A River Runs Through It

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Fishermen on the Okhotsk Sea, at the mouth of the Amur River, which separates Russia and China

The Amur is the ninth-longest river in the world, but to Westerners it may be the least known and most remote. It evokes no ancient culture, as the Nile or the Indus does, nor does it occupy a nation’s heart, like the Mississippi. Instead it creates a little-known and potentially dangerous borderland. Rising in the uplands of Mongolia, it flows for over 2,800 miles between the Siberian forests of Russia to the north and the mountains of Manchurian China to the south, before spilling at last into the Pacific Ocean at the Okhotsk Sea.

Its terrain is a frontier of empires. In the late seventeenth century Russian Cossacks, pushing east and south, came into contact here with the borders of the powerful Chinese Qing dynasty. A treaty signed in 1689 confined the Cossacks north beyond the Amur basin, while also opening up Chinese trade to Russia, and the peace between the two countries held for nearly two centuries. Then in 1854 Nikolay Muraviev, the aggressive Russian governor of eastern Siberia, sailed down the river with a convoy of seventy-seven military rafts and barges, and began establishing settlements. By 1860 the enfeebled and preoccupied Qing had ceded all their territories up to the Amur’s left bank, an area that corresponds roughly to today’s Russian Priamurye and maritime provinces, reaching to the Korean border.

Almost at once Chinese migrants were crossing the river northward. They were viewed by most Russians as a locust horde with no allegiance to their host country. There was growing talk of the yellow menace and fear of a sleeping giant, even as Chinese cheap labor helped build up the factories, roads, and ports that ensured Russian control. Then the Soviet Union closed off this diaspora with an iron curtain as rigid as that in Central Europe, all but erasing the Chinese presence from historical memory.

But in the early 1990s, after the Soviet collapse, the Chinese migration renewed and gathered pace. Now Chinese traders, builders, entrepreneurs, and farmers have penetrated far beyond the riverside Russian towns, causing resentment and sometimes paranoia. There are fears of Chinese buying up real estate, unfounded rumors of increasing intermarriage and proliferating Chinatowns. Statistics are so erratic and unverifiable that estimates of Chinese migration veer between 300,000 and five million, complicated by seasonal movements, often illegal. Interaction between Russians and Chinese—products of profoundly different cultures—is confined to little more than commerce, and the Russian media routinely treat the migrants as a faceless biomass. One study recorded that “the more frequent and intensive the contacts of the local population with the Chinese, the less it is inclined to evaluate positively the immigrants’ character.”1

At worst, the migrants are seen as tools of a long-term plot, hatched in Beijing, to take…

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