This page was created by Abraham Moffat. 

Imperiia: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Prelude to Imperial Power

A Historical Source of Dispute:

Chinese and fishermen, hunters, escaped criminals, and collectors of ginseng and wild sea cucumbers all lived intermittently in the area that would eventually become Vladivostok.[1]  The prevalence of sea cucumbers in the waters surrounding this undeveloped spot in the north east part of the Manchu region eventually led to it being named “Hǎishēnwǎi” (海參崴) or “Sea Cucumber Cliffs.”[2]  This territory had formally acquired Chinese ownership in 1689, where, under the provisions of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, Russia agreed to Chinese rule of the whole watershed area of the Amur River in the Manchu region.[3]  However, the Treaty left much to be desired.  Commenting centuries after the fact, one Russian scholar noted that:

The Treaty […], as far as the legal side was and is concerned, does not correspond to either contemporary or past norms of international law.  The geographical definitions in the text of the Treaty are rather vague, schematic and too general; the two sides did not exchange any maps of the region nor any instruments of ratification; the texts of the two languages are not identical, and the articles admit of varying interpretation.[4]

These issues kept the question of who controlled the region open for hundreds of years.  There continued to be border disputes between the two nations, yet it was not until the late 1850’s when Russia, looking for opportunities to expand, chose to exert pressure on an over-extended China and cement the boundaries between the two nations once and for all.

Formal Acquisition by Russia:

As the Second Opium War raged between Britain, France, and China during the closing years of the 1850’s, Russia sensed an opportunity for territorial expansion.  Since the beginning of the decade, East-Siberian Governor General Nikolai Nikolaevich Murav’ev had initiated a number of military expeditions into the Amur region.  Military forces under Murav’ev’s command had created several posts at strategic locations along the left bank of the Amur River.  These actions had given de facto Russia control of the region.  All that remained was to formally adjust the border between the two nations to make Russia’s actions wholly legal.[5]  Noting that the Chinese were stretched thin fighting the British and French forces, Murav’ev pursued a strategy of intimidation, calling up 16,000 Russian infantrymen, 5,000 cavalry troopers, and 1,000 artillerymen.  He strategically amassed these forces in locations where they could be rapidly deployed to open a second front in the Opium War, thus forcing the Chinese to reallocate their already-overextended military resources.[6] 

Notified of Murav’ev’s actions, the Chinese agreed to renegotiate the portions of the northeastern border between the two countries.  On May 21, 1858, Murav’ev and the Chinese representative Yushan (奕山) signed what came to be known as the Treaty of Aigun.  This document set the Russo-Chinese border along the Aigun River, adding approximately 500,000 square kilometers of territory to the Russian Empire.[7]

Russian expansion into Chinese territory continued.  On July 20, 1860, a Russian military ship (the Manchzur) entered the bay adjoining the settlement at Hǎishēnwǎi.  Despite the fact that this territory still belonged to China, Russian forces set about establishing a military outpost.  Alexey K. Shefner, the ship’s commanding officer, left a group of about thirty men in the area to begin constructing a series of log buildings to house what would become the garrison.[8]  The fledgling garrison was named “Vladivostok,” which translates to “Master of the East” or “Fortress of the East.”  The harbor overlooking which the garrison sat was named “Zolotoy Rog” or “Golden Horn.”  This was intended to invoke association with another “Golden Horn”: the bustling harbor of Constantinople.  In further reference to the great port of the Black Sea, the channel connecting Vladivostok’s “Golden Horn” to the rest of the ocean was named “Bosfor Vostochny”’ or the “Bosporus of the East.”[9] 

These actions served as prelude for further diplomatic efforts to force China to cede territory to Russia.  At the 1860 Convention of Peking, China signed additional treaties that ceded another 300,000 square kilometers of territory to theRussians along the Sea of Japan.  It was this cession that brought the fledgling outpost of Vladivostok legally into the state of Russia.[10]

The government in Moscow was pleased with this expansion.  One military officer explained the significance of the acquisitions by stating the territory represented:

 the only border region within the Russo-Asian continental land mass which borders on […] the open ocean.  Only here can Russia begin to establish a lasting reputation as a naval power.  This areas stands out from all others for its many favorable coastal features, including […] superb ports […] [and] for the natural conditions and riches of the area which are to be found nowhere else in the Russian border regions of Asia. Only here can ports be established for the unimpeded trade with America, the Sunda Islands, and India, those nearly inexhaustible sources of riches for the whole world.[11]

The stage was set, and Russia now had a base from which to could increase its influence on and interaction with the nations of Eastern Asia and beyond.
[1] Lothar Deeg, Kunst and Albers Vladivostok: The History of a German Trading Company in the Russian Far East, 1864-1924, trans. Sarah Bohnet (Berlin: Epubli, 2013), 58.
[2] Deeg, Kunst and Albers Vladivostok, 58.
[3] Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), 65-66.
[4]  Alexei D. Voskressenski, Russia and China: A Theory of Inter-State Relations (New York: Routledge, 2012), 107.
[5] S.C.M. Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 69-70.
[6] Zenone Volpicelli, Russia on the Pacific, and the Siberian Railway (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company, 1899), 253-254
[7] S.C.M. Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 69.
[8] Deeg, Kunst and Albers Vladivostok, 59;
[9] Ibid.
[10] Mikhail Ivanovich Venyukov, quoted in Deeg,
[11] Mikhail Ivanovich Venyukov, quoted in Deeg, Kunst and Albers Vladivostok, 49-50.

This page has paths: