The long river that marks the border between Russia and China has proved to be a site of dashed hopes
Throw yourself with confidence upon its flowing tide, for upon this generous river shall float navies, richer and more powerful than those of Tarshish…and at its mouth…shall congregate the merchant princes of the earth.
FOR a couple of decades around the middle of the 19th century an extravagant delusion overcame a Russia that was all too ripe for some escapism. Russians rediscovered a river that for centuries had hung forgotten off the eastern edge of their realm, flowing through empty Chinese lands. Onto the river they first projected dreams of mineral and agricultural wealth, and then of national renewal. It was to be their country’s route to greatness, a golden chance to replace an oppressive European identity with a vibrant one facing the hopeful Pacific. Looking across that ocean, some were nourished by New World dreams. The river would be “Russia’s Mississippi”. The apparently lush region it drained was to be a new America. The natives were crying out for a civilising hand. Russians just had to have the Amur. They launched a grab in 1854.
It was not the first time that Russians had stumbled on the Amur, by some measures the world’s sixth-longest river, longer than the Mekong or the Congo and draining a basin bigger than the Yangzi’s. In the mid-17th century Russians first heard its siren song and appeared on its banks, drawn by greed and fantasy.
The speed of Russia’s eastward advance that century across a Siberian land mass greater than the face of the moon still astounds. When Vasco Nuñez de Balboa first glimpsed the Pacific in 1513 from a Panamanian hilltop, the Grand Duchy of Muscovy was not in control even of the Volga river, west of the Urals which divide Europe from Asia. By the mid-1600s Russians had reached the Sea of Okhotsk, floated down the Amur and passed through the strait dividing Asia from America. Russia had a maritime base on the Pacific before it had one on either the Baltic or the Black Seas.
Russians were driven by the lure of “soft gold”: the skins of beavers, Arctic foxes and above all sable. The sale of furs soon accounted for a third of the state treasury. Such products then underpinned trade with Europe. Cossacks, traditional frontier defenders, led an eastward charge of hunters, vagabonds and river pirates. Land-hungry Russian peasants followed, as well as religious sectarians and Lithuanian and Swedish mercenaries.
The adventurers did not themselves hunt the fur-bearing animals, hunting the natives instead. In the name of the tsar, they demanded pelts as yasak (tribute) from reindeer herders, steppes nomads and hunter-gatherers. As the fur-bearing population gave out in one place, the Russians moved east and north, following the streams and portages of the rivers that flowed to the Arctic Ocean.
To ensure that yasak was paid, native women and children were taken hostage, enslaved and raped. Settlements were torched. In four decades the population of native Yakuts in the Lena basin collapsed by 70%. Piotr Golovin, the Cossack governor of Yakutsk, hung men on meat hooks when yasak quotas went unfulfilled. Like so many of his contemporaries, Golovin was an equal-opportunity sadist who killed his own. Official history still defends these men.
Russians pushing east moved ever farther from secure supplies of grain. Yakuts said that somewhere in the south was Dauria, where a broad river watered fields of wheat in the summer sun. In 1643 Golovin sent an expedition under Vasily Poyarkov, a man “unhampered by scruples or nerves”.
By December Poyarkov had crossed the Stanovoi Range to the Amur watershed. Beside the barren Zeya he heard of the Shilka, where peas, barley and buckwheat grew. These would have been welcome, for the party had nothing to eat, except Daurians. Half the gang died. The survivors floated down the Amur, wintered at the river’s mouth and in the spring turned north into the Sea of Okhotsk. After a third winter Poyarkov returned to Yakutsk with fewer than a quarter of his 160 men.
In 1649 another Cossack adventurer, Yerofei Khabarov, came to the Amur. The Russians’ reputation had preceded him, for the Daurian villages were deserted. But an old woman, a shaman, stayed to tell Khabarov of mountains full of gold and gems, and of Dauria’s fields of grain—enough, he reckoned, to feed 20,000 and get flour to Yakutsk in two months instead of four years.
The shaman laid out the political situation. The left bank, where the Cossacks were camped, belonged to her brother, Prince Lavkai. The far bank was ruled by a more powerful prince, a Manchu, whose army had firearms and who drank from gold cups. He, in turn, was vassal to the Great Khan of China.
What she did not know was that the Manchu tribes had recently united and had risen up with such force that, invading China, they had deposed the tottering Ming dynasty. A new dynasty had been declared, and a Manchu put on the Chinese throne. Khabarov’s ruffians had stumbled on the homeland of the new ambitious rulers of China. As the Qing dynasty, the Manchus would rule until 1912.
