Russia’s Asian hinterland is overshadowed by the country’s much smaller European component.
KHABAROVSK, RUSSIA - JANUARY 24: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) People walks on the frozen Amur River on January 24, 2006 in Khabarovsk, Russia. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)PHOTO: ASAHI SHIMBUN VIA GETTY IMAGES
HOWARD W. FRENCH
That Russia is the world’s largest country is one of those fun facts that most of us tuck away in our minds somewhere during elementary school, only to recall when it comes up as a trivia question. If we think of Russian geography at all, it mostly tends to be in relation to Europe, where West and East faced off during the Cold War, and where lately Russia has brought new pressure to bear on Ukraine, the Baltic states and nearby Turkey.
What accounts for most of Russia’s size, by far, however, is the country’s vast and frequently neglected eastward extension. The Asian hinterland, which gives Russia one of the world’s longest border, with China, provides it frigid ports in the Northwest Pacific, and all but connects the country with the United States through the Aleutian Islands and Alaska, which (schoolchildren might also recall) Moscow once owned.
In his ambitious “Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderland of Empires,” Dominic Ziegler makes the powerful case that this Asian Russia has been wrongly overshadowed by the country’s much smaller European component. More compellingly still, he shows how the country’s future is bound up with that of China, and argues that despite what seems like a happy alliance today, many Russians already find the situation deeply disquieting.
BLACK DRAGON RIVER
By Dominic Ziegler Penguin Press, 357 pages, $27.95
Russians have long suffered Europe envy, famously including Catherine the Great and other 18th and 19th-century elites who preferred French over their own language. But as Mr. Ziegler demonstrates, it was pressures from the east that created the Russia that we know, both in terms of its expansive imperial geography and its national temperament. “Scratch a Russian and you find a Tatar,” he writes, adopting a quote attributed to Napoleon.
As the book’s subtitle indicates, Mr. Ziegler uses one of the world’s great rivers as a vehicle to pursue this story—and what a vehicle it is. Outside of Russia, the Amur enjoys little of the fame of the Nile or the Amazon, and one comes away from this book with a keen appreciation for how undeserving this relative anonymity is. “At 2,826 miles,” he writes, “it is longer than the Congo or the Mekong.” Other Russian rivers, like the Ob, the Lena and the Yenisei, which together form an immense network with the Amur, he explains, each drain expanses of land as large as Western Europe.
What makes the Amur special, in addition to its great length, is that it alone flows from west to east. Rather than dumping into the Arctic, like Russia’s other major rivers, it empties into the Pacific. The significance of this is that when it froze over each winter, it created a natural highway made of ice that could bear Russian settlers and fortune seekers eastward as they integrated a Siberian territory more expansive than the surface of the moon into Moscow’s embrace.
Early on, Russia’s eastward orientation was hardly a matter of choice. Like much of Europe, Russia came under assault from Mongol conquerors in the 13th century. Russian princes maintained semi-autonomy only by paying them lucrative tribute, but when the Mongol tide finally receded, around 1582, Russia turned its own energies eastward, building frontier forts and trading posts. Initially, this was mostly a matter of defense, as Moscow sought to control ever more distant approaches to the Russian heartland. With time, though, other motives took hold. First came food, in the form of hearty and boundless river fish; then lucre, in the form of seemingly endless supplies of sable, the so-called “soft gold” that was hunted almost to extinction. After that followed, beginning around 1800, a similar pursuit of fur seals that were killed in numbers reminiscent of the slaughter of American buffalo.
In Mr. Ziegler’s telling, the American comparison, it turns out, is far more than incidental. Russia was one of the world’s last great geographical empires to take form, and Moscow’s geopolitical dreams were consciously inspired in part by observing America’s westward expansion. “In Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russians consumed the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, chronicler of the American frontier,” Mr. Ziegler writes. “The newspapers were full of tales of the California gold rush that was then under way. . . . the [Amur] River would be Russia’s Mississippi. The supposedly lush region the Amur River drained was to be a new America.”
Pushing east eventually brought the Russians into uneasy contact with another great, late expanding empire, China’s Qing Dynasty, with which Moscow signed a treaty on territorial matters that was so evenhanded that neither empire’s language was used during the negotiations. Rather, in the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, Latin was. But this seemingly felicitous start to relations with China has mostly been followed by deep suspicion and occasionally sharp hostility. After serving as allies early in the Cold War, the two Communist powers fell out, and nearly went to nuclear war with each other across their heavily armed Amur River border in the 1960s.
Nowadays, despite mostly warm official ties—as close as lips to teeth, in Chinese propaganda—a deep undercurrent of tension exists. Russians fear that the Chinese will overwhelm them not so much economically, which has largely already happened, but by steadily filling the vast and sparsely peopled Russian east with Chinese immigrants, stealthily annulling a Russian claim to the land that China has never fully accepted.
Mr. Ziegler, the Asia editor of the Economist, writes beautifully, and with the fervor of a naturalist, about the destruction being wrought on the boreal forests of Siberia, which he calls the world’s largest terrestrial ecosystem, as he catalogs an immense variety of species: plant, mammal, fish and fowl, and he lingers fondly over the variety of cranes that migrate there. All this biodiversity is put at risk, he argues, by the extensive and largely unregulated logging. “The timber is all bound for China,” he writes. “In 1996 merely half a million cubic meters of Russian timber, eighteen million cubic feet, made its way across the border.” By now, he writes, an area equivalent in size to Iceland is being logged each year. Siberia’s forests are being “raped.”
But this is not what worries most Russians. The “China Question,” in the popular imagination, is a new take on an age-old specter: fear of a supposed yellow peril. Russia’s population is in decline, and Chinese newcomers are ever present in the otherwise nearly empty vastness of the Russian east. “There’s eight million Russians in the Russian Far East,” a man named Vasily tells the author. “And the same number of Chinese. That is not what the government tells you, but it’s what everybody says. I believe them because I can see with my own two eyes. The Chinese, they’re everywhere—on the streets, on the building sites, in the fields doing the farm work. Everywhere.”
—Mr. French teaches at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of “China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.”
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.