From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 63-66:
Nerchinsk has been in decline ever since the Trans-Siberian Railway bypassed it at the end of the nineteenth century. Its distant silver mines are long worked out, its factories failed. A palisaded prison spreads close to where the Nerva river joins the Shilka, and a military airfield lies abandoned on the outskirts. I search in vain for any memorial to the treaty signed here: an agreement whose breach and promise still resonate across three centuries.
The 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk marked the first check to Russia’s headlong conquest of Siberia. From the Ural mountains to the Pacific Ocean, over more than three thousand miles, Cossacks and soldiers had traversed the whole continent in less than sixty years. It was in the frozen governorate town of Yakutsk, six hundred miles from the still-unknown Amur, that rumours spread of a mighty river flowing through a paradise of harvest fields to the south. In 1643 a desperate, three-year expedition under Vasily Poyarkov descended from the starving settlement and ravaged the middle courses of the Amur, exacting a tribute of furs from the scattered Daur tribespeople, or slaughtering them. By the journey’s end Poyarkov’s mutinous force of 150 men was reduced to 20 by starvation, disease and fatal flogging – some he killed with his own hands – and he returned to Yakutsk with the first, tentative mapping of the Amur. In a pattern that would be repeated, Poyarkov was recalled for trial in Moscow, and vanishes from record.
Four years later a more terrible scourge was unleashed on the Amur by the buccaneer Yerofei Khabarov, who ravaged the riverine settlements for over five hundred miles. In one episode alone he boasted of the massacre of 661 Daur villagers ‘with God’s help’, along with mass rape.
But now the native peoples appealed to the nominal suzerain of the region, China. Khabarov was withdrawn for trial in Moscow, and his eventual successor, with more than two hundred men, was blown to bits by Chinese cannon on the lower Amur. For thirty years afterwards the two great empires fought a shadow war of mutually ignorant diplomacy, while a flood of Russian peasants, Cossacks and criminals, beyond government control, poured into the Amur basin. It was after 1680, with their rule secure, that the Manchu Chinese at last lost patience. One by one the Russian forts were eliminated, and after the death of more than eight hundred besieged Cossacks in their last Amur stronghold, Moscow and Peking moved to negotiate a peace.
Nerchinsk by then had become Russia’s gateway to the Amur, yet was little more than a stockaded fort with a few government and traders’ dwellings. This wooden village would later be wrecked by the flooding river, and rebuilt more durably on higher ground; but in 1689 the waterside meadows became the venue for the first treaty China ever concluded with a European power. The two empires – the parvenu Russian and the ancient Chinese – were deeply strange to one another. Their delegates were well versed, but their rulers far away. Peter the Great, barely seventeen, was preoccupied with domestic turmoil, but his depleted Treasury was dreaming of trade with China. The Chinese emperor Kangxi, the most powerful and cultivated of his dynasty, was anxious above all to seal his frontiers against the incursions of these brutish northerners, and to prevent Russia from allying with a newly belligerent Mongol power pressing in the west.
The delegations agreed to meet in scrupulous equality, but China’s two ambassadors, close relatives of the emperor, arrived from Peking with 1,500 soldiers and a fleet of supporting junks and barges, loaded with cannon, that converged on Nerchinsk along the river. Against this entourage of some 10,000 the Russians could muster barely 2,000 men. But issues of procedure and etiquette stifled all else. Noting the Russians dressed in cloth of gold and precious furs, the Chinese stripped off their blazoned brocades and moved to the conference in sombre dress under huge silk umbrellas. An identical number of guards attended each embassy: 260 men, who faced off at equal intervals and ceremonially frisked each other for hidden weapons. The Russian ambassador advanced behind a slow march of flute-players and trumpeters. The delegates dismounted in unison and entered their two tents simultaneously – tents that had been scrupulously merged so that no one would suffer the indignity of visiting the other first. The ambassadors sat down and shouted their greetings in concert. Only three Russian dignitaries took seats, and the Chinese mimicked them, leaving more than a hundred mandarins standing opposite their Russian counterparts during the first session. They remained in mutual incomprehension. The ambassadors shared no word of language. So the negotiations were conducted in Latin by two Jesuits attached to the Chinese court, and by an erudite Pole for the Russians.