Most of our understanding of the Mongol Empire begins and ends with Chinggis Khan and his sweep across Asia. His name is now included among conquerors whose efforts burn bright and burn out quick: Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and so on.
The papers are currently full of articles and commentary on the ever-closer relationship between China and Russia, of their compatible economies, state visits, joint projects, shared geopolitical interests and camaraderie between their leaders.
The cover of Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present, with its photo of the massive walls of the Ark Fortress in Bukhara, is something of a bait and switch. The book flies through that period implied by picture: the “imperial conquests” of the subtitle are not those of Genghis Khan or Timur, but rather the later ones by China and Russia: conquests of Central Asia, not by.
Classically Russian in length and possibly ambition, Vladimir Gonik’s Orchestra, recently translated into English by Christopher Culver, might prove the sleeper of the year. Three interlocking narratives and families play out over almost 40 years with the doomed Korean Air Lines flight 007 as the linchpin.
A short story is an unlikely review subject, but “Person of Korea” has several things going for it: first, it’s by Paul Yoon and in its detached observational style is illustrative of the author’s other work. Second, it’s set among the Korean diaspora in the Russia Far East; although the Russian Far East has begun to feature in an increasing amount of fiction, the only other work with this particular combination that comes to mind is Jeff Talarigo’s The Ginseng Hunter. And third, it’s available online at The Atlantic.
“The Volga! There is a mystery, a charm in all mighty rivers, which has ever made us gaze upon them with an interest beyond that inspired by other great and glorious sights; but to look on the largest of the European rivers gave a thrill of joy surpassing all former pleasure of the kind.”
Riding to join the army in Armenia, Russia’s greatest poet Alexander Sergeievich Pushkin met a ox-cart heading in the opposite direction, carrying a plain box made of planks. “What are you carrying?” the poet asked the carters. “Griboedov”, came the answer. That was Pushkin’s last encounter with his friend, namesake, fellow playwright, diplomat, and now terrorist victim, Alexander Sergeievich Griboedov. Yuri Tynyanov’s 1929 biographical novel describes the last year of the hero’s life and his death, offering a portrait of Russia’s Golden Age of literature as well as a veiled critique of Stalin’s Soviet Union.