Memory Erasure of Trans-Imperial History in the City of Nerchinsk

Journey through Siberia from Tobol’sk to Nerchinsk and the Chinese Border. Электронная библиотека (репозиторий) ТГУ <;

Iacopo Adda
Global Studies Institute, University of Geneva

On 4 December 1675 (14 December in the Gregorian calendar), gunshots were fired into the air from the fortress of Nerchinsk. A conspicuous group of Cossacks had been approaching the fortress and they immediately answered the salute. It was a signal for the arrival of a special traveller, who had been sent by Tsar Alexis I to lead a Russian embassy to the court of the Chinese Emperor. This special envoy was the Moldavian literary man Nicolae Milescu Spătaru, known in Russia as Nikolai Spatharii or Spafarii, who had taken up service as a diplomat of the Tsar a few years before.[1]

Spătaru was not the first envoy whom Moscow had sent to Beijing to discuss the settlement of the border between Russia and China, but he was the first to take the internal Siberian route from Moscow to China. He was also the first to provide the tsarist court with a fairly detailed, though sometimes imprecise, description of the geography of the Russian imperial possessions east of the Urals, which was published as Journey through Siberia from Tobol’sk to Nerchinsk and the Chinese Border (see photo above). However, scientific exploration was not the primary goal of the expedition.[3] As the Cossacks had only recently pushed down to the Amur valley, the border situation was unstable, but the Russians hoped to secure both a good strategic position on the Amur and a stable trade route to China. This would have meant reopening a sort of Russian-branded Silk Road, almost 300 years after the collapse of the one that had accompanied the pax mongolica between the 13th and 14th centuries.

To the Moldavian diplomat, Nerchinsk fortress appeared to be a well-functioning component of the Russian colonial machine. Indeed, he witnessed how some Tungus, together with other local populations, went there to pay the price of their subjugation, the iasak. Also, he noted how Nerchinsk – like many other Russian outposts in Siberia – was strategically well-situated along the Nercha River that, through the Shilka, gave direct access to the Amur and from thence to China.[4]

In Nerchinsk, Spătaru also met with, and added to his entourage, another remarkable man in the story of early Sino-Russian relations: the first Russian representative to lead an embassy to China by crossing the Amur River, Cossack Ignatii Mikhailovich Milovanov.[5] In 1670, Milovanov and four of his men had been sent by the Nerchinsk voevod (military governor) to Beijing to try and solve two important issues. First, the Chinese were increasingly aggravated by the behaviour of Russian settlers in Albazin, because of their high-handed collection of the Iasak from local populations. Moreover, the Chinese were determined to put pressure on the Russians to return the fugitive rebel Prince Gantimur, who had fled Qing territory with his men into Russia.

Neither Milovanov in 1670 nor Spătaru in 1675 achieved the diplomatic successes they sought. Yet, in both cases, Nerchinsk proved to be a significant location where concrete diplomatic actions vis-à-vis China were planned or made practically possible. It was not in the frontline of political tussles with China, but it was close enough to the Amur to serve as a nexus for the acquisition of frontier knowledge, as people quickly learnt how to navigate the intricate river system and better exploit the resources of the region.

Indeed, Nerchinsk finally entered the vanguard of Sino-Russian history in 1689, when it hosted the discussions between Russian representative Fedor Alekseevich Golovin and Manchu envoy Songgotu. Here, foreign mediators – French and Portuguese Jesuits, as well as Polish literati – were asked to place their knowledge of Latin and international diplomacy at the service of the first Sino-Russian border entente. The result of these negotiations, the Treaty of Nerchinsk, was a compromise that guaranteed peace and fruitful trade exchanges for almost two centuries to come. This diplomatic event brought lasting fame to Nerchinsk which, in that same year, obtained the status of a city and centre of the Nerchinskoe voevodstvo (Nerchinsk military-administrative district).[6] This administrative change meant that Nerchinsk also acquired military functions.[7]

Entrance to the city of Nerchinsk before the Nercha River crossing. Photo taken by Iacopo Adda in Nerchinsk, 23 Feb 2019

For almost two centuries, Nerchinsk was a major city in the Transbaikal region, but its slow decline began in 1851, when Chita became the new regional capital.[9] Today, it is a very small town of almost 15,000 inhabitants. Traces of its past can easily be found during a visit. However, despite its huge importance in the history of the foundation of Sino-Russian relations, nothing special has been done to commemorate the Treaty of Nerchinsk.

The most important historical monuments in the city are the Church dedicated to the Assumption of the Mother of God, built in 1712 as the first stone church east of Lake Baikal,[10] and the Butinskii palace. The former is certainly the most important monument dating to Nerchinsk’s earliest development, even though its dire state of conservation necessitates a complete restoration. Despite being an object of pride for the city and the entire Transbaikal region – together with the Butinskii Palace, it was named one of the “seven wonders of Transbaikalia” in 2009[11] – no measures seem to have been adopted to preserve it.

Church dedicated to the Assumption of the Mother of God, Nerchinsk. Photo taken by Iacopo Adda, 23 Feb 2019

On the contrary, the Butinskii Palace comes across as a highly interesting and well-preserved museum about the entrepreneurial Butin family, who played a remarkable economic role in Eastern Siberia from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th Century. One room in the palace is dedicated to the history of Nerchinsk and only one panel, titled “Defence of the Borders”, gives a very short explanation of the events related to the Treaty of Nerchinsk. The attention paid to the Treaty and the significance accorded to it is minimal.

