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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 over eastern Siberia. As early as 1994, influential Russian academics were asserting:

China has huge territorial claims against Russia and stimulates in every possible way the penetration of her citizens into Russian territory…. The main goal of China’s entry into Russia, regardless of its forms and channels, is its integration into economic activities, acquisition of property and land, i.e. the creation of economic and legal preconditions for the legal seizure of territory….2

Such alarms are mainly sounded by regional authorities. More sober evaluations number the Chinese migrants at somewhere between 500,000 and a million. Yet there are commentators who fear that in time the Amur River frontier will become irrelevant, and that all Asiatic Russia will be absorbed by China, the erosion stopping only at the Ural Mountains.

Dominic Ziegler’s Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires might be expected to explore this battleground, and to describe Chinese and Russian regional feeling. Ziegler is a respected commentator on Chinese politics and finance. He was the China correspondent for The Economist for six years and is now its Asia editor, and the persona in his written journey is a knowledgeable and sympathetic one.

His book opens with promise. Ziegler seeks out the source of the Amur on a horseback trek into northeast Mongolia, and finds it among the forested hills surrounding the Onon River, the most distant of the Amur’s tributaries. His writing here is at once poetic and precise, and reveals a passion for the fauna and flora of the region (he annotates them lovingly), and for its pristine allure:

Over the pass, fold upon fold of thick-forested mountains pushed north, like standing waves. It was another world, an unbroken ripple of dark green: barely touched by man, indifferent—a profound stillness….

We were dropping down toward the Onon, which we did not glimpse until we were nearly upon it. To decree where any river begins must necessarily involve a fiction. Only the very rare stream allows you to stand and point to the spot where it bubbles, fully formed, from the ground….

The Onon began where two streams, each no more than three or four horse-lengths across, emerged from a blueberry patch…. Here the streams slipped together without fuss, 6,700 feet above sea level, at the tip of a gravel promontory that lay between them. I waded across to the spit and here from cupped hands I drank the pure water of the earth, at the heart of an empty continent.

Soon afterward Ziegler attempts to cross the Mongolian frontier into China by jeep, then to turn north to rejoin the Onon. But his way is barred by a woman in a white mask sitting at a wobbly table by the roadside. The region is quarantined because of foot-and-mouth disease, she says, and its borders are indefinitely closed. Such unpredictable chances are the curse of travel here.


More formidable barriers shadow the Amur itself. On the Russian side hundreds of miles of barbed wire and watch towers are still in place beside “the control tracking strip,” whose raked earth will betray infiltrators. Only a few ferry crossings breach the frontier. Where the borders are contiguous, there are no bridges. Ziegler crosses only once, on a day trip, and records China in less than two pages.

The prohibited Russian river zone obstructs deep exploration, and Ziegler does not attempt it. Instead he veers into history, and his promised “journey down the Amur” comes to resemble instead a study of southeast Russia along the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Amur drains a basin almost as huge as Mexico, so numerous towns, regions, and topics can loosely be held relevant to the river. In a series of well-paced and well-researched narratives, Ziegler explores subjects as various as the decorative arts of the native peoples and the bizarre Jewish homeland proposed in 1928, whose idealistic settlers became the victims of Stalin’s paranoia. Ziegler’s visit to Irkutsk, the one-time “Paris of the East,” leads him to describe tsarist Russian expeditions in the Pacific. Chapters on the sleepy provincial capital of Chita evoke a detailed history of the Buddhist Buryats, who still inhabit the borderland of Russia and Mongolia, and who were the most sophisticated of the native peoples confronting Russia in the eighteenth century.

Then there are the Decembrists, exiled to Chita and beyond in 1826 during the reign of the implacable Tsar Nicholas I. Mostly principled noblemen at odds with tsarist autocracy, they staged an inept rebellion in St. Petersburg and were scattered into Siberian exile. Their legend accrued glory through the numbers of women who voluntarily followed them into banishment, leaving their comfort and even children behind. In Russia the term “Decembrist wife” survives as an epithet for devotion, although the wives did not all remain faithful.

