To Cossack Captain Shchukin, being sent with the Ecclesiastical Mission to Peking.
On your way to Peking and back--and during your stay in towns, overnight; in a word, during your entire residence in Chinese lands you are to conduct yourself in the best manner: be meek, quiet, and respectful to your superiors; solicitous for your duties and prompt, and more than anything you should distance yourself from quarrels with the Chinese, even if one of you was insulted by them. In such a case, leaving in silence without insults or complaint, you are to quietly report to the secretary [pristav], and not to repay quarrels with quarrels, on pain of severe punishment, and not to engage not only in fighting but even minor quarreling amongst yourselves. This rule applies to all of you, and should be said to all.
But since you have some skill, although not much, in painting; but have discernment when it comes to paints; you are hereby commanded:
1st. Whenever you find an occasion, especially in Peking, where you will be staying longer, you must locate good Chinese paints to buy.
2nd. If you happen to see the work of Chinese painters (which you must not be searching for insistently, but subtly, and inconspicuously for them), you must note, how do they compose their paints? How do they dilute them? And how do they place them on paper, or on paintings and canvas? Do they dry their images, or do they let them dry of their own accord? And note all the rest, that relates to painting, whenever you find an occasion, but so carefully that they should not be able to tell that you are a painter.
3rd. If you happen to find excellently-worked and skillfully painted paintings, you must report to the secretary, that these paintings are deserving of being purchased.
4th. Whatever you place on paper, do so carefully, so that there is never a Chinese servant around when you do so; for I have told you personally, what kind of care you ought to have. You yourself have told me, that you can with your mind's eye [v umozritel'nosti] place objects on paper which you have seen; so in this case here is a rule for you: when you have sketched something, examine the object that you are painting repeatedly, so that it is accurately and correctly depicted.
5th. Whichever dry paints you note as worthy of being had here, by no means buy them yourself, but report to the secretary so that he may have them obtained by purchase, by this careful expedient your knowledge and skill in painting will be kept from the Chinese; and for this purpose you must in all things conceal this, and represent yourself as a simple Cossack, as if of no consequence; and
6th. Since it is improper for the secretary himself to walk around the city often, and you will be doing this, report on whatever is rare or unusual that you observe, but also note in shops whatever commodity products [tovarnoe izdelie] you find.
September 17, 1807.
- from a package of secret instructions to the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Peking, preserved among the papers of Iakinf Bichurin at the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts in St. Petersburg
This text is one of several archival finds I've dug up over the past two months that are making me pay closer and closer attention to something that somehow rarely gets mentioned in our literature: espionage. It's a little strange, since espionage is an undeniably sexy topic--but somehow people associate it so firmly with the twentieth century that there seems to be something a little bizarre about mentioning it in the context of the eighteenth. It's ridiculous to think of bewigged and waistcoated gentlemen sneaking peeks at private correspondence through cleverly concealed lorgnettes or leading heart-pounding coach-and-four chases on the king's highway.
But there's no reason to think this didn't happen, and in fact spying, secrecy, and privileged information were major topics of discussion in every European country in the period. That's not to say that James Bond's world can be transplanted back two hundred years and still make sense: there were important differences. For one thing, there was never a well-defined and specially-trained group of people known as "spies" or "secret agents" and organized into special agencies; secret chancelleries were typically responsible for internal policing, foreign intelligence being largely the domain of the diplomatic corps. Secrecy also had a somewhat different meaning, since the people to whom secret reports were usually directed typically had a broad range of other state responsibilities as well, and their bureaus were never designed with openness in mind.
As a result, (long-)eighteenth-century espionage was a much broader and more nebulous phenomenon than it is today, especially in the Russo-Chinese context. It included not only diplomatic but also industrial espionage, as well as the collection of what we would now consider basic almanac data such as the imports and exports of particular territories. Generally, there were two basic principles:
- Find out everything about everything.
- Don't let anyone else know that you're interested.
Hence, in the document above, the constant exhortations to the painter to let the Chinese keep thinking of him as an inconsequential Cossack. In another document in this file, there's an even more interesting depiction of how to hold a conversation:
Recognizing an acquaintance with the Jesuits as necessary for all such information, it is opportune to remind you that they once had great influence in the Peking Ministry and confidence at court; and therefore it can doubtless be concluded that the English have not failed to cultivate a close friendship with them as longtime residents in Peking, which they have probably reinforced with kindness and bribery; therefore great care is needed in your conversations with them, and at your first meeting nothing regarding the subject you are curious about can be said; if, however, they themselves say something about the English trade, in that case you must pretend that you have no pressing need of information about it; but do not allow the conversation they start to terminate early by an outright denial. Cool, collected attentiveness can be displayed externally by turning your eyes to the side and not listening in a riveted way [nepriviazannym slushaniem]. If, then, with the passage of time, they continue their conversations about this, then while observing external coolness you can subtly extract the necessary information from them, and even then not in any order and not all of a sudden, so that you do not give them an inkling that you need it.
The mustache-twirling deviousness of this instruction actually just conceals the fact that the Russian Foreign Ministry has no idea how influential the Jesuits are or how much credit they retain at court. (Actually, as far as I've been able to tell, the Qing court had rescinded its toleration for the Jesuit presence in Peking around 1805, and in fact the Society of Jesus had ceased to exist in a legal sense decades earlier. The few Jesuits or ex-Jesuits who remained at court at the turn of the nineteenth century were hardly in a position to do much for the English cause.) The expensive and elaborate work devoted to espionage coexisted with some pretty dramatic lapses in organization: for instance, the Foreign Ministry's single Chinese and Manchu translator had died in 1786 and was, as far as I can tell, not replaced for something like two decades.
In other words, long-eighteenth-century espionage was not just a sexier and more sophisticated version of regular information-gathering. It could also function as a second-rate substitute for more systematic, scholarly, and public modes of inquiry. In this mode it was essentially analogous to the strategy of exploring the New World by conquistador or conducting naval warfare by privateer: dump a crucial area of state responsibility on a more-or-less disposable individual actor, hoping that the probably meager payoff will slightly outweigh the marginal expense. After all, the Russian aristocracy didn't think much of the discipline and ability of Cossack captains, and as the paternalistic injunction against brawling and quarreling suggests, the painterly Shchukin was no exception. (I've found no trace of him anywhere else; his contemporary, the romantic Shchukin, was certainly never a Cossack captain.)
I've now found secret documents, either the results of espionage (on various levels) or instructions on how to conduct it, for practically the entirety of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It doesn't seem to have been particularly effective: nothing suggests the College or Ministry of Foreign Affairs ever learned to conduct espionage using any method other than the above, and their instructions very rarely reflect the work of any previous investigation. As in so many other things, the imperial state had a great appetite for information, but much less of a clue about how to use it.