How a priest from today’s Ukraine and a band of Siberian refugees built a Russian Orthodox mission in the heart of the Qing Empire
The chapel at Albazin was on fire, and Maxim Leontiev was frantically rushing to protect its holy contents. Cannonballs crashed through the roof and arrows rained from the sky, as the priest hastily gathered what he could from the burning building: a few books, some of the ritual utensils, and, most importantly for Leontiev, an image of St. Nicholas, the Miracle Worker.
Then, surrounded by thousands of Qing troops on the banks of the Amur River, 7,500 kilometers away from St. Petersburg, Leontiev and a few hundred defenders of Albazin, a Russian fort established in 1651, surrendered to the Manchu commander Pengcun. On the Kangxi Emperor’s command to show benevolence to captives—to “demonstrate to the foreigners our sublime benevolence”—Pengcun’s troops prepared to escort the Albazin survivors 800 kilometers upriver to the Siberian trading station at Nerchinsk, from which they could make their way back to St. Petersburg. However, about 45 Russians, including several Cossack cavalrymen and Leontiev, had other ideas, and asked the Manchu troops to take them to the Qing capital at Beijing.
The Russian surrender in June 1685 was a significant victory for the Qing as they sought to drive Russian settlers out of the Northeast of their empire. But it would also mark an important chapter in the development of the Russian Orthodox Church in China, and the consolidation of a Russian community in Beijing. Finally arriving in the capital in winter 1685, these refugees would be the core of the “Albazinian” community in Beijing, eventually assimilating into Chinese society and enduring even until today. The Russian Orthodox Church in China, which counted Father Leontiev as one of its pioneers, would also play an important role in the development of Russia’s relationship with the Qing Empire throughout the 18th and 19th century.
Far from establishing a vibrant community straight away, though, these captives first needed to survive. Qing officials expected servitude in return for the emperor’s benevolence, and they placed the Russians under the command of the Bordered Yellow Banner, one of the eight military-social divisions which served the imperial court. The Russian refugees were formally enrolled as booi aha or baoyi (包衣), a Manchu term for those bannermen in the service of the imperial household, and one of their jobs was turning birchwood into bows for use by the Qing military.
In return, the Russians were granted a stipend, plots of arable land to grow food, uniforms, and even wives. Little is recorded of these women, with various sources describing them as Manchu, Chinese, and even Solon, a branch of the Siberian Evenki people. Some accounts claim they were prostitutes and former prisoners.
With limited supervision—and perhaps influenced by their new wives—the Albazinians began assimilating into life in bustling Beijing. Many abandoned their assigned tasks and instead worked as street vendors or peddlers. Others became vagabonds and even criminals.
Opportunities opened up to them as relations between the Qing and Russia developed. In 1689, when a treaty signed between Russia and the Qing Empire at Nerchinsk temporarily settled the border conflicts and granted Russian traders access to Beijing, the Albazinians offered their services as guides, guards, and fixers. The Russian merchants appreciated (and paid dearly) for this assistance, but the sojourners saw the Russians living in Beijing as a distinct group, even referring to them as traitors who had turned their back on Russia. The term “Albazinian” began to be applied to all Russians enrolled in the Qing banner system, distinguishing these permanent residents of Beijing from those who came and went with the caravans.
Their new Beijing neighbors were no fonder of the Albazinians, believing them to be drunken, unruly, dissolute, and prone to violence. Many Beijingers were suspicious of the strange-looking outsiders, referring to them as Luocha (罗刹), after a malignant and terrifying demon found in Buddhist mythology.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Albazinians in Beijing, however, was the church that Leontiev established in a dilapidated northeastern corner of the capital next to a looming guard tower on the city walls where officials sent him and his fellow refugees to live. Given a small Buddhist shrine for worship, Leontiev had the temple gutted and cleared of any “pagan” idols, replacing them with the image of St. Nicholas he had rescued from Albazin.
But Qing officials had limited understanding of Orthodox Christianity, and few Chinese seem to have converted. Even many of Leontiev’s fellow Albazinians ignored the church. Nevertheless, the Church of St. Nicholas became the center of Russian Orthodoxy in Beijing, and would endure long after Leontiev died in 1711 or 1712.
As trade expanded and tensions between the two empires remained, Russian authorities in Siberia made sporadic efforts to contact the church. This amounted to little more than the delivery of books, some liturgical items, and an antimension (a cloth on the Orthodox altar printed with icons depicting the burial of Christ) to be used for services, until 1716. That year, a church archimandrite (a rank of the Orthodox clergy below the level of bishop) called Hilarion, also known as Lezhaisky, who was born in Chenigov (today part of Ukraine) arrived in Beijing as the leader of a 10-person mission representing the Russian Orthodox Church. This came after the first Qing official to visit the Russian Empire, Tulišen, had spent three years wandering Russia’s Siberian territories and meeting with officials.
Near the top of Lezhaisky’s tasks was revitalizing the chapel established by Leontiev nearly 30 years earlier. Lezhaisky organized a renovation of the shabby Church of St. Nicholas and began leading services—Leontiev may have renovated the building, but Lezhaisky brought the church to life. People came from all over the city to see the spectacle of the foreign priest and the strange rituals he performed at the “Temple of the Luocha.” It was not easy to gain converts when your chapel was called “Temple of the Demons” in the local language, but Lezhaisky and his fellow missionaries did what they could, lavishly bestowing gifts on attendees to encourage the Albazinians back into the fold and other Beijingers to convert.
This generosity soon outstripped his resources, however. Lezhaisky, who recorded that his hosts granted him a stipend and accommodation equivalent to an official of the fifth rank in the nine-tier system used by the Qing dynasty, along with a cart of food (“including sheep, geese, ducks, and chickens”) every day, asked the Qing court to give him control of the imperial funds set aside to support the mission during its time in Beijing. When the other delegation members learned of the request and Lezhaisky’s plan to redistribute a portion of their Qing stipends for “other mission purposes,” they refused to have anything more to do with their leader. Most of the rest of the mission, having completed their goals, departed Beijing in 1717.
The isolated Lezhaisky stayed on, but began drinking heavily and died of “rheumatism” in 1718. Despite the ignominious end to his mission, Lezhaisky’s efforts pushed open the door left ajar by Leontiev before him for the Orthodox faith to take root in Beijing.
Official Russian missions made periodic visits to the Qing capital, with more border issues along what is now Mongolia settled in 1729, before further conflict in the 19th century culminated in Russia carving parts of Manchuria away from China at the Treaty of Aigun in 1858. But even without Lezhaisky, the Albazinians continued to live mainly around the area of the St. Nicholas Church.
The church endured turbulent times. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1730, rebuilt as the Dormition Church in 1732, then burned to the ground during the Boxer War in 1900. Rebuilt again in 1904 as the Church of the Holy Martyrs, named for the more than 200 Chinese Orthodox parishioners killed by the Boxers, it was again destroyed when the Soviet embassy moved from its former quarters in the Legation District to what is now the site of the Russian embassy in 1950. The current church, which is located on the embassy grounds, was completed in 2008 and still serves as a house of worship for Beijing’s Russian Orthodox community.
Several thousand descendants of the Albazinians still live in Beijing and other cities in North China. A few speak Russian and attend the Orthodox Church, which counts 10,000 members in 15 parishes across the country today. It’s not what the Russian Empire or the Albazinians might have hoped for in the 18th century, perhaps, but still a worthy legacy for Leontiev, more than three centuries after he managed to save St. Nicholas from the flames at Albazin.
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