Spies and Scholars
Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Powe
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2020, 384 pages
Book Review published on: December 17, 2021
An assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, Gregory Afinogenov weaves a fascinating narrative on the “Republic of Letters,” a self-proclaimed society of academics and intellectuals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Consisting of scholars and various categories of writers such as historians, journalists, and geographers, these individuals sought influence and authority among the global powers of the day. In Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power, Afinogenov uses disparate sources to bring to life the efforts of Jesuit missionaries, Russian political insiders, and aspiring scholars to ingratiate themselves to Peter the Great, Elizabeth I, and Catherine II of Russia through the introduction of rare knowledge about the Chinese.
Framed as a period piece on Russian intelligence-gathering efforts, the author attempts to use early published archival material to convince the reader that members from the Republic of Letters were the primary sources used by Muscovy rulers to collect secret knowledge. The introductory chapter reminds one of a literature review section of a doctoral thesis though it is not explicitly stated. Alongside the reviews of other authors’ work, Afinogenov delineates the difference between the information-collecting entities associated with the Tsardom and Russian Empire, for example, the College of Foreign Affairs and the Imperial Academy of Sciences. These descriptions are helpful and provide context for the remainder of the book as it progresses from early seventeenth century Muscovy to late nineteenth-century China.
The reader will quickly discover that intelligence is not well-defined but is used synonymously with information and its broader contextual relationship to facts on everything and anything. Once this is understood, statements such as “the most valuable secret to be gained was the recipe for Chinese porcelain” make much more sense. Although there is some military connotation applied to the term, it is clear that the focus of the work highlights efforts by Russian leadership to exploit Chinese commercial and intellectual secrets—similar to what is considered industrial espionage today.
Those unfamiliar with academics during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries may have difficulty following the narrative in the book’s beginning chapters, as names abound, originate from various locations on the Eurasian continent, and are referred to without sufficient context. This issue resolves itself as the characters continue to emerge throughout the work—one only needs a running list to track key individuals through the first seventy-five pages or so. The short appendix of “Reign Dates” lists Russian rulers and Chinese emperors but otherwise is unhelpful. The book desperately needs an index of characters or a consolidated list of who’s who. Otherwise, the book is well written. Those interested in the details of information collection during this period will find jewels of insight not available elsewhere.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Carl (Pete) Johnson, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas