LIFE ON THE EASTERN FRONTIER 1865 – 2020

Black Dragon River: A Journey down the Amur River at the Borders of Empires by Dominic Ziegler. Penguin Press. 2015. 

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan Slaght. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2020. 

Across the Ussuri Kray: Travels in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains by Vladimir K. Arsenyev, translation and notes by Jonathan Slaght. Indiana University Press. 2016.

Tent Life in Siberia: A New Account of an Old Undertaking, Adventures among the Koraks and Other Tribes In Kamchatka and Northern Asia by George Kennan. Public Domain Book. 1870.

Four good books about eastern Russia. I listened to the Audible edition of the first one several years ago and don’t recall much, except that it is more concerned with history than the others. The first empire Ziegler ties to the Amur is Genghis Kahn’s in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the largest land empire in history. It began on the steppes near the headwaters of the river and eventually extended from Eastern Europe to the Pacific. Since then the Amur has been the setting for imperial conflicts, some continuing to the present. Much of the book deals with Russian expansion into far eastern Asia, beginning in the eighteenth century. Many of the Russian cities in Amur basin were built by immigrants from the west: Cossacks, Old Believers, exiled Decembrists, freed serfs, criminals and adventurers. 

Russians apparently believed that, like Americans, their destiny in the nineteenth century was the Pacific. Russia seized a vast amount of Chinese territory. The boundary with China, much of it following the Amur, was more or less settled in 1861, but the struggle for influence and economic advantage continued and continues to this day. When Japan occupied much of China in the 1930s, it appeared as if that empire might be poised to expand at the expense of the Soviet Union. It had already defeated Russia once earlier in the century. The decision of the Japanese militarists in 1941 to move south and west instead was a significant turning point in twentieth century history, allowing the Russians to concentrate all their forces to defeat Hitler’s invasion. 

Ziegler tried to follow the Amur from source to the sea. Much of the country is still remote, often harsh, and political restrictions still make travel difficult. He went on horseback in Mongolia to reach the source, by jeep and train and riverboat down the length of the Amur as far as Nicolayevsk, near the mouth on the Tatar Strait between the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. Many stretches of the river are off limits as military security zones – there was a clash in 1969 that came close to starting a war between China and the USSR. Sometimes Ziegler makes his own difficulties: an attempt at illicit trade with inmates of a Russian prison ends with him nearly being thrown into prison himself. A sympathetic police official let him off with a stern warning.

As a journalist, Ziegler, writes with great descriptive power and a sincere interest in the places he explores and people he meets. He assures us that the history of the Amur is far from over. Russian nationalism, despite its decrepit economy, versus growing Chinese ambition and resurgent economic power are still at play in this long running contest of empires.

Jonathan Slaght is a field biologist. His book is the story of his doctoral research, carried out in the river valleys along the coast of the Sea of Japan in the thinly settled country mostly occupied by loggers and subsistence hunters and trappers. His research subject is the fish owl, largest owl in the world. His goal was to understand the life history and ecology of the species in order to develop a conservation plan to prevent its extinction. He had lived long enough in Russia to speak the language fluently and had already done research on other endangered species like the Amur leopard and Siberian tiger.

The fieldwork challenges in this study were extreme. The few towns – Plastun, Terny, Amgu – are small and some are inaccessible except by ship. Roads are generally poor, often dangerous. The frozen rivers are the best highways in winter, but they can be treacherous. Housing was in remote villages, makeshift cabins and abandoned huts or his specially equipped, but unreliable, vehicles. Winter was the main field season, since only then were the owls on territories and continually active, feeding their young. Slaght and his local field assistants had to spend many nights sitting out, watching their snares that they used to capture owls for radio tagging. Through months of trail and error, with numerous setbacks, they learned when and where the owls nest, what types of trees and tree cavities they use, where they prefer to hunt and how big their territories are.

Much of the work was scouting to listen for territorial birds calling. This meant walking alone for miles up the rivers, bushwhacking through dense thickets, encountering bad weather and potentially dangerous animals. Equipment breakdowns and lack of supplies were constant problems, as were late arriving ships. Life in the towns and villages involved a lot of boredom and a lot of drinking – everyone he met seemed to want to see whether he could drink as much as they did. He spent summers back in the US, analyzing results and preparing for the next field season.

