Russia is once again much in the news, although the focus has been mostly westward-looking with the occasional southerly diversion to the Middle East. It’s worth remembered that Russia is the only major power other than the US which straddles a continent, giving it a physical presence that faces east as well as west. Here is an overview of some the books we have reviewed which cover Russia and East Asia.
Anton Chekhov, it appears, was not the first Russian literary luminary to visit Hong Kong. Chekhov had stopped off in October 1890 and wrote about its “wonderful bay”. English-language literature had to wait until Somerset Maugham came through more than a quarter-century later. But Chekhov was beaten to the punch by Ivan Goncharov who stopped by in 1853.
It’s pretty hard to compete with the invention of the chariot, the Silk Road, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, so Christoph Baumer’s fourth and presumably final volume in his magisterial history of Central Asia is something of a mopping up operation.
Moscow’s Red Square and Bangkok’s Imperial Queen’s Park wouldn’t seem to have much in common but for the main characters in Anatoly Kurchatkin’s enjoyable and fascinating novel Tsunami, translated by Arch Tait from the original Russian, there is much that unites these disparate locales.
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.