Vladimir K Arsenyev was an army officer, explorer and writer active in Russia’s Far East in the waning years of the Romanov dynasty. His major claim to fame, outside Russia at any rate, is having introduced the world to the aboriginal hunter and trapper Dersu Uzala, who several decades later became the subject of an Oscar-winning film by Akira Kurosawa.
Arsenyev undertook several expeditions in the mountainous region roughly between Vladivostok and the Chinese border in the first years of the twentieth-century, ostensibly to survey the region’s infrastructure. But Arsenyev’s extensive field journals became the basis of two books of what would now be called “travel literature”. Across the Ussuri Kray: Travels in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains was the first of these, published in Vladivostok in 1921 in the midst of the Russian Civil War, and is the account of of two separate expeditions in 1902 and 1906. This volume is available in a new translation by Jonathan C Slaght.
While translation, or the lack thereof, remains an item of often animated discussion in the world of books, it is less of an issue in film: books, you see, cannot be subtitled. So the Russian-Ukrainian film Battle for Sevastopol was able to make it to Hong Kong in just a year.
In a corner of the Russian Far East, just across the Chinese border and wedged in between Heilongjiang’s upturned chin and lip, lies the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Region) whose capital is Birobidzhan. The Oblast is somewhat larger than Israel, but with a fraction of the population: it peaked at 214,000 in the late 1980s, and has dropped by some 20% since then. The Oblast is neither very autonomous nor terribly Jewish—well under 2000 Jews live there now. Where the Jews Aren’t, Masha Gessen’s story of this peculiar place, has an apt title.
It can be hard to know what is going on in the Russian world of writing and books due to barriers of language; one only really knows what leaks for one reason or another into the English language press. In this regard, Chinese and Russian literature bear some similarities, at least from an English-language perspective looking in. Unfamiliar languages and undecipherable scripts leave both relatively inaccessible; English-speakers usually only view the worlds of Chinese and Russian literature through the tiny keyhole of a small number of not necessarily representative translations.
A visit to the Moscow International Book Fair pulls back the curtain at least a little.