It may be hard to believe, but in the 17th century, over 6,000 kilometres away from Poland’s capital, there was a Polish state bordering China. Called Jaxa, this little-known political organism stuck between Russia and China was founded by Nicefor Chernichowski, a Polish nobleman whom the Chinese called ‘the wise Khan’.
It begins with brutal vengeance
It’s the summer of 1664 in Fort Kirensk, a place far off in the wilderness of Siberia. Nicefor Czernichowski, an exiled Polish nobleman has just murdered Lavrentij Obuchov, the governor of these remote parts. It was an act of revenge.
During a fair held every year at the fort, the Tsar’s official had raped Czernichowski’s daughter Pelagia, the wife of an Orthodox priest. The lascivious Obuchov had been on a boat on the Lena river, getting ready to leave when Nicefor arrived with a group of armed men and attacked. It may seem extreme today, but the Pole knew that if he wanted any kind of payback, he would have to take matters into his own hands – the reality was that at that place and time, the governor would never have been held responsible for his crimes.
Of course, killing a state official meant Nicefor and his associates had no future ahead of them in Russia other than the death penalty.
They decided to head east, to places beyond Moscow’s reach. They had heard stories from people who years ago had ventured in the direction of a land on the Amur river, where you could grow crops (something hard to do in Siberia) and find silver in abundance.
After gathering weapons and supplies, an 84-strong party left the fort by boat, heading downstream on the Lena river. The group included Nicephor’s three sons, and a local monk by the name of Hermogenes who carried an icon of the Mother of God with him. The journey they were beginning was to take them through the harsh wilderness of Siberia to a place over a thousand kilometres away from Kirensk…
I pledge allegiance to the Tsar
The events that turned Nicephor into a fugitive during the summer of 1664 have been described in many sources. One of them, an anonymous manuscript directed to the Royal Secretary of Denmark, written in Latin about 20 years later, recounts somewhat inaccurately:
In Fort Yeniseysk there lived a Polish colonel. When a certain governor enslaved his virgin-sister, outraged by this vile deed he persuaded his comrades to revolt. Later, after they murdered the governor and plundered the tradesmen’s stalls, they left the fort and went east.
This, and other similar versions of the story, have led to the conviction that it was Nicefor’s sister or wife who had been mistreated by the official. However, historical research has shown that it was, in fact, his daughter Pelagia that had suffered under the hands of Obuchov. Contrarily, there never seemed to have been any confusion regarding how the Pole found himself in Siberia in the first place: he was taken captive in the 1630s when fighting against Russia’s invasion of Poland and later exiled.
It actually turns out that Nicefor did have a chance of returning home but it was his opportunistic behaviour that led to his final exile. Poland had eventually won the conflict and a peace treaty allowed for the return of Polish prisoners of war. On his way back, however, Nicefor chose to pledge allegiance to the Tsar – this wasn’t due to a desire to become a loyal servant to Russia, but because he was attracted by the lucrative pay packet that came with it. After receiving the money and marrying a lady from Moscow, he soon deserted his newly-found service. He was en route to Poland when the Russians caught him. For his deceit, he was sentenced to exile and sent with his wife to Yeniseysk in 1637. The pair spent twelve years there before being relocated to the Kirensk area.
Crossing the frozen tundra
Nicefor made the most of his exile situation. In Yeniseysk, he worked with Yerofey Khabarov, the well-known coloniser of Siberia, most likely on the development of farming. Later on, Khabarov led one of the first Russian expeditions to the Amur river, a trip which infamously terrorised the local Daur and Tungus tribes, before being forced to retreat. Knowing the fearsome Khabarov might have played a part in Nicefor’s decision to head in that direction, although the Pole’s presence on the Amur was to be much more peaceful than Khabarov’s. Instead of joining the expedition, Nicefor became head of a saltworks in the Kirensk area, and afterwards was given command over a unit of Cossacks. The Pole and his wife had a good life here, raising three sons and two daughters. Things were going well until that ill-fated fair.
Due to the lack of roads and trails, rivers were the main transportation arteries in Siberia at the time. That’s why Nicefor and his crew (who elected the Pole the leader of the escape party) left Kirensk by boat after Obuchov’s killing. But the local Siberian climate often freezes rivers for lengthy periods, so Nicefor’s travel was hindered. The huge scale of the distances across Siberia and the resulting lengthy time of the Russian reaction meant the company wasn’t under hot pursuit – that wasn’t a problem. But making your way through the Siberian wilderness in a small group for long months would have been gruelling.
Czernichowski’s Coat of Arms
Whenever they came across frozen rivers, the party took their boats ashore and dragged them along the banks. They were of the special Siberian kind: small and light, made with this kind of multi-terrain use in mind. In those days, dragging your boat over land from one river to another was a common practice among the European colonisers of Siberia, and often the only way to get to where you were going.
