Where Sables Roam: On Vladimir Arsenyev’s “Dersu Uzala” Trilogy

By Noah SparkesOctober 15, 2023

Where Sables Roam: On Vladimir Arsenyev’s “Dersu Uzala” Trilogy
IN THE EARLY 20th century, Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev lamented the death of his friend, the Nanai trapper Dersu Uzala. Together, the St. Petersburg native and the Indigenous hunter surveyed unmapped regions of the Ussuri Krai—a supposed “El Dorado” among Russian territory that stretched from the Ussuri River to the Pacific. As part of his series of popular semifictional novels, often categorized as the Dersu Uzala trilogy, Arsenyev wrote:

Some two people, identifying themselves as Europeans, committed a heinous murder for the purpose of robbery. They killed a poor savage who had a pure soul and who in his whole life did no harm to anyone. Civilization will give birth to criminals. Build your well-being at the expense of others—this is the slogan of the twentieth century. Deception begins with trade, then, in succession, come usury, slavery, theft, robbery, murder, and finally war and revolution with all their horrors. Is this civilization?!

Such an expression of commingled anger and grief effectively articulates the rift within which Arsenyev’s trilogy finds itself. Arsenyev entered the Ussuri Krai at a historic moment of transformation; he witnessed the building of railways, the clearing of forests, the decimation of sable populations, the introduction of industry, and the conversion of the taiga (the enormous boreal forest that covers most of Siberia) into a commodity frontier. Though a form of merchant capitalism had existed for many years in the Ussuri Krai—Chinese merchants had extracted furs from Indigenous trappers for centuries, selling them for higher prices at Chinese markets—Arsenyev now saw the logic of capital accumulation entrenched in the taiga. The sable, previously used by Indigenous Siberians for the lining of skis, was becoming a luxury commodity to be exported en masse to the inexhaustible population of the metropole. The temperate hardwoods of the taiga became natural capital, slashed and burned for space, felled and exported for large-scale housing projects.

Given his expertise as both a naturalist and an ethnographer, Arsenyev’s writing reveals an intriguing element of this shift—a kind of early environmental anthropology. He witnessed the meeting of two radically different philosophies of nature: one alienated, dualistic, rooted within the logic of capital; the other integrated and mutualistic, rooted within the logic of subsistence. Though Arsenyev’s primitivism certainly collapsed the diversity and particularities of Indigenous cultures into an idealized, Edenic stereotype, there is an observable series of rifts as capitalism—together with its ideological corollary in the Enlightenment—spread across the globe, commodifying everything in its path. The Ussuri Krai in the early 20th century represents one such rift, and Arsenyev was its defining observer. For this reason, among others, the central work of his trilogy, which turns 100 this year, remains a seminal work of Russian nature writing.

A long history underlies Russian expansion into the Far East. Upon Marie of Savoy’s marriage to the Duke of Milan in 1428, the princess was gifted an enormous gold cloth gown furred with the skins of 618 sables. After Anne of Brittany’s accession to the French throne in 1488, she received a dress trimmed with the furs of 160 “martres sybellines.” In the 16th century, Henry VIII would don a satin gown of 350 sables, both his and his father’s preferred fur. Thus, during the late medieval period in Europe, the “golden fleece” of the sable became a precious commodity among nobles, aristocrats, and a rising class of merchants. It was this charming creature—a rather ebullient species of marten, found primarily in the wilds of the Siberian taiga—that became to Russia what gold was to the conquistadores: the driving factor in the colonization of Northern Asia.

And so, from 1580 on, Russia’s frontiersmen—an assortment of government officials, explorers, Cossacks, and promyshlenniki (self-employed fur traders or trappers)—pushed beyond the Urals with astonishing speed, charting land, subjugating local peoples, decimating furred populations, and moving east once the local supply was exhausted. If these early colonists didn’t hunt the sables themselves, the yasak system (a “fur tribute” extracted from Indigenous trappers) would supply the necessary profits. Such was the market value of this “soft gold”: several sable pelts alone could enrich a fur trader for a lifetime. By the mid-17th century, Russians had reached the Pacific, leaving behind them a trail of violence and exploitation not dissimilar to the European colonization of the Americas.

