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Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit


Blagoveshchensk (Благовещенск) and Heihe (黑河) are two cities facing each other across the Amur River. Though only 500 meters apart, they were completely isolated from each other for over two decades when the border was hermetically sealed in the late 1960s. When the border opened again following the collapse of the Soviet Union, old ties were renewed and trading activities suddenly blossomed. China’s proximity provided a veritable lifeline for the inhabitants of the Russian Far East at a critical time. Located right on the border, Blagoveshchensk became a “funnel city” with people travelling from as far afield as Yakutia in northern Siberia to purchase in China goods that were no longer available in Russia.  Over the same period, Heihe grew from a small sleepy village into a modern town with an ever-increasing number of skyscrapers. Today the two cities are nearly of equal footprint and population, but they remain dramatically different.   








The two cities of Blagoveshchensk and Heihe were chosen as a research site on account of their unique position and history. They are the only two “twin cities” of comparable size to be found on the 2,500 mile long Sino-Russian border. Their economies and futures are closely intertwined, yet to date no bridge connects them. Travelling from one to the other involves taking a boat (in summer) or a bus (in winter). Discussions about the construction of a bridge have been ongoing for over two decades, but China’s eagerness is met with Russian concerns about the dramatic population imbalance between the two countries and about China’s long-term intentions. 

Having grown mostly independently from each other, to a large extent through population transfers from other regions of their respective countries, the two cities have a dramatically different look and feel. Heihe resembles countless other cities in China while Blagoveshchensk would not be out of place in Eastern Europe. Crossing from one to the other is disorienting—in the space of a few minutes it can feel as if one has travelled from one continent to another. From architecture to smells, from music to social relations, everything suddenly changes. 

While much scholarly attention has been devoted to China’s rapid growth and urbanization, we felt not enough had been done about the transformations that have taken place in border areas, nor about the economic, social and economic repercussions of these transformations on China’s neighbours. In the space of less than two decades, Blagoveshchensk residents have watched Heihe transform from a sleepy rural settlement into a city with tall skyscrapers proudly advertising its economic success. By contrast, Blagoveshchensk’s growth has been much slower, with none of the vitality seen on the other side of the river. Previously beacon of modernity in the East, Blagoveshchensk has now been surpassed by its Chinese neighbour. For an increasing number of Russian students, Chinese is the language to learn, the key to a successful future in China’s southern metropolises.