Mannerheim as Secret Agent

Gustaf Mannerheim, a colonel in the Russian Imperial Army, was the last Tsarist Agent in the Great Game.

In the spring of 1906, Gustaf Mannerheim, a colonel in the Russian Imperial Army who had recently return from war in Manchuria, was summoned to the General Staff Building in St. Petersburg. Inside to greet him was General Fyodor Palitsyn, Chief of the General Staff, who asked if he’d be willing to return to Asia to undertake a secret intelligence mission.

Russia’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1905 in Manchuria exposed serious intelligence failures in the Imperial army at every level: tactical, operational and strategic. Russia had woefully underestimated its rival. Palitsyn created independent intelligence sections and directed his attention to Asia’s “young, warlike, energetic powers, thirsting for action and conquest.” Japan’s modernization and growing military strength had proven deadly for Russia. Now, Palitsyn began worrying about China’s rise.

The Middle Kingdom had badly atrophied under the Manchus, the ruling ethnic caste of the Qing Dynasty. Two-and-a-half centuries of decadent living, internecine feuds and imperviousness to a changing world had weakened the Empire. China’s weaponry and military tactics were outdated, even medieval. Still, the central lesson of the war with Japan was not lost on the Russian General Staff: an Asian country using Western technology and industrial production methods could defeat a great European power.

Palitsyn knew a reformed China with modern railways and armaments factories could become dangerously strong. Indeed, emboldened by Japan’s example, China began implementing sweeping reforms of its own. Yet he also realized that China’s territory bordering Russian Turkestan was militarily weak. Its most western province of Xinjiang, or “New Dominion,” was rife with Muslim unrest and thus vulnerable to Russian conquest. The Great Game, the bitter rivalry with Britain, was shifting eastward and the General needed accurate, on-the-ground intelligence.

Specifically, the objectives for this secret mission would be to:

  • collect information and military-statistical material, especially on the Chinese provinces beyond the Great Wall;
  • establish to what extent recent reforms by the Chinese government could be observed in different regions;
  • investigate defensive preparations, military reforms and troop training;
  • study the rate of ethnic Chinese colonization of the provinces and reforms of local government implemented by Peking;
  • assess general conditions and local attitudes to Chinese policies, the political movements in regions or in local tribes toward self-government, the role of the Dalai Lama in such movements, local opinion concerning Russia and Japan as well as the scope of Japanese influence in all activities undertaken by the Chinese government; and
  • survey the route to Kashgar, and from there to Lanzhou and Peking, primarily to establish whether Russian cavalry and separate military units could be sent to Lanzhou.

Mannerheim accepted the assignment. Disguised as an ethnographic collector, he spent two years trekking through China. He mapped some 3,000 kilometres of his route, sketched 20 garrison towns, took 1,300 photographs and collected military intelligence.

In October 1908 Mannerheim, now back in St. Petersburg, submitted his final report and personally debriefed Tsar Nicholas II about his military intelligence mission to China. “The Emperor smilingly thanked me for an interesting account,” Mannerheim recalled in his memoirs, “and said that he, also, had failed to notice how time went.”

His intelligence report amounted to 198 typewritten pages. It was later published in 1909 in volume 81 of the General Staff’s Collection of Geographic, Topographic and Statistical Materials on Asia and was marked “Not to Be Made Public” on the cover. At the end of his report, Mannerheim lists ten annexes. Despite searches of various archives, these annexes have not been found.

As for the main report, only a few copies were distributed to Mannerheim’s friends in Helsinki and no complete translation in English has yet to be published. However, the first 80 pages consist of an abridged description of Mannerheim’s journey. It is essentially his travelogue, which was translated into English and published in 1940 in a large two-volume work. The rest of the report is Mannerheim’s conclusions.
Below, is the table of contents to his report, with links to translations of his conclusions. The full report can also be downloaded in its original Russian version below.

Preliminary Report on the Trip Undertaken by Imperial Order Across Chinese Turkestan and the Northern Provinces of China to Peking in 1906–07 and 1908

by Col. Baron Mannerheim


Goal of Journey page 1
Description of Journey page 2
a) Construction of Railways page 81
b) Troops page 87
c) Schools page 135
d) Fighting Opium Consumption page 145
e) Industries and Mining page 151
f) About the Japanese page 156
g) About Colonization page 159
Overall Conclusions page 171


Mannerheim, Col. C.G.E. (transl. Eric Walberg and Anatoli Koroteyev, and ed. Eric Enno Tamm) “Preliminary Report on the Trip Undertaken by Imperial Order Across Chinese Turkestan and the Northern Provinces of China to Peking in 1906–07 and 1908.” In Collection of Geographical, Topographical and Statistical Materials for Asia 81. St. Petersburg: Military Publishing House, 1909.

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Preliminary Report on the Trip Undertaken by Imperial Order Across Chinese Turkestan and the Northern Provi…