There was, however, one stretch of land yet unclaimed by the Russian Empire. In the 17th century, the Amur River basin had been briefly settled. Soon, however, Russia’s colonial ambitions were thwarted by the Qing dynasty. Interest in the region renewed during the 19th century, owing chiefly to the lobbying of the governor-general of Eastern Siberia, Nikolay Muravyov. This untapped land thereby reemerged in the Russian imagination, its status as terra incognita encouraging a vast array of projections. Traders saw a land of economic opportunity, reformists a much-needed chance for national rejuvenation, imperialists a vital stronghold against Chinese and British influence. After negotiations in Aigun (1858) and Peking (1860), the Amur region became Russian territory, including the Ussuri Krai.

From its acquisition through to the early 20th century, the region was transformed. Previously, the area had been sparsely populated by Indigenous peoples, including the Nanai, Orochi, Udeghe, Ulchi, and Nivkhi. Now, waves of peasants, Cossacks, and traders flooded to the river’s banks, spurred on by the hopeful reports of Ussuria’s early advocates.

It was amidst these waves of settler colonialism that Arsenyev entered the Ussuri Krai. Beginning in 1902, he would embark on 12 expeditions, charting land, documenting flora and fauna, and meeting local peoples. His rugged adventures would filter back to the Russian metropole by way of the semifictional Dersu Uzala trilogy (1923).

It’s easy to see why the trilogy gained such readership among the masses of city-dwelling Russians. In unpretentious prose, Arsenyev captured the romance of the Siberian wilderness in a style akin to the frontier writing of James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Mayne Reid, both of whom enjoyed significant popularity in Russia. Even now, reading of the group’s travails evokes a kind of thrill—the vicarious adrenaline of their struggle against the taiga’s harsh conditions, the occasional nervous encounter with bandits, the rare sighting of the mythologized Siberian tiger. The beating heart of the work, however, is Arsenyev’s relationship with the titular trapper. Dersu Uzala impresses Arsenyev with his remarkable skill for tracking and hunting, his prophetic understanding of weather systems, and his solicitous attitude towards his fellow man. Through evenings of fireside conversations, Arsenyev builds an impression of Dersu’s world: his deceased family (all victims of settler-introduced smallpox), his “animistic” belief system, his concerns for the sustainability of hunting. Otherwise, Arsenyev relies on him for navigation and survival, a dynamic that hastens their intimate bond. But after several years of fruitful expeditions, Dersu’s faculties betray him. His eyesight deteriorates. Arsenyev hosts his aged friend for a time, but after a brief stint in Khabarovsk, the trapper returns to his familiar environs, unable to cope with the myriad absurdities of town life. He doesn’t last long after his return to the taiga, where he is murdered by thieves.

Though, unsurprisingly, Arsenyev maintains a patronizing distinction between the “civilized” and the “savage,” at times his genuine love and respect for the trapper seem to transcend the colonial logic of the time. He writes plainly and beautifully about the pain of separating from his friend—as he does about the ecstatic joy of reuniting. Elsewhere, in an unusually unheroic moment, Arsenyev inverts the paternalism of contemporary colonial attitudes to Indigenous peoples: “Then we lay down to sleep. Now I felt afraid of nothing, neither tigers nor brigands, nor deep snow nor floods. Dersu was with me, and with that thought in my head I fell asleep.” This is not the mindless, violent savage of the imperial imaginary, nor the sympathetic heathen in need of protection and civilization. If anything, Arsenyev’s portrayal of Dersu falls closer to a primitivist camp: a romanticization of prelapsarian man, free from the vices of modernity, living in harmony with nature. Perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than the grief-stricken diatribe of Arsenyev following Dersu’s murder.

In his seminal essay “Ideas of Nature” (1980), critic Raymond Williams writes that “the idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history.” Whether or not we include humans within our definition of “nature”; whether we consider our environment a passive object to be dominated or an active, symbiotic agent; and whether we see nature as the creation of God or we see the gods themselves in nature are questions that provide remarkable insight into our culture. As European Russians colonized Siberia and eventually breached the Ussuri Krai in the 19th century, they brought with them modes of thinking rooted in the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment: philosophies of nature that were symptomatic of—and immanent to—the development of empire and the drive for new frontiers. To fully appropriate the Earth’s land and resources, one must first create an exterior, objectified “nature,” a sphere distinct and set apart from society. Nature becomes a thing “out there”—rather than a cohesive whole to which we belong, an oikos in which we must participate to sustain ourselves. Crucially, one must establish these environments and the many peoples, animals, and other nonhuman agents who inhabit them as an “Other.” Only then might they be effectively tamed, exploited, and put to work for the benefit of civilized humankind. So came the vernacular of the inhuman “savage” and of a recalcitrant nature.

