Espionage at the Edge of Empire


Review of Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power by Gregory Afinogenov 

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020


In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was commonplace to imagine a scientist as a lone toiler in a space of solitary reflection: Darwin on his walks on the grounds of Down House, say, or Caroline Herschel at her late night vigils beside her telescope. This changed, decisively, with the advent of “Big Science” in the early twentieth century. Historians began to re-envision science as an inherently collective endeavor, the work of teams, corporations, or states. “Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team,” Vannevar Bush declared in his influential 1945 report Science: The Endless Frontier.

But it was not until the last few decades that historians of science widened their view yet further, from studying a supposedly discrete domain known as “science”—be it collective or individual—to thinking about how knowledge as a whole is collectively created, circulated, and transformed. Historians now speak of “knowledge making,” “knowledge regimes,” and “knowledge in transit.” 

Gregory Afinogenov’s Spies and Scholars is a superb new entry in this body of work. At once a history of science, of empire, and of espionage, the book traces the rise of the Russian empire as a putative rival to Qing dynasty China in the Far East. 

Afinogenov has chosen a genuinely compelling cast of characters to populate this story of imperial intrigue. The book’s Jesuit missionaries, spies, caravan merchants, linguists, and trade emissaries are propelled to Russia’s eastern frontier by different motives, but they tend to face a common set of challenges: misinformation, cultural misunderstandings, alcoholism, and institutional inertia. Afinogenov tells their stories with sensitivity, wit, and a keen attention to the human elements of a story that, in other hands, could become vast and impersonal.

Several of the individual portraits in Spies and Scholars are so vivid that they read, at times, like extracts from stories by Gogol or Lermontov, darkly comic and imbued with a sneaky pathos. Take, for instance, what Afinogenov calls “the catastrophe” of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in eighteenth-century Beijing. The Russian staffers of the mission, Afinogenov writes, were “chosen involuntarily and haphazardly with a few months’ notice and in almost all cases dreamed of nothing more than to be allowed to return” to Russia (73). They lived in poverty, they “stewed in utter social isolation,” and “moreover, they were constantly drunk, a fact noted not only by hostile observers but by the missionaries themselves” (73). The diary of one missionary records such happenings as when two fellow missionaries, Larion and Feodot, “were disgustingly drunk and Larion bit Feodot’s hand,” or when “Iosaf the deacon…dragged my beard while the priest Ivan choked me.” Later, according to our forlorn diarist, the same priest “came to my cell and pissed in my tea” (75). 

Not all was infighting, failure, and tea-pissing, however. Afinogenov excels at linking the individual human stories of these imperial agents to a larger geopolitical backdrop of Russia’s attempted rise to great power status. Those squabbling missionaries, he writes, eventually set about “improving their position in Beijing, even if one of the monks did ‘walk around at night with a pair of loaded pistols’” (81). It’s an apt image for a book that frequently concerns itself with the boundary between the power conferred by knowledge—in this case, scholarly erudition and religious authority—and the power conferred by the threat of implicit force. 

For it is not just Afinogenov’s Russian monk in Beijing who enters the story packing heat. Afinogenov’s spies and scholars are also servants of an expansionist imperial state. Though a relatively weak and uncertain empire, it was one that did not shy away from projecting power on a vast scale. 

At the edge of that state’s reach, however, such physical displays of power were not always successful, or visible. One thread running through Spies and Scholars reflects the ongoing historiographic interest in the interconnections between what some have called the “gunpowder empires” of early modern Eurasia: Qing China, the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, and Safavid Persia. Multilingual stories of knowledge in motion across these states have inspired important work by scholars including Christopher Bayly (Empire and Information; The Birth of the Modern World) Kris Lane (Colour of Paradise), Maya Jasanoff (Edge of Empire), Ananya Chakravarti (The Empire of Apostles), and Carla Nappi (The Monkey and the Inkpot). Spies and Scholars takes its rightful place on the shelf alongside these distinguished books. 

Afinogenov’s study also offers a striking contrast to the simplistic “guns, germs and steel” narratives of pop history, which all too often assume the inevitability of European imperial power in the early modern period. In fact, it was not at all clear in the seventeenth or even the eighteenth century that European armies and technologies would prevail over those of the Ottomans, Mughals, Safavids or Qing. In the Jahangirnama (1624), the autobiographical chronicle of the reign of the seventeenth-century Mughal emperor Jahangir, Europeans are barely mentioned, despite the Portuguese colony in Goa and the mounting ambitions of the English East India Company. The most prominent appearance of Europeans in the Jahangirnama, in fact, is merely as shadowy go-betweens for a genuine object of Jahangir’s attention: a turkey from the New World, gifted to him by the Portuguese viceroy, on which the emperor bestowed a place of honor in his menagerie (Jahangir was hopeful that it might mate with one of his peacocks). Meanwhile, emissaries of the East India Company such as Sir Thomas Roe filled hundreds of pages with anxious notes on their failure to impress the magnate. The consensus was that European manufactured products were inferior to those of India, though Roe did note that he successfully gave Jahangir “many crates of wine” and explained to him “what beere was.”

