History in my Mailbox

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Vladimir Arsenyev’s 1921 “Across the Ussuri Kray”

Last week, at one of the many airports between Myanmar and Minnesota, I received an email from Carol Ueland, my undergraduate advisor at Drew University’s Russian Department. She forwarded me a Russian academic listserv message from a woman offering up a copy of Vladimir Arsenyev’s “Dersu Uzala” free to anyone who wanted it. Carol knew I had just translated Arsenyev’s “Across the Ussuri Kray” and thought I might also be interested in “Dersu Uzala.”

I wrote the woman, sent her my address, and the book arrived at my home in Minnesota a few days ago. I almost passed out when I opened the package.

I had assumed this would be a copy of Malcolm Burr’s translation of “Dersu,” probably the 1996 reprint, but that’s not what I received. This was a first edition of Vladimir Arsenyev’s “Across the Ussuri Kray,” from 1921.  The unabridged, uncensored version that my translation was based on (I used a contemporary copy). I’ve been looking for this book for years, and it’s NOT easy to find.

It was self-published by Arsenyev in Vladivostok, at the height of the Russian Civil War. I’m not sure how many were printed but not too many survived. Paper quality was poor and the volume was extremely popular, so the books simply disintegrated as they passed from one eager reader to the next.

Over the years I’ve found a few records of copies sold at Russian auctions, where they fetched $500-$1000, and the only copy I’ve actually seen for sale had a $1000 price tag. So owning a copy has been a bit of a pipedream for me—even if I found one there’s no way I could afford it.

Yet here one was, sent me to me randomly and unintentionally by a stranger.

Yes, the copy I received is in terrible shape: the paper is brittle, the binding is broken, and it’s missing the title page (which is why the sender misidentified it as “Dersu Uzala”). But the book is an absolute treasure, historically and personally, and I am thrilled to put it on the bookshelf next to my translation of this Russian natural history classic.

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Arsenyev in The New Yorker!

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My recent translation of Vladimir Arsenyev’s 1921 classic, Across the Ussuri Kray, has been receiving some great press in places like MongaBay, Russian LifeMinnPost, 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.

I hope I’ve done Arsenyev and the region proud.

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Signing copies of “Across the Ussuri Kray” after an Arsenyev presentation at The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. Photograph courtesy Pamela Espeland.