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Settling Siberia: Nerchinsk, 1689

The treaty negotiated in five languages which established the border between the Qing Empire and Russia


Settling Siberia: Nerchinsk, 1689

The treaty negotiated in five languages which established the border between the Qing Empire and Russia


The two sides met at the Siberian outpost of Nerchinsk, over 1,000 kilometers from Beijing and separated from Moscow by 6,000 kilometers of steppe and forest. Neither spoke the other’s language. All communication was through two Jesuit priests charged with translating between Russian, Latin, and Manchu. Just getting a reply to “How was your trip,” might take all morning.

The parties were meeting to settle a bloody boundary dispute between the Tsardom of Russia and the Qing Empire. The tectonics of two expanding empires had reached a critical level.

In the early 17th century, both the Chinese and the Manchus were keenly aware of the steady stream of Russian traders, hunters, and settlers in the river basins of Northeast Asia.  The Qing Empire, in particular, were concerned about Russian encroachment into territory the Manchus considered their ancestral homeland.

Following the Manchu conquest of China and the move of the Qing imperial capital south to Beijing, Russia sent an embassy to bargain for the right to send regular trade caravans. The request statesmen by the Kangxi Emperor [r. 1661-1722] over concerns that the Russians might also be assisting groups along the borders hostile to the new Qing regime.

Despite his concern, it would be several years before the Kangxi Emperor could turn his full attention to the Russian threat in Northeast Asia. But with the defeat of the Ming loyalist Kingdom of Dongning on Taiwan and the suppression of the War of the Three Feudatories begun by the Manchu’s erstwhile ally Wu Sangui, the Qing court was prepared to consolidate their control of the northern frontier.

In 1685 and again in 1686, the Kangxi Emperor ordered his troops to march north and capture the Russian fort at Albazin. Cossack raiders had used Albazin as a base to launch raids south of the Amur River and into Manchuria. In 1685, a Qing force of 10,000 troops, 5,000 sailors (including hundreds conscripted from Taiwan for their knowledge of naval warfare), and 200 artillery pieces launched a coordinated attack by land and river against Albazin. With only 450 Cossacks inside, the fort swiftly fell but the Qing commander, satisfied with a mission accomplished, pulled back his troops for the winter.

The following spring, the Cossacks returned and rebuilt the fort. Again, the Qing launched an attack against Albazin. This time, the Cossacks held out nearly a year before the Kangxi Emperor called off the attack.  The Qing court had received word that a delegation was being sent from Moscow to parley with the Qing government. Of greater importance, perhaps, was news that prominent, the Prince of Zungharia had taken control of vast territory in what is today Western China. The Qing court feared the consequences of a Russian-Zunghar Alliance on their western and northern borders.

For their part, Russia was eager to settle the question peacefully. The Russian ruler at the time, Peter Alexeyevich, was not yet “Peter the Great.” He was more “Peter the Moody Teen” forced to share power with his half-brother, the mentally unstable Ivan V. Russian military commanders had doubts about their ability to protect settlements against persistent Qing attacks in the farthest reaches of their burgeoning empire.

After an initial meeting at Seleginsk, near Lake Baikal, was called off by the Qing court worried about the proximity to Galdan’s vanguard, the two sides finally met in August 1689 at Nerchinsk.

The Qing side was represented by Songgotu, a Manchu, and Tong Guogang, a Chinese, backed up by a military force of nearly 10,000 men and 90 armed vessels. It was an astonishing display of force. For their part, the Russians sent just 1500 troops to accompany their delegate, Feodor Alekseyevich Golovin.

Translation would be handled by two Jesuits, both in the service of the Qing court, Father Jean-Francois Gerbillon of France and Thomas Pereira of Portugal.

The negotiations quickly broke down over the question of where to set the boundaries. The idea of fixed boundaries for sovereign states was a relatively recent idea on the global stage, with many European border questions just recently settled by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The Qing government was the first government in East Asia to define their territory by negotiated lines drawn on a map.

At first, the Manchus wanted the Russians to evacuate not just the fort at Albazin but also the settlements south of Lake Baikal including Nerchinsk and Selinginsk. The two sides deadlocked with the Jesuit translators going between the camps shuttling entreaties, proposals, and, eventually, threats from the Qing side.

The Russians were in no position to use force to solve the problem and were woefully outmanned and outgunned. At the same time, the Qing negotiators were under constant pressure from the court to settle the dispute before Galdan reached out to the Russians.

Finally, on September 7, 1689 (August 27 by the Russian calendar), the Treaty of Nerchinsk was drafted in five languages: Manchu, Chinese, Russian, Mongolian, and, finally, Latin. It was the Latin copy which became the official text and which was signed by each party.

The borders of Russia and the Qing Empire were fixed more or less where they remain today, although skirmishes and armed conflict still would occasionally flare between the two sides into the 20th century.

The boundary extended along the Argun River and the Amur to the mouth of the Kerbechi. To the east the boundary would be the Xian’an (Stenovoi) Mountains although later treaties would cede “Outer Manchuria” and the eastern coastline — what is today  Primorsky Krai, southern Khabarovsk Krai, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, and Amur Oblast — to Russia.

The fort at Albazin was to be abandoned. Hunters were prohibited from crossing the boundary but citizens of both states with valid passports could travel across the border. A provision also allowed for the extradition of criminals and deserters trying to escape across the frontier.

The Russians gained full control of Nerchinsk and gained nearly 150,000 square kilometers of territory plus trading privileges with the Qing Empire.

The Qing finally eradicated the thorn that was the Albazin fort and increased the likelihood that Russia would remain neutral in any conflict with Galdan and Zungharia. The treaty freed the Kangxi Emperor’s hand to begin a series of campaigns against his rival to the west.

The two main negotiators, Songgotu and Golovin would have long careers as diplomats and advisers to their rulers. Songgotu was put in charge of Russian affairs and was a close confidant of the Kangxi Emperor until a scandal later in his career led to his arrest and execution. Golovin became one of the most important statesman at the Russian court, consulted on a range of diplomatic issues.

And the Treaty of Nerchinsk became the first treaty signed between an East Asian and a European state, and one of the few pre-20th-century treaties signed between equals.


Cover image from Wikicommons