But it wasn’t the extreme cold or hunger that affected Nicefor’s crew the most. Skirmishes with the local tribes encountered on the way as well as illnesses took most of the lives lost during the journey to the Amur. The Polish historian Marian Dubiecki reports in his 19th-century book Obrazy I Studya Historyczne (Historical Portrayals and Studies, ed.) that one of the hostile groups encountered by Nicefor’s expedition even rode into battle on reindeer.
Finally, in 1665 after the long Siberian winter, the remaining 70-odd souls reached the Amur river. They decided to settle down on the site of the former Albazin fort, raised by Khabarov’s men during his aforementioned expedition. They had found it burned out – it had been attacked by the Chinese after they expelled him and his rampaging Cossacks. The so-called Middle Kingdom hadn’t appreciated his destructive presence in an area where it collected tribute from the local Daur tribe. But the site’s defensive potential on a river escarpment meant the newcomers decided to try building their own fort there. It became known by the name of Czernichowski’s Old-Polish coat of arms: Jaxa.
Lord of all he surveys
What started out as nothing more than an encampment of fugitives evolved into a modestly-sized but nevertheless sovereign state. Its territory, stretching along the northern bank of the Amur reached over 400 kilometres to the Zeya river in the east, and about a 100 kilometres to the west from fort Jaxa. Here’s Dubiecki’s description of Nicefor’s capital a few years after its founding:
It’s a wooden fort, rectangular in shape – a contemporary relation says – standing on a steep river escarpment that’s overlooked by two of the settlement’s towers; on the other side though, facing the land from the hills, there’s only one guard tower. The latter has a gate, the only entrance to the fortress. Over the gate there’s a court chamber over which there’s a lookout. Two other towers down by the river bank have living quarters and their tops are also fortified and serve as lookouts, from where you can very well fight an enemy off. Inside the fort there was only a granary, because of the rocky ground there could be no well – tells a source that’s a little older.
The wise Khan
Nicefor’s success on the Amur was possible thanks to his sensible rules. Unlike Khabarov before him he didn’t come to plunder but to reside. He managed to gain the trust of the local Daurs and Tunguses who became his subjects: they’d pay him tribute in furs in return for protection from the Chinese and Cossacks. The Pole’s growing military strength made this protection possible – various daredevils (exiled Poles among them) would flock to his side seeking refuge from Russia or Manchuria, where there were also many European captives.
Eventually Nicefor had 500 soldiers under his command and a sizeable village in front of the fort. It consisted of more or less 40 houses, barracks and a chapel established by Hermogenes the monk, and was surrounded by a stake fence and a moat. Cereals and legumes were cultivated and farmers were building new settlements along the Amur.
In Jaxa, Nicefor reigned single-handedly: he was the head of the military, the judiciary, and the treasury. The state had its own code of laws, created most probably by Nicefor in collaboration with Hermogenes. The Pole managed to establish diplomatic relations with China, which sent him letters in Polish, possibly written with the aid of Polish missionaries to that country. The authorities of the Middle Kingdom called Nicefor ‘the wise Khan’ and tolerated Jaxa’s presence on their borders. But that wasn’t going to last forever.
Sentenced to die
In Russia at the time, the Dutch diplomat Nicolaes Witsen wrote in his book North and East Tartary:
Once I was written from Beijing about a fortress on the Amur: ‘Fort Jaxa on the border of China on the Amur river is a 20-day journey from the Great Wall. Three hundred Muscovite soldiers are stationed there. Here there had recently arisen disagreements between them and the Chinese (…)’
Indeed, in 1670 the Chinese sent troops to destroy the Polish stronghold. They might have been provoked by Nicefor’s attempts at establishing friendly relations with Russia: even though Jaxa had fought off a number of attacks by Russian forces, in 1669 the Pole started to send voluntary tribute to the Tsar’s officials.
Nicefor knew that his country, lying precariously between the two giant powers, couldn’t last on its own much longer. He felt compelled to strike some sort of deal with the Tsar. Retaliation from the Chinese was inevitable.
Miraculously, the Pole managed to repel the Chinese attack. It must have impressed the Russian ruler because two years later he… condemned Nicefor to death. It turned out it was a legal device opening the way for a Royal pardon of the Pole, issued just two days after the death sentence. The Pole was promptly made governor and, in 1674, Jaxa became part of Russia.
The fall of Jaxa & today
The last confirmed episode in Nicefor’s life was when he led a victorious foray into Manchuria in 1675. The mission’s objective was to repatriate members of the Daur tribe displaced by the Chinese. The fort he had built a country from was later demolished by Chinese forces in 1685, but almost certainly well after the Pole’s death from old age.
If you visit the former site of fort Jaxa today, you’ll find the Russian settlement of Albazin, with the Amur river it sits upon making up part of the Russian-Chinese border. One of the few traces left of Nicefor Chernichowski’s unusual history is the Mother of God icon that had belonged to the monk Hermogenes which is still on display.
If it wasn’t for this, it would be hard to believe that this place, nearly 4,000 miles away from Warsaw, had been a small sovereign piece of Poland.
Author: Marek Kępa, May 2017