if you thus understood your functions of protecting the interests of Chinese nationals. Alas, my impression is that you have pretensions to functions of protecting Japanese spies by questioning our reports of the reasons for arrests. Meanwhile, no one doubts today the Japanese intelligence and espionage. Not to worry, please, we will never harm Chinese nationals, if they work honestly."64

That is the consul's doubts as to the validity of mass arrests, reference to his failure to be informed of arrestees, and mention of absence of unbiased public trials,65 were answered merely with a lot of verbiage about widespread Japanese espionage, and nothing threatening honest workers in the Soviet Union. Moreover, Ryzhov remembered to rebuke Jiao for failing to appreciate the attitude and friendly feelings of the Soviet people toward China while the war was on.66

Naturally, the stand of the PCFA official was conditioned by the very need to justify mass reprisals. However, his position was aggravated by the fact that NKVD was not in a hurry to release information about arrested foreigners and answer inquiries about the lot of specific persons.67 In the circumstances, in order to cut down the criticism from the consul, Ryzhov even proposed that PCFA "issue special orders to relevant agencies to stop them publishing in the press information about court rulings,"68 i.e. practically conceal from the consulate information about Chinese nationals.

At the end of 1937 and the beginning of 1938, things got worse, as the number of arrests skyrocketed. The Chinese side repeatedly stressed that the scale of arrests suggested that NKVD did not give itself trouble to prove the guilt of persons suspected of espionage, subversive activity or less heinous crimes, such as keeping dens and black marketing. This point of view voiced first by consulate staff was also expressed in the note by the Embassy of January 6, 1938. The note read, among other things, "the mass scale of arrests shows that the reason for them is not individual guilt of this or that person, and the Chinese Embassy is honored to request that the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the U.S.S.R. urgently apprise the Embassy of the cause of the said arrests and take measures for immediate release of the arrestees."69

As for the position of the Soviet foreign policy office, it boiled down to alleging that the persons subjected to arrests were chiefly criminals and those connected with espionage who cluttered up the Far Eastern region strategically important for the U.S.S.R. That position fully coincided with NKVD directives registered in the letter by deputy people's commissar for internal affairs M.P. Frinovsky. He wrote to Litvinov on February 8, "In addition to personal negotiations on the essence of your letter I can tell you that arrests of Chinese subjects and Chinese citizens of the Soviet Union in 1937 were made by us not indiscriminately, but on the basis of concrete materials in each individual case.

"Most of the arrestees are secret agents of the Japanese intelligence agencies, and also den keepers, smugglers, and other sociohazardous scum.

"Clearing our Far East of this element will do nothing but good.

"We fully take into account the existing friendly relations between the Soviet Union and China and believe that resolute liquidation of these Japanese agents from among Chinese traitors has not only benefited the Soviet Union, but is also doing a favor to China, as we are thus protecting its national interests."70

These directives, not infrequently using the same phraseology, were more than once reproduced by Soviet diplomats when communicating with the staff of consulates and embassies,71 however, there was never any mention of proof to substantiate the guilt of individuals.

In June 1938, the number of arrests among Chinese in the Far East plummeted. After the talks that had lasted several months72 Chinese nationals were allowed to leave for Xinjiang. They could take with them their wives and children, and also persons released from jail where they had been kept for minor crimes ("barring those convicted for and accused of espionage, active sabotage, and terror").73 Those opting for a stay in Far Eastern Territory were granted this right, but strictly outside borderline and banned zones, in specially agreed areas.74

Against this background, a PCFA diplomatic agent in Khabarovsk reported to Moscow that Consul General Qiuan Shien was "engaged in active agitation, both among Chinese nationals, and also among Soviet citizens of Chinese origin, to get them to leave for Xinjiang and renounce their Soviet citizenship."75 According to the agent, many members of the Chinese community who had initially volunteered to stay in the Soviet Union, after a meeting at the embassy changed their minds, and that happened under the influence from consul general. Thus, one Ting Ki Xiang quoted the consul as saying that in the Kur-Urmi District of the Khabarovsk Region, where, among other places, Chinese from Khabarovsk were to be moved, "the Chinese will be starved to death."76

