Back in the early 1990s, when I was trying to pitch the idea of including Vladivostok-listed stocks in Asian emerging markets funds, I was told by one Hong Kong fund manager that “Asia stops at the Amur River.” Three decades or so on, that aphorism might still serve to summarize the findings contained in Franck Billé and Caroline Humphrey’s On the Edge: Life along the Russia-China Border.

There are, in a very general sense, two kinds of travel memoir. In the first, writers take you on a journey somewhere they know very well. They share with you their deep understanding of the place—its people, its history and its geography. The authors’ physical journey is for the most part a literary scaffold upon which they hang their knowledge and expertise. In the second kind of travel memoir, the author is a direct proxy for the reader: as clueless and naïve as you—though perhaps a little braver—embarking together on the journey from the same starting point. You see new experiences and sights through the author’s eyes, and slowly develop the ability to interpret and understand these new surroundings. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the courageous Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize-winning author of the Gulag Archipelago who died in 2008, considered The Red Wheel his most important work. Its ten volumes cover Russia from pre-World War I days to the fall of the Romanov dynasty and the early months of the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Red Wheel was the author’s monumental effort to identify the crucial turning point in 20th century Russian history, and Solzhenitsyn’s admirers consider it and Gulag his “two great literary cathedrals”.

Writers did a lot of shouting during the establishment of the Soviet Union. The literary salons being empty, they had to harangue the people, be heard over the crowd, and, as Katerina Clark wryly points out in Eurasia Without Borders, they had to shout because their public could not always understand the language they spoke.

In the annals of Russian and Soviet literature and drama, Sergei Tretyakov is not perhaps the first name on the list. He remains, says Robert Leach, “curiously elusive”. Yet he was “absolutely at the heart of avant-garde modernism”, collaborating closely with Sergei Eisenstein, “one of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s most intimate associates” and an influence on Bertolt Brecht. This new and accessible literary biography brings the man and his work to life, and reinstates him at the center of some of the 20th-century’s most important cultural developments, a dynamic life cut short when in 1937 he, like so many others, fell foul of Josef Stalin.