Thursday, September 11, 2008


China and Russia clashed in the Amur valley in the 1680s. The Russian fortress of Albazin was successfully besieged in 1685 and 1686 and in 1689 the Chinese advanced as far as Nerchinsk. By the Treaty of Nerchinsk, the Russians acknowledged Chinese control of the valley. The European device of the 'artillery fortress' had proved unable to maintain the European presence.

Russian-Chinese relations date from the seventeenth century. Russia’s eastward expansion at the time was driven by a spirit of adventure, the quest for profits in the fur trade, and the dream of state aggrandizement. Unruly bands of freebooting Cossacks led by Russian adventurers such as Yerofei Khabarov established initial contacts along the Amur River with tribal dependents of China’s ruling Qing dynasty. Conflicts that flared up within an as-yet-undefined frontier area came to the attention of Chinese officials, who viewed the Russians as the latest in a long series of armed aggressors from Central Asia. Meanwhile, early Russian diplomatic missions to Beijing, intended to promote commerce and to gauge the strength of the Chinese Empire, ran afoul of China’s elaborate court ritual that the Russians neither understood nor respected. The Russian exaction of tribute from tribal peoples whom the Qing considered their dependents, and the encroachment of armed Russian settlements along the Amur, led to military clashes between Russian and Chinese forces in the 1680s. In 1689, the Treaty of Nerchinsk, the first modern international treaty between China and a European country, began to define a boundary between the two empires and established rules for regulating commercial intercourse. The Treaty of Kiakhta in 1728 readjusted the commercial relationship, further defined the border, and granted Russia permission to build an Orthodox church in Beijing, which became the nucleus of Russian sinology. Thereafter, relations stabilized for the next century on the basis of equality, reciprocity, limited commerce, and peace along the border.

YEROFEI PAVLOVICH KHABAROV, (c. 1610–1667), adventurer, explorer of Siberia.

Born in Vologda region, Yerofei Khabarov began his career managing a saltworks for the famed Stroganov clan. He traveled throughout western Siberia in the 1620s. He moved on to the Yenisei River, then the Lena, in the 1630s. He invested in farmlands and local saltworks. He also developed useful ties to Vasily Poyarkov, the administrator of Yakutsk and an early explorer of the Amur River basin.

In 1649 Khabarov turned to exploration. His goal was to follow up on Poyarkov’s earlier forays into the Amur region, seeking an easier and more reliable route than Poyarkov had been able to find. In March, Khabarov left Yakutsk with 150 men, following the Olekma River.

Over the winter of 1650, Khabarov crossed the Yablonovy Range, reaching the Amur River soon after. He ruthlessly pacified the local tribe, the Daurs. He also established a garrison on the Amur. In his reports to Yakutsk and Moscow, Khabarov advocated conquest of the Amur, both for the river’s strategic importance and the region’s economic assets: grain, fish, and fur.

In 1650 and 1651, Khabarov launched further assaults against the Daurs, expanding Russian control over the area, but with great violence. Khabarov founded Achansk, captured Albazin, and made his way down the Amur until the summer of 1651. By this point, he was encroaching on territory that China’s recently founded Manchu (Qing) Dynasty considered to be its sphere of influence. When the Daurs appealed to China for assistance, the Manchus attacked Achansk in the spring of 1652. Khabarov’s garrison was forced to withdraw, but for the moment, the Manchus did not press their advantage. Nonetheless, Russia and China would engage in many frontier struggles until the signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689).

Meanwhile, word of Khabarov’s cruel treatment of the Daurs reached Russian authorities, and he was arrested in the fall of 1653. Khabarov was put on trial, but his services were considered valuable enough to have outweighed the abuses he had committed. He was exonerated and placed in command of the Siberian fortress of Ilimsk. In 1858 Russia’s new city at the juncture of the Amur and Ussuri rivers, Khabarovsk, was given his name.


The Treaty of Nerchinsk was a Sino-Russian peace treaty negotiated and signed at the Siberian border point of Nerchinsk in August and September 1689. Armed conflict in the Far East of Russia rose out of the advance of Russian colonists to Dahuria during the middle of the seventeenth century, since the Manchus claimed the Amur basin. The growing tension came to a head in the sieges of the fortress of Albazin in 1685 and 1686, when the Manchus ultimately forced the Russians to surrender. In a bid to settle the problem, in 1685 the Russian government appointed Fyodor Alexeyevich Golovin as its first ambassador plenipotentiary to China. His brief was to delineate a border on the Amur and gain the Russians a secure right to trade in the river valley.

After two weeks of negotiations with Songgotu and T’ung Kuo-kang, a peace treaty was signed in September 1689 and the preconditions created for a stable trading relationship. The Russians ended up ceding all rights to the Amur valley, as well as to Albazin, but gained a regularized and potentially lucrative commercial relationship. The Chinese, having secured the areas near the Ch’ing dynasty’s ancestral home, permitted the Russians to keep Nerchinsk, recognizing its potential for trade. Merchants from either side were to be permitted to visit the other with proper passports. The arrival of the Manchu delegation for the negotiations also marked the beginning of large-scale border trade: At least 14,160 rubles’ worth of goods were imported that year from China through the new frontier trading post.

The treaty envisaged Russian caravans traveling to Beijing once every three years, but during the decade following Nerchinsk, such trips were made more or less annually. In 1696 alone, 50,000 rubles’ worth of furs were exported via Nerchinsk.

The treaty put an end to Sino-Russian armed conflict for 165 years.


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