And of course the issue of principle for the Soviet authorities was that of the Chinese granted Soviet citizenship. The talk to this effect and attempts by Qiuan Shien to attribute the reception of citizenship by Chinese to their "backwardness" were resolutely dismissed by the diplomatic agent,77 as the affairs of Soviet citizens could not be within the scope of foreign consulates' interests.78

While admitting that in negotiations about arrested Chinese the consul was invariably civil, the diplomatic agent concluded that although Qiuan Shien "displayed loyalty toward the Soviet Union on the face of it," the facts cited in the report "suggest that the consul's ostentatious loyalty is hiding actions aimed at discrediting the U.S.S.R. (intimidating Chinese by threats of starvation if they fail to go to Xinjiang, persuading Chinese to renounce their Soviet citizenship)."79

Thus, one can state that mass reprisals of Chinese during the Great Terror, and also issues that emerged when those staying free were evicted from "banned areas," resulted in serious contradictions between consulates, which tried to influence the proceedings at least in some way and protect the rights of their citizens, and PCFA representatives who had to justify NKVD actions and decisions by the country's leadership. Caught between the powerful repressive apparatus and legal norms (including those declared by the Soviet Constitution), the staff of the Soviet foreign-policy office had to reproduce the NKVD directives under which most of those arrested were involved in a variety of anti-Soviet and criminal activity. Moreover, any questions about public court hearings, or proof of guilt remained unanswered. PCFA officials were also hard put to it to obtain information about those arrested from NKVD and so were unable to pass these data on to Chinese diplomats.

Under these conditions, a species of protective reaction was reciprocal rebukes of the Chinese consulates' staff. These boiled down to allegations that by their actions and protests Chinese diplomats connived at Japanese espionage and thus played into the hands of the enemy of China and the U.S.S.R. They were also directly blamed in so many words for "provocations" and work for the Japanese. The consul's appeal to his fellow-countrymen to leave the country while they could still do so, where thousands of Chinese had just been arrested on serious charges without adequate evidence, was also seen as an attempt at discrediting the Soviet Union.

Those Recalled and Those Staying Behind

The understandable desire of the Chinese government to avoid aggravating relations with the Soviet Union resulted in recalling the diplomats that irked the Soviet agencies the most. On July 15, 1938, the Chinese Embassy notified the PCFA that Wu Aicheng and Qian Jiadong were being recalled to China. Later, in November of the same year, Qiuan Shien also left the U.S.S.R. Some of their staff likewise departed together with the consuls.

And even there things did not proceed without mishap. When Qiuan Shien about to leave and the persons accompanying him got to the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, even though they had all the necessary stamps in their documents, they were told to obtain additional registration from the militia. Embassy staffers spent several days trying to settle the problem applying to the protocol department of the PCFA and the visa and registration office, while Qiuan Shien and his companions were continuously threatened with eviction. In the end it transpired that no special registration was necessary, and "all of that turned out to be someone's fancy."80 In this situation a representative of the Chinese Embassy, emphasizing that he had no intention to defend the exconsul general, still begged PCFA to take measures to rule out similar trouble in the future.81

But although the Chinese government tried to meet halfway the Soviet side and rotated the consulate staff, many of the officials accused by the NKVD in 1938 of organizing subversive activity and ties with Japanese continued to work at Chinese representations.

One of them was Xu Deguang who in 1938 held the post of vice consul in Novosibirsk. Until August 1937, he worked in Chita where, as the report forwarded from the Chita NKVD Directorate on February 26, 1938 alleged, he had organized spy work and gathered information about the local garrison and economy of the region.82 That did not prevent him from keeping his post and subsequently perform the duties of consul general.83 Earlier on I mentioned charges against Geng Kuang who was alleged to have been recruiting Chinese for spying in the mid-1930s. In the first half of 1938, he worked as the 2nd secretary of the embassy and in that capacity took an active part in talks on the lot of the Chinese community in Far Eastern Territory. And after Wu Aicheng left Vladivostok, Geng Kuang was transferred to that city to work as consul general.

