Baptized in Snow: Vladimir Arsenyev and Russian Empire in the Far East

By Daniel ElkindOctober 25, 2016

Baptized in Snow: Vladimir Arsenyev and Russian Empire in the Far East

Across the Ussuri Kray by Vladimir Arsenyev

IN 1890, the young doctor-turned-writer Anton Chekhov traveled to the Russian penal colony on the island of Sakhalin, at the far-eastern edge of the empire, just north of Japan. Having stumbled across a copy of the penal code, with its byzantine rules and regulations for what seemed like an alien planet, Chekhov felt the urge to experience the world of the katorga (forced labor) system for himself.

“I am leaving in the firm conviction that my expedition will not yield anything valuable in the way of either literature or science,” he wrote to his friend, the publisher Aleksey Suvorin,

For this I have not enough knowledge or time or ambition. I have not carefully worked out plans like Humboldt or Kennan. I want to write a couple of hundred pages, and in this way repay in some small part the debt I owe to medicine, which, as you know, I have neglected like a swine.

To his friends and family, the origins of this journey for “scientific and literary purposes” were shrouded in mystery. Chekhov’s brother Mikhail felt that he was attempting to atone for the recent death of their older brother, the painter Nikolai. Chekhov, meanwhile, saw it as a necessary encounter with the unfamiliar, if not with the uncanny. He had no desire, he said, to “sit comfortably surrounded by our four walls and complain that God created man to no good purpose.” He had recently started spitting up blood, which, for an expert diagnostician like Chekhov, could only have portended doom.

After all, Sakhalin was not merely physically remote — it haunted the Russian imagination. This island populated by undesirables, criminals, and political “firebrands” inspired myths and fears. It was the opposite pole of ordinary experience — a human wilderness, as depicted in the paintings of exiled Polish-Jewish artist Aleksander Sochaczewski, in which Europe crumbles before one’s eyes. Here, the confined told the young doctor, whom they took to be a census taker, “Your soul curdles.”


Both Alexander von Humboldt and George Kennan, the American author of the articles that would form the study Siberia and the Exile System (1891) at whom Chekhov nods in his letter to Suvorin, traversed the landscape as foreigners. The vast country was so rich in mineral deposits like nickel, copper, and gold, that, beginning in the 17th century, European experts were imported — particularly from Germany — to survey it on behalf of the state’s burgeoning mining and metallurgy industries, then in dire need of modernization. State and private capital, the nobility and the clergy alike, contracted to settle and exploit territory in the East at no cost, then petitioned the treasury for reimbursement — while the peasants, who lived practically as slaves, were expected to survive on their meager harvests of potatoes and grain.

“At the present time the Dué mines are exclusively owned by a private company called Sakhalin,” Chekhov wrote indignantly,

whose representatives or owners live in St. Petersburg. According to the twenty-four-year contract signed in 1875, the company derives profit from a strip of land two versts long by one verst deep along the western bank of Sakhalin. It is provided without charge with convenient areas for coalyards in the Primorskaya region and on the adjacent islands. The company also receives free of charge all construction material for buildings and labor; the transportation of all articles needed for technical and agricultural work and in the construction of mines is provided duty free. For every pood of coal purchased by the Navy, the company receives fifteen to thirty kopecks.

(Under the old Imperial system of measurement, a verst was equivalent to approximately one kilometer, and a pood to 40 Russian pounds.) The gentlemen from St. Petersburg and their representatives were foreigners, too. Colonists from another world, as Chekhov painstakingly shows, they managed to immiserate not only the convicts and settlers but also the land:

When the Duyka River, also called the Alexandrovka, was charted by the zoologist Polyakov, it was some 70 feet wide in its lower reaches. Its banks were luxuriant with tremendous stands of trees reaching down to the water; the lowlands were covered with forests of fir, larch, alder and willows, and surrounded by impassable swamps. Now the river is only a long, narrow puddle. In its width, barren shores and slow current it resembles the Moscow canal […] Now an entire city stands on the former taiga with its swamp and ravines; roads have been built, there are green meadows, rye fields and market gardens are harvested, and already complaints are heard of the scarcity of trees.

North of the Duyka, “the Arkay Stream falls into the Tatar Strait,” he continues. “Not long ago it was a real river where humpback salmon were caught. Then as a result of forest fires and deforestation, it became shallow and now it dries up completely in the summer.”

Polyakov, the zoologist, had preceded Chekhov to Sakhalin, continuing south along the coast until he came to the maritime region where Russia finally peters out: a strip of land wedged like a large splinter between China, Korea, and the Sea of Japan. In 1884, he published a detailed, judicious, and eminently sober “Report on Explorations on Sakhalin Island and in the Yuzhno-Ussuruysky Kray.”

