Smarty Pants Podcast

The Intelligence Gatherers

The secret history of how Imperial Russia kept an eye on its Chinese neighbor

By Stephanie Bastek | May 6, 2022

Russia and China recently agreed to be partners “without limits,” but from the 17th to the 19th century, their relationship wasn’t so warm. As Georgetown historian Gregory Afinogenov writes in his recent book, Spies and Scholars, pencil-pushing Russian bureaucrats posted in China or along the border doubled as spies. These career apparatchiks succeeded at gathering intelligence on the Qing dynasty from their quotidian positions at diplomatic offices, religious missions, and frontier outposts, though they never seemed to get much credit for their work. The irony is that while the intelligence they shared bought Russia greater prestige among European powers, these encounters with European ideals of intellectualism also radically changed what kind of “intelligence” was considered worthwhile. This episode originally aired in 2020.

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