Philip Snow opens his engaging, and refreshingly straightforward, history of Sino-Russian relations with an observation born out ever more frequently in the opinion pages of current (at least English-language) newspapers: “Ever since they emerged from the rubble of the Second World War Western societies have looked with apprehension on either Russia, or China, or both.” Today, it’s fair to say, it’s probably “both”.

The tradition of great oral epics survived on the Inner Asian steppe perhaps as long as any other place on earth. At the dawn of the 20th century scholars managed to record bards singing stories that might have been five centuries or more in the retelling, embellishment and polishing. Jangar is one such epic, belonging to the Kalmyk people, once the left wing of Genghis Khan’s armies, now a minority people in the Russian Federation. Russian-educated Kalmyks collected these tales, and their work somehow survived the Russian Civil War and Stalin’s ferocious persecution of the Kalmyks and their literature. Translated into English for the first time by Saglar Bougdaeva, non-Russian, non-Kalmyk readers can now appreciate these tales.

At the end of the Second World War, about 600,000 Japanese soldiers were taken prisoner after the Soviet Union swept through Manchuria in the very final days of the war. Instead of returning them to Japan, the Soviet Union held them in prison camps in the Russian Far East for over a decade. The last group was released in 1956, eleven years after the Japanese surrender.

Kazakhstan, like Ukraine and Belarus, temporarily became a potential nuclear weapons power after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Soviets had deployed 104 SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) containing more than 1400 nuclear warheads in the Kazakh steppe. These were the largest and most threatening land-based Soviet nuclear weapons, and their future control was uncertain in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Togzhan Kassenova, a senior fellow at the University of Albany, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a native Kazakh whose father was head of Kazakhstan’s Center for Strategic Studies at the time, tells the story of the diplomatic minuet between Kazakhstan, Russia, and the United States in the early- and mid-1990s that resulted in Kazakhstan’s surrender of any claim over those weapons in her new and timely book Atomic Steppe