Staying behind in the Soviet Union were Novosibirsk consulate official Zhang Wenyuan and vice consul in Chita Zhang Chen. Though the former allegedly had been head of the spy terrorist group handed over to him after the closure of the Japanese consulate,84 and among the charges against the latter was recruitment for espionage.85 Afterwards Zhang Wenyuan acted as attache at the consulate general in Vladivostok, and Zhang Chen for several years headed the consulate in Chita.

These examples are enough even for this incomplete list to show how badly the Chinese consulates continued to be "cluttered up" with Japanese agents and anti-Soviet elements, if one can seriously take on trust the reports by regional NKVD directorates, that is, at the time of the Great Terror. And I failed to discover any traces of attempts to get rid of those officials, not even of any reproaches to them on the part of PCFA staffers during talks with members of the Chinese Embassy. Nor has anything been known to this day of the reaction by the top Soviet leadership apprehensive of a war with Japan that received copies of those reports.

Apparently, both the Soviet leadership and the NKVD were fully aware that accusations against those consulate workers were conditioned by the peculiarities of mass ethnic operations, during which consular ties were a convenient and popular mechanism of case forging. In the circumstances, making tough and unjustified demands, to say nothing of reprisals with regard to representatives of an allied country, was utterly unreasonable. However, things changed if the incriminating materials reached a considerable scale, and diplomats fought too actively for the rights of the community members, or moreover, hampered NKVD measures. In those cases, it was virtually inevitable that the presence of one or another person in the Soviet Union would be pronounced undesirable.

* * *

The situation in which Chinese consulates in the Soviet Far East and Siberia found themselves in 1937-1938 turned out to be fairly ambiguous, as has been shown above.

On the one hand, the events in the Chinese Republic played an important role in the Soviet-Japanese standoff. The Soviet Union rendered great aid to the straggling China, but by doing that it also pushed the war away from its own frontiers. In the circumstances, refusal to cut down the Chinese consular network in the Soviet Union looked as a political gesture that emphasized the really special ally relations between the two countries.

But on the other hand, the domestic situation in the Soviet Union largely took shape under the impact of mass reprisals unleashed by Stalin and carried out under his immediate control and guidance. The ethnic operations are an inalienable part of these reprisals, and they did not spare the Chinese community either. There was every prerequisite for that, including the transborder nature, ethnic ties with occupied territories, and living next to the national border, to say nothing of the marginality and poor adaptability of the Chinese community.

The anti-Japanese activity of the consulate general of the Chinese Republic in Vladivostok became the grounds for the forged case, along with some other, which served an excuse for starting the operation against Chinese. Subsequently, consular ties were repeatedly used by various regional NKVD directories in fabricating cases against Chinese. On top of the fact that the practice was perfectly normal in the work of NKVD investigators who saw foreign representations as the hubs of hostile activity, this kind of attitude was also encouraged by Yezhov's instructions where the Chinese were included in ethnic operations as a separate line in its own right. The response of Chinese diplomats to unlawful mass arrests of their fellow countrymen triggered off both new charges against consulate officials on the part of the NKVD, and serious friction between the consulates and members of the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.

Thus, the ambiguous position of Chinese consulates was due to the fact that in the context of Soviet foreign-policy declarations they were representations of a friendly side, while in terms of Soviet domestic policies, they were viewed as defenders of the interests of the so-called ethnic spy-and-saboteur contingents.

