May 2016

Kevin Frazier

nonfiction

Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires by Dominic Ziegler

The first Russians to visit the Sikhote-Alin forests on the coast of the Far East were terrified of the fireflies and shot at them in the night.

This seems to have been the Russian response to much of what they found near the Amur River: "Kill it, just to be safe." It's possible the Amur takes its Russian name from the name used by the Daurians who once lived in the region. But we'll never know for sure, Dominic Ziegler notes in Black Dragon River, because the Russians wiped the Daurians out.

The Amur River fixes nearly 2,000 miles of the border between Russia and China. It runs roughly from Mongolia to Russia's eastern coast. Its length can be traced from the headwaters of its most distant source in Mongolia's Khentii mountains to its mouth at the Strait of Tartary.

Russia and China are so huge that we might not quite feel the size of the Amur when we see its squiggle on the map. It flows a total of 2,826 miles. This makes it, Ziegler points out, "longer than America is broad."

Ziegler travels mainly along the Russian side of the Amur. His journey starts in Mongolia, ends in Nikolaevsk. Along the way he tells the history at each of his stopping points. He goes from horror to horror, injustice to injustice. There's little here we haven't seen before in our own American aggression, and nothing that equals, say, the nightmare of a Deep South slave plantation. Few of us, though, know this particular series of brutalities. "Looking back," Ziegler writes, "I do not think I imagined to find in such empty country the degree of violence and cruelty I encountered in the history of the early Russians moving east."

It's fitting that the book starts in Mongolia. The Mongol Empire forms the great link between the Chinese and Russian dimensions of the Amur's past. Russians usually date their conquest of Siberia to 1582. This is when the river pirate Yermak led his band of Cossacks against Kuchum, khan of "the last remnant of the Golden Horde." The czar rewarded Yermak with some heavy new armor. "It was the gift that killed him," Ziegler writes, adding: "while fighting across a Siberian river, he sank swiftly to the bottom."

Yermak's victory over Kuchum established the Cossacks as the defenders of Russia's borders. The Russians moved east, advanced not through great battles but through "a flurry of skirmishes" and "a scattering of frontier forts and trading posts." From 1580 to 1639, they "crossed and settled a Siberian landmass greater in extent than the face of the moon."

Their abuse of the different native groups began immediately. The Russians followed Mongol custom and imposed yasak, "a tribute of fur demanded from every able-bodied male." Siberia's sable, its "soft gold," was hugely profitable. "Fur," Ziegler says, "accounted for a third of the annual revenues to the Russian state exchequer." The yasak extortion racket started with the Russians taking hostages. Now and then the hostages would be put on display, "to both reassure and intimidate."

The extortion grew more vicious as the Russian governors grew more corrupt. Anyone refusing to pay could expect harsh punishment: "Hostages were murdered, villages torched, and winter stores seized." One Russian leader, Golovin, "took to hanging up recalcitrants by meat hooks."

The oppression was so extreme that native Siberians had little incentive to cooperate. Instead, they often chose rebellion. In Golovin's territory, the Yakuts gathered to revolt. Golovin and his Cossacks were merciless in their response. Poyarkov, Golovin's favorite henchman, was "proud to report the torture and slaughter of hundreds of native men, women, and children." By the 1680s, seventy-percent of the old Yakut population was gone.

Sexual exploitation was also part of the mix. "The Cossacks began collecting women and girls as they collected pelts," Ziegler says. The women were chattel, "passed with casual cruelty among the woodsmen, lost and won during gambling sessions."

The cruelty wasn't directed solely at the natives. Golovin "applied the knout, pliers, and hot coals to his own men, and their Russian wives." Ziegler notes that "the violence the Russians brought with them respected neither race nor rank." Four of the leaders of the Siberian settlements, he says, "were murdered by underlings."

In Ziegler's view, "the stain of early conquest lies over the Russian Far East like original sin." He gives special prominence to the first series of atrocities that the Cossacks committed in the Amur lands during the 1600s.

When Yakutsk began running out of grain, for instance, Golovin sent out Poyarkov and a team of Cossacks. Their job was to find the Amur. By the time they encountered the native Daurs, the Cossacks were close to starving. Eventually they turned to cannibalism. They "set to tracking Daurians, as well as eating the corpses of comrades who had starved to death."

Khabarov, another adventurer, came to Yakutsk in 1649. He had received official permission to conquer Amur territory on behalf of the czar. He attacked the village of Guigudar, killed over 600 men. This was in addition to the mass rape and seizure of hundreds of women and girls.

