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Field Notes from the Empire's Edge

Author: Jonathan C. Slaght

Sep/Oct 2016
Page 54   ( 6 pages)

Summary: Vladimir Arsenyev was a 28-year-old army officer when he set out to map and study Russia’s Ussuri Kray, bordering China and the Pacific. Thankfully, he also had an eloquent pen.


Vladimir Arsenyev, a giant among Russian explorers, is little known in the West. He made his name a century ago in the Russian Far East, where he led survey teams thousands of kilometers across mountains and swamps, through blizzards and floods. Three of Arsenyev’s expeditions in the Ussuri Kray (in 1902, 1906, and 1907) were depicted in Akira Kurosawa’s Academy Award-winning film (1976), Dersu Uzala. []

The Ussuri Kray, now called Primorsky Kray,* is the splinter of Russia that stretched along the western shores of the Sea of Japan. First-time visitors today are often surprised that, for a place in the heart of northeast Asia, there’s little apparent Asian influence. In fact, Primorsky Kray is decidedly Russian: the same ornate window frames seen in Golden Ring towns adorn houses here, and village stores are fragrant with the same aromas. As recently as a hundred years ago, however, the Kray was highly diverse; populated by a motley collection of Russian settlers, Chinese hunters, Korean farmers, and indigenous Udege and Nanai nomads.

The Ussuri Kray had been Chinese land until 1860, when a treaty transferred ownership to the tsar. The Russian Empire, eager to strengthen its foothold on the Pacific, offered incentives (similar to a program today to any of its subjects willing to start anew, sight unseen, in this far off land. Whereas the settlement incentive today is but a single hectare of land per settler, in 1861 peasants were lured by 109 hectares of land, no taxes for 20 years, and a waiver on military service for a decade.

Arsenyev first came to the region in 1900, as a 28-year-old military topographer tasked with leading teams to survey the mountains and forests of the Kray. His duties included assessing lands for possible future Russian settlement, mapping trails, and generally taking stock of the Russian Empire’s resources in the region.

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