This duality finds its prime articulation in the writings of two oft-championed fathers of modern science: René Descartes and Francis Bacon. In his 1637 treatise Discourse on the Method for Reasoning Well and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences, Descartes writes that through the wonders of rationalism and science, we will “make ourselves as it were the masters and possessors of nature.” Doing so, he contended, would “lead us effortlessly to enjoy the fruits of the earth and all the commodities that can be found in it.” Extending from his division between mind (the immaterial subject) and body (the material object), he creates a duality of man and nature. Binding the natural sciences to Christianity, Bacon proclaimed in Novum Organum (1620) that through empirical investigation we might “let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest.” In his posthumously published paper The Masculine Birth of Time (1603), Bacon likewise encouraged readers to “bind [nature] to your service and make her your slave.” As Carolyn Merchant noted in her seminal work The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980), this gendering of “nature” was anything but uncommon: “The new image of nature as a female to be controlled and dissected through experiment legitimated the exploitation of natural resources.”

The notion of man’s dominion over nature had firm roots within Judeo-Christian doctrine; now, it became even more entrenched in Western collective consciousness. Two centuries later, these violent sentiments echoed in the works of Russia’s champions of empire. Most hauntingly, zoologist Alexander von Middendorff wrote triumphantly that in settling along the Amur in the 1800s, “man ha[d] declared war […] against Nature.”

In Eastern Siberia, these Cartesian dualities—of society and nature, mind and body, subject and object—met with an ontology rooted within a distinct mode of production. When Arsenyev entered the Ussuri Krai, the Indigenous peoples surrounding the river—in Dersu’s case, a Nanai tribe known as the Goldi—lived in small communities sparsely distributed across the region. Until such a point, their survival was contingent on the fruits of fishing, hunting, and (less commonly) small-scale agriculture. With the exception of fur tributes demanded by the Qing dynasty, theirs was largely a subsistence economy, only peripherally connected to circuits of mercantile accumulation. By all accounts, the Goldi subscribed to a variety of belief systems often grouped by Western ethnographers under the phrase “shamanism” or “animism.” (These “primitive religions,” as they were dismissively labeled by early anthropologists, were generalized descriptions applied to a diverse array of belief systems from around the world—they were by no means systematized religions.)

In the Amur region, local “shamanism” was predicated on the belief that the myriad components of one’s environment—trees, mountains, animals, birds, plants, weather systems—contain a soul or spirit more or less similar to a human’s. They are not things but beings, engaged in an interdependent and evolving relationship with their surroundings. The shaman acts as mediator between these spirits, communicating through trance or dreams and easing the predicaments of humans. For his part, Arsenyev opts for the phrase “animist” when describing the beliefs of Dersu, observing how the trapper anthropomorphizes his environment. When he asks Dersu why he refers to the wild boar as a man, Dersu replies in pidgin Russian, “Him all same man, […] only different shirt.” Later, Dersu explains that the flying squirrels that glide through the taiga are the souls of dead children, roaming the earth before their transition to the “world beyond the tomb.” These beliefs are not indicative of a perfect, idealized “harmony” between man and nature; rather, they reflect an absence of such divisions.

Describing capitalism’s relation to nature, American sociologist John Bellamy Foster popularized the use of the phrase “metabolic rift.” Introduced by Marx, the concept initially referred to a particular rupture in the soil nutrient cycle. Foster expands its meaning, applying what Marx termed the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” to a variety of environmental crises. With the emergence of capitalist production, Foster writes, man’s appropriation of nature was “no longer geared primarily to the reproduction of life, the earth, and community as one largely indivisible whole, but rather dedicated solely to the valorization of capital.”

Of course, Arsenyev didn’t have these analyses. In time, his more politicized excerpts—including the aforementioned salvo against “civilization”—would find themselves excised by Soviet censors. Still, the explorer was well aware of the direction in which the Ussuri Krai was headed. In his introduction to Across the Ussuri Kray, Arsenyev lamented the shift: “Where before a tiger roared now a locomotive whistles, and where there was once a sparse scattering of Chinese trappers there are now large Russian settlements. The indigenous peoples have retreated north, and wildlife populations in the forest have been greatly diminished.”

