My recent translation of Vladimir Arsenyev’s 1921 classic, Across the Ussuri Kray, has been receiving some great press in places like MongaBay, Russian Life, MinnPost, and most recently (and incredibly) in The New Yorker. These placements have helped boost sales: for a while this book was the #1 top seller in the “Russia Travel” and “Mountain” categories on Amazon, and rose to #6 overall in the “Natural History” category, behind only various formats of books by Bill Bryson and Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert (as of this writing the book has dropped to #82).
I did not translate this book for financial gain–I did it so that more people would know about Vladimir Arsenyev, the southern Russian Far East, and Arsenyev’s dedicated efforts to document the cultural and natural histories of the region. It’s only been a month since Across the Ussuri Kray was published by Indiana University Press, and I must say the response thus far has exceeded my expectations.
As with the fates of many of the intelligentsia whose lives spanned the Russian Revolution, subsequent Civil War, and Soviet purges, the story of Vladimir Arsenyev is one that did not end particularly well. As a beloved explorer and author whose career bridged Imperial and Soviet Russias, it seemed for a time that Arsenyev and his legacy would survive intact. But according to Ivan Egorchev, an Arsenyev scholar, Arsenyev’s early death from a heart attack in 1930 (at the age of 58) might actually have been a blessing. It meant that Arsenyev did not live to witness his wife accused of espionage and executed in 1937, or his daughter spend nearly twenty years in prison or labor camps for “anti-Soviet statements” and other nebulous charges.
Toward the end of “Across the Ussuri Kray,” a book written by the explorer Vladimir Arsenyev, there is a description from 1906 of a cabin in Primorye, Russia. Called Myaolin and inhabited by an elderly Chinese man, it was famous for its moonshine. The Chinese and native Udege hunters all across the vast Iman River basin offered meat, pelts, and ginseng in trade for the grain alcohol distilled there. Myaolin was one of the oldest cabins in the region; the old man had settled that place some fifty years prior when the territory was still part of China.
By the time Arsenyev stumbled up to Myaolin it was early winter and it was dark. The Russian was cold and weary; he and his team were achingly close to the end of a six-month expedition to explore that region’s wilderness. All they wanted was a dry, warm place to rest before pressing their calloused feet to the trail once more.