The stretch of the Amur River around Blagoveshchensk had been one of the Reds’ last holdouts. When White and Japanese forces captured the city in September 1918, they put an end to six months of Soviet rule that had devastated a once-bustling provincial capital. Ataman I.M. Gamov, who had fled to China in March 1918 after a failed uprising against the Soviets, returned to Blagoveshchensk triumphant. Yet the Amur region soon became a hotbed of partisan activity. Bloody attacks against the Whites and the Japanese escalated throughout the early months of 1919, with the involvement of seasoned Bolshevik F.N. Mukhin. These were met with punitive detachments that arbitrarily executed suspected Reds, further antagonising the local population.
Chinese officials watched the cycle of violence from across the Amur with increasing concern. Already in early February, Heihe circuit intendant He Shouren spoke of Japanese and White atrocities in Il’inovka; the villagers appealed to the Chinese for help and resolved to resist further raids with violence. The situation had deteriorated so severely by the middle of the month that Heilongjiang military governor Bao Guiqing sounded a note of alarm.
A wire was received from Heihe commander Ba [Ying’e] on 12 February, saying:
‘According to a notice from Japanese vice-consul Bando, more than 400 Reds have gathered on the Russian side of the river opposite Qikete [today Qike zhen] and Taipinggou. Regimental commander Takahashi of the Japanese troops stationed in Khabarovsk has already fought them at a location 180 li south of Cabitale[?] on the Russian bank. The Japanese troops at Heihe left for Mikhailovka, downriver from Innokent’evka, on 2 February to head them off. I have rapidly deployed troops to the Qikete, Wuyun and Baoxing area to shore up defences together with the border guards. Guidelines have also been issued that, if the Reds are defeated and flee towards our bank, it would be best if they could be disarmed and sent to the headquarters to be dealt with. If they dare to resist, they should be immediately attacked. At the same time, I request that the sentries of the 2nd Mixed Regiment in Luobei be instructed to block them off as well.’
I wired a reply and instructed the Luobei sentries to be on strict guard and block [the Reds], not allowing any of them to slip in. If the Reds are defeated and flee towards our bank, they should be immediately disarmed. If they dare to resist, they should be dealt with immediately by force of arms. Now a wire of 14 February has been received from commander Ba and circuit intendant He, which said:
‘Yesterday, translator Tan Xianqing was dispatched across the river to investigate the causes of the unrest. Based on what was heard from various sources, it seems that when the former governing party was defeated and fled to our bank, they planned a revival and frequently colluded with several villages to rise up in support. Since the villages were within the Red sphere of influence, they did not dare to act rashly. Hence [the party] nursed a grievance against them. When the governing party returned to Amur oblast’, they did not think of winning over the people, instead relying on the power of the Japanese army. They arbitrarily accused people of being Reds, murdering and looting at will and inciting popular anger. The remaining Reds could then agitate among them, which has led to this. There is also a rumour of a popular uprising in 17 villages. This afternoon, the commander [Ba] met with the Russian consul and said it was regrettable that the troops in Amur oblast’ were in league with the Japanese and had managed things poorly. Just as we were about to make this report, Chinese migrants in Amur oblast’ reported that the Reds in the whole of the province were showing strong signs of a resurgence and have already begun to act. Last night, Blagoveshchensk was in a state of alarm and soldiers in the barracks took the opportunity to commit arson. Japanese troops and the Whites were on high alert and thankfully a disaster was avoided. The various units have been instructed to be on strict guard.’
I have wired a response and instructed border troops to pay close attention to defence, as well as report on information gathered.Telegram from Bao Guiqing, 22 February 1919 (sent 16 February), in Yujun Wang, Tingyi Guo and Qiuyuan Hu (eds.) Zhong-E Guanxi Shiliao: E Zhengbian yu Yiban Jiaoshe (2), Minguo Liunian zhi Banian (Taipei: Zhongyang Yanjiuyuan Jindaishi Yanjiusuo, 1960), p. 64.
Bao’s report highlighted how White misgovernment and the behaviour of the Japanese army had so alienated the population that the countryside was on the brink of revolt. Of particular note, however, is that Chinese concerns about the partisan movement centred on mobile populations. The growing violence in Amur oblast’ would send refugees and Reds fleeing into China, just as Gamov and the Whites had. It also directly threatened the region’s sizeable Chinese diaspora. This latter point was emphasised by the migrants’ own advocacy, channelled through the newly-formed Amur Oblast’ Diaspora Association.
Further telegrams of 18 and 19 February from Heihe state that more than 10,000 Reds have gathered in Ivanovka village. On the night of the 17th, they did battle with the Whites and Japanese troops, 60-70 were killed or wounded on both sides. The Reds were victorious, more than 100 Japanese soldiers were killed or wounded. Battalion commander Hori was killed in action. The villagers are gathering in ever greater numbers and Amur oblast’ is in danger. Also, according to a report from the Chinese diaspora association, the leader and members of its branch in that village have all retreated to Blagoveshchensk. However, the migrants and their property are very numerous there and they cannot move. The Russian governor and Japanese consul have been requested to inform the [troops at the] front to protect them. The report also said that Heihe is close to the Russian bank and asked for guidelines on what to do if refugees arrived.
If Russians flee here to escape the disorder, I fear that there may be Reds among them, which would give the Whites and Japanese troops a pretext to conduct searches. This would then undermine sovereignty and the border situation. I have instructed that they should be stopped. A response has been wired to implement this. As for whether this is appropriate, I earnestly seek your instructions on the matter together with the various items in the telegram of the 20th.Telegram from Bao Guiqing, 22 February 1919 (sent 21 February). Ibid., pp. 64-65.
Chinese border officials thus recommended the same approach towards all escapee Russians, be they Reds or Whites. Both were threats to border security. They should be prevented from entering Chinese territory or, failing which, should be disarmed beforehand. Where the Whites differed from the Reds was in their treatment of the Chinese diaspora and their collusion with the Japanese army. Bao was already well aware of the mistreatment of Chinese migrants by Semenov; now it seemed that the Whites in Amur oblast’ were just as ruthless.
The disturbances along the Amur culminated in the Ivanovka Incident of 22 March, when White and Japanese forces decimated the village following an abortive partisan attack on Blagoveshchensk. Just as the diaspora association had warned, several Chinese were among the 257 casualties. This cemented the Whites’ reputation for anti-Chinese brutality at a time when the Red Terror and War Communism had not yet made inroads into the Russian Far East. Although the Reds were ideological extremists and harbingers of revolution, the Whites now seemed no better. The Whites’ callousness antagonised Russian villagers and Chinese officials alike – a mistake that would haunt them as the movement collapsed in winter 1919.