Crossroads Asia

Between Russia and China, the Black Dragon River

The Amur River separates China from Russia’s Far East, and not so long ago was the site of bloody conflict.

Between Russia and China, the Black Dragon River
Credit: thomasclaveirole / Flickr

In 1900, as the Boxer Rebellion seared Beijing, officials hundreds of miles northward came to a decision. Community leaders in Blagoveshchensk, a Russian metropole along the Amur River – that great, gurgling run dividing southeastern Russia from northeastern China – found themselves rattled, rocked by the anti-Western forces suddenly rippling through China. As such, local leaders began gathering the Chinese residents throughout their city, some four or five thousand in all, in an attempt to expel anyone they thought may pose a risk to local stability. Led by contingents of Amur Cossacks, the Russian denizens of Blagoveshchensk rounded up thousands of ethnic Chinese to push back across the border – back across the Amur, the ninth-largest river in the world.

The other side, of course, was too far for a simple swim. The first into the water, caught in the current, drowned. The others attempted to plead, or to flee, to no avail. Soon the Cossacks were joined by old men and children alike, gunning or axing down those who refused to swim across. As Dominic Ziegler, The Economist’s Asia editor, recounts in Black Dragon River, his masterful examination of the Amur River’s bloodied history, “No more than one hundred reached the other shore. It was not, the official note stated, a crossing ‘but an extermination.”’

A century later, relations between Beijing and Moscow have recovered, expedited by the Kremlin’s recent and growing distance from Brussels and Washington. But as Ziegler’s narrative – stretching from the Golden Horde to post-Mao marketization – threads, there’s a facile reality, a false contentedness, between the two. Moscow and Beijing may be, as Chinese officials hope, “friends forever,” but scratch a bit further and a lingering animus bubbles up, spilling over the Amur.

To be sure, Ziegler’s work does not center solely on the centuries-long dance of rotating governments in Moscow and Beijing. If anything, some of the most commendable sections come when Ziegler shifts his focus to the local populations: the diminished Daurians, the neglected Nivkh, communities too often elided in sweeping Siberian histories, but treated as co-equals in Ziegler’s narrative, much as they were in Bruce Lincoln’s magisterial The Conquest of a Continent. (As Ziegler confirms, “The narrative of the European conquest and settlement of new lands comes everywhere now with acknowledgment of guilt and open shows of contrition. Except in the Russian Far East.”)

But it is the broader Beijing-Moscow relations, and histories, that will interest English-speaking readers. To wit, Ziegler brings his gaze — and his lush language, as vertiginous as the river basin he describes — to detailing 1689’s Treaty of Nerchinsk, China’s first treaty with a European power. The treaty, we’re told, brought with it “a subliminal sense that this first treaty was one negotiated on a basis of equality,” one that “tempers relations between the two powers to this day.” But Ziegler reminds us that Moscow’s 19th-century expansionism wasn’t limited to Wallachia or Bukhara, but stretched to the broader Amur basin, with Russia’s imperial entrepreneurs grabbing swaths at will from a prone Beijing.

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Such rote annexation led eventually to the bloodletting in Blagoveshchensk – and, a few decades on, to a spike in nuclearized tensions along the Ussuri tributary. Such strain, buffeted by Maoist paranoia and pre-communist land-claims, culminated in 1969’s Damansky Incident, with dozens of casualties, and potentially far more, littering both sides of the nominally fraternal nations. While tensions have since thawed between the two, members of the Communist Party of China nonetheless refer sotto voce to the Amur regions as “historically Chinese possessions.”

The Amur, meanwhile, pushes on, bracing a boundary that remains largely stable. But with the Kremlin’s post-2014 precedent for redrawing state lines at will, there’s no guarantee that the Amur’s bloodstained border will remain permanent, or desired. As Ziegler notes, “If Russia can tear up agreements and treaties to grab Crimea, what kind of an example does that set for an increasingly assertive China that might one day awake to feel longings for its former lands beyond the Amur?”

After all, the Blagoveshchensk events were a century ago for men, but only a few moments in the broad sweep that is the Amur’s history.