The Sino-Russian relationship is often seen by the West (for which, read the USA) as a sort of counterpoint to Sino-American relations with Russia ready to step in when the US takes a step back. Sören Ubansky’s recent book is one of the periodic but salutary reminders that China and Russia’s mutual dealings are not just centuries old but have also for the most part had little to do with third parties.

Among all European countries, Russia’s relations with China are unique in that the two countries—empires for most of their relevant histories—shared a border. Trade between the two was, on the whole, carried out by caravan rather than ship; there were border garrisons a stone’s throw from each other. People and information transited the border along with goods.

In the summer of 1924, Soviet playwright Sergei Tretyakov took up a one-year appointment as Professor of Russian at the University of Beijing. He returned with material that resulted in the 1926 play Roar, China!, based upon a historical incident in Wanhsien in which an American businessman drowned after an argument with a local boatman. The captain of the British gunboat Cockchafer, which happened to be in the area, demanded that when the ferryman could not be found and executed, two other men be executed instead or he would bombard the town.