While a lot has been written about the British and Dutch missions in Qing China, during Russian Imperial times, it was the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta which gave Russia privileges no other European country enjoyed until the Opium Wars, which was the result of a conscious Qing attempt to forestall a Russo-Junghar alliance. It worked admirably well. Conciliated by trade, for several decades Russia made no further significant effort to interfere in Inner Asian politics.1 

The first diplomatic crisis in Russo-Qing relations began after the Qing conquest of the Dzungar Khanate in 1755-57. The Dzungar–Qing Wars were a decades-long series of conflicts that pitted the Dzungar Khanate against the Qing dynasty of China and their Mongolian vassals. Fighting took place over a wide swath of Inner Asia, from present-day central and eastern Mongolia to Tibet, Qinghai, and Xinjiang regions of present-day China. Qing victories ultimately led to the incorporation of Outer Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang into the Qing Empire.

Between the mid-seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, China and its borderlands figured prominently in the dreamworld of Western geopolitics. Access to its trade held the key to untold commercial riches. The seeming success of Catholic missionaries at the imperial court made the augmentation of Christ’s flock by hundreds of millions of Chinese converts appear to be an imminent prospect.2 For Russians, military dominance over the Qing held the promise of wealth and security for Siberia, in the near term, and eventually hegemony in Eurasia and in the Pacific. The Amur valley, a territory which Muscovy formally ceded to the Qing in the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk after military reverses, was regarded by influential Russians as a lost Eldorado whose supposed agricultural productivity and easy access to the ocean could have given economic meaning to all of the empire’s eastern conquests, from Irkutsk to Alaska.3

In 1754, the prominent official Fedor Soimonov, soon to be governor of Siberia, arrived in Nerchinsk to prepare ships and personnel for a voyage down the Amur River and into the North Pacific. This was envisioned as a Third Kamchatka Expedition, following in the footsteps of Vitus Bering’s earlier explorations. Russian officials had come to regard the Amur as crucial to their plans for the exploration and exploitation of fur-bearing territories in northeastern Siberia, the Pacific islands, and eventually Alaska. Without it, goods and supplies needed to be moved to the oceanic port of Okhotsk through the Stanovoi and Iablonovoi Mountains, a dangerous and ruinously expensive portage that precluded the building of large vessels. Anything that could not be carried by a donkey or packhorse was out of the question; anchors, for instance, had first to be divided into five parts.18 In 1756, Vasilii Bratishchev was sent to Beijing to negotiate with the Qing court for permission to sail down the river; at the same time, the letter from the College of Foreign Affairs he carried contained the pointed insinuation that the expedition was not to be abandoned in the event of Qing reluctance. According to a secret intelligence report  Irkutsk governor-general Ivan Iakobii received from the Catholic missionary Sigismondo di San Nicola in Beijing, Qianlong had read the diplomatic letter Bratishchev brought and exclaimed, “Cunning Russia asks respectfully [to navigate the Amur] but announces that it has already prepared ships for the voyage, by which they imply that they will sail with or without permission.” Permission was denied, in part, San Nicola reported, because of a desire to protect the pearl fishery in the Manchus’ ancestral domains.4

Anticipating a rejection, the prominent official Fedor Soimonov had been ready to sail down the Amur in force, but the College of Foreign Affairs found his proposal foolhardy and rejected it. Plans for the expedition were put on hold indefinitely. Soon, however, the tone of diplomatic exchanges became more hostile in the wake of Qing allegations that Russia was violating the Treaty of Kiakhta. The new empress Catherine II began to revisit the prospect of a military solution, which had first been proposed by Iakobii in the 1750s. 

The diplomatic and military escalation and impasse thus came to constitute a kind of Cold War, albeit one with lower stakes. Intelligence and other forms of covert action substituted for military engagement and direct negotiation.