If there is an intermittent theme to these blocks of history, it is Russia’s recurring vision of a shining Pacific future, of the Amur opening up the Siberian hinterland eastward as triumphantly as the Americans were opening up their West. Siberia, too, had its native peoples—scattered groups of herders, fishermen, and hunters (who still survive)—and the myth persists that these “small peoples of the north” (as Soviet ethnographers defined them) welcomed the Russians as peaceful carriers of enlightenment. As Ziegler makes his way east, he visits dim-lit local museums displaying stuffed animals and rusty weapons. The curators seem oblivious to what their Cossack halberds and manacles suggest about the brutal Russian conquest. Ziegler writes:

For a couple of decades around the middle of the nineteenth century, the Amur River was at the heart of an extravagant delusion that gripped the people of a stagnant autocratic Russia…. Russians rediscovered a river that for centuries had hung forgotten on the eastern edge of their realm, flowing through empty Chinese lands. They knew almost nothing of this river and its watershed—neither its physical aspects nor, really, who dwelled there. All the better: onto this river they first projected dreams of mineral and agricultural wealth, and then dreams of national renewal. This river-road was to be Russians’ route to greatness.

In the desolation of Russia’s present-day Pacific provinces—where the population is declining as fast as China’s is expanding—the dream of the Amur’s future carries its own pathos. The vigor and optimism of the pioneers whose exploits Ziegler charts—the ruthless Yerofei Khabarov and Muraviev-Amursky, whose statues tower over Siberian cities in decay—are redolent of another age: an age when China seemed in terminal decline.

The expanding Russian power first met the Chinese at a remote settlement on the Amur in 1651, when the freebooter Khabarov massacred the members of a Manchu garrison and seized their women. A quarter of a century was to elapse before resurgent Manchu forces, during the sixty-year reign of the Kangxi emperor, began tightening their hold on the river, and engulfed all but one of the tiny Cossack forts there.


This last remote stronghold, named Albazino—a primitive rectangle of stockades and wooden towers—became the testing ground of two empires that barely knew each other. Following orders from the Chinese emperor, its six-hundred-strong garrison, which had reluctantly surrendered, was permitted to leave, unarmed. But within two months the Russians returned to the abandoned fort with 826 men and twelve cannons, and rebuilt it more strongly than before. Its ramparts were fronted by a deep ditch and pits concealing iron stakes. A gun turret swiveled cannonfire through a commanding arc, and the palisades were hung with baskets of resin to illumine night attacks.

For a few months this solitary outpost staked Russia’s claim to the Amur River. Even now, reduced to an empty depression no larger than a football field, it seems inaccessibly far from the Russian heartland, and almost unvisited. The returning Chinese encircled its ramparts with a triple earthwork, lined by light artillery, and sealed off the river with gunboats. For a full year they bombarded Albazino with shot and incendiary arrows, charged it from behind leather-covered assault engines, and rained down long-range fire from a nearby hill. Meanwhile both garrison and besiegers were dying of scurvy. By the time the fort surrendered, the Cossacks were reduced to sixty-six wraith-like survivors.

Soon afterward, in 1689, the Treaty of Nerchinsk confirmed Russia’s expulsion from the Amur. But it was concluded with a scrupulous appearance of parity that—Ziegler claims controversially—set the tone for Sino-Russian relationships thereafter. The treaty was drawn up carefully in the language of neither nation, but in the Latin of two Jesuit priests at the Qing court. Yet the Chinese retinue at the negotiations included 15,000 armed men, whose clanking presence may have hurried on the outcome. In exchange for trade concessions the Cossacks were forced to retreat from the Amur to the crest of its northern watershed.