Slaght is a good, engaging writer, with a respect for the people he works with and those he encounters on the way. He is supported by and works with the local conservation organization. Given that much of what I knew about this region was focused on the environmental threats posed by logging and other pressures, I was gratified to learn that the efforts of the conservationists are meeting with some success. 

Vladimir Arsenyev was a soldier and surveyor, assigned to map the uncharted regions lying northeast of Vladivostok. The area was diverse, both biologically and ethnographically. Deciduous and coniferous forests, marshes, large and small rivers, lakes and seacoast still abounded in places with deer, wild boar, bear and tigers. Aboriginal tribes, Chinese, Koreans and Russians made a living from exploiting the resources and one another. Russian authority was recognized, but it was extremely tenuous in many parts of the area. Bandits still were a serious danger to travelers. The harsh climate, the scarcity of food at times and wildfires, which could quickly consume thousands of acres of forest, added to the hazards. 

Of all the local inhabitants Arsenyev encountered, there was no one as fascinating as the Gold (Nanai) tribesman and hunter, Dersu. Although at first he sees him as almost simpleminded, Arsenyev has the sense to listen to what he says, despite the oddities of his speech. He turns out to be an astonishing tracker, hunter and wilderness survivalist. More than once he saves Arsenyev’s life – from blizzard, fire, bandits. By the end of the narrative, it is clear that he loves and relies on this man (or perhaps “these men,” because, Arsenyev may actually have combined more than one individual into a single character in this account), whose understanding of the environment far surpasses his. 

The descriptions of travel and the conditions of life in the isolated villages and fanzas (semi-fortified homesteads) are fascinating. The picture of a region undergoing rapid change, as Russia is pursuing its goal of expansion to the Pacific (manifest destiny?) has the quality of deja vu for one who knows something about American history. I came away with a strong sense of Arsenyev as an observant, sympathetic human being, open to experiences far outside his familiar comfort zone. This is a remarkable book.

George Kennan (not closely related to the famous Cold Warrior) was an employee of the Russian-American Telegraph Company (Never heard of it? Neither had I) who was literally sent to Siberia in 1865 to survey a route and start building a telegraph line that would line America to Europe via the Bering Strait. The first Atlantic cable had failed in 1858, and the investors in R-A T were betting that it wasn’t going to ever work.

Landed on the Kamchatka Peninsula, Kennan and a few other Americans, with Russian associates, set out to map a route from the strait to the existing Russian far eastern wires. At the time, the Russian presence in the far eastern reaches was even more slight than in Arsenyev’s time, forty years later. The Cossacks had effectively established Russian political control over the past century or so, but only a small percentage of the indigenous peoples were really subjected to the authorities. The majority still lived as they had for centuries, primarily by hunting and herding reindeer. 

Kennan and his companions lived among these people for weeks at a time, utterly dependent on them for food, shelter and transport. He gives vivid pictures of life in the camps and on the trail. They had to do almost all the survey work in winter, because in the short summer, the boggy tundra becomes impassable. This meant encountering the full fury of the weather, often having to travel for days by dog sled while the thermometer registered minus 40 degrees and lower. Food was always short and often foul. Surprisingly, only one member of the whole survey team died during the two winters they worked there. 

Kennan’s writing is vivid, as when he describes the effect of ten teams of sled dogs coming over a rise and seeing a herd of several hundred reindeer in a native encampment: uncontrollable excitement, followed by chaos. Again, one night there was a prolonged, magnificent aurora, which he describes in stunning detail. More than anything else I read in these books, that made me want to go to the arctic. He also sometimes affects the nonchalance often seen in writers of the 19th century when describing hardships or narrow escapes. His descriptions of the native peoples are not especially nuanced, nor sympathetic; he dispenses words like “barbarous,” and “savage,” freely. He didn’t come prepared to learn from the people he met, so he mostly didn’t. I don’t think he could have had the kind of respect and affection that Arsenyev had for Dersu. Russian officials and aristocrats were more his kind of people, though even they often led him to remark on how different from Americans. 

In the end, the expedition got word that the Atlantic cable had been successfully laid, and there was no reason to proceed. They were left to make the journey back overland, across the entire length of Eurasia, much of it by horse drawn sledge, until they reached to eastern end of the railroad that would one day become the Trans-Siberian. It took many months to finally get home to the United States.

All four of these books were well worth reading.

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