Paranoia at Myaolin


There is a passage in Vladimir Arseniev’s 1921 book, Across the Ussuri Kray, where he spends the night at a cabin in the middle of the Primorye forest in late 1906. Arseniev is cold and tired; he and his team were toward the end of a grueling six-month expedition to explore the forests of the region and were simply interested in a dry, warm place to sleep before their blistered feet hit the trail once more.

The cabin, called Myaolin, was 75 kilometers east of the China border in Russian territory, inhabited by an elderly Chinese man, and famous for its baiju (moonshine). Chinese and native hunters throughout the region would travel there to purchase or trade for this alcohol. Myaolin was one of the older functioning settlements in the region; the old man moved there in the 1850s as a twenty-year-old, when the territory was still part of China.

As the night went on, the Chinese host continued to imbibe his own baiju and became convinced that Arseniev and his military detachment were there to confiscate his home and deport the old man to China. He eventually erupted in anger, screaming, “Myaolin is as old as I am, and you’ve come to drive me out. I will not give you Myaolin—if I must leave, I’ll burn her down!”

He was eventually calmed (with more alcohol) and fell asleep. Arseniev and his companions were gone by the time he woke the next morning.

I always regarded the old man’s reaction in this passage to be a little strong, but after some reading learned that he had good reason to be paranoid. There were multiple and concerted efforts by the Russian authorities to reduce Chinese presence in the southern Russian Far East after Primorye became officially Russian in 1860. In 1888, any Chinese individuals living further than 55 kilometers from the border were ordered expelled, and in 1911 Arseniev himself led an expedition that resulted in the arrest and deportation of hundreds of Chinese poachers. These efforts paled however in comparison to those of 1937, when nearly 80% of the Chinese residents of the southern Russian Far East—an estimated 19,000 people—were removed, an action in tandem with removal of ethnic Koreans (described in A Lost Population). This included all Chinese residents of the capital Vladivostok, and any within 100 kilometers of the border.

Indeed, if Myaolin still stood in 1937, although the old man Arseniev encountered there was certainly by then deceased, Myaolin’s inhabitants would have been removed as well.


Note: my annotated translation of Vladimir Arseniev’s “Across the Ussuri Kray” has been accepted for publication at Indiana University Press. My guess is that the title will appear on bookshelves sometime in 2016…stay tuned.

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