Photo: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

We think of Russian spy stories as a 20th-century genre of storytelling, but imperial Russia retained a sprawling corps of intelligence-gathering bureaucrats that it sent to spy on Qing-dynasty China.

The intrigue: In "Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia's Quest for World Power" (Belknap Press, 2020), Georgetown University historian Gregory Afinogenov draws on never-before-seen material from Russian archives.

The big picture: Afinogenov's research shows that Russian intelligence on China was highly coveted in Europe, granting Moscow greater prestige among European powers.

  • In an 18th-century "cold war," Afinogenov told me, Russia and China competed for the "hearts and minds" of inner Asian peoples on the frontier between the two empires.

Why it matters: Then, like today, an increasingly strident tone in the missives that Chinese diplomats sent to Russia indicated shifting geopolitical realities.

What they said: A letter, sent in 1764 by the Bureau of Foreign Tributaries in Beijing — roughly analogous to a foreign ministry today — revealed rising tensions between Russia and China:

  • "We were forced by necessity to respond rudely that you in every matter concoct excuses, do not do justice in anything, and consider neither your face nor your buttocks."
  • And in another note, referring to Catherine the Great: "We have never heard of the lord of a foreign kingdom being a woman, not a man. ... We laugh and have no words to continue such a discussion."

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