Departures Podcast with Gregory Afinogenov, author of ‘Spies and Scholars’

Imagine you are trapped in a far-flung foreign compound with 10 other people, none of them want to be there, but you have a seemingly limitless supply of alcohol. Oh, and you are charged with developing critical intelligence and knowledge for Imperial Russia’s ambitions to gain global power.

That’s among the many fascinating stories in Gregory Afinogenov‘s new book, “Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power,” which explores how knowledge about Asia was developed from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

What’s interesting about this unique period of history that Afinogenov writes about is how espionage was used as a means of generating knowledge for public intellectuals, helping Imperial Russia to compete with rival Britain, to advance a deeper knowledge of the East – but this information, filtered and passed through Moscow, rarely met its goal and often did not get distributed inside Russia itself, shaping future relations with China in various ways. Afinogenov argues that we should take a critical look at the assumptions that connect knowledge regimes with imperial power, and how this neglected intellectual history offers insight and value to historians.