Empires’ Keif, or Opium Trade on the Tea Route in the Era of Late Empires





Inner Asia, customs, smuggling, opium, frontier, empire


This paper offers an analysis of the process by which new borders appeared in Inner Asia during the late imperial period. The research focuses on the borders of Russia, Qing, and Mongolia at the time of the collapse of the Qing Empire and political crisis in Russia, which led to its demise in 1917. The author aims to reveal the influence of these processes on the region referring to transborder smuggling via the transformation of the control and power of central governments. In the author’s opinion, two key factors defined the increase in opium smuggling at the Russo-Mongolian border in 1900–1917. First, political destabilization on the outskirts of the Qing Empire. Second, Cossack regiments were sent from the border to Europe to take part in World War I, thus border control was greatly reduced. The research for this study is based upon the materials of the Russian Imperial customs in the town of Kyakhta, the long-time center of Russo-Chinese trade. Based on archival data, one can trace the volumes and routes of opium smuggling from Iran to Mongolia. The area under consideration is well researched as a cross-border smuggling point; however, the problem of the illicit opium trade is still insufficiently analyzed. This is due to both political obstacles and access to sources. This article is the first attempt at a systematic study of opium trafficking through Kyakhta. The destination of the routes was the town of Maimaicheng, located near Kyakhta and inhabited by Chinese merchants. Opium was also bought by the honghuzi – armed robbers operating near the border. However, when the Civil War broke out in Russia (1917–1922), and the Far Eastern Republic was established, opium supply via the Trans-Siberian Railway declined as this route was no longer safe. Therefore, the notion of regional order and disorder is an important category for this research. This framework offers a way of better understanding Trans-Eurasian relations in the twentieth century.

Author Biography

Alexey Mikhalev

Dr. Hab. (Political Science), Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Transformations, Banzarov Buryat State University.

24a. Smolin Str., 670000, Ulan-Ude, Russia.

ORCID 0000-0001-7069-2338



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How to Cite

Mikhalev, A. (2024). Empires’ Keif, or Opium Trade on the Tea Route in the Era of Late Empires. Quaestio Rossica, 12(1), 268–285. https://doi.org/10.15826/qr.2024.1.878



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