Distracted by internal problems, China tolerated Russia's Amur ambitions until the 1680s. Then the Kangxi emperor decided enough was enough. He prepared his Manchu soldiers to march on Albazino, the Amur's outlaw independent state, settled in part by fugitives. The Manchu warriors laid siege to Albazino's 826 defenders. The siege left only seventy of the defenders alive.

After this, from the 1700s through the 1840s, Russia turned its attention away from the Amur and toward the northeast. Shelikov, the "Russian Columbus," launched his far-flung settlements, founded on the wealth of sea otter pelts. After he claimed Kodiak Island, he created a makeshift New World empire. It "spread down the coast of the Pacific Northwest, or Russian America as it was coming to be known." His settlements went as far south as today's Sonoma County, California. It's always fun to think how different the world would be if Russian America had continued to grow. In the end, though, the sea otters were hunted to extinction and Shelikov's settlements died off.

Overall, Ziegler shows a keen sense of proportion in deciding how much to tell us. Black Dragon River is a terrific piece of journalistic travel writing: informative, gripping, vivid. The whole book benefits from Ziegler's solid professionalism, a reminder of his years at The Economist, where he's now the Asia editor. The range of skills and knowledge that he brings to his Amur journey is impressive. He writes equally well about the skyscrapers in Beijing and the "spoor of vodka bottles" in Mongolia, the exiled Decembrists and Madame Blavatsky, the "checkerboard of mineral tones" in the Gobi Desert and the "riotous fretwork" of Irkutsk's architecture. He has a gift for catching sights in the glance of a quick phrase: a burly priest with "a gold tooth that flashed through his beard," a carp with eyes "set lower than the corners of a despondent mouth," a drunk who "tilted, his feet splayed, into a private gale of misfortune."

He gives us surprisingly few personal travel anecdotes, but the ones he does provide make an impression. In Nerchinsk he gets in trouble with both the police and the town mafia when he takes up a young ex-convict on an offer to buy a knife from the local prison. The ex-con says he hangs out in front of the prison because it has "become home to him" and because he likes to remember the "good times" there. Then on a train ride Ziegler meets Viktor, an elegant modern Cossack who has recast the whole of Russia's past "into fantastic shapes to give it Cossack purpose." Viktor claims Genghis Khan wasn't Mongolian but Russian. He also says his great-grandfather once shot two Chinese people he saw moving on the far bank of the Amur. Asked why he shot them, the great-grandfather replied: "You never can tell. You never can tell what's on their minds." Similarly, in a passage that echoes through the book, Ziegler talks to a beggar whose son has just died. The son had gone on a fishing trip with a couple of men who insisted he drink with them. When he refused, the men shot him. The beggar says to Ziegler: "There are many such stories here."

I have two complaints, both a little unfair. First, Ziegler makes only one visit to the China side of the Amur. The three pages he devotes to his time in Heihe are so interesting that they call for another volume, one devoted to the Chinese experience of the Amur. Ziegler describes much of Russia's past with China, but largely from the Russian viewpoint. When I finished the book, I still wanted Ziegler to head out along the opposite bank, through the Amur territories in China's northeast, even if this is something Beijing is unlikely to allow.

As Zeigler presents it, China's relationship with Russia combines trust, suspicion and mutual neglect. The trust, he repeatedly reminds us, springs from the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. Peter the Great and the Kangxi emperor fixed the Sino-Russian border and left both sides satisfied. Compared to China's later agreements with Western imperialists, Nerchinsk was, in China's view, an equal treaty. Ziegler gives much credit to Nerchinsk: "the subliminal sense that this first treaty was one negotiated on a basis of equality tempers relations between the two powers to this day -- in contrast to China's ever more troubled relations with others."

Not that the Chinese and the Russians have always gotten along, or are guaranteed to avoid larger conflicts in the future. Russia, like America, has often called on the Chinese to provide cheap labor and has returned the favor with mistreatment and contempt. When Ziegler gets to Blagoveshchensk, with Heihe across the river, he finds himself "at the chief conduit of exchange -- and misunderstanding -- between the two empires." In 1900, in the days of the Boxer Rebellion, one-fourth of Blagoveshchensk's population was Chinese. The Russians "could not comprehend that the Boxer uprising was directed at them too." Ziegler quotes a Blagoveshchensk resident from the time: "So accustomed had everyone become to looking on China and the Chinese with utter disdain [...] that there was hardly anyone who expected a serious war."

