Daily Archives: 1 November 2021

Fate of Chinese Cossacks

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 103-104:

I turn back to where the museum [in Albazino] dreamed by Agrippina Doroskova stands among fallen leaves. In its grounds are a reconstructed Cossack farmstead, a Cossack chapel, a flour mill and a cosy izba, with a child’s cot and toys, a samovar and pretty pictures, evoking a life from which all brutality and dirt have been airbrushed. But inside, the museum becomes an anthem to Cossack heroism. Its entrance blazes with a violent and romantic picture of the siege during some imaginary last day, in which the hirsute warriors, with their Madonna’s icon held aloft, battle like gods under the flaming turrets of their doomed fort. In nearby showcases lie the leftovers of their war and burial: a scorched powder-horn, an axe head, some shredded belts, many little pectoral crosses, and the half-rotted plaits from the tight-bound hair of their women.

The curator is proud and solicitous. I am alone here – her first Westerner in months – but I am making obscure requests. From her archives she finds a snapshot of Chinese visitors: six businessmen whose wives are cowled in Orthodox headscarves. They have Russian names, and one is holding an icon. Yet they look entirely Chinese. They are the descendants of Cossack defectors at the time of the siege, the curator says; they opted to join the Manchus rather than go back home. Why they did so is unsure. Perhaps they feared reprisal for crimes, or wanted to keep the native wives who might have been denied them in Russia.

The return of these ‘Peking Albazinians’ – their yearning for some long-past belonging – touches the curator with confusion. Some of their ancestors were prisoners, but most had deserted. They may have numbered a hundred or more. In Peking they became the nucleus of a separate company in the Imperial Bodyguard. They lived in the old city near the Eastern Gate, and were given female criminals to marry. They had a Russian priest and consecrated their own church, once a Lamaist temple, which they furnished with salvaged icons. With time and intermarriage, they lost their Russian looks and language. Travellers described them as godless drunkards. Yet the memory of their origins lingered. Their church transformed into an Orthodox mission that lasted into the twentieth century – as late as the 1920s it held Albazinian nuns – until other pieties – Bolshevism, Maoism – swept it away. Then the church became the garage of the Soviet embassy, before reverting to a tiny congregation.

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