Interior of the Butinskii Palace, Nerchinsk. Photo taken by Iacopo Adda, 23 Feb 2019

More importance is certainly given, as in all Russian towns, to the memory of the Great Patriotic War (Second World War), some monuments for which can be found in a central square. However, commemorations of the role of the Treaty of Nerchinsk or the first diplomatic expeditions to China in open spaces are harder to find. A panel in a small square facing the river, situated not far from a statue dedicated to the founder of the city, the Cossack Petr Ivanovich Beketov, dedicates barely a few lines to the Treaty: “In August 1689, close to the fortress of Nerchinsk, talks were held between the Russian and Chinese consuls, as a result of which the first treaty (of Nerchinsk) between both states was concluded on the borders and trade.”

Outdoor panel mentioning the Treaty of Nerchinsk. Photo taken by Iacopo Adda, 23 Feb 2019

Recently, local scholars have discussed the potential for increasing tourism to Nerchinsk to boost its economy,[16] mainly from the surrounding regions, China and Mongolia. They acknowledge that Nerchinsk is known in Russia and abroad first and foremost for its famous historical links to the first Sino-Russian Treaty, but they hardly see this as an opportunity.[17] The most prominent historical event linked to Nerchinsk is thus almost invisible in the city’s landscape.

Evidence from other Russian museums also demonstrates that the memory of this Treaty is often not given much weight in Russian public history. This is due to ideological controversies with China’s more nationalist rhetoric over the legitimacy of the treaties that succeeded Nerchinsk (the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 and Beijing in 1860).[18] Despite hosting one of the most pertinent Russian diplomatic achievements in modern history, Nerchinsk is not and will not be a city that celebrates the memory of the Treaty to which it gave its name.

Iacopo Adda is a PhD candidate at the Global Studies Institute of the University of Geneva. His PhD thesis focuses on the “Yellow Peril” discourse in Eastern Russia in the pre-revolutionary and post-soviet periods. This essay is part of a joint project with Dr Yuexin Rachel Lin of the University of Exeter, entitled “Public History and the Geopolitics of Memory in Russian, Chinese and Korean Frontier Museums”, for which he received full funding from the 2019/2020 GenEx Co-Fund from their respective universities.


[1] Николай Гавриловичъ Спаѳарій, Путешествіе чрезъ Сибирь отъ Тобольска до Нерчинска и Границъ Китая Русскаго Посланника Николая Спаѳарія въ 1675 году. Дорожный дневникъ Спаѳарю съ введеніемъ и примѣчаніями Ю. В. Арсеньева, Типографія В. Киршбаума, С. Петербургъ, 1882, сс. 139-140.

[3] Ibid., p. 24.

[4] Ibid., p. 140.

[5] On Milovanov, see С.В. Осипов, ‘Первые Русские Послы в Китай (XVII-XVIII вв)’, С. В. Осипов, В. Б. Петухов, Г. П. Сидорова (под ред.), Проблемы Социально-Экономического, Политического и Культурного Развития России, УлГТУ, Ульяновск, 2019; ‘Игнатий Михайлович Милованов — Нерчинский Сын Боярский’, Города и Остроги Земли Сибирской, <; [Accessed 10 Mar 2020].

[6] В.В. Бардакова, Е.Б. Бидюк, Т.И. Жеребцова, ‘Нерчинск’, Энциклопедия Забайкалья, <; [Accessed 11 Mar 2020].

[7] И. А. Горлова, А. Н. Новиков, ‘История Изменения Экономико-Географического Положения Забайкальского Города Нерчинска в Дореволюционный Период: Проблема Утраты Столичного Статуса’, Интернет-журнал Науковедение, § 2, 2014, сс. 4-5.

[8] Entrance to the city of Nerchinsk before the Nercha River crossing. Photo taken by Iacopo Adda in Nerchinsk, 23 Feb 2019.

[9] Горлова et al, ‘История Изменения Экономико-Географического Положения Забайкальского Города Нерчинска в Дореволюционный Период’, c. 7.

[10] Николай Крадин, ‘Малые Исторические Города Забайкалья: Нерчинск’, Project Baikal, Russian Federation, § 61, 2019, pp. 80-89, 2019, <;. [Accessed 11 Mar 2020].

[11] Ж. Б. Балдандоржиев, И. А. Горлова, А. Н. Новиков, ‘Культурно-Географические Особенности Трансграничного Позиционирования Города (на Примере г. Нерчинска Забайкальского Края)’, Гуманитарный Вектор. Vol. 34, § 2, 2013, p. 117.

[16] В. В. Лиханова, О. А. Лях, ‘Культурный туризм в Забайкальском крае как фактор развития туристкой дестинации’, Гуманитарный вектор, Vol. 14, § 4, 2019; И.А. Семибратова, ‘Позиционирование Туристических Объектов Нерчинского Района как Механизм Повышения его Инвестиционной Привлекательности’, Записки Забайкальского Отделения Русского Географического Общества, Издательство: Забайкальский Государственный Университет, Чита, 2016, сс. 325-329.

[17] Балдандоржиев et al, ‘Культурно-Географические Особенности Трансграничного Позиционирования Города’, p. 117.

[18] Iacopo Adda, ‘Sino-Russian Relations through the Lens of Russian Border History Museums: The Nerchinsk Treaty and its Problematic’, Eurasian Geography and Economics, Forthcoming.