A FEW years ago, Yuri Mamatiuk was a Russian scholar of Chinese in Moscow.
But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the academic has moved his family to Beijing and plunged into the hurly-burly of the largely unofficial trade booming between Russia and China.
"Before, Chinese and Russians could only deal with one another at a government level," says the scholar who deals in "shiploads and planeloads" of machinery, textiles, shoes, and other goods. "Now, after the breakdown of the system in Russia, it's everyone for himself."
Amid economic chaos and rising unemployment at home, tens of thousands of Russian traders, peddlers, and job seekers regularly crisscross the border. They come to transport Chinese-made goods by train, truck, and car to sell at huge markups back in Russia. Some Russians come here to make a good wage in a bar or restaurant, or even settle down in China's booming economy.
Equal numbers of Chinese stream into Russia to make fly-by-night sales trips, establish a small business, or get a cheap education at a Russian university.
The mingling of Chinese and Russians, which would have been unheard of during the Soviet era when the two nations viewed each other warily, is not without friction. Yet a furious trade that has reached $4 billion (according to an estimate released by the Russian embassy) is relentlessly driving Russian-Chinese relations into new territory.
"Of course, there are a lot of consular problems," says Igor Rogachev, the Russian ambassador to China. "We cannot control how many Russians are coming here. Nor can we control people going from here to Russia."
During Russian President Boris Yeltsin's mid-December visit here, there was talk of opening new border points to try to get control of trade. A customs-collection structure is in place at the border, but it is applied in various degrees. Chinese traders often claim that they are gouged by Russian customs officials.
For the Russians and Chinese, getting to know each other after decades of communist rivalry is not a smooth process. The Russians are deeply resented and often poorly treated in what some Western observers see as a sign of Chinese xenophobia. In recent months, the Chinese press has been full of horror stories of young Russian girls, many former secretaries, students, and even teachers, hired to work as waitresses. The women, known as yang da gong mei or foreign girl worker, can earn a lucrative $100 a mo nth. Many of the women who come looking for work discover after taking up their jobs that they are expected to work as prostitutes.
For the Chinese, employing a foreigner is somewhat of a historical vindication, explains an article in Shantou Special Zone Daily, a newspaper in southern China.
"Chinese customers say that they feel a sense of national pride when served by Russian girls," the article observed. "In the past what we heard was Chinese working as dishwashers, waiters, or bellboys overseas for survival."
Wu Jianmin, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said in February that China has agreed to work with Russia "in suppressing this phenomena."
On the other side of the border, large numbers of Chinese are enrolled in Russian universities and vocational colleges, many sponsored by their parents or Chinese businessmen looking to expand into the lucrative Russian market.
According to Chinese press reports, a Chinese student can undertake a two-year language study at a Russian university for about $1,500, two-thirds of the cost of a four-year college education in a Chinese university.
Yet abuses are creeping in as unscrupulous Chinese recruiters sometimes fail to provide the promised college instruction once the student reaches Russia.
In addition, Chinese traders and residents complain of poor treatment at the hands of some Russians.
"Russian customs [inspectors] sometimes overreact in examining Chinese," says a Chinese scholar of Russia. "There are cases of discrimination against the Chinese and of in-fighting among Chinese laborers in Russia."
Still, Chinese and Russian observers predict that the difficulties won't deter the movement of two peoples drawn together for the first time by the chance to make money.
"At the central level, bilateral trade is still limited. The Russian central government remains cooler than the grassroots governments towards China," says a Chinese expert on the former Soviet Union.
"The regional governments in Russia are more enthusiastic towards ties with China. So border trade is developing very fast," he says.