The claims Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine make for their new biography of Deng Xiaoping are bold and clear. They emphasize—repeatedly and in italics, no less—that theirs is an impeccably ‘objective’ treatment, a proposition they first demonstrate by offering a mise en scène of the June 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, to which Deng is central. This narrative device announces that they will not whitewash Deng’s role in authorizing the bloodshed, in pointed contrast to Ezra Vogel’s massive hagiography, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (2011), which is far more ambivalent on the topic. In presenting this story so directly, Pantsov and Levine want to earn our trust, even if their retelling sheds no real new light on Deng’s role in this tragic and bloody episode. Their objectivity is further presented as a matter of evidentiary sourcing, whose volume and scope is indeed impressive. They draw on the extensive documentary sources published in Chinese and on English-language research, but also on the cpsu Archive in Moscow, which contains files on over 3,000 Chinese Communist leaders, including two previously unexamined personal dossiers on Deng himself. Since Deng not only trained at Moscow’s University of the Toilers of the East in the 1920s, and worked with Comintern agents as a ccp cadre in the 1930s and 40s, but also led successive Chinese delegations to the Kremlin during the acrimonious negotiations leading up to the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s, there are good reasons to hope that these Russian-language sources might provide a fresh angle on the question of how the diminutive Deng became larger-than-life Deng Xiaoping. Yet all of these sources add up to less than they might.

Pantsov, a Soviet-trained scholar of the pre-1949 Chinese revolutionary movement, taught at the Institute of Foreign Relations in Moscow before relocating to the us in 1994, at the age of 39, and is now at Ohio; his study of The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution appeared in 2000. Levine, a historian at the University of Montana, is co-author of Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (2012). He translated Pantsov’s Russian-language biography of Mao, which again promised revelations from the Soviet archives and was published under the title Mao: The Real Story (2012), as a rebuttal to Halliday and Chang’s anathematization. How does Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life measure up to its authors’ promises?

Deng was born in August 1904, the son of an educated landowner in Sichuan province, then a centre of domestic opium production and—with the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911—of fierce local power struggles, as rival landlord-militarists battled for control in the post-imperial vacuum. Deng studied the Confucian classics at a village primary school, followed by mathematics, history, geography and natural sciences at the county seat, Guang’an. Short for his age—as an adult, he was barely five foot—Deng, we are told, had ‘light eyebrows, white skin, small eyes’ and a volatile temper. At fifteen, his father enrolled him in a Chongqing preparatory school, which Deng parlayed into later participation in an anarchist-inspired work-study programme in France. Deng’s initial politicization began with the anti-imperialist cultural radicalizations of the May 4th movement in 1919, animated by the perceived betrayal of China at Versailles; Chongqing students, on the peripheries of the Beijing- and Shanghai-centred movement, made a bonfire of Japanese goods while hotly debating articles pouring forth from the political press.

In 1920, speaking no foreign languages and with only a bare amount of preparation, Deng boarded a ship in Shanghai and set out for Paris, where he was to join a small, idealistic group of Chinese intellectuals intent on learning and living radical philosophy in Europe’s centre. But the Chinese students attempting to enter the labour force in France found themselves competing with a flood of recently demobilized, unemployed Frenchmen. Deng, who proved incompetent at learning French (and later, Russian), eventually found work at the Renault plant in Billancourt. By his own account, it was the foremen’s insults in French factories that taught him class consciousness. He soon found in the newly formed Chinese Socialist Youth League, led by Zhou Enlai, a bridge of sorts to the French working class; by 1925, he had become a full member of the ccp’s European branch. ‘I was never exposed to the influence of other ideas’, Deng would say, with some exaggeration: ‘I came to communism directly.’ Working with Zhou, Deng helped edit a mimeographed journal, staged united-front demonstrations and became a mainstay of the organization in France. In 1926, aged 21, he was sent to Moscow to become a more effective Bolshevik through study and discipline. The Sun Yat-sen University of the Toilers of China had around 1,600 students, with the Chinese making up the largest contingent. Deng studied alongside Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, following a curriculum that included Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Bukharin and Kautsky. Despite his lack of facility with Russian, Deng earned a commendation from tutors for studying hard and ‘setting an example to others’, according to his personal file in the Moscow state archives. They thought he would be ‘best employed in propaganda and organizational work’, and was capable of ‘putting the Party’s views into practice within the Guomindang’—still nominally allied with the Chinese communists in a united front, and still the beneficiary of Soviet military and political aid, despite Chiang’s crackdown on leftists. In January 1927, Deng was dispatched to northern China, where he lectured new recruits at a gmd military academy on Chinese history, Bolshevik principles and agrarian problems. He witnessed at first-hand the crushing of the ccp and its mass organizations during Chiang’s White Terror.

Pantsov and Levine provide a wealth of detail on Deng’s tasks as a ccp organizer through these turbulent years. He was the minute-taker at the emergency ccp Central Committee meeting in Wuhan during the summer of 1927 where Mao Zedong, eleven years older than Deng, clashed with the Comintern’s emissary over a strategy of guerrilla warfare. When the Party was driven underground by persistent persecution, Deng was charged with running its Secretariat in Shanghai, posing as an antiques dealer while storing files, funds, passwords and aliases. Here, aged 23, he married his first wife, a fellow student in Moscow, who would die in childbirth two years later; the young couple shared lodgings with Zhou Enlai and his wife.

In 1929 Deng was dispatched south by the ccp, to channel arms and funds from Russia to Communist-led indigenous fighters battling the gmd along the semi-tropical river gorges of Guangxi. The operation ended in disaster, the left forces having been tasked by the Comintern with an assault far beyond their strength. By 1931, after escaping from several precarious situations, Deng was back in Shanghai. Thirty-five years later, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, he would be charged by Red Guards with having deserted his post; at the time, with Zhou’s support, he was simply reassigned to Mao’s Central Soviet Area in Jiangxi. Deng was one of the few to defend Mao’s military and political strategy—guerrilla warfare, rural revolution, peasant mobilization—against the ccp’s then-dominant pro-Moscow faction. When Mao was demoted in 1932, Deng was temporarily suspended from the Propaganda Department; his second wife divorced him on the spot. But when Mao regained the leadership during the Long March, Deng—who took the minutes at the famous Zunyi meeting in 1935, at which Mao launched his attack on the Comintern faction’s military record—saw his star rise. During the epic trek from Jiangxi to Sichuan, and thence north to Yan’an, in Shaanxi province, Deng was first charged with producing the Party’s journal, Hongqi (Red Flag), and then promoted by Mao to the political leadership of Lin Biao’s First Army Group.

Operating from Mao’s headquarters in Yan’an, Deng soon married a third wife, Zhuo Lin, who would bear him five children. Pantsov and Levine paint him in this period as a diminutive wise-cracker with a strong Sichuanese accent, devoted to chilli-laced food; hot-tempered but hard-working, an avid bridge-player, heavy drinker and smoker, capable of steely self-discipline and extreme tactical caution. Put in charge of the North China Bureau, he organized land reforms in the ccp-held territory behind Japanese lines. After the Japanese were defeated in 1945, with both Moscow and Washington pushing for a deal with Chiang Kai-shek, troops under Deng’s political leadership played a key role in snatching control of further northern regions from the gmd, tipping the dynamic of the four-year civil war. With military commander Liu Bocheng, Deng led the pla’s audacious diversionary thrust southward into the Dabie Mountain region. In early 1949, he helped draft the plan to cross the Yangzi and take the south. That October he was present in Tiananmen Square for the founding ceremonies of the People’s Republic of China.