Spies and Scholars could be entitled ‘Rogues and Impostors’ given the character of many of those Russians entrusted by their government, the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg and commercial backers to assess China’s military and technical might and to ascertain what territory and resources might be extracted from that country. Gregory Afinogenov tells the story of this relationship from the first encounters between the Russian and Chinese empires in the 17th century up to the 1850s, when it dawned on the Chinese that Russia was as predatory as Britain or France.
China and Russia were mutually deceived by their similarities as land-based empires uninterested in acquiring territories overseas. In the 15th century China gave up its explorations of Africa’s east coast; in the 19th century Russia sold Alaska to the USA for a few cents per acre, finding the otter pelts harvested there not worth the expense of maintaining a colony vulnerable to British invasion. When Cossacks claimed Djibouti for Russia and the anthropologist Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay offered New Guinea to the tsar, the Russian government spurned possession of these regions. Reluctance to go overseas may explain why the Chinese empire is still largely intact – only Outer Mongolia and the northern Pacific coast have been lost – and why Russia, despite revolutions and upheavals, holds on to most of its Black Sea territories and still dominates Central Asia.
The Romanovs’ initial embassy to Ming China in 1618 under Ivan Petlin brought back minimal information. Petlin had his own priorities: he wrote of Chinese women, ‘with girls and women like these I would live my whole life and finish out my days’. Russia’s first major interactions with the Chinese