Russia in East Asia

An Amur tiger An Amur tiger

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.

Early exploration

Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America by Owen Matthews: Rezanov went both to Japan and to Russia’s possessions in the Americas, and continued down to then Spanish-ruled San Francisco. This is the story of an “imperial dreamer” and an excellent basic introduction to Russian Asiatic and Pacific history through about 1810.

A World of Empires: The Russian Voyage of the Frigate Pallada by Edyta M Bojanowska: a discussion of the 1850 voyage by the Pallada, and its literary scribe Ivan Goncharov, to “open Japan”. Bojanowska tells of Goncharov, often in his own words, and layers in a discussion of Russia’s attempt to be an imperial player in East Asia.

Russia and China

Beyond the Amur by Victor Zatsepine: In the triumvirate of superpowers, only China and Russia share a border. Zatsepine discusses how that border, or rather the eastern section of it, came to be. Beyond the Amur runs from 1850 to 1930, by which time the imperial ambitions of the previous century were transforming into the geopolitics that lead to the Second World War.

From the Tsar’s Railway to the Red Army: The Experience of Chinese Labourers in Russia during the First World War and Bolshevik Revolution by Mark O’Neill is a Penguin China Special that traces the virtually unknown episode of Chinese labourers who went to help Russia’s war efforts and who ended being caught up in the maelstrom of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Bear Watches the Dragon: Russia’s Perceptions of China and the Evolution of Russian-Chinese Relations Since the Eighteenth Century by Alexander Lukin is a good introduction to Sino-Russia relations from the Russian point of view.

Where Empires Collided by Michael Share. Share has taken on the history of Russian and Soviet involvement on China’s ocean periphery in an effort to, as he says, “demarginalize” the history of Russian and Soviet relations with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao. His urge to do this comes from access to previously closed Russian archives. Access to a mother lode of new and unmined primary material as an historian’s dream and Share works hard to make the most of it.


Books on international relations can date. Here is a review of two 2017 reports on Sino-Russian relations from The National Bureau of Asian Research and the Crisis Group. Some older volumes are:

The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order: National Identities, Bilateral Relations, and East versus West in the 2010s by Gilbert Rozman is less about the “Challenge” of its title than the “National Identities” in its subtitle. Indeed, Rozman casts the subject almost entirely in the context of what he terms “national identity studies”.

The Future of China-Russian Relations, edited by James Bellacqua. The contributors to this well-researched and comprehensive collection of essays deal with more with the recent past of the Sino-Russian relationship than with the future contained in the book’s title.

Axis of Convenience by Bobo Lo. Bobo Lo has worked as a diplomat in Russia, and spent time in China while working on this study. Few are as well qualified as him to talk dispassionately about a relationship which arouses strong passions on both the Chinese and Russian side, but which few outside observers really understand. The book dates from 2008.

Russia and Japan at war

Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear: Russia’s War with Japan by Richard Connaughton. The Russian Japanese conflict in Manchuria in 1904-5 was the first of a new style of war. It heralded the horrors that became the signature of the First World War: scything machine guns, pounding artillery, trench systems, barbed wire and mine warfare.

Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 1918-1922 by Paul E Dunscomb: One lesser-known, arguably almost forgotten, aspects of WWI was the Japanese intervention in Siberia. Troops from other countries, notably the United States, also took part but were dwarfed by the sheer number of Japanese troops (which reached 70,000). The Japanese also stayed for two years after the rest of the Allied Forces withdrew in 1920.

Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II by Stuart D Goldman identifies the key initial event of the Second World War as being the obscure 1939 Battle of Nomonhan. If you haven’t heard of it, you might—possibly—know of it as the Battle of Khalkhyn Gol. For several months in the summer of 1939, Japanese forces and the Red Army clashed over the disputed Manchurian-Mongolian border.

Siberia and the Russian Far East: travel, history, culture

A History of Siberia and the Russian Far East 1581-1991 by Alan Wood: academic in tone and treatment; while not for the casual reader, it very efficiently provides a great deal of background.

The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer: Truth may sometimes be, if not stranger than fiction, then more compelling. Baron Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg was a Russian aristocrat of German extraction in what is now Estonia who became, through conquest, the last Khan of Mongolia for a short-lived reign of terror and murder in 1921.

Across the Ussuri Kray: Travels in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains by Vladimir K Arsenyev, translated by Jonathan C Slaght: Arsenyev undertook several expeditions in the mountainous region roughly between Vladivostok and the Chinese border in the first years of the 20th-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”.

Through Siberia By Accident by Dervla Murphy: Siberia is an almost incomprehensibly huge and very sparsely populated tract of land: those places even slightly known to outside comprise only a tiny portion of the area. Murphy brings the place and its people to life. She is erudite on the history, sociology and, especially, the ecology of the place.

The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia by Anna Reid is a combination of history, anthropology and travel book, erudite and witty, weaving four centuries of history with present reality, into a readable and educational narrative.

Kolyma Diaries: A Journey into Russia’s Haunted Hinterland by Jacek Hugo-Bader who hitchhikes from Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk more than 2000 kilometres to Yakutsk, and keeps a diary along the way. Hugo-Bader also wrote White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia: a story about a journey and the breakdowns, roads that are little more than tracks, the close escapes.

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier is is just that, telling the story of Frazier’s several trips to Siberia over a period of a decade or more. These include a west-to-east drive across Siberia, finishing at the Pacific, sandwiched between a relatively short hop across the Bering Sea from Alaska to Chukotka and a wintertime expedition, over a period of a decade or more. Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene is The account of his 2013 trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow through Siberia to Vladivostok.

The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger by Sooyong Park. Siberia doesn’t seem to be an obvious home for tigers: the jungles of South and Southeast Asia, perhaps, but not the forests and frigid winters of Asia’s north. And yet the wilderness of Russia’s Far East is home to a subspecies of this elegant animal.

Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region by Masha Gessen: 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. What stands out are Gessen’s qualities as a storyteller, one able to weave together political history, biography and personal experience into a singularly poignant tale.