Of all the cities in the Russian Far East, Blagoveshchensk was one of the last to fall. Although the city’s soviet took power in late January 1918, counterrevolutionary forces – including officers who survived the fighting in Irkutsk – soon regrouped under Ataman I.M. Gamov. Gamov’s men staged a revolt on 6 March that sparked off a week of intense fighting. While the Reds called in reinforcements from nearby villages, Khabarovsk, Chita and Vladivostok, the Whites found support from Japanese officers and militiamen.
Given that only a narrow stretch of the Amur River separated Blagoveshchensk from the Chinese city of Heihe (also known in Russian as Sakhalian), it was natural that the Chinese were soon drawn into the conflict. Foreshadowing the Sino-Japanese Mutual Defence Pact of May 1918 and the Intervention later in the summer, the Japanese pressured Chinese officials to participate in Gamov’s rebellion despite China’s lack of enthusiasm. An American attache even got involved in the effort, as the following telegram from Bao Guiqing showed.
On the opposite bank from Heihe, for several days the battle between old and new factions has been especially intense. Amur oblast’ will soon fall; once defeated, the officers and men from the old faction flee to our bank in droves. I have instructed that they be disarmed and given protection as political prisoners. Several Chinese migrants were injured by stray bullets, and I have instructed the diplomatic representative to investigate so as to request compensation when matters have settled.
When the disorder on that bank first broke out, Japanese migrants intervened and joined battle, demanding military aid. Complying with the Foreign Ministry’s telegram, I refused. Thereafter the conflict grew more intense and the old faction could not maintain its strength. The Russian consul and Japanese migrants impelled us to send troops to assist in the fighting. The Japanese staff officer used his death as a threat, taking out his gun to shoot himself. Brigade commander E Shuangquan and circuit intendant Zhang Shouzeng wired for advice. As before, I continued to instruct them to refuse; this is on record.
Recently, the American attache in Beijing, [William Morgan] Palmer, wired from Heihe, saying: ‘The ambassador sent me to Siberia to investigate matters, and I returned to Heihe due to the disorder. Now the situation in Amur oblast’ is critical. If it were to reach our bank, the danger would be great. I maintain that if China would send a small number of troops, everything could be arranged.’ And: ‘I have wired Beijing and Washington for guidance.’ Since our approach to the disorder on the Russian bank is strictly that of an observer, the Russian consul and Japanese migrants are deeply dissatisfied. Now that the American attache is also proposing this, I am obliged to give advance notice of it for your consideration.Telegram from Bao Guiqing, 13 March 1918. Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919). Dongbei bianfang (1), p. 108.
Palmer’s exhortations were ultimately disavowed by the American embassy in Beijing, and Chinese forces declined to take part in the fighting. As Bao predicted, the conflict in Blagoveshchensk ended in a Red victory and anti-Bolshevik forces – including Gamov himself – soon fled across the Amur into Heihe. There, as in Manzhouli, a wave of displaced “refugee warriors” threatened to overwhelm the Chinese garrison. Although disarmed at the border, they clamoured for the return of their weapons in order to resume hostilities in Russia.
Once again, Chinese officials were torn between the desire to contain the conflict and their obligations to the Allies. Beijing had little choice but to rely on the promises of Russia’s diplomats. Foreign Ministry secretary Zhu Hexiang, who had earlier asked Ambassador Kudashev to restrain Semenov in Manzhouli, must have had a sense of deja-vu over the Blagoveshchensk cossacks:
Zhu: On the opposite bank from Heihe, there are frequent battles between Russia’s old and new factions. Those defeated then cross the river and escape to the Aigun region in our territory. The authorities do not enquire about their faction and summarily order them to disarm. However, the Russian consul there has repeatedly requested that members of the old faction be released and their weapons returned, also saying that he has asked Your Excellency to convey this. But our government shows absolutely no partiality towards old or new faction. If the old faction were allowed to cross the river and prepare for war, going to and fro at will, it would be tantamount to giving them this part of the bank in China as a base. It would certainly antagonise the new faction and place the authorities there in a difficult position. Hence, I ask Your Excellency to inform the consul not to persist in these requests, and that all confiscated weapons should not be returned.
Kudashev: I will immediately inform the consul not to request that the weapons be returned before crossing the river. However, there are 130 officers in the Aigun area, could the weapons be returned to them secretly, allowing them to detour to Manzhouli to join forces with Semenov? Please convey this to the Minister.
Zhu: I will put this before the Minister and respond with his instructions.Meeting between Zhu Hexiang and Kudashev at the Russian Embassy, 30 March 1918. Ibid., p. 132.
Nevertheless, Beijing was able to exploit the greater freedom of action enjoyed by local officials in Manchuria. The Foreign Ministry officially deferred to Bao Guiqing on the matter of Gamov’s weapons while fobbing off Kudashev with delaying tactics. Bao, anxious to avoid more strife on the border, also refused to return the weapons and imposed one bureaucratic hurdle after another when approached by the Russian consul in Heilongjiang. The arms were only handed over in September, after the Allied Intervention had commenced.
Local officials also conducted on-the-spot negotiations with the Reds. While his counterpart in Manzhouli, Zhang Huanxiang, met with the Reds at 86th Station, Heihe circuit intendant Zhang Shouzeng wrote directly to the incoming Blagoveshchensk soviet, calling on them to maintain public order and safeguard the Chinese community. The Reds proved conciliatory, promising to punish soldiers who opened fire towards the Chinese bank during the hostilities, protect Chinese migrants and stop all armed men from entering the Chinese border without a permit. Zhang was eventually able to reach an agreement with the Reds on Amur shipping, a longtime goal of the Chinese “rights recovery” movement.
Chinese experiences with Russian “refugee warriors” in Manzhouli and Heihe set a precedent for the deluge of White emigres that began in winter 1919. All White soldiers entering the border must be disarmed and placed under Chinese protection; on no account should they be allowed to use Chinese territory as a base for anti-Bolshevik activity. By then the Allied Intervention had largely been wound up; Kudashev’s authority was also revoked the next year. The Japanese army’s support for White “refugee warriors” remained a key obstacle to a straightforward resolution of the issue – one that would culminate in the endorsement of the Russian fascist movements of the Manchukuo period.