Intelligence and knowledge

Here it was that intelligence and other forms of covert action substituted for military engagement and direct negotiation. The Russo-Qing Cold War played out principally in two theaters: the mountains and steppes around the former Junghar Khanate, where the borders of modern Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and China meet, and the border regions east of Lake Baikal, including northern Mongolia and Manchuria. They were never isolated from each other. Russian officials stationed in each theater routinely shared information and strategic deliberations, with Iakobii in his nominally insignificant town of Selenginsk serving as the key node for the collection and dissemination of intelligence along the entire Russo-Qing frontier; on the other hand, Qing armies and command staff sent to Xinjiang frequently included Khalkha Mongols or members of Solon, Daur, and other Manchurian tribes.5 

And although it was intended as a kind of the moral equivalent of war, advancing imperial goals in the absence of credible military or diplomatic force, by the end of fifteen years of increasingly intensive penetration of Qing Mongolia Russia was no closer to achieving these goals than it had been at the outset. In the meantime, the forces that had once so threatened Qing rule in Mongolia now foreclosed the possibility of a Russian takeover. As the fourth emperor of the Qing, Ch’ien-lung, put it, rejecting the prospect of an invasion of Russia: “If the Russians wished to cause trouble they would have done so long ago when Chingünjav and the Khalkhas were in confusion and wavering … Since they did not move in the past, they certainly will not cause trouble now.”6 It would be nearly a century before Russian ships sailed down the Amur, which would require a brazen annexation during the Second Opium War, and Mongolia would remain firmly in Qing hands until the twentieth century. Indeed, perhaps the most valuable information Russia received from its spies was the constant reassurance that the Qing were not plotting an offensive and that it was, therefore, free to concentrate its attention on military events in Europe and on its southern frontier.

In 1763, the Siberian historian Gerhard Friedrich Müller prepared a memorandum considering the justifications for war: the “insults and contempt” shown by the Lifanyuan, he argued, provided ample grounds to renew pre-Nerchinsk Russian claims on the Amur and Mongolia. Müller argued that the conquest of the frontier would be easier than it seemed at first glance: vastly outnumbered by resentful Han Chinese subjects and facing discontent from Mongols who would abandon it for Russia at the first opportunity, the Qing Dynasty would, if not collapse like a house of cards, at least be easily pushed into an advantageous peace.

Qianlong, for his part, had also considered war: he still maintained some claims over the region east of Lake Baikal and its Buriat and Evenki population (relatives of the Manchus and Mongols), and a Mongol spy reported to Iakobii in 1760 that a military council on the subject had taken place. According to the agent, the Qing generals were wary of the climactic difficulties of Siberian warfare and the uncertainties surrounding the Russian response.23 Qianlong himself was reluctant to attack unless the war could be won at a single blow. Thus neither party took any meaningful steps towards shattering the peace between the two empires, and Russia never committed to the required buildup of troops. In 1764, at the height of the tension, Russian military reforms increased the border’s theoretical complement of troops by a factor of two, but this was phrased in purely defensive terms and would, in any case, fall far short of the numbers needed for an invasion.

The diplomatic and military escalation and impasse thus came to constitute a kind of Cold War, albeit one with lower stakes. Intelligence and other forms of covert action substituted for military engagement and direct negotiation. As in the twentieth century, when neither side wanted to risk open rupture, the struggle for the loyalties of third parties became increasingly crucial. This role was played by the Eurasian peoples caught between the two empires. In the mid-1750s, the Khalkha leaders of Qing Mongolia were corresponding with Iakobii about defection, the Kazakh Middle Horde and the Uriangkhai of the Altai Mountains were swearing fealty to both sides, and Junghar fugitives were demanding asylum in Russia in the tens of thousands. By the end of the period in 1771, most of the Volga Torghuts (Kalmyks), Western Mongols like the Oirats who dominated the Junghar Khanate, some of whom had been Russian subjects since the 1630s and others who had recently fled the Qing conquest, defected across the border in a dramatic migration famously chronicled by Thomas De Quincey.7


The Macartney embassy

The creasing belief that Britain was Russia’s main enemy in the Pacific appears to be misleading, in fact over the next few decades, it would be the Americans, not the British, who would take the leading role in the emerging maritime fur trade between Canton and northwestern North America.8

This is when high officials of the French empire and others, started to rely on intelligence about the Russo-Qing relationship as they thought the Russians were about to invade the Qing realm and overthrow the dynasty. 

