- Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border by Sören Urbansky
In this incredibly rich and theoretically sophisticated study, Sören Urbansky uses the Argun Basin to explore the fascinating history of the Chinese-Russian borderlands. This area is particularly interesting not only because it has been inhabited by a vast array of different ethnic groups practicing both nomadism and pastoralism, but also because unlike most interimperial borderlands that eventually coalesce into two recognized nation-states, the governmental entities on both sides of this border changed with dizzying regularity throughout the 20th century. Thus what began at the turn of the 20th century as the Qing-Romanov border, then became the Soviet-Republic of China border, then the Soviet-Manchukuo border, then the Soviet-PRC border (which started out friendly and then turned hostile), and then by the end of the 20th century the Argun Basin was finally divided between the PRC and the Russian Federation. And while Urbansky ably narrates these shifting power dynamics with aplomb and thereby reveals how the policies of the metropole impacted the borderland, his real focus is on how the actual people on both sides of the border engaged with, negotiated with, or subverted all of these developments in faraway Moscow and Beijing. In so doing he is able to give a truly nuanced account that captures how both states and local people created this particular borderland.
To make sense of this dynamic, however, we need to begin with the Argun Basin itself, which comprises around 70,000 square kilometers in the Sino-Mongolian-Russian border triangle. In the south it is steppe land, and further north it becomes a boreal taiga forest. Most importantly, this valley is bisected by the north-flowing Argun River, which, according to the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, was to be the Sino-Russian border with Russia on its west bank and China on its east. Yet, as Urbansky makes clear in his first chapter, the policies regarding this borderland differed markedly between the Qing and Russian empires. Most notably, while the Qing banned the migration of Han Chinese into this area, the Russians supported the mass migration of people into the Argun Basin so as to secure their control. Thus while the population on the Chinese side stayed almost the same in the 19th century (29,713 in 1808 and 32,633 in 1912), on the Russian side the population not only exploded from 57,518 in 1784 to 672,072 in 1897, but it also became two-thirds ethnic Russian, thereby eclipsing the local Buriats and Evenkis. This dynamic would eventually happen on the Chinese side as well and is thus one of the major threads that shapes Urbansky's narrative of life in the Argun Basin. [End Page 127]
While such demographic changes were no doubt profound—as Urbansky argues in chapter 2 (and throughout the rest of the book)—the railroad was to become the crucial vector transforming the borderland. The railroad did not only bolster the movement of people and goods and state power, it also brought with it new epidemics, whereby new conceptualizations of "others"—and fear of them—created new notions of borders. As Urbansky shows, the making of borders is done not only through treaties, but also in response to pandemics and foreign workers toiling in menial jobs on the other side of the border. Indeed, it is precisely such tensions that are the focus of chapter 3, especially the case of various Mongols in the Argun borderlands who used the fall of the Qing in 1911 to push for their independence. This chapter also focuses on how both the Chinese and Russian states used these developments to strengthen their own hands.
With the establishment of the Soviet Union the strengthening of both the state and the border only escalated; however, as Urbansky makes clear in chapter 4, it did not all go as planned. Rather, as the border was hardened, and collectivization enforced, not only did...