Was My Research Subject a Cannibal?

A man I conducted an oral history interview with in 2010 passed away last year.

He led an extraordinary life. Born in what is now northern Xinjiang to a family of Russian Old Believers, he served in the armies of both the East Turkestan Republic and the Republic of China. After the Communist victory in the civil war, he fled Xinjiang, travelling on foot and on horseback across the Gobi Desert and Tibet. He reached Kalimpong, India, in July 1951, and later came to the United States. The majority of his companions did not survive the journey.

His story is also of interest because of the fascinating cast of characters that he met along the way: the first CIA officer killed in the line of duty Douglas Mackiernan, the legendary Kazakh “bandit” Osman Batur, the elderly yet fiery Uyghur leader Yolbars Khan, a trio of Himalayan explorers (Peter Aufschnaiter, Prince Peter of Greece, and Boris Lisanevich), and the daughter of Leo Tolstoy, Alexandra.

His passing prompted me to revive this research, and I now hope to turn my 2014 article into a full-length book. I’ve been following up on research leads I couldn’t chase down several years ago and hunting for newly released sources.

One new document that has come to light contains a particular unsettling allegation that my interviewee (and his companions) engaged in cannibalism while on the run from Xinjiang.

A scholar in Denmark, Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen, tipped me off to the existence of the file in question, and I promptly went to the National Archives in College Park to review it for myself. I’ve posted a scan and transcription of the document online here. The relevant section is pasted below (with paragraph breaks added to improve readability):

Princess Irene then joined us and began talking about the White Russian refugees (See Consulate General’s despatch No. 51 dated August 2, 1951).

She said that the United States had better be careful since these people were by no means anti-Communist. For instance, she said that the woman who had stayed with her had worked for the Soviet Consulate in Urumchi for several months. She also said that some of the White Russians had criminal records and she thought that most of them were not the kind of people who would be welcome in the States. She said it was a pity that they had not gone to Australia.

Prince Peter agreed with his wife that these White Russians were not very politically-minded and could not be considered strong enemies of Communism. He and his wife both dwelt at some length on the loss of their horse while the Russian family was staying with them which they believe was a robbery arranged with the Russians’ collusion.

Princess Irene said that she was going to write to her friends, General William J. Donovan and Katya Tolstoy, warning them against placing too much confidence in the 23 White Russian refugees.

However, it appeared to be that she was being somewhat over emotional about this subject as she complained more about the Russians’ table manners and personal habits than about anything fundamental. She hinted that the Russians at one time survived by eating those members of the party who had perished.

Aside from chuckling  at a few of Irene’s asides (“some of the White Russians had criminal records…it was a pity that they had not gone to Australia”), that last bit left me feeling uncomfortable. I’ve spent years thinking about this person, tracking down odd bits of paper from all over the world to reconstruct his life story. I even went to his home and sat down with him for several hours.

I never anticipated having to consider this question: had he eaten another human being?

Admittedly, I had serious doubts about this claim from the get-go. It’s never come up in the hundreds of other documents I’ve read. The man himself also didn’t raise it in our interview, or the other interviews he conducted in the 1950s (though that’s hardly surprising). But as a demonstration of how we evaluate and interpret historical evidence, I thought this through further.

To begin with, I suppose we have to answer one question first: is Princess Irene reliable? Can we trust the source, especially since it is the only source (to my knowledge) that makes this particularly bold claim?

Admittedly I do not know much about the Princess, other than what I’ve read in other American diplomatic sources. And it isn’t good. In the cover letter to the document itself, Consul Evan Wilson cast Irene in a poor light. “She becomes very emotional at times” and cannot not be trusted, Wilson wrote. The year prior, Irene’s tendency to gossip left a bitter taste in the mouth of a different American official: “they take simple facts, speculate upon them and distort them in subsequent conversations. If opportunity for conversation with them should arise in the future I should certainly confine my remarks to the weather in the hill stations of India.”

So it sounds like Irene was not the most reliable figure. Maybe we should just put the claims of cannibalism to rest right there. But there’s a few more points worth considering.

Irene mentioned “23 White Russian refugees.” That’s an important number: only the man I interviewed plus 22 of his companions eventually made it to the United States. In all the available source material I have, the group was 20 to 23 large from about March/April 1950 through their arrival in Kalimpong in July 1951.* Even an article in Xinjiang’s local paper of record, the Xinjiang Daily, from July 5, 1950, says there were 22 Russians on the run. (22 because there was a small Russian child with the group who was probably not accounted for in this report.)

So who would the 23 have eaten?

A few possibilities. Before March/April 1950, there were about 115 Russians in the group. The 23 say they were separated from the larger group when the People’s Liberation Army began its assault on Osman Batur and other “rogue” elements in Xinjiang in March-April 1950. The 23 made an escape toward Tibet while the others were killed or captured in battles with the Chinese army.

Perhaps the group of 23 lied about its initial size and there were in fact others with them–individuals who were soon after killed and eaten when the going was rough. A PLA source from June 1950 claims that 70 White Russians were captured and 2 were killed in the spring skirmishes. If the group was 115 to begin with, a back-of-the-envelope calculation leaves about 20 Russians unaccounted for. What happened to them? Were some or all of them eaten by the 23 between April and July 1950?

It seems unlikely for a few reasons. First, food was scarcest after July 1950 (more on that below).

Moreover, at this time, the group of 23 was constantly on the run of from the PLA. They could barely stop moving; they even often slept on top of their horses. Without getting into gruesome details, I just have a hard time picturing the logistics.

Lastly, maybe we don’t even need to ask “what happened to the other 20.” Other PLA sources claim that upwards of 40 Russians were killed (not captured!) in April 1950. Square that with the claim that only 2 were killed. In other words, the numbers on the Chinese side don’t add up, and we probably don’t need to obsess over them too much.

Based on everything I’ve seen, I am confident the 20 (or 23) got separated in March-April 1950, and all of the others were killed or captured by the PLA around that time.

Now that we are pretty far down in the weeds, I suppose we could ask, well, what did the 23 Russians eat if they didn’t eat people while on the run for several months in Chinese Central Asia?

Actually, we have considerable detail about what the group did eat.

To be sure, food was in extremely short supply, particularly after they got into the Gansu-Qinghai-Tibetan borderlands. The group was often hungry and undernourished. They would steal cattle or other animals whenever they came across a farm. At one point, they came across a wheat field maintained by a Mongolian “bandit” named Bobra. That helped. When they got too far away from civilization, they would shoot one of their own horses and eat the meat. They ate goat. They reportedly even ate bear meat once in ethnographic Tibet.

What’s left to dispute the claim?

I shared Princess Irene’s statement with my brother–who helped me conduct the 2010 interview–and he suggested I am probably over thinking the whole thing. Re-read the last two sentences:

She [Irene] complained more about the Russians’ table manners and personal habits than about anything fundamental. She hinted that the Russians at one time survived by eating those members of the party who had perished.

Is it a coincidence that Irene would grumble about table manners and then make insinuations about cannibalism, my brother asked? Sounds like Irene was simply adding some dramatic effect.

The subject of my research was most likely not a cannibal, just as everything written down and filed away in an archive is not necessarily true.


*This is a little complicated. 20 Russians in fact separated from Osman’s group in March-April 1950, and united with a family of 3 Russians in early summer. So that makes 23.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s