“Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power” by Gregory Afinogenov

Nerchinsk (Eberhard Isbrand Ides 1710: Wikimedia Commons) Nerchinsk (Eberhard Isbrand Ides 1710: Wikimedia Commons)

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 Spies and Scholars, Gregory Afinogenov details three centuries of Russian attempts to pry information out of China, from the secrets of porcelain-making to Qing policies and inclinations. Afinogenov phrases his thesis in terms of a “knowledge regime”—who was producing or acquiring what knowledge for what purpose—which can perhaps be somewhat opaque to the uninitiated. Fortunately, it is not necessary to grasp Afinogenov’s academic objective to appreciate this overview of China as seen through Russian eyes: Afinogenov is a clear writer with a penchant for the interesting story and arresting personality, few of which the general reader is likely to have heard much of. His account ends with Russia’s acquisition of what came to be known as the “Far East” and the founding of Vladivostok in 1860.


Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power , Gregory Afinogenov (Harvard University Press, April 2020)
Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power, Gregory Afinogenov (Harvard University Press, April 2020)

Afinogenov is very good on context, as in this clear and succinct summary of early-modern Inner Asian history:


The Muslim, Turkic-speaking Kazakhs established themselves … in the late fifteenth century, as the last remnants of the Qipchaq Khanate (commonly known as the Golden Horde, the northwest quadrant of the Mongol Empire) collapsed into a patchwork of rump states… Next door, in the steppes and mountains of modern Xinjiang and western Mongolia, they met a confederation of four western Mongol tribes known as the Oirats, who would soon begin to convert to Buddhism. The Oirats gave rise to the Junghars, who would dominate Inner Asian politics in the seventeenth century; one of their constituent tribes, the Torghuts (Kalmyks), migrated westward to the lower Volga region in the late sixteenth century and eventually became autonomous subjects of the Russian Empire… Until the eighteenth century, Russia’s most important relationships in Inner Asia were with these peoples rather than with any ruler in Beijing.


He is also good on the illuminating detail:


Although the precise relationship between the terms “khan” and “tsar” is complex, within Muscovite political discourse the equivalence of the two terms and the legitimating function of Ivan [the Terrible]’s descent from Chinggis Khan was a recognized fact.




Though the Russian word Kitai is usually translated “China,” in the seventeenth century its meaning was more capacious and multiethnic and is thus better rendered as “Qing.”


Being neighbors to China gave Russia some advantages:


Europeans faced enormous difficulties in China. Finding a toehold in the capital proved impossible for anyone except missionaries; opportunities to travel beyond Canton were few. Even to reach China required a lengthy, dangerous sea voyage around the Cape of Good Hope or a treacherous journey through the non-Christian states of Southwest and Central Asia. Muscovites, on the other hand, had few problems getting to China. Once diplomatic contact with the Qing was established, there was always a relatively safe, albeit lengthy, northern route to Beijing via Siberia, Mongolia, and the Great Wall.


Advantages which were manifest in unexpected ways:


… by the middle of the seventeenth century, the Russo-Chinese connection had become real for Englishmen and other Europeans in a far more concrete way: rhubarb, a medicinal root obtained from the Sichuan-Gansu region of China via Bukharan merchants, became a major Russian export to Europe by the 1650s, with thousands of pounds sold every year in London and elsewhere. As a purgative for digestive systems ruined by the rich diets of wealthy Europeans, Russian rhubarb was a daily reminder of the benefits of the overland route.


Russia, unlike the rest of Europe, had things the Chinese wanted:


Between the 1650s and the 1750s, the Moscow-Beijing trade caravan was the most visible manifestation of Russo-Qing relations as far as any ordinary Russian or foreign observer was concerned… It brought the pelts of tens of thousands of woodland creatures, carefully stockpiled in advance in Siberian depots, south to Beijing and brought back silks, porcelain, tea, and objets d’art for consumption by the imperial court and the nobility in the capitals.


Another manifestation was the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Beijing which “existed in various forms from 1715 to 1954.” As is true of much this book, the backstory is fascinating:


It had been established nominally to provide for the spiritual welfare of a population of Russian captives taken from the town of Albazin near Nerchinsk when it was besieged and captured by Qing forces in the 1680s. These captives were enrolled as a company in the Qing Eight Banner system (which organized the privileged ethnic strata of the empire and set them apart from the Chinese population south of the Great Wall), given a quarter in Beijing, and provided with brides from other banner populations. However, they were also encouraged to maintain their traditional Orthodox religion, even if within a couple of decades nearly all were nominal Christians at best. Since they could not provide their own clergy, a group of missionaries was allowed to rotate in from Russia.


Soon after, the mission


acquired the additional function of training students in Manchu and Chinese and serving as an unofficial Russian consulate in the Qing capital.


The “espionage” part, however, seems to have been less than entirely successful. Attempts to liberate the secrets of porcelain manufacturing, silver extraction and baiju distillation all ended in abject failure.

Espionage soon turned to more serious things as Russia-Qing relations entered a “cold war”, the trigger for which was the


Qing destruction of the Junghar Khanate (Confederation) in 1755–1757 … Russia’s sparsely peopled and poorly defended southeast now bordered a unified and triumphant Manchu Empire, which, Russians believed, could raise hundreds of thousands of soldiers for a single campaign; any leverage the Russian Empire possessed had disappeared along with the Junghar threat removed.


The Junghar leader Amursana ended up in Tobolsk, only to die of smallpox before he could have been put to any use.

Russia, meanwhile was trying to recover access to the Amur:


Russian officials had come to regard the Amur as crucial to their plans for the exploration and exploitation of fur-bearing territories in northeastern Siberia, the Pacific islands, and eventually Alaska.


Afinogenov continues the accelerating story for another century. His focus on information and the people that were involved in gathering it provides a surprisingly effective lense through which to view the history Sino-Russian relations; it also one gives ample scope for Afinogenov’s evident skill at narration.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.