During the Soviet era, and for years afterward, Amur Russians indulged a deep condescension toward China. They accepted, Ziegler says, "the common description of the awestruck Chinese looking at his first hair dryer" and being overwhelmed by the sophistication of Russia's products. In Blagoveshchensk, however, Ziegler sees a photo of a businessman in the city's first Rolls-Royce. The businessman is Chinese, and represents "a world turned upside down" in the minds of many Russians. "Once," Ziegler says, "Moscow was China's biggest provider of aid." Now it's rumored that "the Chinese invest more in the Russian Far East than the Russians themselves."

This reversal is even more obvious when Ziegler crosses the river to Heihe. Earlier, a Russian woman has told Ziegler that Heihe is "a Potemkin village [...] paid for by Beijing, just to make the Russians looking across at it feel miserable." But Zeigler finds "a thriving Chinese city, with a promenade along the waterfront and a bustling market behind, counters gleaming with river fish and farmers coming from the countryside in motorized carts piled with vegetables, mutton, and live chickens." In the gap between Heihe's prosperity and what the Amur Russians want to believe about it, the opportunities for both sides to offend each other are enormous. The Heihe government once approved a variation on the practice in other Chinese cities of painting trash cans as pandas. Heihe's trash cans were painted to look like traditional Russian nesting dolls, with added images of church domes and crosses. The city saw this as "part of its efforts to mark an enduring Sino-Russian friendship." Russian nationalists, though, felt the trash cans "were a clearly calculated insult against sacred Russiahood." The Russians protested through their foreign ministry, and the Chinese got rid of the doll-cans. Yet the tension behind the spat demonstrates Russia's growing resentment of China: a problem that's likely to get worse before it gets better.

Where the Amur is concerned, Ziegler highlights Russia's vulnerability, the belief among the Russians living there that they're largely powerless and exposed. They feel cut off from China's economic success, and worry that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has created a terrible precedent for the future. At the end of the book Ziegler poses the question many Russians are starting to ask themselves: "If Russia can tear up agreements and treaties to grab Crimea, what kind of an example does that set for an increasingly assertive China that might one day awake to feel longings for its former lands beyond the Amur?"

Ziegler isn't an alarmist. He makes a point of underlining the Sino-Russian history of accommodation and "strategic friendship." Still, the book suggests that the Amur could end up half-marching and half-stumbling into a border conflict far bigger and more destructive than anything in its past.

I'm a bit reluctant to come out with my second complaint about Black Dragon River. I mention it because it's bothered me since I read the book, and because our most contradictory reactions to a good piece of writing are sometimes the most interesting ones for us to think about. Ziegler is a sane and decent author dealing with an insane and indecent subject. On the one hand I respect the calm attention and good sense he brings to bear on the Amur's catalogue of crazy bloodshed and cruelty. On the other hand, while reading him, I often had the feeling that he was holding back, pulling away from his deepest reactions to what he was seeing and learning. The best writers risk making fools of themselves, and Ziegler is clearly nobody's fool. The only thing I remember him telling us about his life is that he spent summers with his grandmother in Norway when he was a boy. That's fine: W.G. Sebald, one of the most original modern travel writers, tells us almost nothing about himself either, and doubles the coyness by dissolving memoir into fiction. But Sebald's restraint is part of his artistry. He uses it to heighten his vision, blends it with the larger theme of the historical repression that's at the heart of his work.

With Ziegler, as with most good journalists, the restraint is more impersonal, springs from his honorable refusal to make the story about himself. Again, I respect this. Still, Ziegler is right when he calls Dostoevsky's fact-packed novel of convict life in Siberia, House of the Dead, "the masterpiece of prison literature." Like most of what Dostoevsky wrote, and like the travel writing of Ryszard Kapuściński, House of the Dead is a mix of the brilliant and the embarrassing. It hits lows you don't find in Black Dragon River, but it also hits highs that Dostoevsky could never reach if he weren't willing to push past the limits of moderation and common sense. Here and there -- very much here and there in his eye for people and places -- you sense a mind as deft as the mind of Thomas Browne or Christine Brooke-Rose, but you want Ziegler to let loose, to share a few things he isn't quite sure he should say. The sensible presentation of a little-known slice of history's madness is no small achievement, but next time, he might write less on journalism's terms and more on his own, whatever those might turn out to be.

Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires by Dominic Ziegler
Penguin Press
ISBN: 9781594203671
368 pages