Recap: Sino-Russian Relations

Blagoveshensk-Heihe bridge (Wikimedia Commons) Blagoveshensk-Heihe bridge (Wikimedia Commons)

As China and Russia have grown closer over the past few years, Sino-Russian relations have been the subject of new attention; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown these into even higher relief. Here is a re-cap of books which cover the past and present of the subject.



In his history of “Russia in Asia”, We Shall Be Masters: Russian Pivots to East Asia from Peter the Great to Putin, Christopher Miller quotes Russian historian Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky who wrote in 1828: “If we follow the course of Russian history, we shall find a perpetual swinging of the pendulum between two poles of attraction, Europe and Asia.” These swings, writes Miller, were “set off by a surge of optimism that soon dissipated as hopeful bubbles were burst by logistical realities, domestic disagreement, and military defeat.”

Miller goes on to note that Russia has been always been pulled politically as well as economically toward Europe:


In economic terms, too, Asia has always been relatively unimportant for Russia. On a regular basis over the past several centuries, many Russians have expected this to change, pointing toward Asia’s massive markets, vast populations, and rapid growth rates. But no level of Asian economic growth in the past has ever succeeded in re-orienting Russia’s economy to the East—neither Japan’s industrialization after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, nor the entry of China into the global economy in the late nineteenth century, nor Japan’s post-1945 economic boom, nor China’s extraordinary economic ascent in recent decades.


Thane Gustafson’s Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change is Russia-centric but contains a lengthy discussion of Sino-Russian economic and energy relations, and on China’s role not just as market but as competitor.


In the triumvirate of superpowers, only China and Russia share a border. The border and relations across it, have been the subject of several books in recent years.

In Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power, Gregory Afinogenov details the highs and lows of three centuries of Russian interactions with imperial China, ending in 1860. Afinogenov’s focus is Russian attempts to pry information out of China, from the secrets of porcelain-making to Qing policies and inclinations.

The story, or rather the development of the Sino-Russian border, is picked up first by Victor Zatsepine in Beyond the Amur: Frontier Encounters between China and Russia, 1850-1930. Sören Urbansky takes the narrative into the 21st-century in Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border, Franck Billé and Caroline Humphrey look the border today in On the Edge: Life along the Russia-China Border, a granular look at the differences between the two countries as seen where they meet.


The following authors were also recently featured on the ARB podcast: