Don’t Call Them Twin Cities

Where Russia Meets China: Part 2 of a 5-part series in cooperation with Slate.

Photo by Joshua Kucera
Photo by Joshua Kucera

BLAGOVESHCHENSK, Russia — Across the Amur River, which forms the border between Russia and China, the city of Heihe gleams. The brand-new Yuan Dun shopping center juts into the water, its name written in Cyrillic letters large enough to be seen the half-mile across the river. At night, the Vegas-like lights of Heihe’s downtown reflect in the river, and a spotlight makes circles in the sky, like a car dealership trying to draw customers.

Among Russians in Blagoveshchensk, a two-day train ride east of Irkutsk, the sight of Heihe across the water is a source of both admiration and defensiveness. During my time here I was told over and over that although Heihe looks impressive from a distance, up close the city can be dirty and chaotic. Others mentioned that that the central government in Beijing lavishes extra attention on Heihe — other cities of its size don’t have those bright lights — because it’s on the border. Russians have seen this sort of thing before: "It’s a Potemkin village," said Mikhail Kukharenko, the Russian head of the Chinese-government-run Confucius Institute in Blagoveshchensk.

At the same time, Russians love Heihe. Several ferries a day carry over tourists and shoppers looking for cheap Chinese electronics and clothes, and so many people made their livelihood in the "suitcase trade" — buying cheap things in China to sell for a profit in Russia-that Blagoveshchensk’s downtown has a monument to the traders, complete with an inscription that reads, "For the hard work and optimism of the entrepreneurs of the Amur," referring to the region that includes Blagoveshchensk.

For most of the last century, this border was closed. In 1969, the Soviet Union and China even fought a battle over a disputed island farther downstream. Hundreds of soldiers died.

But it reopened in 1989, and the fact that ordinary Russians and Chinese could cross the border freely added a new wrinkle to the already complex relationship between the two powers. In particular, Russians were forced to confront an uncomfortable demographic fact: This part of their country was strategically important, badly underpopulated, and right next to a China bursting at the seams.

The Russian Far East, the eastern edge of Siberia that borders China and the Pacific Ocean, has only 6 million people, and that number is dropping fast. Just across the border, though, the three provinces of northeastern China have about 110 million people. Meanwhile, the Russian Far East has substantial reserves of oil, natural gas, and coal, which China needs to run its supercharged economy.

All that has led many Russians to fear that China will eventually exert control over the region. "[I]f we do not step up the level of activity of our work [in the Russian Far East], then in the final analysis we can lose everything," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last year. Kukharenko of the Confucius Institute spelled it out for me: "It’s a law of physics, a vacuum has to be filled," he said. "If there are no Russian people here, there will be Chinese people."

That’s why Russia has serious misgivings about its neighbors to the south, as a trip along the border makes plain. While Beijing has moved aggressively to court Russian visitors and business, Russia’s central government has largely neglected the areas that act as the gateway to China. The few new buildings in Blagoveshchensk — some shopping centers and a high-rise hotel — were built by a Chinese company.

While Blagoveshchensk is relatively prosperous, at least by the standards of Russian cities of its size, Heihe has positively boomed. It was just a village in 1989, and now it has 200,000 people, about the same as Blagoveshchensk. And in contrast to Heihe’s glitzy, welcoming facade, Blagoveshchensk’s barely lighted waterfront promenade features a Soviet-era World War II memorial that consists of a gunship with its barrels aimed across the river, toward China.

In one telling episode, in 2007, in an apparent attempt to play up its Russian connection and appeal to tourists, Heihe placed garbage cans that were designed to look like Russian matryoshka dolls around the city. Some excessively sensitive Russians saw this as an insult-Russian culture was trash. The mini-scandal made national TV news in Russia, and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested. So Heihe’s government painted the trash cans over. (I later saw panda-shaped trash cans in another Chinese city, which suggests that the matryoshkas were, in fact, a friendly gesture.) In Blagoveshchensk, meanwhile, a new government-run cultural center was originally named Albazin, after the fort built by early Russian settlers to defend the territory from China, until local historians petitioned the government to change it, saying the name was unnecessarily provocative.

In several small ways, the Russian government has made it difficult for Russians and Chinese to interact. Heihe has street signs in Russian, but there is almost no Chinese to be seen in Blagoveshchensk. While Russians can cross into Heihe visa-free for a short visit, Chinese can’t do the same to Blagoveshchensk. The local government gave the license to operate ferries that cross the river to a politically connected local monopoly, which charges more than $40 for the 10-minute ride. (Chinese visiting Russia use a different company, which charges much less.) China has offered to pay for a bridge between the two cities, but the Russian side has dragged its feet for years, said Yevgeny Kuzmin, a local journalist. "It’s always the Chinese side that takes the initiative," he said.

The Russian government recently made the suitcase trade much more difficult by reducing the amount of clothes, electronics, and other consumer goods that Russians can bring back into the country duty-free and the frequency with which they can take such trips. One city official, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, said that while Heihe’s government is promoting the idea of Heihe and Blagoveshchensk as "twin cities," Blagoveshchensk’s government is balking. "Heihe is always pushing this relationship more," she said. "They get a lot of money from the central government, so they have lots of proposals and ideas for programs, but we don’t have the money for that."

The central government has given Blagoveshchensk funds for one thing, though: a new waterfront. Moscow has committed about $200 million for a five-year program to create a completely new waterfront facade for the city, a spokeswoman for the city told me. The plan will entail dumping sand into the river to add nearly 100 acres of prime riverfront real estate and then building brand-new high-rises along the new shore.

I asked if the new plan called for lights as impressive as Heihe’s. "We’ll do our best," she said with a smile. But the World War II memorial, with the gun pointed at China? It’s staying.

Joshua Kucera is the Caucasus editor of Eurasianet, based in Tbilisi.