Dersu shared his concerns: “All round soon all game end […] Me think ten years, no more wapiti, no more sable, no more squirrel, all gone.” The metabolic rift, and its constitutive ontological rift, were in full swing, spelling disaster for the area and its peoples.

Ironically, Arsenyev’s fears didn’t come to pass. The Ussuri Krai and Arsenyev’s beloved Sikhote-Alin mountain range were never fully subjected to the rigors of extractivism. Instead, following concern about the declining sable population, “zapovedniks,” or nature sanctuaries, were established throughout the region, beginning in the 1910s; they prohibited any form of economic or human activity. The Sikhote-Alin zapovednik was founded in 1935 and made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Certainly, there were obstacles along the way. The reserves faced repeated challenges from the productivist impulses of the Soviet bureaucracy, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, capital appeared again at the zapovednik’s doorstep, prodding at its vast untapped resources. Yet it remains a remarkable ecosystem, most notably as the only stronghold of the Siberian tiger.

Despite the undeniable importance of protecting these areas, there remains a saddening alienation within the notion of the nature reserve. The effects of the metabolic rift require that, for ecosystems to be preserved, human beings excise themselves from the areas. Just as the alienation of man from nature first manifested in the often violent language of “domination” and the practice of exploitation, so too does it appear in the paternalistic language of “protection” and the practice of conservation. Anthropologist Gísli Pálsson points out in his illuminating essay “Human-Environmental Relations: Orientalism, Paternalism and Communalism” (1996) that, in both cases, human beings exist above their environment, either as master or shepherd. Pálsson’s third paradigm, communalism—defined not by duality but by “generalised reciprocity”—closely resembles Dersu’s worldview and finds itself vanishingly rare as the periphery is absorbed into capitalist production.

In many ways, “nature writing” is itself reliant on the creation of an exterior “Nature.” It can be seen in some capacity as culture’s attempt to grapple with this alienation. If capital and empire’s need for growth necessitated a philosophical estrangement from the environment, nature writers attempted to bridge that gap, to reunite human beings with their habitat—to synthesize the rationalist, scientific study of nature with the sensory poeticism of the romantics. Echoing the “animists,” American writers like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir saw in the wilderness a vast web of interrelated beings. Wrote Thoreau: “I believed that the woods were not tenantless, but choke-full of honest spirits as good as myself any day.” In a private correspondence, he expressed his yearning to transcend the Cartesian binary, to become “nature looking into nature.” Much like Dersu, Muir saw an environment in constant dialogue, describing how “[t]he whole wilderness seems to be alive and familiar, full of humanity. The very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly.” Just as fellow Romantics in the Arts and Crafts movement rejected modernity’s alienation of workers from their labor, these writers rejected the alienation of human beings from nature.

Arsenyev’s trilogy fits neatly into this tradition. A century ago, the Russian explorer found in Dersu’s worldview an enviable foil to modernity; an alternate, integrated outlook. In documenting the Ussuri Krai’s moment of transition and sympathetically portraying Dersu’s beliefs, Arsenyev’s writings force us to question and explore our definitions—to ask how and why we have arrived at this paradigm. Is nature, as described by Descartes, an exterior, mechanical arrangement of things to be analyzed and dominated, or might it instead be better understood as the kind of dynamic organism described by Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of which we are a part, bound by laws of reciprocity? When do people become things and things become people? What do the answers reveal about society and the relations of production beneath it?

Arsenyev doesn’t provide any concrete answers. Still, like all great nature writers, he urges us to reexamine existing binaries. By observing nature from within, finding humanity and beauty in the wild, and recognizing our smallness in the face of nature’s immense forces, we may complicate the divisions that emerge out of our current ontological organization. In an age of ecological crisis, that endeavor is just as profound as it was 100 years ago.


Noah Sparkes is a UK-based writer.

LARB Contributor

Noah Sparkes is a UK-based writer specializing in film, TV, music, and literature. With a particular focus on the intersection of culture, history, and politics, he has written for a variety of outlets including Jazzwise, uDiscoverMusic, and Film Inquiry.


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