Following Russia's 1792 expedition to Japan (when they received trade concessions from the Tokugawa shogunate) at the time when it also had made leeway in China, the Russians now looked with concern on the British embassy in the Chinese capital headed by (the former British ambassador in St. Petersburg) George Macartney who had been deputed by the government in London to request ‘fair and equitable’ trading rights from the Qianlong Emperor.

Thus the fear of the British threat, by the end of 1791 led Russia to developed a secret, conspiratorial plan to derail the Macartney embassy by poisoning the well in Beijing and describe the potential options as follows:

1. To send to Beijing, under the pretext of border disputes, a smart, humble, and resourceful man; to send with him some scholars, to disabuse the Chinese of the idea that we are all Kropotovs, who unfortunately gave them a very poor sense of our degree of enlightenment. Beyond this, a few Jesuits, in their ordinary civil capacity, who by means of their brethren located in Beijing, may be quite useful. Through them, he must secretly persuade the Chinese Government of the danger to which it will be subject if it once allows the English into their ports, by depicting their behavior in India, the destruction of the most beautiful domains of the Great Mogul, and that they have equal aims in mind for China, and so on. The 2nd means consisted in this, that before dispatching the minister, two Jesuits should be sent with news of this enterprise, who can meanwhile preemptively discover who in the Chinese ministry supports the English, and can underhandedly give them to know of the hostile plans of the English against their state as a matter known full well in Europe.9

This was followed by the 1805 Golovkin embassy, Alexander I’s attempt to one-up Macartney by extracting commercial concessions like those the British envoy had failed to obtain during his 1793 embassy.

Several members of the embassy had associated intelligence-gathering functions, including the academics, but it seems clear that the unofficial head of intelligence was 27-year-old Count Iakov Lambert, son of the French émigré Henri-Joseph de Lambert and the embassy’s second secretary. In preparation for departure, Lambert collected all the existing documents he could find in the central archives having to do with RussoQing relations. In addition to Lambert, the embassy also employed the best Qing experts in the empire. Like Macartney, Golovkin took his intellectual preparation seriously; unlike him, he would not be caught unawares by Inner Asian politics. 

In the wake of the Golovkin debacle, Russia tried to use the next rotating shift of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission to gather intelligence, particularly about French and British attempts to deal with the Qing, and make contact with the former Beijing Jesuits. In 1807, the mission’s escorting agent Semën Pervushin was issued a set of instructions which gave him detailed guidance for conversations with the missionaries. Beyond being merely cautious of possible British influence and bribery, in conversations with ex-Jesuits, the agent would “observing exterior calm, subtly extract needed information, and not immediately or suddenly so that they may not guess at what you need.” He was provided with a few sample conversational scenarios as illustration.113 Though it is likely the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not know this, a register of all the Beijing ex-Jesuits would be brief indeed: by this point only Frs. Poirot, de Grammont, and Panzi remained among the living and were unlikely to be of much use or influence. 

The Golovkin embassy however had longer-term consequences. In 1816, Macartney/William Amherst’s embassy failed in part because Qing officials imitated Yundondorji’s precedent in demanding that he kowtow not just in Beijing, but in advance of his audience. Both sides explicitly invoked Golovkin in the process.10

The geopolitical environment of the region however was shaped not by the scientific achievements of the explorers who traversed it, but by the mistaken assumptions, failures of knowledge, and outright deceptions on the basis of which European powers took action. It was an environment riddled with paradoxes. An age of intelligence failure became an age of conspiratorial obsession; Britain, so long represented as the spearpoint of European imperialism in China, depending on intelligence about Russia; Russia, despite its long history of intelligence, gathering in the Qing Empire, was just as susceptible to strategic ignorance as Britain and France. These paradoxes should reshape our understanding of the period. If an outsize personality like  the Hungarian adventurer Maurice Benyovszky was able to keep the entire foreign-policy apparatus of France spellbound by false information, it was not because the events he revealed were marginal or unimportant, but because European ignorance was so profound.