Had he grasped the implications, Khabarov might not have returned the next year, capturing Prince Lavkai’s fort, renamed Albazino, and slaughtering Daurians. He had stirred a hornet’s nest. Kangxi, the most impressive of the Qing emperors, sent troops against the “man-devouring demons”. Albazino was razed. The Russians retreated to Nerchinsk on the Shilka. The Manchus retired south, taking most of the Daurians with them. They figured that the demons would not be able to subsist by themselves. Some 4,000 Russians thought differently. Flooding into Dauria, they rebuilt Albazino.
So Kangxi’s forces returned. In June 1685 thousands of Manchu, Chinese and Daurian troops besieged Albazino again, killing 100 out of 800 Russians on the first day. Quickly surrendering, the survivors again returned to Nerchinsk, taking along a beloved icon of the Virgin Mary.
By the next year they had sneaked back. The Manchus attacked from the right bank. Russian casualties mounted and food ran low. As a taunt, the starving defenders sent out a 50-pound meat pie. But after a year’s siege, they surrendered with only 40 out of 900 alive. A handful joined the Manchus as mercenaries.
Today what remains of the fort at Albazino is a grassy rectangular escarpment above the roiling river. A couple of fishermen potter under the willows on the Chinese side. The Cossack village has been shrinking since Stalin’s purges. Log cottages are sinking into a soil which gives up evidence of the siege: cannon shot, wooden shovels, barley blackened by fire. A pair of noisy Amur falcons nests in an oak on the escarpment.
A border guard grumbles that the only tourist in weeks has set off her tripwire. In the cottage museum are photographs of a recent visit from Beijing of descendants of the Russian mercenaries. The beaming tourists bear Russian names and the women wear the scarves of Russian Orthodox believers. Otherwise, they look entirely Chinese.
Banished from the promised land
After the final storming of Albazino, Kangxi sent word that if Russia would withdraw from the Amur, China would open trade in furs and more. In the summer of 1689 Russian and Manchu delegations met at Nerchinsk. The Russians were encouraged to retreat by “the clank and clamour” of 15,000 Manchu troops. The treaty of Nerchinsk, drawn up in Latin because the Manchus had two Jesuit advisers, was China’s first with a European power. The border town of Kiakhta, designated as the only trading point, boomed until Hong Kong in the 1840s smashed its hold on Sino-European business. Today herders stable horses in the ruined church.
For nearly two centuries the treaty deflected Russian energies from the Amur, but they eventually came back. In the hunt for furs, Russians pushed north and east to the Kamchatka peninsula. From there Peter the Great, an Enlightenment man, sent expeditions of scientific inquiry to search for a strait between Asia and America, and in 1741 Vitus Bering found Alaska. That sparked a soft-gold rush by sea. Russians hunted sea otters almost to extinction along the Aleutian Island chain, through Alaska and into California.
As settlements grew in distant places, the same old challenges of provisioning returned. Various agricultural schemes were floated, including, in the 1820s, a crackpot colonisation of Hawaii. By the early 19th century fantasies of an Amur breadbasket had revived.
Soon another argument was being made for the Amur. The story this time was of a Pacific on the rise, where people and commerce flourished. The river would be Russia’s link to it. Part of the Pacific story was the expansion of the American West. Through the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, chronicler of the American frontier, European Russians knew more about American expansion than about their own Far East.
Kangxi, the most impressive Qing emperor, sent troops against the “man-devouring demons”
In time the Amur was being described as Russia’s Mississippi, and the Amur basin made out to be a new California. Little mention was made of harsh winters, short summers and swarms of mosquitoes and blackfly that the Soviets later termed “fascists”. Fantasies were based on American realities. Yet for the first time since Khabarov, the Amur had powerful boosters.
Another impulse was perhaps the most potent, and it was no more grounded than the others in Amur realities. By mid-century, Russia had for years been in the stultifying grip of Tsar Nicholas I’s harsh orthodoxy. The Crimean war had led to defeat at the hands of Britain, France and the Ottomans. Establishment conservatives and progressives alike wanted national renewal. Expansion in the Far East, a blank canvas, seemed to offer it, especially after the milder Alexander II ascended the throne in 1855.
And so, nearly two centuries after the treaty of Nerchinsk, the Amur got its “Russian saviour”: Nikolai Muraviev, an arrogant governor of Eastern Siberia who combined imperialist convictions with otherwise progressive beliefs.
Muraviev argued that control of the basin would merely mean taking back virgin lands that had been stolen by intruding Manchus. That fiction persists to this day. In fact the local tribes—Nivkh, Orchen, Evenki—had peopled the lands for centuries. Their early overlords, the Mongols, ruling China as the Yuan dynasty, sailed to the Amur’s mouth and crossed to Sakhalin.
They built a temple at Tyr, on the last great bend in the river. From 1411 to 1430, when the Ming dynasty “treasure fleets” of the eunuch Zheng He shocked and awed Ceylon, Hormuz and east Africa, another eunuch commander, Yishiha, took several expeditions down what the Chinese call the Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon river. As late as the early 19th century natives from as far away as Sakhalin were still bringing tribute to the Manchus on the lower river. Russian freebooters were the latecomers.
