China shares borders with 14 other countries, more than almost any other nation. Its near neighbors represent a diverse collection of countries, from dominant powers such as Russia and India, to the smaller emerging nations of Laos and Bhutan. Throughout China’s history, it is through these borders that the influencing forces of trade, ideology and imperialism have traveled. China’s border regions have resumed their importance in recent years with political protest among the country’s ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the development of the One Belt, One Road initiative—which seeks to further bind China’s neighbors to its economic agenda through the creation of a “New Silk Road”. As it currently stands, China’s borders represent an opportunity for trade and cultural exchange, but also a risk from political agitation, terrorism and even military conflict.  

Shukshin’s Stories is a dramatization of eight short stories by Soviet-era writer Vasily Shukshin (1929-74). If you know little or nothing about him or Moscow’s Theatre of Nations which presented it, you would not—at least among English-speakers—be alone and would have, at least until last night, had me as company. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it can sometimes lead to it.

While it may be true, as writes Robert Sutter in the introduction to National Bureau of Asian Research’s excellent report “Russia-China Relations”, that “The United States has a long experience in assessing the twists and turns of the relationship between Russia and China and what it means for US interests”, most casual (Western-oriented) observers are probably more likely to see international relations as a hub-and-spoke system with the US at the center, rather that the mesh network it actually is.

The recurring themes of Manchuria’s history—and Empire and Environment in the Making of Manchuria, edited by Norman Smith—are colonization and the environment.

Over centuries, Manchuria—the region covering the remote northeast of modern-day China—has been fought over by competing imperial powers. Its geographic location at the intersection of three of the 20th century’s most powerful empires—Russia, China and Japan—has seen Manchuria play host to a series of conflicts (both hot and cold) from the 1600s until the end of the Chinese civil war in the mid-20th century.

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.