The Russian intelligence structure never succeeded in creating a self-enclosed world of discourse, in which the terms, as well as the objects of study, were determined by the needs and categories of power. Indeed, the reason it was developed so assiduously was that Russians could not but confront the strength and regional influence of their competitor. Moreover, it was too frequently disturbed by the human lives of the people on which it relied. Mongols made for convenient informants, except when they knew how valuable they were and tried to make the most of their position; missionaries might have been well-placed sources, but the violent, liquor-soaked world they made for themselves turned them from a solution into a problem. It was only when the Russian state managed to sever nearly all the links connecting it informationally with the Qing that it began to indulge fantasies of global power centered on the North Pacific, listening far more closely to projectors in St. Petersburg than to its own officers in Eastern Siberia (who were themselves not above idle scheming). Russia’s competitors, for their part, were seduced by the promises of privileged intelligence access contained in putatively secret documents and published sources and pursued policies that were doomed to failure as a result. 



In the middle of the seventeenth century, statesmen and scholars all over Europe looked at China as a beacon of commercial, intellectual, and cultural potential, offering the promise of wealth as well as global civilizational convergence. Russia’s earliest ventures eastward became interesting to a variety of audiences as an indication that this convergence was to be realized together with Europe’s commercial ambitions. Just as merchants in London and Amsterdam made thousands from the trans-Muscovite rhubarb trade, so too did agents and diplomats exploit Muscovy’s emerging potential as a source of sinological knowledge. Well into the eighteenth century, Western Europeans avidly sought out rumors and documents about the war they thought was coming between Catherine and Qianlong or the embassy they thought had established a lasting alliance between Peter and Kangxi. By the nineteenth century, this was no longer the case. British and American commercial vessels began to prove definitively that Russia’s China trade was of regional rather than global significance, and the work of its agents and missionaries became objects of academic and not political curiosity (in contrast to Central Asia, where Russian advances gave the initial impetus to British fantasies about the “Great Game”).

But no significant group of Qing subjects, whether Mongol, Turkic, or Manchurian, chose to defect to Russia, and no unexpected conflict gave Russian border officials the pretext to execute their ambitious strategic plans. Instead, the future of Russo-Qing relations would depend on the problems faced in the mid-nineteenth century by the Qing empire itself, borne out of both internal and foreign conflict. The Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion provided the Russian Empire with the opportunity to negotiate from a position of strength; in the case of the Second Opium War, Russian gains, territorially the greatest of any imperialist power, were directly based on exploiting the Qing government’s desperation. As a strategy for gaining power, knowledge had become a dead end. 


1. On this see also Gregory Afinogenov. Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial

Russia's Quest for World Power.  Cambridge  Harvard University Press, 2020. 

2. The most thorough account of the former is Louis Dermigny, La Chine et l’Occident: le commerce à Canton au XVIIIe siècle, 1719-1833 (Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N., 1964); the classic statement on the latter, Arnold Rowbotham, Missionary and Mandarin : The Jesuits at the Court of China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1942). 

3. See Mark Bassin, “Expansion and Colonialism on the Eastern Frontier: Views of Siberia and the Far East in Pre-Petrine Russia,” Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 1 (January 1988): 3–21, doi:10.1016/S0305-7488(88)80124-5; and for the nineteenth century, Mark Bassin, Imperial Visions : Nationalist Imagination and Geographical Expansion in the Russian Far East, 1840-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

4. See among others Jonathan Schlesinger, The Qing Invention of Nature: Environment and Identity in Northeast China and Mongolia, 1750-1850, 2012.

5. See Loretta Eumie Kim, “Marginal Constituencies: Qing Borderland Policies and Vernacular Histories of Five Tribes on the Sino-Russian Frontier” (Ph.D., Harvard University, 2009).

6. Lo-Shu Fu (Compiler, Translator), Documentary Chronicle of Sino-Western Relations, 1644-1820, 1966, 238.

7. Thomas De Quincey, Revolt of the Tartars and the English Mail-Coach (London: Bell, 1895). 

8. Louis Dermigny, La Chine et l’Occident: le commerce à Canton au XVIIIe siècle, 1719-1833 (Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N., 1964), 1161–1198.

9. As quoted in Afinogenov, Spies and Scholars.

10. Gao Hao, 'The Amherst embassy and British discoveries in China,' October 2014,History 99 (337) DOI: 10.1111/1468-229X.12069.


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