Afinogenov’s book adds a fascinating new dimension to this tragicomic tale of Eurasian empires and European mercantile and imperial ambition, showing that the espionage, brinksmanship and knowledge making playing out in the maritime worlds of the Indian Ocean and Pacific worlds paralleled those of the caravan routes and frontier settlements that connected eastern Russia and western China. 

The prospect of Thomas Roe explaining the manufacture of British ale to the Mughal emperor—and of the vodka-swilling, beard-pulling priests and monks of the evangelical mission—points to another interesting sub-narrative running through the book. For Spies and Scholars is also a history of the role played by intoxication and intoxicating substances in the games of empire, especially in the intelligence sphere. At times, the reports of Russians tasked with industrial espionage in Qing China sound like they could have been reproduced verbatim from the alcohol-fueled dispatches of Cold War spies. “He seems to be an intelligent man and no drunk,” says one Russian official seeking the secrets of Chinese porcelain. Later, “the graduates of the porcelain project” are seen hatching “yet another industrial espionage project”: attaining the secrets of “Qing alcohol distillation techniques” (118). 

The stakes of the story told by Afinogenov are considerable. His spies and scholars seek knowledge with a highly pragmatic and enormously ambitious goal: “not to showcase Russia’s splendor to Western Europeans but to facilitate its control over Siberia and the enrichment of the Muscovite state” (257). Moreover, he argues that Russia’s eastern frontier with Asia—the “first part of the universe” as one Russian traveler put it—played a key role not just in the assertion of the Russian imperial state’s newly global ambitions, but in the construction of a larger European vision of China and “the East.” This would have far-reaching influences, helping shape Orientalist academic studies of Asian empires that continued to influence imperialist projects throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  

Afinogenov’s book is especially rich when placed in dialogue with other work on the history of “global thinking” and cosmopolitanism in the same period, but in different places. There are numerous interesting points of connection, for instance, between Spies and Scholars and recent scholarship associated with the Mapping the Republic of Letters and Natural Things projects at Stanford, including works in progress by Mackenzie Cooley, Duygu Yildirim, Alexander Statman, and Elaine Ayers. 

Spies and Scholars also joins a lively body of work that maps long-neglected pathways of cross-cultural knowledge in the early modern Atlantic world, including Pablo Gomez (The Experiential Caribbean), Daniela Bleichmar (Visible Empire), and Christopher Heaney’s forthcoming Empires of the Dead. Finally, the book explores an especially rich and understudied chapter in the history of the Society of Jesus. Liam Brockey’s epic work of history about the Portuguese-dominated Jesuit missions in Asia, Journey to the East (2009), is enriched by Afinogenov’s reminder that parallel stories were taking place beyond the maritime worlds of Macau, Goa, and the Philippines, in the frontier stations of the Russia-China border.  

Spies and Scholars is, above all, a story of frustrated ambitions and miscalculations. By the late eighteenth century, Afinogenov notes, “it had become clear” to Russian rivals of the Qing state “that knowledge was no substitute for power” (259). But Afinogenov nicely shows how these failures were not a historical dead-end. “The apparent failure of intelligence to give Russia a decisive advantage in Inner Asia,” he writes, “accelerated the consolidation of a new politics of knowledge” that “encouraged Russian elites to see their relationship with China in global terms” (259). Russia became a player in the Great Game, a global power sustained, in large part, not by the force of arms but by intelligence: sources of knowledge that relied on secrecy and covert action rather than overt military might.

As for the book’s connections to the present? There’s the obvious, of course: this is, after all, a book about the rise of Russia and China as geopolitical powers, aided in part by espionage and spycraft. But leaving aside facile contemporary comparisons, the book’s greatest asset—the sensitivity and thoughtfulness it displays in treatment of characters who might devolve into caricature in less skillful hands—suggests a range of other, subtler connections to the present. Spies and Scholars, is, in part, a study of a rigidly hierarchical academic system. The book’s portrayal of a world in which translation and translators are underpaid and under-recognized relative to their peers will certainly look familiar to some. So, too, will its keen attention to the conflict between the inertia of institutional cultures centered on a nationalist ethos and those which embrace boundary-crossing, both disciplinary and geographic. 

One fantastic example of the latter is the book itself. Spies and Scholars is a vividly-written, entertaining, and skillfully researched history of information in motion. It should be read by anyone interested in early modern trade, translation, espionage, and the circuitous, surprising, and often frustrating ways that knowledge traveled along and across the edges of empire.



Posted on 3 December 2020

BENJAMIN BREEN is Associate Professor of History at UC Santa Cruz. He is interested in the history of globalization, science, drugs, and the long-term impacts of technological change. He is the author of The Age of Intoxication (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).