“Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border” by Sören Urbansky


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.

Ubansky focuses on the border, itself a further reminder that Russia is the only European country and (pace rising India) the only world power to have and have had an actual border with China; while an interesting subject in itself—Ubansky discusses how the border has at various times united and divided, physically, economically and psychologically—it is impossible to understand the constantly ever-evolving Sino-Russian relationship without taking note of this salient geographical fact.

Beyond the Steppe Frontier’s usefulness extends far beyond its narrow geographical focus.

Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border, by Sören Urbansky (Princeton University Press, January 2020)
Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border, Sören Urbansky (Princeton University Press, January 2020)

Ostensibly a history, Beyond the Steppe Frontier has considerable explanatory value for anyone who finds post-Soviet developments surprising or in any way “new”. The unregulated (and often barter) trade, the shopping holidays, the smuggling of raw materials that sprouted up in the 1990s: that had all been seen in the period before a desire for central economic planning closed the border first from one side and then the other. The Belt and Road’s emphasis on transportation infrastructure is previewed (if somewhat in reverse) in the Chinese Eastern Railroad and its connection to the Trans-Siberian. The imbalance in both population and development that can cause considerable concern in Russia dates from the first encouragement of Han settlement in what had previously been Manchu and Mongol lands. That Russia is now the evident junior partner is a return to the status quo ante that prevailed up to around the mid-19th century.

The parallels abound. Ubansky quotes an 1867 account of a border fair:


The markets are held every year, usually during the first days of July. Siberians offer glass, sheepskin, furs, antlers, lead, and various metals, and the Mongols barter millet, rice, Chinese vodka, pipes, cigar holders made of glass, statues and trinkets, silk and semi-silk fabrics, tobacco, tea, and so forth. Unable to talk to each other, both point to the subject they wish to purchase, and the thing that they will offer for it.


A description of the early 1990s border commerce would have looked little different.

The border has not been static, of course. The first border trading post was at Kiakhta, on the border of what is now Mongolia, which detached itself from China with the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. By that time, however, Urbanksy has directed his attention eastward to the Argun River, which runs along the western edge of what is now Heilongjiang, and the Zabaikalsk-Manzhouli railway border crossing. Urbanksy, the inclusiveness of the book’s subtitle notwithstanding, hardly mentions the border on the other side of Heilongjiang, between China and the Russian Far East (or the border in the West, beyond Mongolia, between China and the post-Soviet Central Asian Republics). Nor does he discuss politics except insofar as it affected the border: although Urbanksy runs up through the first decade of the 21st century, one might be hard-pressed to know from his book that anything in particular had happened in 1991. “Looking beyond the big politics that formed this border,” his intent is


to focus instead on the everyday life of the locals, practices in the borderland, and entanglements of local communities with the wider world.


That thematic chapters throughline up and over major political developments is disorienting, but perhaps is part of his point. Manzhouli was a product of the railway, and although it was located in China, is more a Russian creation than a Chinese one. Curiously, Zabaikalsk was in early years just Railroad Siding 86; it was hardly even a town until after the Second World War and today is outshadowed by the now entirely Chinese Manzhouli.

It was, ironically, the railroad—whose role was to provide links—which was the proximate cause for the establishment of a border recognised as such. Travel means passports; trade means customs; infrastructure invites control. Nomadic Mongols and Buriats who had been to cross back and forth were progressively less able to; less well-known are the cossacks that set up on the Chinese side of the Argun; after the October Revolution, a number decided to stay put. The border disputes regarding the islands in the river date from this period and have a pragmatic source. When a 1910 border commission took up the issue up the issue of the islands, the Russia delegate


Lieutenant Colonel Zhdanov claimed that almost all of them belonged to Russia. Local Cossacks eagerly awaited the resolution since only the possession of the lush meadows on the river guaranteed their ongoing wealth.


Borders have waxed and waned. Covid-19 has brought them back with a vengeance. Clearly-written and illustrated with a good selection of intriguing photographs, posters and maps, Beyond the Steppe Frontier’s usefulness extends far beyond its narrow geographical focus.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books. He worked in and out of the Soviet Union and Russia, including the Russian Far East, in the late 1980s and 1990s.