Moreover, the functioning of the Chinese consulates during the Great Terror enabled them to inform the government of the Chinese Republic, in time and fairly fully, of the problems faced by the Chinese community. However, under conditions of critical dependence on Soviet aid, the Chinese side tried to avoid conflicts when protecting the interests of its citizens. The agreements achieved then, including resolutions on moving to Xinjiang and releasing persons arrested for petty crimes, allowed a portion of the community to be shielded from NKVD attacks. But at the same time, a good deal of people arrested on trumped-up spy, terrorist, etc. charges were destroyed in the course of ethnic operations. In Far Eastern Territory alone, which supplied nearly half of the Chinese arrested in the Soviet Union, according to preliminary data, the number of death sentences exceeded 4,000.86


1. Khlevnyuk, O.V., Khozyain. Stalin i utverzhdeniye stalinskoy diktatury [The Master. Stalin and the Establishment of the Stalin Dictatorship], Moscow, 2010, pp. 13-14.

2. See, Khaustov, V.N. and Samuelson, L., Stalin, NKVD i repressiyi 1936-1938 [Stalin, NKVD and Reprisals in 1936-1938], Moscow, 2010, pp. 39-41.

3. Cherez trupy vraga, na blago naroda. "Kulatskaya operatsiya" v Ukrainskoy SSR 1937-1941 [Over the Dead Bodies of the Enemy, for the Good of the People. "The Kulak Operation" in the Ukrainian SSR in 1937-1941]," Vol. 2, Moscow, 2010, pp. 565-566.

4. Khlevnyuk, O.V., Op. cit., pp. 295-296. The article was published in the daily Pravda, # 121, May 4, 1937.

5. See, e.g., Okhotin, N.G. and Roginsky, A.B., Iz istoriyi "nemetskoy operatsiyi" NKVD 1937-1938 [From the History of the "German Operation" by NKVD in 1937-1938], Nakazanniy narod. Repressiyi protiv rossiyskikh nemtsev [The Punished People. Reprisals against the Russian Germans], Moscow, 1999, pp. 45-48.

6. Belkovets, L.P., Rossiya na puti k diplomaticheskomu i konsulskomu pravu (1917-1938) [Russia on the Way to Diplomatic and Consular Law (1917-1938)], Novosibirsk, 2010, pp. 433-434.

7. Ibid., pp. 440-441.

8. Dullin, S., Uplotneniye granits: k istokam sovetskoy politiki. 1920-1940 [Soviet Borders as Thickening Zones. The 1920s-1940s], Moscow, 2019, p. 300.

9. Ibid., p. 301.

10. See, e.g., Dokumenty vneshney politiki S.S.S.R. [Documents of Soviet Foreign Policy], Vol. 21, January 1-December 31, 1938, Moscow, 1976, p. 703 (Note 19); Bolshevik Communist Party. The Comintern and Japan. 1917-1941, Moscow, 2001, p. 196.

11. Belkovets, L.P., Op. cit., p. 444.

12. The first two Japanese consulates were closed in 1937 likewise with the help of pressure on the part of NKVD.

13. Archives of RF Foreign Policy (AFPRF), Folio 05, List 1, Folder 137, File 1, Sheet 302.

14. See, e.g., Sotnikova, I.N., Pomoshch S.S.S.R. Kitayu v antiyaponskoy voyne 1937-1945 [Soviet Aid to China in the Anti-Japanese War of 1937-1945], Rol' S.S.S.R. i Kitaya v dostizheniyi pobedy vo Vtoroy mirovoy voyne [The Role of the U.S.S.R. and China in Attaining Victory in the Second World War], Moscow, 2012, pp. 37-46.

15. AFPRF, Folio 05, List 18, Folder 137, File 1, Sheet 38.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., pp. 161-162.

