Blagoveshchensk in July 1918

In March 1918, Blagoveshchensk was shaken by an abortive anti-bolshevik uprising led by Ataman I.M. Gamov. The city’s proximity to the Chinese border meant that the latter were drawn inexorably into the conflict: Japanese officers demanded that Chinese troops intervene against the Reds, while Russian “refugee warriors” fled to China after the revolt was crushed. Worse still, thousands of Chinese emigrants lived and worked in Blagoveshchensk and its neighbouring gold mines. The impact of the nascent Civil War on them was still unknown.

When Beijing sent a fact-finding mission to the Sino-Russian border in July, therefore, Blagoveshchensk was one of the places of interest. It seems that the observers included officials from the Foreign, Finance and Communications ministries; the report on Blagoveshchensk, submitted by a member of the Customs Board, described a city still reeling from the uprising of four months before.

blagview
View of Blagoveshchensk from the Chinese bank. Source.

據本處派赴東三省調查事件委員文溥報告內稱:

「七月十八日由哈爾濱啟行,二十六日抵黑河。在黑河三日,過俄岸卜拉威辰司克鎮兩次。本擬往漠河一行,因水淺,輪船未能進行,爰至回哈。謹將前后調查所及,另呈鑒核。」

調查卜拉威辰司克之情形
到黑河次日,即約同道尹公署外交科長王建新,乘小火輪過江北岸,即卜拉威辰司克鎮之南境,見沿岸停泊輪船二十余隻,並有拖船數隻。據王科長雲:「俄為亂以前,該船多停在南岸,現歸新黨管理,除往來伯裡之船外,余多在北岸停泊。」未駛下船﹝?﹞,換乘馬車入街市游覽。

商店雖做生意,所存貨物無多,因自歐戰發生,俄民征赴戰場,久矣停止工做,又經俄亂,交通梗塞,無從運輸,一切俄貨渺不復視,僅有華貨及日本貨承其缺乏。新舊黨戰爭之際,居戶多已逃亡,現所未去者,不過守留照料之人而已。卜拉威辰司克為俄之繁盛重鎮,自經兵燹,頓變為蒼涼慘淡之區域。只以多數黨奪利爭權,致使俄民身家不保,良堪浩嘆。

晤華僑商會會長楊鴻遇,據雲:「華人在該鎮貿易者,約之有五千余人,而鎮東黃河地方昔為我之精奇裡河,內有金廠數處,約計共有華工在十萬以上,不減於伊爾庫次克省之華工。遇有與俄人之訴訟之事,間或黑河道尹要回自辦,其不為道尹所知者,均歸俄官專斷。」

查伊爾庫次克省俄國既准我設立領事,卜拉威辰司克情形相同,似應援案設領,抑或在伯裡添設,以保僑商,可否與主管機關商籌辦理之處,謹請核奪施行。

According to a report from envoy Wen Pu, sent by this Board to investigate the situation in Manchuria:

‘On 18 July I proceeded from Harbin, reaching Heihe on the 26th. I was in Heihe for three days, crossing to Blagoveshchensk on the Russian bank twice. At first, I had planned to go to Mohe, but the water was too shallow for ships to pass, so I returned to Harbin. Matters pertaining to the investigations before and after this will be sent in a separate report.’

blagships
Jetty on the banks of the Amur. Source.

An investigation of the situation in Blagoveshchensk
The day after arriving in Heihe, I arranged with Wang Jianxin, the head of the diplomatic affairs section of the circuit intendant’s office, to take a small steamer across the river to the north bank, namely the southern border of Blagoveshchensk town. We saw more than 20 ships berthed along the bank, along with several tugboats. Wang said, ‘Before the disorder in Russia, these ships mostly berthed on the south bank. Now they are managed by the bolsheviks and apart from those ships sailing to and from Khabarovsk, the remainder mostly dock at the north bank. Upon disembarking from the boat [?], we transferred to a horse carriage to tour the town.

Although the shops are in business, they do not stock many goods, the reason being that since the outbreak of the European War, the Russian people were drafted to the battlefield and work has ceased for a long time. Moreover, with the disorder in Russia and disruption to transport, there is no way to ship goods and Russian goods can scarcely be found. Only Chinese and Japanese goods make up for the shortfall. When the Reds and Whites were fighting, many of the inhabitants had fled. Now those who still have not left are only guardians and caretakers. Blagoveshchensk was a thriving and important Russian town, but after the fires of war, it has suddenly become a bleak and dismal place. This is only because the bolsheviks fought for power and placed the lives and homes of the Russian people in peril, how lamentable it is.

We met the chairman of the Chinese chamber of commerce, Yang Hongyu, who said, ‘Of the Chinese trading here, there are more than 5,000. East of the city, in the Zeya River area – formerly our Jingqili River – there are several gold mines with an estimated total of more than 100,000 Chinese workers, no less than the number of Chinese workers in Irkutsk oblast’. If legal disputes with Russians arise, some are dealt with by the Heihe circuit intendant; those cases not known to the circuit intendant are adjudicated solely by Russian officials.’

Since Russia permitted us to establish a consulate in Irkutsk oblast’ and the circumstances in Blagoveshchensk are similar, it seems that we should draw on this precedent to set up a consulate there or in Khabarovsk, in order to protect the diaspora merchants. As for whether it is possible for the relevant agencies to carry this out, I seek your advice on its implementation.

Letter from the Customs Board, 19 August (sent 17 August). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919). Dongbei bianfang (1), pp. 363-364.
chineseinblag
Chinese quarter in Blagoveshchensk. Source.

Wen’s report was revealing. First, it demonstrated the links between Chinese officialdom and diaspora merchants: The chamber of commerce was expected to act as an interlocutor for the community in Blagoveshchensk, and Wen encouraged Beijing to give greater protection to the merchants, while curiously omitting the more numerous workers. Chamber chairman Yang was also quick to mention that the Zeya River area had been Chinese, deftly appealing to historical memories of tsarist encroachment and establishing his nationalist credentials before his guests.

Second, Wen’s description of Blagoveshchensk was tempered by some amount of opportunism. Until then, tsarist authorities had attempted to limit the number of Chinese diplomatic offices in Russian territory, apart from the embassy in Petrograd and consulates in Vladivostok and Irkutsk. Now the Chinese community was in need of support and the Russians were no longer in a position to resist. Having witnessed the collapse of Russian authority in Blagoveshchensk, Wen could propose that China take the chance to set up a consulate there or even farther afield. His suggestion would soon be echoed by other officials with first-hand knowledge of Russian conditions.

The mission wrote up other reports on the situation in Manzhouli, Harbin, Hailar, Heihe and along the Amur river. On a more defensive level, its observers recommended that China increase its military presence on the border to deal with the escalating insurgency. But, like Wen, they also went one step further, calling on China to make use of the disorder in Russia. Chief among these was an expansion in Chinese trade along the Amur, which directly involved the problem of shipping rights that had lain dormant since the 1858 Aigun Treaty. Merchants would play a critical role in this effort, backed up by the negotiations of Chinese officials in Manchuria and Beijing. A shared sense of opportunism, inflected through nationalist language, would drive much of China’s activities through the next few years of the Civil War.

3 thoughts on “Blagoveshchensk in July 1918

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