These two outposts could not have been more different in culture and climate. The convicts, Chekhov writes,

speak of Ussuriysky Kray and the Amur, both of them nearby, as the promised land. You sail on a boat for three or four days, and then you come upon freedom, warmth, harvest. People who have moved to the mainland and settled there write to their Sakhalin friends saying that people shake hands with them and vodka costs only 50 kopecks a bottle.

Though it had been explored and surveyed by a number of topographers, it wasn’t until 1921 that the Ussuri Kray found its own Chekhov. That year Vladimir K. Arsenyev published the first volume of his chronicle of three major expeditions to the region — traveling up the Lefu River to Lake Khanka in 1902 and to the northern rivers in 1906, and again in 1907 — with the help of a local Nanai guide whose name he rendered for posterity as Dersu Uzala, apparently one of the last three members of the Upper Ussuri branch of the Gold tribe:

There were only three of them left in 1901 — these were Kapka Belday, Oko Belday, and Dersu Uzala. The former two were killed in spring of that year by the Khunkhuz on the Noto River, and Dersu died in 1908, in the Khekhtsira Mountains, some 36 kilometers from Khabarovsk.

The so-called Khunkhuz (Honghuzi) were Chinese marauders — many of them former soldiers — who tried to repel the Russians, but also terrorized Han Chinese and Korean farmers, and occasionally the Japanese as well. In the wake of Russia’s loss in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Arsenyev’s Ussuri — today Primorsky Kray — was the site of an uneasy truce. Wild ginseng hunters mingled with pearl divers, former convicts, Nanai and Udege natives, Korean villagers, native Manchurians, Chinese trappers, Old Believers — sectarians who had split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century and sought refuge in the hinterland, hunting tigers — and Ussuri Cossacks, a paramilitary settler corps incentivized by the government to intimidate the Honghuzi and stake a claim to the land on behalf of the gentlemen from St. Petersburg. In fact, it differed little from Sakhalin.

Rare is the Anglo reader who’s heard of Vladimir Arsenyev or come across the two translations of Dersu Uzala by Malcolm Burr (1939) and Victor Shneerson (1950), or the popular adventure tale by Anne Terry White — there’s a beautiful collection of foreign editions here. If they are familiar with the tale, it is likely through Akira Kurosawa’s Academy Award–winning 1975 adaptation. (Cinephiles — may God preserve them. Personally, I prefer the original 1961 Soviet film adaptation by Agasi Babayan, available on YouTube.)

I pray the same fate does not befall Jonathan C. Slaght’s new translation, Across the Ussuri Kray: Travels in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, published by Indiana University Press, not only because it is excellent and accessible and comes with handsome photographs, but also because it is — unlike Burr, Shneerson, and White’s versions — based on the complete and unexpurgated text. Whereas the early translations relied on the heavily censored Soviet edition, which reduced the original from a substantial 40 chapters to a modest 28, Slaght’s is based on the one first published by Arsenyev in Vladivostok in 1921 — a frontier romance in which Dersu appears as a kind of Chingachgook to Arsenyev’s Leatherstocking: a saintly and wise and ultimately irredeemably primitive Virgil, materializing out of the shadows one night and eventually disappearing back into them.

“I finally realized that Dersu was not a simple man,” Arsenyev recalls shortly after meeting him. “This was a tracker before me, and I couldn’t help but think of the heroes of James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Mayne Reid.” Cooper was so widely read in Russia that his exotic middle name became a kind of shorthand for the exotic itself, while the self-styled “Captain” Reid, an Irish-born American adventure novelist, churned out his signature frontier romances year in and year out: more than 70 volumes with titles like The Scalp Hunters: A Romance of the Plain (1851) and The Maroon: A Tale of Voodoo and Obeah (1862). Though Arsenyev presents the book as a diary, it is not strictly a memoir; nor is it a Reid romance. The Dersu character is both a real person and a composite portrait of several guides — a well-intentioned homage to the vanishing native tracker Arsenyev so admired. He is in awe of Dersu’s skill and moved by his affinity with the forest, and takes great pains to contrast the wisdom and selfless stewardship of this noble savage with the greed and self-centeredness of city dwellers, asking: “And what exactly is cultural evolution? Do we perhaps confuse two terms — material culture and spiritual culture?” In his nostalgia for the premodern, Arsenyev echoes Chekhov’s Moscow-weariness and the often fantastic desire on the part of the civilized to escape civilization.

