Twin cities on the Amur

A year or two back I read about Russian pensioners in Blagoveshchensk, the Russian city by the Chinese border on the Amur river, leasing out their apartments and renting flats in Heihe, the city on the opposite, Chinese bank. You get better value for money there, they said. Residents of the two cities can cross the border freely and the ferryboat across the Amur is much like a city bus.

Some of the present-day Amur oblast, of which Blagoveshchensk (“Annunciation City”) is capital, was technically under Beijing’s sovereignty until 1858, although Siberian Cossacks had occupied the area in 1856 and founded a military outpost that would soon become a booming commercial town.

During the Boxer Rebellion in China, the Yihetuan shelled Blagoveshchensk for two weeks in summer 1900, and the Russian government ordered all ethnically Chinese residents to be expelled across the river. This resulted in what is known as the Chinese pogrom, or massacre, of 1900, when up to 5,000 Chinese were killed by Russian militias or Cossacks. However Chinese workers continued to move to the area until the 1917 revolution.

Since the late 1980s, Blagoveshchensk residents have witnessed the small town across the river, Heihe, transform itself into a modern city. Officially, the population of Heihe and Blagoveshchensk is about the same at 200,000 but the Heihe city district has over 1.6 mln residents, twice as many as the Amur oblast. Naturally, Heihe City and Blagoveshchensk form a major trade hub and many locals are active in cross-border trade on a large or small scale. (Blagoveshchensk has even erected a statue of a small-time “shuttle” or “suitcase trader”.) Chinese farmers are a major presence in the Amur oblast as well.

I’ve come across an interview with a Russian entrepreneur living in Heihe, who complained that it was impossible to take out Chinese citizenship. This pragmatic attitude – he’d become a Chinese citizen if he were allowed too because it’s more convenient – seems to be common across the Russian Far East. Watching the turmoil in Donbass, one wonders if China may take advantage of it one day. Not in the same heavy-handed way as Russia, of course.


  1. This is interesting. I’ve often thought the Chinese might start to encroach into Siberia as they grow wealthier and stronger, having hardly given up expansionist ambitions (quite the opposite, if maritime affairs are a guide). Usually this is countered by mention of Russia’s nuclear deterrent, but this assumes a full-scale invasion of Siberia by the Chinese army. It would be far more complicated a matter if populations bordering China became more and more affiliated with China, more interwoven culturally and economically, and held dual-citizenship (or desired Chinese citizenship). Of course, the Russians demonstrated what they would do in this situation with Grozny in the 1990s – flatten it, and crush the population – but doing this to Chinese citizens (or people nominally under Chinese protection) across multiple towns and cities along the border is a different prospect. As the Ukrainians found out, control of a region starts slipping away gradually, almost unnoticeably (in the case of Crimea, this happened at the time the army decided it wouldn’t fight for it, which might have been years ago) and when it finally jumps it is often in a manner which doesn’t offer up nice, clean targets to threaten with a nuclear strike. I’m sure the Chinese have been watching Russia’s denials of their involvement in Ukraine very closely, perhaps thinking that what is sauce for the Ukrainian goose is also sauce for the Russian gander.

    I think history will show that Putin has made a terrible blunder here, and made Russia’s territorial integrity a lot less safe. When he cited the precedent of Kosovo, even he must have realised the critical difference between a region declaring independence and a region declaring independence for the express purpose of joining a neighbouring country. But he chose to ignore this difference, and in doing so set another precedent far more dangerous to Russia’s long-term interests than that set by Kosovo. Nobody believes Russia’s far-flung lands could be independent, but it is not difficult to imagine in a decade or two they might think themselves better of part of China. Putin will be gone by then (unless they prop his corpse up beside Lenin’s), but there will be plenty of those who supported him in 2014 left to ponder whether that was a smart thing to do.

    • If I could add one thing to your comment, Tim, I would suggest that Putin is a great tactician but not a strategist at all. I don’t think he cares about long-term consequences of his Crimea grab.

      • And I’d agree with that completely. It’s not a uniquely Russian trait by any means, but I have literally dozens of examples of Russians thinking extremely short term and not being able to see the long term consequences or potential benefits. Which can be problematic.

        • Incidentally, I first noticed this phenomenon during my dark and seedy years in Dubai in 2003-2005 among the prostitutes from the former Soviet Union. They’d take an $80 customer in violation of an agreement with a sugar-daddy from whom they were receiving several hundred a week for essentially sitting at home (well, not quite, but relatively speaking) and from whom they stood to make an awful lot more, thus risking a guaranteed medium-term income for a quick buck now. I asked them about this, and they said “This is money now, who knows what will happen tomorrow?” I had a theory at the time that it was precisely this mentality – one whereby the future was not even considered – which enabled them to become prostitutes in the first place. But it fits in well with the survivalist theory.

          • Very interesting! Who were those sugar daddies, if you happen to know? Locals? Westerners? Russians?

          • Oh, always westerners, usually British. The locals would pretend to be sugar daddies, but played them at their own game: lied through their teeth to get what they wanted, then renege on the agreement. And you never saw Russian men in those places, the oligarchs used to bring their own women with them and the non-oligarchs were living locally and had girlfriends.

  2. A good example of Putin’s short-termism is the acquisition of more Black Sea holiday resorts than he can handle. He’d just spent billions redeveloping Sochi then he went and seized Crimea. Six years ago he acquired Abkhazia, which is now protesting about neglect. I’m guessing that most Russian holidaymakers will head to Sochi rather than chance their luck in potentially unstable Yalta or Sukhumi. It’s going to cost him billions more to keep these rival regions happy. But Putin is like a kid at Christmas; after the exhiliration of his new presents wears off, he doesn’t want to know. In five years’ time there will be news reports showing a half-built bridge across the Strait of Kerch. By then, Crimea’s economy will be more black market than Black Sea tourism.

    China is already a big gainer from this crisis. At least you always know where you are with Chinese foreign policy: no questions asked non-interference in internal affairs. Russia had been pretending to follow this line after the annexation of South Ossetia in 2008, but as soon as Putin saw an opportunity to intervene in Ukraine it went straight out the window. Nobody in their right mind trusts him any more.

    • Speaking of holidaymakers, I’ve read reports that Russian cops and prosecutors are being told to surrender their passports so they can only choose among domestic resorts this summer. I suspect some may be paid a bonus on the condition they vacation in Crimea. State-controlled companies like Gazprom have been asked to subsidize their employees’ Crimean holidays. I’m not sure they have agreed because it is costly and complicated but it gives one a taste of how things work in Russia nowadays.

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