Reading notes | 10 August 2010, by Martin Saxer

Notes on "The Amur: As River, as Border" by Victor Zatsepine

Zatsepine, Victor. 2008. The Amur: As River, As Border. In The Chinese State at the Borders. Ed. Diana Lary. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Zatsepine’s chapter begins with this opening vignette:

An occasional visitor to the border town of Heihe finds the Amur River its main attraction. In summer, Chinese residents swim or bathe in it. The shallow waters form islands in the middle of the river that children can easily walk to. Across the river, in the Russian town of Blagoveshchensk, rough- looking village youths stroll along the embankment sipping bottled beer. While Heihe is a city typical of China’s northeast, Blagoveshchesk’s solid old buildings are unmistakably European. The river at this junction separates two distinct cultural worlds. (Zatsepine 2008: 151)

On first sight, the history of the Amur borderlands ties in with the patterns found elsewhere around China. Once its strategic value was discovered, which happened rather late here, history is imagined as a string of hostilities (1920s, 1960s, 1970s) and treaties (Nerchinsk 1689; Aigun 1858, Beijing 1860, finally 2004), leading to the current situation of two very different worlds.

However, Zatsepine’s argument runs deeper and challenges the imagination of the river as “natural” border between empires. The Amur region, he contends, was as much shaped by the forces of nature as by the forces of politics. He writes:

Overall, the influence of nature on Amur Basin societies was always stronger than was the impact of military and political conflicts or of colonization. (ibid.: 154)

and a bit later:

Nature has been a dominant factor in the social history of the Amur River, constantly interfering with colonization efforts. […] The Amur River defied the imposition of rules external to itself. (ibid.: 159)

The river changes constantly, islands move, appear, disappear, etc. Official maps have never been available to the public. The question is therefore, if the Amur really served as a border between two empires. Zatsepine argues that

the focus on cultural and political divides overlooks the role of this river as a system of arteries, connecting people and facilitating the flow of goods. For indigenous peoples, migrants, and traders, this boundary either did not exist or was extremely porous. (ibid.: 151)

And, in winter, as with most rivers in Siberia, the frozen Amur became a sledge-friendly highway (zimnik) (ibid.: 153).