More than a century and a half later, in 1854, the Russians returned under Muraviev-Amursky, to a waning Qing empire and a bloodless recovery of all they had once conceded. The Chinese have intermittently contested this reoccupation, and it was by a reversion to the Nerchinsk Treaty that Mao Zedong, as the Sino-Soviet relationship declined, laid claim to the lands lost by China. Ziegler, mindful of the thinning Russian presence there today, writes:

Russia seized these lands at a time when Western imperial powers were carving up a stricken China among themselves—“like a melon,” as Chinese pointed out at the time. Russians have since had a century and a half to convince themselves that the lands were always rightfully theirs.

Although Black Dragon River is framed as a travel book, these expansive histories are not balanced by Ziegler’s experience on the ground. He writes intermittently that “I now wanted to explore how Russians had pushed so far east” or how the Amur “shaped the empires that have come into contact with it.” But this is not the kind of knowledge that travel readily yields. A journey is colored by the history the traveler brings to it, while individual experience offers insight into present feelings and conditions. It is in this last, crucial respect that Black Dragon River falls short.

This is the more to be regretted since Ziegler’s encounters, when they come, are sometimes graphic. There is the description—an account bursting with information—of his visit to a fish research institute, and of the Amur’s 120 species, including “the silver carp, the sharpbelly, the skygazer, the three-lips, the black Amur bream, and the northern snakehead, which survives in mud by drawing its breath from the air.” This financial journalist may seem endearingly more interested in the fate of the kaluga sturgeon and the demoiselle cranes, which “walk with a Parisian bustle of dark tail feathers behind them,” than in the often calamitous doings of his own species.

In Nerchinsk he comes upon the lavish and dilapidated mansion of the Butins, long-gone barons of the nearby silver mines, who transported from the 1878 Paris Exposition the biggest mirrors in the world. After hobnobbing with the caretaker, Ziegler is admitted down a passageway heaped with tilework from the abortive archaeological dig of a Mongolian palace, enters rooms still dripping with damask and ormolu, and ends up for the night in a canvas sleeping bag, under the largest pier-glasses in the world, “each the height of a giraffe.”

Ziegler recoils from contact, above all, with the Chinese. In all the book’s 334 pages, there is a single, ten-line exchange with one embittered Chinese trader. If Ziegler ever considered traveling on the river’s southern bank, he does not mention it. This, in an accomplished journalist with more Chinese than Russian experience, is a mystery.

Nor is this omission explained by want of courage. In a prank that strikes a curious contrast to Ziegler’s usual prudence, he falls in with an ex-convict who lobs some money over a prison wall at Nerchinsk in exchange for a fighting knife that comes sailing back. After they are both arrested, Ziegler escapes with a caution from an indulgent prison governor. But it is hard not to conclude that such enterprise might have been better put to more enlightening purpose: a probe along “the control tracking strip,” perhaps, or a journey along the Chinese shore, a border less closely monitored than the Russian one.

For it is the Sino-Russian tension that haunts today’s river, and that cries out for the insights of experience on the ground. Travelers are few here, and human interaction on any but a commercial level seems exceptional. The Chinese are regularly featured in Russian television and newspapers, writes Viktor Dyatlov, director of the Research Centre on Inner Asia, but there are no “faces”:

There is no interest in the individual person, his life or his destiny. Russia is concerned not so much with the Chinese as people, but merely in the problems they are seen to embody…. Today, the Chinese migrant has become a function, an abstraction.3

The Sino-Russian relationship now is trumpeted as being closer than ever. Officially the border disputes are resolved. Yet in times of stress the old sores chafe again. Putin himself, near the start of his presidency, remarked: “Unless we make a serious effort, the Russians in the border regions will have to speak Chinese, Japanese, and Korean in a few decades.” But whatever that “serious effort” might entail for the symbiosis of the two nuclear powers, it must accommodate the thinning Siberian populace who fear that Moscow has abandoned them. A census in 2010 numbered the inhabitants of Russia’s Far East at a mere 6.3 million—one of the sparsest populations in the world—while the three abutting provinces across the river to the south are home to 110 million Chinese. Ziegler, confronting this question on his final page, at last wonders:

Some [Siberians] are already thinking through the consequences. 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?