Not Exactly The Silk Road


The pioneers of Asia were often military officers – this area was part of the sphere of Russia's economic and geopolitical interests. It was they who established the first contacts with representatives of an unusual for us culture, drew topographic maps, gathered meteorological data and biological collections. And sometimes they faced fighting where it was not expected at all.

Economics and politics

China in the second half of the 19th century was a very important destination for Russia. At that time, relations with Great Britain noticeably worsened, both countries were successfully exploring Asia and conducting reconnaissance in China in case of a possible war since their interests could clash on its territory. In addition, after the Russian-Turkish War, our country's economy weakened, and Russia was looking for new markets and trading partners. China looked quite promising in this regard.

In 1874-1875, an expedition led by Julian Sosnovsky went there. It was unique in its way: for the first time, information about a trip to a little-explored Asian country was not classified, and its results were widely published both in Russia and abroad. The assignment for the trip was issued by the Asian Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"1. To examine topographically the road from Zaisan, through Southwestern Mongolia, to Sichuan province and indicate under what circumstances and by what means it can be used for our trade.

2. You must have instructions from the Ministry of Finance on trade requirements. If trade in Southwestern Mongolia presents the makings for further development, then consulates will probably need to be established there to maintain it. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will expect you to consider in which places it is more useful to establish consulates, where you can limit yourself to an agency.

3. Our trade in Mongolia is suffering, as you know, from the unrest caused by the Dungan Revolt there. You will pay special attention to this movement and collect as much detailed and accurate information as possible about the means that the Chinese government has at its disposal to suppress it, and, finally, about the degree of sympathy for it among the inhabitants of the localities that you will visit. It would be extremely important for us to be able to determine the future political fate of these areas."

Julian Sosnovsky "Russian scientific and trade expedition to China in 1874-1875"

The expedition of 1874 was not the first one led by Julian Sosnovsky. He had already managed to reconnoiter a section of the Russian-Chinese border in the Semipalatinsk area in 1871 and found out a lot of military statistical information in the valley of the Black Irtysh River in 1872. The collected data turned out to be so valuable that the officer was awarded the silver medal of the IRGS.

This time he had to collect a lot of data, not only military, but also geographical and economic. In his book, written based on the results of the expedition, Sosnovsky mentions "a whole series of questions received from the Ministry of Finance about tea, tea plantations, our factory products in Chinese markets, about ways and methods of delivery." It was necessary to get detailed information about the Dungan Revolt, "its organization, strength, degree of survivability, about the military methods and means of the warring parties in the theater of operations."

In addition, it was necessary to collect the most detailed information about the topography, ethnography, meteorology, and biology of China. The head of the expedition had already set himself this task: "well aware that cases of repeated expeditions are not frequent. Naturally, I wanted to expand the scope of research, so to speak along the way, to get something for science in the sense of universal human knowledge." He learned how to make astronomical magnetic observations for which he practiced "at the main physical observatory", and in addition, he thoughtfully approached the selection of the expedition members.

Valuable personnel

First of all, a cartographer was needed. For this position was chosen Zinovy Matusovsky who has repeatedly been on Asian expeditions. In April 1870, he explored trade routes to settlements in Northwestern Mongolia, and in 1871, the upper reaches and valley of the Emil River in the Ili Region. In addition, Matusovsky understood the tasks of the trip well.

"This state of affairs is important for Russia as a neighboring country stretching along China for more than 8,000 versts; the long-standing political and trade relations between these states should naturally, with a new direction in the life of the Chinese people, receive great development and eventually take precedence in the field of international relations. Therefore, it is especially important for us Russians to know this country thoroughly and it is extremely interesting to follow the events taking place in it. Meanwhile, our lack of general geographical descriptions of China and satisfactory maps of the southern half of this country is a very significant disadvantage to meet the very first needs of the above-mentioned goal."

Zinovy Matusovsky "Geographical survey of the Chinese Empire"

Sosnovsky was also looking for a naturalist, "mainly a geologist." Here he had problems, as the head of the expedition himself recalled: "Some fairly set me monetary conditions there that were beyond what I could manage, others, like N. A. Severtsov, were preparing for his expedition to the Tien Shan." As a result, Dr. Pavel Piasetsky went to China. He was recommended by a certain high-ranking person.

