A shift in the balance of world power means that China and Russia are currently more aligned than at any point since the 1950s. Ed Pulford takes a journey along the border between two superpowers.

  • Words: Ed Pulford

The 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk may have been dogged by the month-and-a-half-late arrival of the Russian delegation from Moscow – an early foreshadowing of Vladimir Putin’s reported habit of making other foreign leaders wait for him – but the agreement was the first of its kind in global diplomacy. Negotiations were conducted in part via Mongolian-speaking allies on each side. More remarkably, an important role was also played by a Russia-loyal Polish Catholic translator and a pair of Jesuit priests (one French, one Portuguese) based at the Qing court who shared the most improbable of all cameo languages of Asian diplomacy, Latin.

Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy

It was only as the treaty negotiations progressed that the Russians understood that the ‘China’ they had read about in the annals of early European visitors was the same realm ruled by the Qing forces they were now confronting along the Amur. At this early stage of contact, the mirrorlands reflected mutual ignorance.

The rather shocking realisation that a vast, newly ascendant eastern empire now lurked at the bottom of their enormous back garden, as well as exhaustion from a very different theatre of Eurasian conflict with the Ottomans, meant the Russians were content merely to hold on to Nerchinsk, even if it meant losing Albazin and its surroundings. A new China–Russia border thus unspooled across the vast and at best hazily understood tracts of rivers, forests and ridges north of the Amur basin running as far as the Okhotsk Sea. That neither side had much of an idea of the terrain they were apportioning made the final wording of the treaty open to interpretation, but the Russians broadly respected the stipulations laid out in Manchu, Russian and, yes, Latin (the text was not translated into Chinese until the nineteenth century), and gave up Amur-based marauding, at least for the next century and a half.

Having followed this 300-year-old Russian trajectory south from Yakutsk to Skovorodino and then back west to Nerchinsk, I walked from the low railway platforms to the dusty forecourt of Priiskovaya station, the closest stop to Nerchinsk. A cluster of middle-aged locals were waiting hopefully by their cars, and I teamed up with another disembarkee to take a lift into town with a slim suntanned man named Aleksandr. As we followed the road winding high above the River Nercha, the town gradually revealed itself.

‘Ah, a visitor from afar!’ said Aleksandr. ‘What have you come to Nerchinsk for?’

The question seemed as much a reaction to my surprising provenance as it was to the drab vista distending itself along the other side of the river. Dilapidated remains of Soviet factories, water towers and red-and-white chimneys clustered on the town’s outskirts.

‘For history,’ I said. ‘I heard about a treaty with China.’

‘What about the Decembrists?’ asked Aleksandr, ‘they were important too.’ As a destination for forcibly resettled peasants, convicts and political prisoners since the early eighteenth century, Nerchinsk had indeed been among several Siberian locations to welcome the banished Decembrists. After a failed 1825 rebellion against Tsar Nicholas I, whom they accused of usurping the throne from his brother, 105 of these St Petersburg nobles arrived here and were put to work on the town’s recently opened silver mines.

‘An inheritance of political banishment seemed to have left some Siberians with a longstanding scepticism and lack of trust in the centre.’

Ed Pulford

‘We are all grandchildren of Decembrists here,’ chipped in Vasya, my fellow passenger. Vasya too had come down from Yakutia, a seasonal migration for him since he spent several months of each year working as a guard in the mines towards the Arctic. His and Aleksandr’s invocations of distant exiled ancestors reminded me of others I had encountered on my journey. Whether originating in the 1820s or the 1930s, and whether rebellion had been perceived in one’s explicit views or merely one’s unfortunate social standing, an inheritance of political banishment seemed to have left some Siberians with a longstanding scepticism and lack of trust in the centre. I had the feeling that with Moscow using expensive prestige gambits such as Crimea and the 2018 World Cup to bolster its ‘greatness’ of late, easterners were keen to revel in their anti-centrist pasts.

Once denied the benefits of the Trans-Siberian and now deprived of Soviet subsidy, Nerchinsk bears the scars of a double decline: post-Soviet rust sits on a crumbling bedrock of longue-durée post-nineteenth century neglect. Having dropped Vasya off outside a wooden cottage on a hillside behind the town, we returned to examine the remains of the town’s bourgeois heyday. As fierce gusts of wind whipped up dust along the deserted streets, crumbling merchants’ houses stood sombrely around a scrubby football field where a slim Lenin statue raised one arm as if celebrating scoring a goal on the pitch in front of him. Nearby, a blue Lada groaned past the half-collapsed neo-Moorish remains of Butin’s Palace, once the home of a nineteenth century gold magnate who conferred great glory on Nerchinsk by purchasing what were then the world’s largest mirrors at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair, and miraculously shipping them here intact.

Yet as Aleksandr drove me around, offering a sparse commentary on the faded pasts of some of the houses we passed, not all was neglect and dilapidation. On Sovetskaya ulitsa – Soviet street – several doors down from a house where Chekhov once stayed with a merchant friend on his famous 1890 trip to the Sakhalin penal colonies, was a gleaming new building. It turned out to be a branch of Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank. Chekhov had not been excessively complimentary about Nerchinsk, reserving for it only a single sparse line in which he stated that it was ‘not exactly a great place, though you could probably get by here’. But the mock-tsarist red brick Sberbank seemed, if not great, then at least very striking given its incongruity with the down-at-heel surrounding buildings.

‘The Chinese built this one,’ Aleksandr said without much interest. ‘There are lots of them here now.’ I pressed him on the Chinese: did he know much about their past involvement here? He had heard of the treaty, he said, but had little interest in it. Russia lost out to the Chinese then, he thought, and it was losing out now too.

Besides, Aleksandr’s feelings about Nerchinsk had little to do with geopolitics. Born in Ulan-Ude to the west and transferred here under a system of Soviet job allocation that swept people far and wide, his twenty years here had been enjoyable mainly for the place’s open space.

‘Cities are all the same. Ulan-Ude, Chita, what’s the difference?’ he intoned quietly. ‘I love the hills, the fresh air, the skies.’ His was an old Siberian family, and the deep attachment to the vast eternal landscapes that this inheritance had conferred on him seemed a robust source of human warmth amid the decay. This attachment to these hills and rivers, more personal than Zhe’s outsider visions of ‘Genghis Khan’s country’, reassured me as Aleksandr dropped me back at the railway station. Here the feelings of an old man who cared deeply for his surroundings mitigated against the past of this place, so bound up in tragedies of loss and relinquishment. Since the concessions made in 1689, Nerchinsk had lain at the centre of serial stories of abandonment and, after only a brief visit, now I too was leaving.

‘Mirrorlands: Russia, China, and Journeys in Between’ by Ed Pulford is published by Hurst.

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