First, a little geography. Manchuria is sort of a box with high mountains and big rivers along the borders with a flatland in the middle. This middle area is where the wealth of the province was concentration both in terms of agriculture and population. Additionally, all infrastructure developments were made in this flatland and are generally the reason for the Russian Empire’s interest in the area (which I will illustrate with maps below).
As you can see, the Russian state gained control over the vast majority of Siberia fairly early. The problem for Russia, however, was that the majority of this land could not be effectively utilized or even navigated without industrial technology. This is due to a very inconvenient river system that flows North/South rather than East/West.
The major breakthrough came with the acquisition of what is known in Russia as “Primorye” (Seaside) territory which is the yellow territory just above Manchuria. (The maps timeline is a bit too broad. This territory was acquired around the 1860s. Vladivostok, the major city in the Far East was founded in 1860, Blagoveshchensk – 1858 etc). So in the areas that Mordecai is serving in, Russia is a newcomer but it is an Imperial power that has all of the advantages of industrial technology vis a vis the Manchurians.
This is a great map for visualizing Russian expansion into Siberia. As I mentioned, the rivers aren’t conducive to an influx of settlers from the west.
The trans-Siberian railroad is the key to all of Russia’s efforts in the region and it is the primary reason that the Russian army contingent dwarfed the European allies. Although construction started in 1891, it wouldn’t be completed until 1916. So Mordechi is operating in a region that has experienced a huge spike in interest from the Russian government and since construction of the railway began at both ends working inland, the Far East was hosting large numbers of various personnel from soldiers and laborers to new settlers and administrators.
This ambitious project meant that resources had to be transported to and from the Far East and then sent to the construction sites. Vladivostok is not an ice-free port in winter so a “shortcut” had to be established. The yellow railroad branching off of Chita into Kharbin is said shortcut. This is known as the Chinese Eastern Railway or the Trans-Manchurian Railway.
NOTE: here Kharbin is written as Harbin which is believe is the more correct spelling of its name.Important places: Harbin “Oreintal Moscow” Dailan (Port Arthur)
In 1896, China “granted” the Russian Empire a concession for construction of the railway. A concession was a fairly common imperialist practice where the territory would remain sovereign (to China) but the infrastructure (railway, canal, port, etc.) would belong to Russia.
In 1898, China granted Russia a 25 year lease of the Liaodong peninsula (Dailan – Port Arthur). This was the catalyst needed to boost construction of the railway. Importantly, Dailan is ice-free year round and this allowed Russia to send people and resources to the Far East much quicker (essentially, those people would make Modechi’s return journey but in reverse).
Port Arthur is the name of the port itself and the military base established by the navy. Dailan comes from the Russian word “Dalny” which means remote.
The Trans-Manchurian railway allowed quicker access to Vladivostok from Chita (traffic beginning in 1903 as opposed to 1916).
Harbin was the center of administration for the Manchurian activities of the Russian Empire and it was a fast-growing city.
Contemporary map of the area, note the mix of English, Russian, and Chinese languages.
Social and Political aspects:
As I’ve shown with the maps above, Manchuria and more broadly, the Far East was an area of extreme activity on the part of the Imperial authorities. It is clear that they intended to settle and administer the territory extensively and were likely planning to annex the territory after the 25 year lease for Dailan expired (an ice-free port has been on the top of Russia’s shopping list for centuries).
Let’s look at the area from a social political perspective.
As most people have heard, Siberia was a destination of exile for the majority of the Russian imperial period. After an extensive fur trade that took Russians all the way to Alaska, the vast wealth of the area was difficult to access and transport without modern industrial technology and with new lands opening up in what is now Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus, Russian settlers had other areas to turn their attention to.
By the 1890s-1900s, there was a “perfect storm” of factors that influenced the very large interest in the region.
The Crimean war (1853-1856) finally provided the necessary stimulus to abolish serfdom (1861) so by the 1900s there is a large peasant population looking for land and the Russian government is pursuing a variety of options to entice them to migrate to the Far East. About 10 million migrants 1890-1914.
By the 1890s the lands of the Ukraine are significantly populating and industrializing, alongside areas of southwestern Russia.
So Mordechi and his unit were essentially securing an area that would have been the growth area of the Russian economy. Unfortunately for Russia, this territory was lost after the Russo-Japanese war 1905. Coupled with growing security issues in the west, the Far East faded in prominence even with the completion of the all Russia route of the Trans-Siberian. To this day, it remains one of the more sparsely populated areas of Russia, though once again, the government has turned its eye to the east and is encouraging people to move there.