Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia's Quest for World Power

Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia's Quest for World Power

by Gregory Afinogenov


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A Financial Times Best Book of the Year

The untold story of how Russian espionage in imperial China shaped the emergence of the Russian Empire as a global power.

From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire made concerted efforts to collect information about China. It bribed Chinese porcelain-makers to give up trade secrets, sent Buddhist monks to Mongolia on intelligence-gathering missions, and trained students at its Orthodox mission in Beijing to spy on their hosts. From diplomatic offices to guard posts on the Chinese frontier, Russians were producing knowledge everywhere, not only at elite institutions like the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. But that information was secret, not destined for wide circulation.

Gregory Afinogenov distinguishes between the kinds of knowledge Russia sought over the years and argues that they changed with the shifting aims of the state and its perceived place in the world. In the seventeenth century, Russian bureaucrats were focused on China and the forbidding Siberian frontier. They relied more on spies, including Jesuit scholars stationed in China. In the early nineteenth century, the geopolitical challenge shifted to Europe: rivalry with Britain drove the Russians to stake their prestige on public-facing intellectual work, and knowledge of the East was embedded in the academy. None of these institutional configurations was especially effective in delivering strategic or commercial advantages. But various knowledge regimes did have their consequences. Knowledge filtered through Russian espionage and publication found its way to Europe, informing the encounter between China and Western empires.

Based on extensive archival research in Russia and beyond, Spies and Scholars breaks down long-accepted assumptions about the connection between knowledge regimes and imperial power and excavates an intellectual legacy largely neglected by historians.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674241855
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 04/14/2020
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 591,233
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Gregory Afinogenov is Assistant Professor of Imperial Russian History at Georgetown University and Associate Editor at Kritika, the leading journal of Russian and Eurasian history. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Nation, London Review of Books, and n+1.

Table of Contents

Maps and Illustrations ix

Note on Calendar and Transliteration xi

Introduction 1

Part I Muscovite Statecraft and Hybrid Knowledge

1 Muscovy on the Knowledge Frontier 25

2 Seeing China through Russian Eyes 45

Part II Bureaucrats and Their Secrets

3 Secret Missions, Troublesome Missionaries 67

4 Scholarship and Expertise at Home and Abroad 89

5 The Caravan as a Knowledge Bureaucracy 104

6 The Commerce of Long-Distance Letters 120

Part III Remaking Knowledge on the Frontier

7 Frontier Intelligence and the Struggle for Inner Asia 139

8 Spies and Subversion in Eastern Siberia 159

Part IV Intelligence and Sinology in Search of World Power

9 Imperial Encounters in the North Pacific 185

10 Making Russian Sinology in the Age of Napoleon 210

11 Conspiracy and Conquest on the Amur 234

Conclusion 257

Appendix: Reign Dates 267

Abbreviations 269

Notes 271

Bibliography 323

Acknowledgments 357

Index 359

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