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Spies and Scholars

Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power

Gregory Afinogenov

ISBN 9780674294035

Publication date: 12/12/2023

A Financial Times Book of the Year
Gold Medal in World History, Independent Publisher Book Awards

“Superb…At once a history of science, of empire, and of espionage, the book traces the rise of the Russian empire as a putative rival to Qing dynasty China in the Far East. Afinogenov has chosen a genuinely compelling cast of characters to populate this story of imperial intrigue.”—New Rambler

“The history of Sino-Russian relations appears in a much-altered light thanks to Gregory Afinogenov’s impressive new book…It is a little-known story, and [he] tells it beautifully.”—Tony Barber, Financial Times

“Reads like a detective novel…a tour de force that offers new information about the rise of empires and the globalization of the world.”—Journal of Jesuit Studies

Beginning in the seventeenth century, Russian officials made a concerted effort to collect information about the Qing dynasty in China. From diplomatic missions in the Forbidden City to remote outposts on the border, Russian spies and scholars collected trade secrets, recipes for porcelain, and gossip about the country and its leaders—but the information was secret, not destined for wide circulation.

Focused at first on the Siberian frontier, tsarist bureaucrats relied on spies, some of whom were Jesuit scholars stationed in China. When their attention shifted to Europe in the nineteenth century, they turned to more public-facing means to generate knowledge, including diplomatic and academic worlds, which would ultimately inform the broader encounter between China and Western empires. Peopled with a colorful cast of characters and based on extensive archival research in Russia and beyond, Spies and Scholars is a dramatic tale of covert machinations that breaks down long-accepted assumptions about the connection between knowledge and imperial power.


  • The history of Sino-Russian relations appears in a much-altered light thanks to Gregory Afinogenov’s impressive new book. From the mid-17th century, the Tsarist empire outdid all other European powers in gathering political, industrial, and commercial intelligence about China under the Qing dynasty. It is a little-known story, and the Georgetown University scholar tells it beautifully.

    —Tony Barber, Financial Times


  • 2021, Joint winner of the W. Bruce Lincoln Book Prize
  • 2019, Joint winner of the Thomas J. Wilson Prize
  • 2021, Joint winner of the Independent Publisher Book Awards


  • Gregory Afinogenov is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University and Editor at Kritika, the leading journal of Russian and Eurasian history. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Nation, London Review of Books, and n+1.

Book Details

  • 384 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press