A train trip from Moscow to Beijing provided the impetus: When the student Sören Urbansky got off in the dusty small town of Sabaikalsk on the Russian-Chinese border in the summer of 2002, he had discovered his future research topic. The Russian outpost in the steppe, just a few steps from the rusted fence, inspired the historian to explore life on the Argun, the headwaters of the Amur. The heart of what was once the world’s longest land border, with its open grasslands and taiga forests, has for centuries connected rather than divided its inhabitants, nomads and sedentary peoples. The river connected both banks rather than separating them.
Russian Cossacks on the Argun hunted beyond, in Chinese territory, and rented grasslands from Buryat Mongols to make hay for their horses. Chinese and Tungus hunted on both banks, and Chinese mined for gold there. The contacts with people from the other side were varied and multilingual. Chinese were baptized and married Russian women, many speaking Russian fluently. Pidgin languages are also used for contact. Only when the border became geopolitically significant at the end of the 19th century did this free coexistence of European and Asian cultures end. Imperial striving, changing friendship and enmity between the power centers in Moscow and Beijing, arbitrary division and control on the common border triggered upheavals.
A “radically new perspective” on history
How did the people on both sides of the Argun, in an area the size of Georgia, cope with this? There is a research gap on the “multi-layered negotiation process,” says Urbansky, who most recently conducted research at the German Historical Institute in Washington and has been professor of Eastern European history at the Ruhr University Bochum since 2023. His book “Steppengrass and Barbed Wire” is now intended to fill this.
The “study,” as Urbansky calls his 440-page work, for which he used a wealth of previously unknown sources, offers a “radically new perspective”: previous centrist analyzes primarily viewed empires as centers of power. Urbansky looks at history “through the lens.” He zooms in on a section of the huge border region and also recognizes the border population “as historical actors”. The result is a micro-historical panorama that brings to life the everyday life of Russian, Chinese and Mongolian border residents (Urbansky changed arbitrarily).
Tradition was always more important than national ideas
Attempts at isolation failed early on in the region: rulers of the Jin dynasty tried in vain against the Mongols and Tatars in the 12th and 13th centuries with an earth wall that snaked around 500 kilometers from what is now eastern Mongolia to China and Russia tried to protect. Remains of this first fortification can be seen on the edge of the Russian border town of Zabaykalsk. Russia and China drew their border lines three centuries ago. Small cairns marked the porous border until it became a barrier controlled by guards and customs officials in the 20th century. Their new national and geopolitical significance, which went hand in hand with armed conflicts and political oppression, changed free life in the Argun Basin. Whether with large-scale smuggling or with uprisings like those of the Mongolian noble Tochtogo or the Cossack rebel Grigory M. Semyonov – the population always managed to circumvent restrictions. The border residents “remained more attached to their traditions than to any national idea” (Urbansky). The construction of the Trans-Siberian and East China Railways promoted contacts between people of different origins, religions and cultures.
Well into the 20th century, the large trade fair near the Buddhist monastery of Ganjsur remained a central location for horse and cattle trade, for wool, leather and meat, but also for goods from the Far East such as tea, silk and cotton. The Russian and Chinese armies acquired some of their animals here. In the fair’s heyday, shortly before the First World War, around 1,500 Chinese dealers, including large Beijing companies, offered shoes, saddles, linen and satin jackets. About 400 Russian traders traded in axes, kettles, enamel items, wax candles and vodka. Mongols traded coral for sheep, and Cossacks purchased the popular shell jewelry. A plan of the “fair” (“iarmarka”) from a Manchurian newspaper from 1933 illustrates the orderly arrangement of tents and yurts of the various merchant groups. Urbansky’s book is equipped with interesting black and white photos that are historically rare – or come from the author himself.
Rabid transformation of the borderland
With the collapse of the empires of the Chinese Qing (1912) and the Russian Romanovs (1917), the successor states attempted a brutal reorganization of the borderland. The weakness of the Republic of China in the 1920s still allowed its Mongolian territories to become independent. Meanwhile, things were like a “wasp’s nest” (Urbansky) in Manzhouli, the Chinese twin city of Zabaykalsk. Manzhouli served as the first refuge for Russian emigrants. Russian communists and defenders of the tsarist regime met there.
Stalin’s terror did not stop at the border area. “Stalin neutralized ethnic minorities through forced relocation or through liquidation”: Here the historian’s language has slipped into that of totalitarianism.
“Russians and Chinese – brothers forever”: After Soviet-Chinese conflicts in the border region, the flags of both countries fluttered at the border towns of Manzhouli and Zabaykalsk in the 1950s. But the friendship didn’t last long. The cities became the last, barbed-wire crossings between the newly hostile neighbors. Nevertheless, according to Urbansky, it was never possible to completely isolate the border populations.
A pompous and a small border gate
It was only with the Perestroika years that the realization came that resources could be better used for economic reforms instead of expensive wars. The border became permeable again. Russian “Cossacks” (Urbansky) and Buryats, whose ancestors had once fled to China to escape collectivization, were now able to reunite with their relatives on the other side of the Argun.
Today, the small Russian and the pompous Chinese border gates are symbols of the new balance of power: here the sleepy town of Sabaikalsk, there the boom town of Manzhouli with its high-rise skyline. The new friendship between Moscow and Beijing has made Manzhouli, with its giant matryoshkas and Fabergé eggs, a shopping paradise for Russians. Nevertheless, entry regulations and checkpoints are reminiscent of the Soviet era, writes Urbansky. Even now, “not all visitors and border residents can move back and forth between the two banks of the Argun as freely as Cossacks and nomads did a hundred years ago.”