The history of the Russian Embassy in China is indissolubly linked with the 250-year-long history of the Russian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Mission. For a long time there were no diplomatic relations between the two states and the Mission became the Russian Government’s unofficial representative in China. In addition, it made a huge contribution to a scientific study of China and was responsible for the emergence of a galaxy of prominent Russian Sinologists.
The first Russian-Chinese contacts date back to the 17th century, when Russia started exploring East Siberia. The Chinese army’s seizure of the Russian fort of Albazin on the Amur River in 1685 was the first of many serious border conflicts that ensued due to this exploration. The Chinese took prisoner 45 Cossacks, who were resettled to Beijing and laid the foundation for the years-long Russian presence in China. The Kangxi Emperor made the Albazin Cossacks members of the honorary military estate, which enjoyed high status in Old China, adding a Russian Company to the ranks of the Imperial Guards. Along with other soldiers, they received official quarters, high salaries, installation allowances, and plots of arable land. Unmarried Russians were given Chinese women for wives.
Advised of their fate, the Russian Government asked the Emperor to free the prisoners or at least allow them to build a Russian church in Beijing. In 1696, once a church was built, Father Maxim and several newly arrived Russian priests consecrated it in the name of St Sophia, but later to become known as St Nicholas Church, named after the icon of St Nicholas the Miracle Worker.


The need for an ecclesiastical mission in Beijing was first mentioned in Peter the Great’s executive order of June 18, 1700. Among other things, the order urged Russian subjects to study local languages, customs and culture, characterising this as a pursuit that met Russia’s political and trade interests in China. Thus, the Russian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Mission in Beijing was planned right from the start as a research centre, rather than solely an Orthodox Christian institution. Russia placed the Mission under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Tobolsk-based Siberian Metropolitans. The Second Mission was assigned a prestigious site at the Ambassadorial Residence (where previously visiting vassal princes stayed) in uptown Beijing, not far from the Imperial City, governmental chancelleries and trade malls. The Chinese Government allocated funds for a stone church, which once build was consecrated at the Southern Residence in the name of the Meeting of the Lord, with the St Nicholas icon being transferred there. The church catered to the spiritual needs of trade merchants, who regularly brought their caravans to Beijing.
The Russian missionaries, unlike Catholic priests, were not proselytising to the Chinese and the Manchurians, nor were they involved in court intrigues. The Mission confined itself to maintaining the faith among the Albazin Cossacks, ran diplomatic errands on behalf of the Russian Government, and helped Russian trade caravans. Its disciples were studying Chinese and Manchurian. For all these reasons, the Chinese authorities were loyal towards the Orthodox Mission, which escaped anti-Christian persecutions unleashed by the Qings.
Numerous Russian envoys to China failed to persuade the Qing Government to allow Russia to establish its secular diplomatic mission in Beijing. Thus, the Orthodox Mission effectively became the only permanent and most trustworthy source of information about developments in the Qing Empire.


It was incumbent on members of the Beijing Orthodox Mission to study Manchurian, Chinese and Mongolian languages as well as China’s history, culture and religion. University and Theological Academy students were assigned to the Mission as secular members. Classes were assigned based on students’ preliminary knowledge, desires and abilities, and covered medicine, mathematics, literature, philosophy, the Confucian system, history, geography, statistics, and Chinese law. After 1858, when China signed a series of Tianjin treaties with Western countries, the Mission’s status changed. A number of Western countries opened their diplomatic missions in Beijing. Russia did so in 1861, after which the Orthodox Mission lost its most important diplomatic function, with the Foreign Ministry handing it over to the Holy Synod as a purely religious institution. Cognizant of the fact that the Christian doctrine was conducive to order and harmony among people, the Chinese Government pledged not to persecute its subjects for their adherence to the Christian faith. This policy enabled the Mission to continue promoting their religious activities and to start preaching Orthodoxy among the Chinese.


In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion, also known as the Yihequan Movement, disrupted the relative calm of life as rebels attacked foreign embassies, besieged the diplomatic quarter in Beijing, and set Christian churches on fire.
A few years after its full devastation, the Mission was restored and now had its own well-equipped mechanical workshops, a bakery, a soap factory, a foundry, a boiler-house, a bookbinding workshop, a weather station, a bathhouse, a flour mill, a dairy farm, as well as orchards and kitchen gardens. It possessed numerous farms and field camps in the environs of Beijing and even in neighbouring provinces.
After 1917, during the Civil War in Russia and in subsequent decades, the Beijing Mission gave temporary refuge and jobs to many Russian refugees. Some of them took monastic vows and joined the local Monastery of the Assumption. But for the majority it was a brief respite on their way to emigrating beyond the borders of China.
After 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established, the remnants of the Russian colony in Beijing quickly melted away. In 1955, the Mission was closed due to a lack of funds for its upkeep and due to a shortage of Orthodox believers in the city. The Northern Residence, along with all its buildings and property, was transferred to the Soviet Union’s ownership, and a new Embassy was built on the site in 1956-1959. The Southern Residence, along with all the Orthodox Church’s property and buildings, was handed over to the Chinese Government in connection with the elimination of the East Asian Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchy in the PRC.