19. The lot of "anti-Soviet elements" in accordance with NKVD Order 00447 of July 30, 1937, was decided by the notorious threes, while the scale of the operation was controlled by means of "quotas" issued by the center for categories one and two (i.e., execution or imprisonment, respectively). Ethnic operations, likewise extrajudicial, were carried out in the "album manner," as the arrestees were divided into the same two categories in the course of investigation, after which the lists initialed by the head of the local NKVD and the prosecutor and stitched together as "albums" were sent to the U.S.S.R. NKVD. In Moscow, these were approved by the commission of the Internal Affairs People's Commissar and the U.S.S.R. Prosecutor (or their deputies), after which the sentences were carried out (see, Petrov, N.V. and Yansen, M., "Stalinskiy pitomets" - Nikolai Yezhov [Nikolai Yezhov, a Stalin Disciple], Moscow, 2008, pp. 98-105; 113-114).

20. Shearer, D., Policing Stalin's socialism: repression and social order in the Soviet Union, 1924-1953, New Haven, 2009, pp. 316-317.

page 123

21. Dullin, S., Op. cit., pp. 267-269.

22. For more detail on the start of the "Chinese" Operation in Far Eastern Territory, see, Kalkayev, Ye.G., Kvoprosu о nachale 'kitayskoy' operatsiyi NKVD (1937-1938) [On the Start of the "Chinese" Operation by NKVD (1937-1938)], Voprosy istoriyi, # 12, 2018, pp. 66-87.

23. See, e.g., Chernolutskaya, Ye.N, Prinuditel'naya migratsiya na sovetskom Dal'nem Vostoke v 1920-1950-ye gg. [Forced Migration in the Soviet Far East in the 1920s-1950s], Vladivostok, 2011, p. 260.

24. Lubyanka. Stalin i Glavnoye upravleniye gosbezopasnosti NKVD. 1937-1938 [Lubyanka. Stalin and the NKVD Chief State Security Administration. 1937-1938)], Moscow, 2004, p. 539.

25. According to preliminary NKVD data, by the beginning of April 1938 there had been 10,282 Chinese arrested in the Territory (FSS Central Archives, Folio 3, List 5, File 49, Sheet 261); head of the Far Eastern Territory NKVD Directorate G.S. Lyushkov who later defected from the Soviet Union spoke of 11,000 Chinese arrested in the course of the operation (Lyushkov, Soren shakaishugi hihan [Criticizing Soviet Socialism], Gekkan Rossia [Russia Monthly], # 5, 1939, p. 50.

26. Stalinskiye Deportatsiyi, 1928-1953 [Stalin Deportations of 1928-1953], Moscow, 2005, p. 101.

27. See also, Kalkayev, Ye.G., Op. cit., pp. 78-82.

28. Here it is important to note that the cases of more than 1,000 Chinese arrested by February 1938 for espionage and other kinds of anti-Soviet activity were typically also examined as part of the Harbin "album" line, which was practically interpreted also as the Japanese espionage line.

29. For more detail, see, Kalkayev, Ye.G., General'noye konsul stvo Kitayskoy Respubliki vo Vladivostoke vperiodprovedeniya 'kitayskoy operatsiyi' NKVD (1937-1938) [Consulate General of the Chinese Republic in Vladivostok during the NKVD "Chinese Operation" (1937-1938)], Obshchestvo i gosudarstvo v Kitaye [ Society and the State in China], Vol. 49, Part 2, Moscow, 2019.

30. Given that in the 1930s most Chinese names were recorded in Russian in a fairly arbitrary manner, all spellings that have been distorted or unconfirmed by hieroglyphics are italicized. The spellings of names whose hieroglyphs are known are not thus singled out. In the documents cited I used the modern accepted spelling as far as possible.

31. FSS Central Archives (CA FSS), Folio 3, List 4, File 861, Sheet 259.

32. Ibid., Sheet 258.

33. Ibid., List 5, File 39, Sheet 314.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. I used in my work copies of documents sent in 1938 by Yezhov and Frinovsky to the top Party leadership.

