Mark Gamsa, Tel Aviv University. April 2021 issue (Vol. 80, No. 2) of The Russian Review. Diatlov, Viktor, Iana Guzei, and Tat'iana Sorokina. Kitaiskii pogrom: Blagoveshchenskaia “Utopiia” 1900 goda v otsenke sovremennikov i potomkov
Diatlov, Viktor, Iana Guzei, and Tat'iana Sorokina. Kitaiskii pogrom: Blagoveshchenskaia “Utopiia” 1900 goda v otsenke sovremennikov i potomkov. St. Petersburg: Nestor-Istoriia, 2020. 208 pp. R600.00. ISBN 978-5-4469-1651-1.
In the summer of 1900, the Boxer Uprising in China reached the border with Russia: Russian ships in the Amur were fired upon, while Blagoveshchensk, a frontier town on the confluence of the Amur and the Zeya rivers, was bombarded from a village near the Chinese town of Aigun. The tsarist military governor, Lt. Gen. Konstantin Gribskii, who was also ataman of the Amur Cossack Host,was absent, as he was commanding punitive operations in Manchuria, and the mayor of Blagoveshchensk, the former teacher and kraeved Aleksandr Kirillov, was indisposed. The town fell prey to panic and rumors of a Chinese invasion. In this tense atmosphere, men in the lower echelons of the Russian administration, acting in the spirit of Gribskii’s instructions, rounded up all the Chinese who could be found in Blagoveshchensk. In three groups, on July 4, 6, and 8 (O.S.), they were marched outside of town to be deported to the Chinese shore of the Amur. Boats were supposed to be available to ferry them over, but once it was feared that boats sent to China would belost and used by the enemy, the Chinese were forced to swim to their country. Those who resisted were killed on the spot, while almost all the others drowned. The death toll has been estimated at between two to four thousand people. Chinese property in Blagoveshchensk was immediately plundered. Bodies floated in the Amur for many days, making the killings more difficult to forget than the concurrent massacre of another peaceful community, that of Manchu and Chinese farmers beyond the Zeya River.
As the dramatic news from Blagoveshchensk reached European Russia, naming what had happened became part of the interpretation process. The title of the present book includes both pogrom, which was used locally soon after the event, and utopia, a pun introduced in the title of an anonymous article in St Petersburg’s journal Vestnik Evropy, which finally revealed the findings of the state inquiry into the drowning, in 1910, ten years later. That inquiry had been thorough and decisive in confirming the responsibility of the Russian authorities, yet the affair was swiftly silenced, and the guilty parties went unpunished. The subject was still mentioned in the Large Soviet Encyclopedia in 1927, but thereafter became off-limits until the end of the Soviet era. Since the 1990s, historians in Russia have addressed the drowning in a number of publications (in them, as in the book under review, research in other languages, such as English and Chinese, is ignored). The current authors’ main aim has been to study how the event was perceived by educated Russians in the 1900s, and what reactions its resurfacing memory triggers today. Their target audience is not academic, but the general public.
The cover of Kitaiskii pogrom juxtaposes splashes of blood with a group photograph of Chinese men who, one will be surprised to learn from the caption attached to the same image toward the end of the book, were actually bandits (khunkhuzy) rather than innocent victims of the drowning. Nevertheless, the book steers clear of sensationalism or moralizing. The authors describe the key role of the Chinese in Blagoveshchensk’s economy as workers, peddlers, and merchants before the Boxer Uprising. They reconstruct the chain of events that led to the drowning, summarize the conclusions of the official inquiry while paying attention to the rhetoric, not just to the contents, and then review closely and critically the reports and opinion pieces carried by Blagoveshchensk’s two newspapers (one liberal and the other conservative) in 1900. The final two chapters are perhaps the most innovative. Chapter 6 presents the passionate responses from internet users to an article by one of the authors, Viktor Diatlov, which was first published in an academic journal in 2002. These 332 The Russian Reviewcomments, ranging from astonishment and a painful sense of culpability to denial of the facts or defense of the actions of Blagoveshchensk’s authorities as understandable in wartime, are quoted in their unedited form and analysed for the variety of positions they represent. Chapter 7 examines the main categories that have been put forward to label the drowning. “Ethnic cleansing” is found inappropriate, inasmuch as (contrary to the motivation behind the killing of the “trans-Zeya Manchus”) there is no evidence that perpetrators wanted to end the Chinese presence in Blagoveshchensk once and for all. Nor, in the absence of an initiative by the state, can the event be properly called an act of genocide. To adopt the explanation of “wartime panic” would come dangerously close to a claim of mitigating circumstances. Without settling on a label, in conclusion, this thoughtful and wellwritten study suggests that the Chinese of Blagoveshchensk were forced into the Amur because some Russians found this to be the simplest and quickest solution for removing the potential threat of enemy aliens from their town. Moreover, to be able to think in that way, these people had to view their Chinese neighbors through a dehumanizing prism conditioned by perceptions of racial and religious difference.
Mark Gamsa, Tel Aviv University
The Russian ReviewAn American Quarterly Devoted to Russia Past and PresentVOLUME 80/NUMBER 2 APRIL 2021