S. Urbansky: Beyond the Steppe Frontier

Beyond the Steppe Frontier. A History of the Sino-Russian Border

Urbansky, Sören
XIII, 367 S.
$ 34.00; € 39,95
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Yuexin Rachel Lin, University of Exeter

Any historian who wishes to revisit the subject of the Sino-Russian border faces a daunting task. Traditional high-political or diplomatic narratives centring on Beijing and St. Petersburg-Moscow have given way to a new emphasis on local dynamics, cross-cultural interactions, subaltern groups and interdisciplinary methods. Yet fruitful as such an approach can be, it places the historian in the difficult position of accessing sources in multiple languages and adopting theories and techniques from oral history, anthropology, sociology and political geography. These, in turn, must be applied to contexts ranging from Uyghur-Taranchi trade in Xinjiang and Turkestan to the conflict over how the Ussuri River border was demarcated. The challenge lies in balancing conceptual and methodological innovation with the limitations of the possible.

Urbansky’s book has risen admirably to the challenge. Despite its subtitle, the book is not a history of the entire length of the border which, at certain points in the period under study, extended as far as 12,000 kilometres. Instead, it traces the chronological evolution of one section of this border: The 944-kilometre stretch along the Argun River, including the Chita region of Transbaikalia and Hulunbeir in Inner Mongolia. Particular attention is paid to the border settlements of Manzhouli – a critical junction of the Chinese Eastern Railway on the Chinese side – and its Russian counterpart of Zabaikal’sk, as well as to the nomadic Mongol populations of Hulunbeir and the Cossack migrants of Trekhreche. The book’s account of the Argun River borderland begins in the 17th Century, when tsarist Russia and Qing China first sought to define the boundaries of their respective empires. It then examines how both metropoles attempted to consolidate their control over this borderland over the longue durée, through parallel processes of policing, surveillance, internal migration, regulation of trade and management of frontier ethnic groups. Certain key events furthered or disrupted the “hardening” of the border. The construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway – a branch of the Trans-Siberian – allowed Russia to project its power more effectively into the borderland, while simultaneously promoting cross-border movement. Refugees fled into the borderland following the Russian Civil War and Stalinist collectivisation. In fact, the book argues that the borderland remained relatively fluid until the Sino-Soviet conflict of 1929, Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s and the outbreak of the Second World War. These stimulated a large-scale militarisation of the border and rendered it largely impenetrable, a phenomenon that escalated further during the split between Beijing and Moscow in the 1960s. Even the Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s did not reverse this trend, as demonstrations of cross-border friendship were staged, and points of contact strictly regulated. As the book shows, the border had mostly become a physical, demographic and psychological reality by the mid-20th Century. Both countries succeeded in creating guarded, ethnically homogenous borderlands in which local residents themselves participated in the enforcing of boundaries or, in some cases, showed no interest in the goings-on across the border.

Alongside this overarching narrative, however, Urbansky pushes back against teleological views of how borders invariably harden (pp. 2, 275). He argues instead that resistance, as much as reification, characterised the process of border formation. Much of this took place on a local and micro-historical level, uncovered through Urbansky’s painstaking work in Russian regional archives and local newspapers, and interviews with borderland residents. The book describes how gold and alcohol smugglers thwarted attempts to establish an effective customs infrastructure in the late-19th and early-20 centuries. Smuggling rings could involve cross-cultural entanglements, as in the case of Arkadii A. Ianechek and Xin Fanbin (pp. 133-135). Although draconian border controls eventually put an end to smuggling, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 re-opened the floodgates and led to a resurgence in black-market trading – including the outright plunder of cargo trains. The fate of nomadic communities that attempted to defy border consolidation is told not only through the high-level political and diplomatic machinations that determined the status of Outer Mongolia and Hulunbeir, but also through the biographies of nomad leaders such as Tokhtogo and Taibog Nimaev. Finally, the accounts of railway worker Vera P. Zolotareva and biracial translator Yang Yulan highlight the ever-present ambiguities in a rigid border regime. As a shunter, Zolotareva continued to cross from Zabaikal’sk to Manzhouli even at the height of the Cultural Revolution (pp. 237-238), while Yang capitalised on her previously suppressed Russian-language skills to guide Chinese business delegations in Chita after the Soviet collapse (p. 258). Regardless of how the metropole may have exerted control over the borderlands, therefore, local circumstances and individuals often marched to the beat of their own drums.

Nevertheless, the book is much stronger in its treatment of the Russian side of the Argun. As suggested above, this is a common issue in border histories, which tend to lean to one side in their use of sources. Regional archives in China are also far more restricted than those in Russia. Urbansky’s emphasis on local actors, however, leaves one wishing for more non-Russian voices, particularly from the Chinese and nomadic communities. One particularly compelling aspect of the book involves how the border became inscribed in the mentalities of its inhabitants; we can trace this among the Russians but not among other borderlanders, whose internal discourses are missing. Indeed, the Mongols largely disappear from the narrative after having been “neutralised” (p. 180) by Russia and Japan in the 1930s. Similarly, it is not entirely clear how the far the book’s arguments are generalisable across the entire Sino-Russian border. Its broader conclusions – that borders emerge through an open-ended process of negotiation and resistance between metropole and periphery – may certainly be applied to the border as a whole. More specific claims are perhaps valid for large segments of the Manchurian and Mongolian frontiers. Yet given the size and diversity of the borderlands, the question of how far the microcosm of the Argun River basin can be transposed to, say, Xinjiang or Primor’e could be addressed.

The book also offers tantalising glimpses at other, non-human factors in border formation. Technology – from the aforementioned Chinese Eastern Railway to communications, surveillance and defence capabilities (pp. 165-167, 220-221), and radio and television (pp. 245-246) – played a critical role in enabling the metropole to control the extensive borderland and its inhabitants. The region’s distinctive geography, too, generated its own social, economic and political dynamics, such as mobile nomadic populations and regional rather than national trade linkages. A fascinating passage details how changes in local watercourses rendered the border agreements in the 1727 Treaty of Kiakhta obsolete. Floods then hampered fresh efforts to redraw the border in 1909 (pp. 75-78). More could perhaps have been made of these issues: How far was the “hardening” of the border related to the metropole’s “brokering” with local populations (p. 2), or to the emergence of technologies capable of surmounting the region’s geographical specificities?

In sum, this is an exhaustively researched, engagingly written book that deftly weaves in both national and local (albeit mostly Russian) perspectives to illustrate the complexities of border formation on the Argun River. It represents an important contribution to the “new school” of Sino-Russian history and will be of great interest to scholars of the Sino-Russian frontier, of Inner Asia and of borderlands more generally.

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