Piasetsky was a physician, "understood how to collect herbs and make stuffed animals," and besides, he was able to draw well. Offering to accept him as part of the expedition, Sosnovsky in an official presentation specifically pointed out that "a medic could collect detailed information about medicinal herbs, such as rhubarb which not so long ago was a prominent item of exchange with Kyakhta. Moreover, he could provide assistance to the local population, if necessary, which would greatly contribute to the establishment of good relations and facilitate, perhaps, many activities. In a commercial and even political sense."


A river in China, Piasetsky Pavel Yakovlevich. Photo:
A river in China, Piasetsky Pavel Yakovlevich. Photo:

The doctor's artistic abilities were a plus, but not too important – Sosnovsky considered that a photograph, "gray, lifeless, and mute but authentic," would be able to capture the information more accurately. That’s how photographer Adolf Boyarsky, whose work caused a lot of excitement among the locals, became part of the expedition.

"For example, it was a great difficulty for the expedition photographer to explain to the Mongols that during photographing they should stand or sit on horses without moving. There was a lot of shouting about this that was not doing anyone any good: they could not explain to the Mongols, who had no idea about photography, in any way what they wanted from them: ‘Well, sit still, still, not moving,’ says the translator. ‘Sayn bayna (‘Okay’),’  the Mongols, who apparently understood, nod their heads affirmatively. They're sitting. The photographer has prepared the glass, opened the camera and counts the moment of action of the light. Suddenly one of the posing gets up and goes to look at the lens, what is happening there..."

 Pavel Piasetsky "A journey through China in 1874-1875."

It was especially difficult to find an interpreter who had to speak Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese. He was found in Omsk, where he was recommended by the translator of the main directorate: "I was informed that Andrievsky knows the Mongolian language well, knows Chinese, and personally comes from the trading class. It seems that's all that was needed," Sosnovsky recalled. However, as it turned out, he did not know Chinese very well, so the head of the expedition also hired Xu, who was pointed out to him by merchants interested in the results of the expedition in Kyakhta. The latter also provided samples of their goods and donated 3,000 rubles for the needs of the researchers which was a serious help to the existing budget.

The results of the expedition – unfortunate and not so much

Alas, a thoughtful approach to the selection of companions did not save the expedition participants from misunderstandings. During the trip, a conflict arose between Sosnovsky and Piasetsky which, upon their return, grew into a turbulent dispute in the press. The doctor accused the head of not paying enough attention to scientific research, the latter gave reports on the work done in defense. At the same time, Piasetsky behaved much more actively and aggressively, Sosnovsky defended without much enthusiasm. Some researchers believe that the officer could also have a secret mission related to intelligence activities which he could not talk about, no matter how successfully the task was completed.

The situation eventually cost both their careers. Sosnovsky, who had already reached the rank of major general, resigned "for family reasons." Piasetsky, despite his high patronage, was refused to organize his own expedition to China. The English press belittled the results of the trip with might and main to which, in particular, the doctor referred to in his claims. However, if you look at it objectively, they were unfair. Sosnovsky did everything that he was instructed. He presented a detailed account of the Dungan Revolt. The expedition opened a new way to China 2,000 versts long, that is, about 2,133 km shorter than the previous one. And it didn't stop there.

"In conclusion, for the sake of completeness of the report, we will present, at least in the form of a simple list, the results of the expedition's research in other respects.

1) Zoological and botanical collections collected by Dr. Piasetsky, and a huge number of his watercolor drawings of undisputed scientific interest.

2) Photos and other works by Staff Captain Matusovsky, important from a cartographic point of view, such as: the route of the entire path from Hankou on a five-verst scale with a topographic description of the area, city plans, etc., a continuous series of heights observed at each crossing by an aneroid and a thermobarometer, and a complete table of temperatures observed daily.

3) The astronomical definitions made give the latitude and longitude difference of twelve points, and although the calculations have not yet been completed, there is reason to think that serious corrections of maps will have to be made in places.

4) Full magnetic observations were made at twelve points.

5) Reproduced by photographer G. Boyarsky, more than 300 images of individual types and species which, together with a systematic catalog, can be of considerable help in studying everyday and other features of the country.

6) Models, samples of commercial and industrial activities, books, paintings, and similar material covering various aspects of the life of the people."

Julian Sosnovsky "Russian scientific and trade expedition to China in 1874-1875"

Whatever the differences of the expedition participants, in the end it turned out to be very, very productive. And almost every participant has published at least one book about China, introducing this exotic country to a wide audience. As a result, Julian Sosnovsky was accepted as a member of the Russian Geographical Society, and was also awarded the Order of St. Stanislaus 2nd degree and a lifetime pension of 600 rubles per year.

Olga Ladygina