38. Kalkayev, Ye.G., "K voprosu...", p. 79.

39. Qiuan Shien was at the time one of China's oldest representatives in Russia. Back in 1911, as an attaché at the embassy, he was also a teacher of Chinese at St. Petersburg University. In subsequent years, he was vice consul in Khabarovsk, a consul in Chita, consul general in Vladivostok, and at the end of 1937 returned to Khabarovsk as consul general. (See, the list of persons on the staff of the St. Petersburg educational district by January 1, 1912, St. Petersburg, 1912, p. 26; Yan Guodong, Chinese Teacher at St. Petersburg University until 1917, Confucius Institute, March 2012, Issue 11, # 2, p. 27.)

40. CAFSS, Folio 3, List 5, File 49, Sheet 258.

41. Ibid., p. 259.

42. CAFSS, Folio 3, List 5, File 53, Sheet 181.

43. Ibid., Sheet 182-183, reverse.

44. Ibid., Sheet 180-181, reverse.

45. Ibid., Sheet 185.

46. Ibid., Sheet 185-186.

47. CA FSS, Folio 3, List 5, File 37, Sheet 77-78, reverse.

48. CA FSS, Folio 3, List 5, File 45, Sheet 54-55, reverse.

49. The text speaks of consulate staffer Zhong Shing, but to all intents and purposes the reference is precisely to vice consul Zhang Chen. In documents in Russian his name was usually spelt as Zhang Shing or Zhang Shin, and this is how it occurs in other NKVD reports.

50. CA FSS, Folio 3, List 5, File 44, Sheet 389.

51. CA FSS, Folio 3, List 5, File 59, Sheet 169.

52. CA FSS, Folio 3, List 5, File 43, Sheet 371.

53. CA FSS, Folio 3, List 5, File 44, Sheet 389.

54. About Lyushkov, see, e.g., Khaustov, V.N. and Samuelson, L., Op. cit., pp. 95; 301-302.

55. Petrov, N.V. and Yansen, M., Op. cit., pp. 125-128.

56. Kalkayev, Ye.G., "Kvoprosu...", p. 84 (footnote 52).

57. For more detail, see, Dullin, S., Stalin iyego diplomaty: S.S.S.R. i Evropa [Stalin and His Diplomats: the Soviet Union and Europe, 1930-1939], Moscow, 2009, pp. 199-255; Dullin, S, Uplotneniye granits..., pp. 305-318.

58. Belkovets, L.P. and Belkovets, S.V., Istoriyagermanskogo konsul'stvavNovosibirske [The History of the German Consulate in Novosibirsk], Sibirskiye ogni, # 8, 2013, p. 180.

59. According to the consulate data, by July 1937 alone there had been 22 Chinese nationals arrested for espionage and another 50 were in custody (FPA RF, Folio 0100, List 21, Folder 52, File 3, Sheet 95 reverse).

60. FPA RF, Folio 0100, List 21, Folder 187, File 9, Sheet 7 reverse.

61. Ibid., Sheet 9.

62. Ibid., Sheet 8.

63. Ibid., Sheet 5.

64. Ibid.

65. However, at the time of "ethnic" operations most of the Chinese "spy" cases were examined extrajudicially, which did not imply court examination.

66. Ibid., Sheet 6.

67. Similar problems were encountered by the PCFA central apparatus as well; its officials could not reply to inquiries from the Chinese Embassy about certain persons because of long delays on the part of Section 8 of the NKVD State Security Chief Administration (FPA RF, Folio 0100, List 22, Folder 191, File 30, Sheets 8, 9). As for the heads of NKVD directorates, they could not refuse to give information to diplomatic agents about the total number of arrestees without sanction from on high (FPA RF, Folio 0100, List 22, Folder 191, File 30, Sheet 82).

68. FPA RF, Folio 0100, List21, Folder 187, File 9, Sheet 11.

69. FPA RF, Folio 09, List 29, Folder 121, File 24, Sheet 20.

70. FPA RF, Folio 0100, List 22, Folder 190, File 16.

71. See, e.g., the records of a conversation between the assistant of head of the 2nd Oriental Department M.S. Mitskevich and Embassy secretary Geng Kuang (FPA RF, Folio 9, List 29, Folder 121, File 24, Sheets 24-25).