Book Review: Black Dragon River

Black Dragon River

Ziegler, Dominic

Penguin, 2016

My first purchase at Elliott Bay after returning to Seattle, this book caught my attention in the bargain section.  I have long heard about the Amur River, and the premise of the book, subtitled “A Journey Down the Amur River Between China and Russia” looked very promising.

In one way I was disappointed – most books in this general genre tend to include a fair bit of river lore and this one really didn’t.  What more than made up for it though was a depth of cultural and naturalistic description.  Put in context, that may well have been the only possible outcome given the historically relatively wild and unpopulated nature of this region.

The book does a good job of describing the culture and history of the headwaters of the Amur and of how the home region of Genghis Kahn led into a legacy of driving an expanding medieval Russia to look eastward, culminating into a mutually beneficial trade treaty with China based around the Amur which lasted nearly 200 years. In that period the region was generally home to nomadic groups, and in many ways served as a buffer between the two countries.  As Russia expanded eastward in search of lands, materials, and an outlet to the Pacific, the Amur became a primary transport route and several towns were formed which became cultural and administrative centers. As China expanded northward into the area also, conflicts arose which culminated in Russia playing their part in the European carve up of a weakened China by further expansion in the area. Under Stalin and Mao the two countries were again more cooperative on their shared border region, however after Stalin’s death and the shift in direction of the Soviet Union old tensions re-emerged, with the end result being the river serving as a highly contested and fortified boundary with relatively little in the way of cross border trade or development.  Against the background of a resurgent China and a fading Russia, the Amur and it’s regions are once again potentially poised to become a political faultline.

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