Pulling China’s tail
Yet high Moscow officials objected to Russia tweaking China’s Amur tail. Some argued that it would jeopardise the overland trade through Kiakhta, already in peril thanks to Britain’s recent control of Hong Kong, offering a sea route to Europe for the China trade. Others thought that to open the Amur would be to cut a hole in the Siberian “deep net” into which Russian undesirables—criminals and political dissidents—were cast.
So Muraviev used private initiative. In 1854 he raised an 800-strong Cossack unit and put it and the Albazino Madonna onto 50 barges at Stretensk on the Shilka. From there, he floated down to the Amur’s mouth.
Irkutsk Regional Art Museum
Muraviev’s star is rising again
Most of the route took Muraviev through Chinese territory. To the alarmed Manchu commander of the fort at Aigun, Muraviev breezily explained that he was on his way to the Pacific to defend Sino-Russian interests against an Anglo-French force. Two similar expeditions followed.
Through encroachment, diplomacy and impudence, Muraviev made an astounding landgrab. He secured the Amur basin for the tsar and then the eastern side of the Sikhote-Alin mountains and the coastline beyond, denying China access to the Sea of Japan (East Sea). It was an area the size of France and Germany, and the enfeebled Qing in Peking did little about it. On old maps, the land is called Outer Manchuria or, even more evocatively, Eastern Tartary. But it was the Amur river, Muraviev insisted, on which Russia’s manifest destiny flowed.
At first Muraviev’s move was wildly popular, and in some unlikely circles. Mikhail Bakunin, an anarchist banished to Siberia, made an unusual friend in Muraviev and wrote to Alexander Herzen that “Siberia has been transplanted by Muraviev to another site. It is coming closer to America and Europe than to Russia, it is being ennobled and humanised. Siberia—a blessed country of the future, a land of renewal.” Muraviev was ennobled.
But quickly the Amur dream soured, and Muraviev’s star fell. Critics railed that the last thing Russia needed was yet more land, secured by garrisons and penal colonies. The Amur turned out to be not a broad, deep highway to the Pacific but “a swamp no more than three feet deep” that ended at its distant mouth in a liman of shifting sands. Navigation was confined to shallow vessels, tricky enough even in the few summer months when the river was free of ice.
For a while, ships calling at Nikolaevsk brought Cuban cigars, Japanese furniture, paté from France. Within years, Vladivostok replaced Nikolaevsk as Russia’s Pacific port. It was closer to China, Japan and America’s Pacific coast. Crucially, unlike Nikolaevsk, Vladivostok was ice-free. The once powerful argument about the Amur’s strategic worth was shattered for good when the trans-Siberian railway was built, bypassing the river’s mouth.
曾有一段时间，在尼古拉耶夫斯克[即庙街，位于黑龙江的入海口处 ——译者]停泊的船带来了古巴雪茄、日本家具，和法国香肠。仅仅几年间，符拉迪沃斯托克[即海参崴 ——译者]就取代尼古拉耶夫斯克成为俄国在太平洋的港口。这里离中国、日本和美国太平洋沿岸更近。最重要的是，和尼古拉耶夫斯克不一样，符拉迪沃斯托克常年不结冻。当跨西伯利亚铁路（经过黑龙江入海口处）建成之时，黑龙江的战略价值——这个曾经强有力的理由，被粉碎的一干二净。
And so, today, the undeveloped Amur is a glorious exception to other rivers. The closer to the mouth, the more remote it feels. It is over 600km (370 miles) by boat from the almost elegant European city of Khabarovsk to the desperate little port of Nikolaevsk, where people and buildings lurch at all angles.
In early October the Soviet-era hydrofoil on this trip shudders for 20 hours through a wilderness, banks of flaming birch broken only by the occasional fishing encampment. Clouds of teal barrel southwards. A couple of weeks later the first ice appears, the hydrofoil service is suspended and Nikolaevsk will not see another boat until early June.
Muraviev died, forgotten, in Paris. Yet now his star is rising again. In Khabarovsk his statue is back on the pedestal that Lenin usurped. He looks arrogantly across the Amur towards China, a telescope in his folded arms. In the nearby church hangs the Albazino Madonna, much kissed. Uncut stands of timber and unplundered gold fire new dreams of Amur riches.
At Albazino itself, the village ataman, great-great-grandson of a soldier on Muraviev’s first expedition, talks of plans to revive Cossack life along the Amur. The Cossack farming colony is being revived. Once self-sufficient, he says, Albazino’s 300-odd Cossack descendants can take over border duties from the federal guards. Next summer even a new fort is going up, exactly like the old.