Philip Snow’s work, “China and Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord,” diverges from recent historical tendencies that either seek “relevance” or adopt an exhaustive focus on specific characteristics of the Sino-Russian relationship.

The distinctive strength of Snow’s book lies in its meticulous attention to detail, offering a wealth of information spanning countless of subjects.

The narrative includes not only battles and political maneuvers but also investigates into diverse areas such as Russian attempts to replicate Chinese porcelain, the emergence of a Sino-Russia dialect along the border, and the nuances of Chinese and Russian proverbs.

Snow’s journey in crafting this work can be traced back to his academic roots, specifically to a paper titled “Sino-Russian Relations from 1644 to the Present” which was initially presented during his final exams at Oxford in the mid-1970s. Rooted in a unique background, marked by visits to Russia alongside his parents, the renowned novelists CP Snow and Pamela Hansford Johnson, Snow’s perspective gains a different dimension. These visits, arranged through the Soviet Writers’ Union, allowed him to engage with a diverse spectrum of Soviet literary figures, offering insights into the complexities of Soviet society.

Furthermore, Snow’s professional trajectory, including his role in the Sino-British Trade Council during the late 1970s, provided him with a front-row seat to witness China’s transformative journey. Facilitating Chinese technical study groups across the United Kingdom and aiding British trade missions in remote regions of China, Snow became intimately acquainted with China’s emergence from isolation and its initial ascent to power and wealth.

The amalgamation of Snow’s academic background, familial connections, and hands-on experiences in both Russia and China forms a multifaceted tapestry that undoubtedly shapes the depth and nuance of his exploration of Sino-Russian relations within the pages of this book.

Drawing on sources in Chinese, Russian and English, Snow gives a detailed and well-paced analysis of a contentious yet important geopolitical relationship. There is considerable scientific literature on this issue, and the author smartly puts his contribution as a narrative synthesis that aims “to take a panoramic view of the entire four centuries of Sino-Russian contact and to tease out any patterns which might emerge from that vista”.

The main pattern that develops is a perpetual cycle of collaboration and conflict. Since the late 17th century, when Russian Cossacks first encountered the Qing Empire in the river valleys of Outer Manchuria, the relationship between Eurasia’s two largest states has resembled the incessant movement of a concertina, drawn together by shared interests and pushed apart by inter-imperial rivalry.

At the start of the book, Snow examines Sino-Russian connections back to the 1600s caravan trade and delves into the territorial push and pull between tsarist Russia and Qing dynasty China in the 1800s border areas of Manchuria, Outer Mongolia, and Xinjiang. Moreover, Snow delves into how at the end of the 19th century, Russia began to modernise and Westernise, as China became the primary interest for the imperial and colonial struggle between European empires.

This era also witnessed significant growth in Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia and the Pacific area, putting the Russians in control of enormous regions that were previously under Chinese authority. Following a disastrous war with Japan and the devastation of World War I, the fall of the Romanov dynasty in the communist revolution marked the start of a critical new phase in the Sino-Russian relationship, with an increasingly dominant Russian Communist Party taking an active interest in Chinese affairs. Snow recounts how in the 1920s, the Soviets micromanaged the rise of China’s first political parties, the Nationalists and the Communists, and encouraged them to cooperate..

Although many people are familiar with the Sino-Soviet schism that began in the 1960s and provided the United States with the opportunity to begin its complicated relationship with communist China following decades of diplomatic hostility-with Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the author provides a compelling narrative demonstrating that the relationship between the two communist powers was brittle for decades before then.

During the decade before the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Stalin, ever the chess master, played off the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong and the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek against each other to maintain Soviet interests in the country, not completely supporting the communists until the end of World War II. The Korean War deepened these tensions as the Soviets pressured the Chinese to save their North Korean clients after the U.S. intervened in the war but did not initially give the material and air support the Chinese felt Stalin should provide.

As the Cold War progressed, the author convincingly demonstrated that the US’ conception of a monolithic global communist bloc was far different from the testy relationship between the two countries, notably after Stalin’s death and throughout Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.

The concluding chapters on the present Sino-Russian relationship depict a strengthening strategic relationship that has now clearly shifted in China’s favour. The unsuccessful Westernization of Russia following the fall of communism, in contrast to China’s putative communist oligarchy managing the world’s fastest-growing economy during most of the 1980s and 1990s, has positioned China as the more dominant partner.

Embracing a longer durée lens and influenced by the Annales School, Snow’s approach allows for a comprehensive understanding of historical phenomena by extending the temporal horizon beyond conventional short-term perspectives to millennia and centuries. In doing so, Snow eschews simplistic narratives, opting instead for a nuanced exploration that captures the underlying continuities, transformations, and patterns shaping Sino-Russian relations over centuries offering a unique perspective on the Sino-Russian relations despite more than 1200 books that can be found in the Sino-Russian relations in the US Library of Congress.

But the book has certain obvious deficiencies and mistakes such as when Snow tells about the historical incident during the Sino-Soviet conflict in 1969, focusing on alleged communications between American diplomat Henry Kissinger and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. According to the account, Kissinger purportedly warned Dobrynin that the US would retaliate with a missile strike on Soviet cities if the USSR attacked China. However, the source of this claim is Mark O’Neill, a journalist who published the allegations without providing substantial evidence. Despite the lack of credible sources or archival evidence, Snow uses this as the only source of this meeting which is circumspect at best.

In another instance Snow’s argument regarding Beijing’s lingering concerns about Russia even after the normalisation of Sino-Soviet relations in 1989. Snow cites a Western academic’s observation in 1996 of Chinese missiles in Qinghai province seemingly pointed towards Russia, suggesting continued apprehensions. However, it raises scepticism about how missiles that are typically launched vertically, can be pointed towards USSR. Additionally, the timeline is also questionable, as Google Earth was not launched until 2001, casting doubt on the methodology used to reach this conclusion. Therefore, while the claim underscores enduring tensions, which was largely true, it prompts a need for further clarification on the evidence and methodology employed in making such assertions.

The book is resplendent with numerous anecdotes and historical quips that can further augment the understanding of Sino-Russian relations, one never feels that the book is objective in its entirety.

Nothing can be but one can easily feel that this book is written for a Western audience with Western sensibilities. His commentary about Tiananmen Square and the depiction of Mikhail Gorbachev is emblematic of how the West sees the world, discounting indigenous viewpoints.

It would have been even better for the book and the readers alike if the author had left his rose-tinted glasses of Orientalism and been more critical of the usual Western discourse set around the Sino-Russian relationship

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