The enormous silence of the river, its shrinking human populace and its virgin forest, give the illusion of return to some primeval Arcadia, of recoil from a stricken present. But to its inhabitants it means desolation. For almost four centuries the Amur has been the stuff of dreams, but also of promise forever delayed. In the mid-nineteenth century, especially, there arose in Russia a grand and delusive exhilaration. Just as in the seventeenth century the Cossacks were lured south by rumours of a Daurian river valley spread with wheat and sable-filled forests, even silver and precious stones, so the accession of the initially liberal Czar Alexander II, in an empire that had been stagnating for thirty years, released a groundswell of intoxicating hope. Momentarily Russia turned her back on Europe, with its old humiliations, and found a visionary future in Siberia’s east.
Suddenly the immense but little-known Amur loomed into brilliant focus. Here would be Russia’s artery to the Pacific, a titanic waterway flowing, as if by providence, from the belly of Siberia into an ocean of infinite promise. The trading concessions wrenched from China by the British and French, the prising open of Japan, and above all the arrival of a young and vigorous America on the opposite coast, would surely transform the Pacific into an arena of world commerce. Russians had watched the American advance westward with awe. It seemed to mirror their own headlong drive across Siberia to the same ocean, and now the two countries might flourish together in a shared oceanic commonwealth. There was even heady talk, in Siberia, of a political alliance.
With Muraviev-Amursky’s seizure of the Amur from a helpless China in 1858, the vision of an eastern destiny became euphoria. The Amur, it was declared, would become Russia’s Mississippi, and Muraviev was hailed, without irony, as ‘one courageous, enterprising Yankee’. Such dreams climaxed in the energies of the American entrepreneur Perry McDonough Collins, quaintly named his country’s ‘commercial agent’ on the Amur. ‘Upon this generous river shall float navies, richer and more powerful than those of Tarshish,’ he announced, and at its mouth ‘shall rise a vast city, wherein shall congregate the merchant princes of the earth’.
Even before Muraviev’s land grab, St Petersburg was rife with reports of foreign merchant ships making for the Amur. Soon a lighthouse at De Castries was raised to guide them. A fleet of steamboats began plying the once-quiet waters. The lower river valley was declared a free trade zone. And the fulcrum of these hopes was the newly founded port of Nikolaevsk at the Amur’s mouth, which Alexander and I were approaching on the lonely Meteor. For a few years German and American trading firms went up here, housed in stout log cabins with iron and zinc roofs. A library of over four thousand books was assembled, with recent Paris and St Petersburg newspapers, happily uncensored. The officers’ club flaunted a dining hall and ballroom. Life was reported delightful. The Nikolaevsk stores were selling Havana cigars, French pâté and cognac, port and fine Japanese and Chinese furniture. Susceptible minds twinned the town with San Francisco. And Perry Collins, of course, went further, looking forward to the day when St Petersburg itself would be replicated on the Amur.
Then, within a decade, harsh realities broke in. Far from being a riverine highway, the Amur was revealed as a labyrinth of shoals, shallows and dead ends, and for seven months of the year was sealed in ice or adrift with dangerous floes. Even cargo boats of low draught might not reach Khabarovsk, let alone Sretensk. And the river mouth offered no simple access. The straits between the mainland and the obstructing island of Sakhalin made for hazardous steering, especially from the tempestuous Okhotsk Sea. Ships sank even in the estuary. As for the Amur shores, for hundreds of miles they were peopled only by a sprinkling of Cossacks, natives and subsistence farmers, many forcibly settled on poor land, and open to the floods that still ravage it. For its inhabitants, this became a cursed river: not the ‘Little Father’ of Russia’s affection, wrote a dismayed naturalist, but her ‘sickly child’. The structures of commerce that worked elsewhere – the trading houses, the shipping agents, the free zones – had been imposed upon an indifferent wilderness. In the simple, brutal realization of those most disillusioned, there was nobody to trade with and nothing to trade. Within a few years the agents and flotillas were gone, transferring first to De Castries and then to the ice-free harbour of Vladivostok.
As for Nikolaevsk, even Collins had expressed misgivings. Its waterside was so shallow that ships had to drop anchor half a mile offshore, and their cargo was transported by lighters to a swampy coast. In winter the town was blasted by Arctic blizzards and lay sometimes six feet deep in snow. Even the reports of foreign commerce were exposed as delusion. The shipping had never been significant. Within a few years Nikolaevsk became a byword for boredom, immorality and petty scandals. In its celebrated officers’ club, remarked a worldly sea captain, the newspapers were few and several months old; it compared poorly to a low German beer house. The great explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky equated the whole place with Dante’s hell.