Zheltuga: The Illegal Russian Gold Mining Town That Sprang Up in China

Jul 10, 2021 0 comments

In the spring of 1883, gold was discovered on a branch of the river Albazikha, in northern Heilongjiang province in China near the border with Russia, leading to both Chinese and Russian prospectors flocking to the area and creating a settlement on the right bank of River Amur. The settlement was named Zheltuga after the Shilka river, whose tributary is the Albazikha. The Shilka river eventually becomes Amur after its confluence with the Argun on the Russia-China border.


The bulk of the prospectors came from the Russian side of the border, due to the large number of Russian settlements in the vicinity. The nearest large Chinese settlement, on the other hand, was hundreds of kilometers away. Most of the Chinese were thus menial laborers and coolies rather than gold prospectors, who had recently arrived in Blagoveshchensk in search of work.

From the very beginning Zheltuga, which was nicknamed “California on the Amur”, after the California Gold Rush, attracted the socially outcast and the criminally inclined. Escaped convicts and deportees were prominent among the Russians who came in search for gold. They were joined by a gang of Sakhalin veterans and runaways from the forced-labor Kara goldfields, a part of the Nerchinsk penal colony on the tributary of the Shilka, known for its political prisoners. A sizeable portion of Zheltuga’s population was also made up by deserters from private goldmines in the Amur district.


Not all arrivals came to Zheltuga with the intention of digging for gold. An the mining community expanded, so its needs for supplies and entertainment grew. In spring 1885, a visiting journalist counted eighteen hotels and multiple entertainment services such as a billiards saloon and a photography atelier. Merchants supplied alcohol to the settlement while transporting its gold at the same time. Businesses within the settlement paid tax to a common treasury, the funds of which were used to maintain the local church, the public bathhouse, and the hospital, as well as to pay high-ranking executives.

With thousands of residents and frequent eruption of violence, some rules became necessary for the regulation of daily life. Zheltuga was divided into five districts—four Russian and one Chinese. Two foremen were elected from each district, and they jointly oversaw the colony's administration. Important decisions within the community were undertaken by miners' meetings called Orlinoe poe at the central field of Orlovo pole (Eagle Field). The main street within the settlement was named Millionnaia street. A black-and-yellow flag was created, symbolizing the land and the gold. The miners established a law between them, written down in a "statute" of twenty clauses, mainly focused on the distribution of punishment. Murder was publishable by execution, while offenders of other crimes received flogging and sometimes banishment from the camp. The law was ruthlessly implemented. Once in a single day 30 people accused of murder were hanged.


Headmen of the Zheltuga Republic.

“From the first days of the administration's existence”, said an eyewitness, “many people who thought they did not need to take it seriously ended up badly. The first two weeks could, with justification, be called the time of the terrible floggings. Every day people were flogged for theft, sodomy, and so on - in brief, floggings were held from morning till night for every kind of wrongdoing, and it was only after these measures had been taken against those with a penchant for other people's property or for extreme thrills that they eased off a bit.”

It took almost a year before the Chinese authorities got wind of Zheltuga’s existence. They took a series of measures against the Amur Californians such as cutting off supplies to Zheltuga and blocking the passage from the Russian to the Chinese side of the Amur. The Russian administration was aware of the illegal mining but didn’t mind as long as it made profit for Russia. The governor of Aigun wrote to the Russian authorities requesting assistance to expel the intruders, and even Empress Cixi sent a letter of protest to the Tsar.



Anxious that the issue of an illegal mining town might become a blot in the Russian-Chinese relationship, Russian officials responded by ordering all Russian subjects to leave Zheltuga immediately, with a warning that those who did not comply will not receive any protection. Many Russians left, but the hard core ex-convicts for whom return to Russian territory could only spell imprisonment, stayed on. The Chinese miners, being aware of the Qing prohibition of unauthorized exploitations of natural resources, knew they cold not expect merciful treatment from their own authorities. They decided to await the storm by hiding in the surrounding forests.

Eight days after issuing an ultimatum, the Chinese forces arrived and finding an empty camp, set it on fire. When they departed, the miners returned and the Chinese workers also came out of hiding. Within half a year, Zheltuga was back in business.

The Chinese then sent a second force, a much larger one, in the early days of January 1896. A messenger offered the Russians a chance to retreat unharmed to the other bank of the Amur. What happened next is difficult to ascertain. According to one version, the Russians would have preferred to keep out of the confrontation but the Chinese soldiers attacked unexpectedly. Another version has it that the Russians stayed behind to protect their fellow Chinese miners. Either way, what followed was a carnage.


Alexander Lebedev, a historian of the Zheltuga Republic, wrote in 1896:

Hardly had the Chinese soldiers spotted the inhabitants of Zheltuga moving across the ice of the Amur when they set upon their defenceless countrymen. Of course everyone scattered in different directions as best they could; they ran off over banks of snow and across hollows in the ground; they clambered over blocks of ice or hid behind them where they were large enough to provide shelter. The frost chilled their limbs; hunger and exhaustion sapped their strength; the runaways fell, picked themselves up and ran on again in a bid to reach the river bank and hide in the Cossack station. But there was no deliverance there either. They were butchered and tortured on our side of the river too; people would be dragged out of a crowd of Russians and tormented in the streets; Russian houses were broken into and the victims dragged out. It was a terrible, monstrous, savage carnage.

The brutal destruction of Zheltuga was reported positively in press across Siberia. The newspapers spoke essentially in one voice of the damage that Zheltuga was causing to the Russian Far East. The main criticism was the diversion of working hands to unproductive occupation, as one local journalist put it: the Amur District needed bread not gold.

Illegal gold mining in Amur continued to be headache for private mine operators. Workers would often desert their employers and join the hordes of escaped convicts and vagrant deportees to become engaged in predatory exploitation of gold deposits. In each location they settled, the assembled men elected leaders, accepted a code of law that stipulated harsh punishment for basic offenses against the common good and announced themselves a society of free prospectors, until they were driven away by authorities. Such settlements sprang up on the banks of Bom, a side stream of the Selemdzha (the largest tributary of the Zeia River, about 650 km north of Blagoveshchensk) in 1892, and on the Giliui (another Zeia tributary) in 1896. The problem of widespread illegal gold mining in Russia was only finally resolved by the Bolsheviks in the early 1930s.

# Mark Gamsa, California on the Amur, or the 'Zheltuga Republic' in Manchuria (1883-86), MHRA
# Boris Egorov, How Russians secretly set up their own 'California' in China, Russia Beyond
# Wikipedia


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