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.
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.
In the triumvirate of superpowers, only China and Russia share a border. In Beyond the Amur, Victor Zatsepine discusses how that border, or rather the eastern section of it, came to be.
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.
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.