Treaty of Saint Petersburg (1881)

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The Treaty of Saint Petersburg (1881), also known as Treaty of Ili, was the treaty between the Russian Empire and the Chinese Empire, signed in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on 12 (24) February 1881. It provided for the return to China of the eastern part of the Ili Basin region, also known as Zhetysu occupied by Russia in 1871 during the Dungan Revolt up to 1881.[1][2]


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In 1871, as the Chinese imperial authority in Xinjiang had collapsed due to the Dungan Revolt, Russia occupied the Ili Basin region. Chinese authority in Xinjiang was reestablished by 1877.

In 1879, the Treaty of Livadia was proposed by the Russian court, that would have allowed Russia to retain a strong presence in the region. Qing court refused to sign the Treaty, and in 1880, sent to Russia its Ambassador in Great Britain and Paris, Minister Zeng Jize, renowned as beacon of Chinese diplomacy of the era, to negotiate for more favorable conditions.

The Russian side was represented by Nicholas de Giers, head of Asiatic Affairs department of Foreign Ministry (who later in 1882 ascended to the Minister's seat), and Eugene Bützow, Russia's Ambassador in China.


According to the treaty (Article 1), Russia agreed to return most of the occupied area to China. The Chinese government agreed (Article 2) to hold the residents of the area, regardless of their ethnicity and religion, harmless for their actions during the rebellion. The residents of the area would be allowed (Article 3) to stay or to move to Russian Empire; they would be asked about their choice before the withdrawal of the Russian troops.

Under Article 6 of the treaty, Chinese government would pay Russia 9,000,000 "metal rubles" (Russian: металлических рублей; French: roubles métalliques; probably, silver roubles are meant) to serve as a payment for the occupation costs, compensation for the claims of Russian subjects who lost their property during the rebellion, and for material assistance to the families of Russian subjects killed during the rebellion.

Article 7 set the new international border in the Ili Valley. The area west of the border was retained by Russia "for the settlement of the region's residents who will choose to become Russian subjects and will have to leave the lands that they have owned" east of the new border.

The treaty also provided (Article 8) for minor adjustments of the border between the two countries in the area east of Lake Zaysan (where today East Kazakhstan Province borders on the northern part of Xinjiang's Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture).

Article 10 of the treaty allowed Russia to expand its consular network in the northwestern parts of the Chinese Empire (Xinjiang, Gansu, and Outer Mongolia). Besides the consulates in Ili City (Kulja), Tarbagatai (Chuguchak, Tacheng), Kashgar and Urga (Ulan Bator) provided for in earlier treaties (see Treaty of Kulja, 1851), Russia would also open consulates in Suzhou (Jiuquan), and Turpan. In Kobdo (Khovd), Uliasutai (Uliastai), Hami (Kumul), Urumqi, and Gucheng (Qitai), Russia would be allowed to establish consulates later on, as demanded by the volume of trade.

Article 12 affirmed the right of duty-free trade for Russian traders in Mongolia and Xinjiang. The treaty also contained various provisions designed to facilitate activities of Russian merchants and to regulate bilateral trade. An appendix to the treaty specified the list of border crossings the two countries were to operate.


The Treaty of Saint Petersburg was perceived as a huge loss and step backward by many in Russia, as Minister of War Dmitry Milyutin and the military, as notable commander Aleksei Brusilov.[3]

Several thousands Dungan (Hui) and Taranchi (Uyghur) families made use of the treaty to move to Russian-controlled territory, i.e. to today's south-eastern Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan. While some of them soon returned to China, most stayed in Russian domains, and descendents of them have lived in Kazakhstan and Northern Kyrgyzstan ever since.

The border between the two empires set by Article 7 of the treaty remains the border between Kazakhstan and China until this day.

Historians have judged the Qing dynasty's vulnerability and weakness to foreign imperialism in the 19th century to be based mainly on its maritime naval weakness while it achieved military success against westerners on land, the historian Edward L. Dreyer said that "China’s nineteenth-century humiliations were strongly related to her weakness and failure at sea. At the start of the Opium War, China had no unified navy and no sense of how vulnerable she was to attack from the sea; British forces sailed and steamed wherever they wanted to go......In the Arrow War (1856-60), the Chinese had no way to prevent the Anglo-French expedition of 1860 from sailing into the Gulf of Zhili and landing as near as possible to Beijing. Meanwhile, new but not exactly modern Chinese armies suppressed the midcentury rebellions, bluffed Russia into a peaceful settlement of disputed frontiers in Central Asia, and defeated the French forces on land in the Sino-French War (1884-85). But the defeat of the fleet, and the resulting threat to steamship traffic to Taiwan, forced China to conclude peace on unfavorable terms."[4]

The Qing dynasty forced Russia to hand over disputed territory in the Treaty of Saint Petersburg (1881), in what was widely seen by the west as a diplomatic victory for the Qing.[5] Russia acknowledged that Qing China potentially posed a serious military threat.[6] Mass media in the west during this era portrayed China as a rising military power due to its modernization programs and as a major threat to the western world, invoking fears that China would successfully conquer western colonies like Australia.[7]

The British observer Demetrius Charles de Kavanagh Boulger suggested a British-Chinese alliance to check Russian expansion in Central Asia.

During the Ili crisis when Qing China threatened to go to war against Russia over the Russian occupation of Ili, the British officer Charles George Gordon was sent to China by Britain to advise China on military options against Russia should a potential war break out between China and Russia.[8]

The Russians observed the Chinese building up their arsenal of modern weapons during the Ili crisis, the Chinese bought thousands of rifles from Germany.[9] In 1880 massive amounts of military equipment and rifles were shipped via boats to China from Antwerp as China purchased torpedoes, artillery, and 260,260 modern rifles from Europe.[10]

The Russian military observer D. V. Putiatia visited China in 1888 and found that in Northeastern China (Manchuria) along the Chinese-Russian border,the Chinese soldiers were potentially able to become adept at "European tactics" under certain circumstances, and the Chinese soldiers were armed with modern weapons like Krupp artillery, Winchester carbines, and Mauser rifles.[11]

Compared to Russian controlled areas, more benefits were given to the Muslim Kirghiz on the Chinese controlled areas. Russian settlers fought against the Muslim nomadic Kirghiz, which led the Russians to believe that the Kirghiz would be a liability in any conflict against China. The Muslim Kirghiz were sure that in an upcoming war, that China would defeat Russia.[12]

Russian sinologists, the Russian media, threat of internal rebellion, the pariah status inflicted by the Congress of Berlin, the negative state of the Russian economy all led Russia to concede and negotiate with China in St Petersburg, and return most of Ili to China.[13]

See also



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  3. РУССКО-КИТАЙСКИЕ ПЕРЕГОВОРЫ О ВОЗВРАЩЕНИИ КУЛЬДЖИ. ЛИВАДИЙСКИЙ (1879) и ПЕТЕРБУРГСКИЙ (1881) ДОГОВОРЫ \\ в кн. Моисеев В.А. Россия и Китай в Центральной Азии (вторая половина XIX в. - 1917 г.). - Барнаул: АзБука, 2003. - 346 с. ISBN 5-93957-025-9 стр 199
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