In general, Russian nature writing has gotten short shrift on the world stage. English translations tend to focus on the blighted side of Russian life: novels and histories of urban crime, suburban decay, industrial pollution, political corruption, royal intrigue, and misadventure of all kinds. Though Arsenyev traveled officially as a staff captain with the 29th East Siberian Infantry Regiment, he was not, like the liberal administrators Chekhov met on Sakhalin — men mainly concerned with the most efficient ways to colonize the Far East. Rather, he aspired to become a total witness to the splendor of the natural world. He was a polymath and autodidact with an unpretentious style and enthusiasm for everything from “military intelligence and the collection of statistical information” to “the study of flora and fauna, geology, cartography, ethnography, archeology, toponymy, and population demographics,” according to Ivan Yegorchev of the Society for the Study of the Far East, the editor of the most complete collection of Arsenyev’s work to date.

Besides the popular Dersu tales, his output ranged from Chinese in the Ussuri Kray (1914) to Ethnographical Challenges in Eastern Siberia (1916) and The Pacific Walrus (1927). But by the late 1920s, the political climate in the Soviet Union had become too hostile to support an approach as nondogmatic as Arsenyev’s. Though he died of a heart attack on his way home from an expedition to the Amur River in 1930, the authorities continued to persecute his family long after his death: his widow was executed in 1938, his son exiled, and his daughter incarcerated.

Slaght is a kind of Arsenyev character in his own right. A conservation biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, an editor at the Far-Eastern Journal of Ornithology, a photographer, and now a translator, he’s been dubbed the “owl man” for his work with the Blakiston’s fish owl — the largest owl species in the world — which maintains a lonely existence in the snowy forests of the Primorsky Kray, subsisting on fish, frogs, and the occasional mammal. In “East of Siberia,” a column he pens for Scientific American, Slaght details how the longstanding confrontation between human activity and virgin forest continues apace — threatening the region’s fish owls, Amur leopards, and musk deer.


Work on the current translation began in Minneapolis, where Slaght lives with his family, and continued in the back of a GAZ-66, one of those indispensible Russian off-road truck-cum-shelters that Slaght shares with his Russian colleagues in the field, during winters that routinely dip below minus 30 degrees Celsius.

Because it served as a kind of Noah’s ark during the last ice age, this area of the world now hosts an astonishing number of rare species. In his conservation work on their behalf, Slaght follows in Arsenyev’s snowy, muddy footsteps — preserving, but also teaching others to identify and appreciate what is unique. Thus the pleasure of reading his new translation lies in the details, which are abundant but never frivolous — in the curlews and mergansers and great crested grebes Arsenyev identifies in the marshes surrounding Lake Khanka.

Trapping was already an established tradition when Arsenyev arrived. He describes a common inventory discovered in a Chinese ambar — a kind of storehouse on stilts:

We saw mammal skins stretched out and tanning, a pile of red deer antlers in an ambar, antlers in velvet hung to dry, and sacks filled with bear gall bladders. There were also deer fetuses, furs of Eurasian lynx, sable (and other mustelids), and Eurasian red squirrel, and materials for building and maintaining traps.

“[I]t is the human encounters that are the nastiest,” he observes. “Everyone is armed in the forest — the natives, the Chinese, the Koreans, and the professional hunters.” One must take extra precautions in encounters with the most dangerous animal, because “God is the only witness in the taiga.” And we can see from the events of the last century that the ecological tragedy of Russia in the Soviet and post-Soviet era is not merely a metaphor for social violence and collapse, but violence and collapse itself. Our presence — uninvited — is neither neutral nor benign. Indeed, today’s poaching, overfishing, and poor stewardship are an extension of this invasive history, which is why Slaght now works with logging companies like TerneyLes to minimize the construction of new roads and development projects.

In the waning decades of the Russian Empire, it took Chekhov 82 days to travel from Moscow to Alexandrovsk, the capital of Sakhalin, by way of Yaroslavl, Perm, Tyumen, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Sretensk, and Nikolayevsk. Exposure to the elements only exacerbated his tuberculosis. The journey to Sakhalin hastened his death. Yet, as far as muckraking exposés go, Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island is as serious and scathing and profoundly detailed as the work of the best contemporary liberal Russian journalists, written with the compassion of a fellow mortal. In Chekhov there is no mental static. Only gooseberries and snow.

A great deal of nature writing tends to misanthropy. Chekhov reminds us, among other things, of man’s impermanence — how pitiful human time can seem when viewed on a geological scale. Arsenyev’s more gregarious tale is a powerful and timely reminder that the forest is an eternal Russian symbol, its bears and squirrels a source of national pride. Just as Russian naturalism managed to survive the cult of industry imposed by the Revolution, the wilderness it describes will surely outlive the greed of tsars and oligarchs.

The only question now is: In what form will it survive?


Daniel Elkind is a writer and translator of Russian poetry and prose. He lives in San Francisco.

LARB Contributor

Daniel Elkind is a writer and translator living in San Francisco.


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