At the time, undocumented Chinese workers flooded into Russia because the Russians were paying higher wages. The Chinese marveled at the standard of living of their neighbors, who owned TV sets and hairdryers and those large white boxes that were as cold inside in the summer as it was outside in the winter. Many of the migrant workers were from the poor villages of northern China and had never seen a refrigerator.
Sergeyeva's bus comes to a stop in no-man's-land. The Chinese customs building, a massive archway made of granite, steel and glass, lies ahead of the travelers. The much smaller structure behind them is the Russian customs building.
The contrast between the two buildings reflects the new pecking order. Sixty years ago, Moscow was still the biggest provider of foreign aid to the People's Republic. Now China is not only investing billions in Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which lie in Russia's backyard, it is also making inroads in the Belarus of Alexander Lukashenko.
Beijing, mindful of keeping up appearances, emphasizes the fraternal cooperation between the two countries. But in Chinese, the term brother is a strictly hierarchical concept. There is a word for an older brother, "gege," who must accept a subordinate role to a younger brother, or "didi." The days when Beijing was willing to play second fiddle are long gone.
The Russian imperial double-headed eagle is resplendent on top of the aging Russian customs building, gazing proudly to both the East and the West. But Russia's national coat of arms is also a manifestation of an eternal state of indecision.
Fear of Being Co-opted
The world's biggest country doesn't quite know whether it wants to be part of Asia or Europe, or whether it wants to develop a Western-style democracy or install an authoritarian form of state capitalism. "Russia's death will come in either of two ways - from the East by the sword of the awakened Chinese, or through the voluntary merger with a pan-European republican federation," the writer and philosopher Konstantin Leontyev wrote in 1891.
The fear of being co-opted still encourages the Kremlin's ideologues today to dream of their country occupying a special position between East and West. They cling to the illusion that Russia could become its own center of power in a multipolar global order, next to the United States, China, India and the European Union. But the country is now far too weak for that.
For this reason, forward thinkers like government foreign-policy advisor Sergey Karaganov advocate an alliance with the EU. "If Russia does not join forces with Europe, it will inevitably become a raw material-supplying appendage of Greater China," he writes. But the closer Russia and Europe get, the less attracted they are to one another. Russia considers Europe to be too liberal. In fact China, which, like Moscow, sees stability as the most important value and deals harshly with dissenters, thinks similarly to Russia's rulers.
This explains why the Chinese Communist Party is behaving like a bride who is still forced to woo her groom, investing billions in its northern border region. Russians arriving in Manzhouli are greeted by reminders of their homeland: a Russian Orthodox church, an oversized matryoshka and busts of the Russian national poets Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
When the border was opened in the early 1990s, fewer than 10,000 people lived in Zabaikalsk and Manzhouli combined. Today Zabaikalsk has remained a village with many wooden houses, even though the booming border trade has increased its size to 11,000 residents. A statue of Lenin still stands in front of the dilapidated regional administration building, and the meadows are littered with garbage that no one bothers to clean up.
China's Voracious Economy
The tallest buildings in Zabaikalsk are five-story concrete structures with squalid stairwells. But the interiors of the apartments attest to a relatively high standard of living. At the equivalent of $15,800 (10,600), the annual GDP per capita in Russia is more than twice as high as it is in China.
In Manzhouli, where the population has climbed to 300,000 since 1990, the apartments are modest but the buildings are brightly lit by colorful neon signs. In the center of town, 30-story hotels jut into the sky, and at night the city and its skyline look a little like Shanghai. "Even the Chinese can build Potemkin villages," says a metal worker who travels to Manzhouli from Lake Baikal every month to go shopping.
In fact, things do look much more mundane during the day, when Manzhouli feels more like a hastily assembled façade designed to mask the poverty of the hinterlands -- and its real purpose, which is to serve as a transshipment point for natural resources bound for China's voracious economy.
On the eastern edge of the city, wood-processing factories are lined up next to each other for seven kilometers. Red Chinese flags fly from the tops of seemingly endless stacks of formerly Russian logs, as if the new owners were trying to emphasize that these treasures are now the property of the People's Republic. China imports two-thirds of its wood from Russia, and 700,000 rail cars carry lumber across the Russian-Chinese border each year.
But the Chinese aren't just interested in Russian lumber. They also want Russian oil. Some 1,300 kilometers farther to the east, past empty steppes where a driver is likely to encounter no more than three cars an hour, is the small city of Skovorodino. It is the terminal point of the most expensive infrastructure project in the new Russia, a "pipeline with geopolitical significance," as Prime Minister Putin raves.
Helping the Region
Putin sees the 2,757-kilometer, $12-billion oil pipeline as a warning to the West that Russia can easily sell its natural resources to Asia. Moscow built the pipeline with Chinese money and workers.
At Skovorodino, some 15 million tons of oil are loaded onto rail cars and then transferred to ships at the Pacific port of Kozmino. Another 15 million tons flow directly to China through pipelines. At the border, Chinese and Russian engineers calmly measure the quantity and quality of the oil.
Nina, a laboratory technician, was once a schoolteacher in a nearby village, before retraining. Sergey Koleznikov, the young manager of the pumping station, is pleased that "the pipeline is not just helping Russia in its recovery, but also the people here in the region." The only minor complaint is to be heard from Chinese worker Jia Yanping, 24, who says: "Spending three months at a time away from home is a little long."
But there are also limits to the Russian-Chinese partnership, and they become evident after another night journey with the Trans-Siberian Railroad: 760 kilometers away in the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk and in Heihe on the Chinese side of the Amur River.
The cities use the same slogan in their advertising at trade shows: Two Countries, One City. In reality, however, the neighbors have remained strangers. It irks many Russians in Blagoveshchensk that Chinese entrepreneur He Wenan has built five shopping centers in their city, runs the most expensive hotel and drives the first Bentley ever seen there, or that businesswoman Li Lihua has brought the city's traditional brewery, and that a Chinese woman is now producing Kvass, a popular Russian beverage made from bread.