Why Are Siberian Russians Drawn to China?

BLAGOVESHCHENSK, Russia—I originally came to the Russian Far East with the idea that the Russian-Chinese border was roughly analogous to the U.S.-Mexican border: poor, darker-skinned people sneaking north across a river for better job opportunities, freaking out the white people.

Poor Chinese do cross over, and they do work for less than Russians. And some of the overheated immigration rhetoric you hear in the United States exists in Russia, too, about the “zheltaya ugroza,” or “yellow peril.” That paranoia is much more prevalent in Moscow than in the Russian Far East, however. Here, everyone seems to have their favorite example of how other Russians exaggerate the Chinese presence. There are reports in the Moscow press that half the population of Blagoveshchensk is Chinese or that there are dozens of Chinese villages in Russia that don’t appear on any map. “I’ve heard that the streets in Blagoveshchensk are named after Chinese generals or that there are Chinese people on the city council here,” Nikolai Kukharenko, the head of the Chinese-government-run Confucius Institute, told me. *

In part because the government has placed tight restriction on Chinese visitors to Russia, there is little visible Chinese presence in Blagoveshchensk—and there’s more here than anywhere else in Russia. There are a couple of so-called “Chinese markets,” where Chinese vendors sell cheap clothes and electronics, but you can find these all over Russia and the former Eastern bloc. There are also a good number of Chinese restaurants catering to Russian tastes: It was here that I had stir-fried potatoes for the first time.

But you see very few Chinese people on the streets, other than a few tourists snapping photos of the statue of Lenin or of the reconstructed arch originally built for Czarevich Nicholas’ visit through the Far East in 1891.

What is remarkable here, though, is the enthusiasm that Russian people—in contrast to the Russian government—display about China. While some poor Chinese citizens come to Russia for work, educated, middle-class Russians are increasingly going in the other direction. Among the group of young, English-speaking Russians I fell in with in Blagoveshchensk, nearly all of them worked in some capacity with China. Many of them had lived there. One, Sergey, was home from his job in Shanghai, and he raved about how much friendlier, more open, and optimistic Chinese people were compared with Russians.

One feature of the Russian-Chinese relationship seemed especially telling: Cross-border marriages are overwhelmingly between Chinese men and Russian women. Much of this has to do with demographics—Russia has a surplus of women, while China has too many men. But as one Russian woman told me, “Chinese men are kinder and more attentive to their wives. And they usually have more money.”

In the international relations department of Amur State University in Blagoveshchensk, the number of students studying Chinese increases every year, and more Russian students now learn Chinese as their first foreign language than English. The department is closing its European studies track and shutting down German and French. Soon, it will offer only Chinese and English.

“China is the destiny of Siberia, our present and future depends in every respect on what happens in China,” Victor Dyatlov, a professor at Irkutsk State University and a top authority on Russian-Chinese relations, told me. “The only direction we can move in is integration and cooperation between Russia and China. But we don’t know what form that integration will take.”

But this local integration with China doesn’t mean much to the larger picture, Dyatlov said. “The future of Siberia and its people is defined not by the people here but in Moscow,” he said. “What people in Siberia think isn’t that important. Siberia is the national treasure, and the people here are just meant to help the government exploit these resources.”

Indeed, many people complain that Moscow treats the Russian Far East like a cash cow to be exploited for export income to China and cares little about how people here live. In February 2009, Russia and China signed a 20-year, $25 billion oil deal, and by the end of that term China could be getting one-quarter of its imported oil from Russia and Central Asia. Most of that oil will come from eastern Siberia, through a pipeline whose original route veered dangerously close to famously pristine Lake Baikal, prompting protests from Siberians. Russia also recently started selling electricity to China from the Bureya Dam, on a tributary of the Amur, at a price cheaper than Russians pay for electricity in Blagoveshchensk. “We don’t like it,” said Svetlana Kosikhina, the dean of the international relations department at Amur State. “Electricity is expensive here, and if we sell it to China, it’s going to be even more expensive.”

Even locals admit to a significant amount of skepticism about China’s intentions toward the Russian Far East. Kukharenko—as director of the Confucius Institute here, he’s an employee of the Chinese government—said he assumes that “a lot” of the Chinese students in Blagoveshchensk are spies, “especially the ones who are older and who speak good Russian already.” There are also rumors of a secret museum in Heihe—shown only to Chinese tourists—that displays maps showing Chinese control over the Russian Far East.

“We’re not afraid, but we’re wary. We just don’t understand what they’re going to do. It’s a system that could rise up at any moment and attack us,” Kosikhina said. “We have a saying here: ‘Pessimists study Chinese.’ “

Click here   to view a slide show about where Russia meets China.

Correction, Jan. 4, 2009: This entry originally assigned the wrong forename to Nikolai Kukharenko. (Return to the corrected sentence.)