Book review - The Amur River: Between Russia and China
A surreal object lesson on the way environmental degradation has wrecked places that should still be beautiful.
By John Maxwell Hamilton
(John Maxwell Hamilton is a former foreign correspondent and the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor in Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication and a Global Fellow in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His most recent book, “Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of Government Propaganda”, won the Goldsmith Prize.)
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Callaway Climate Insights) — “Suddenly,” Colin Thubron writes at the outset of The Amur River: Between Russia and China (HarperCollins, 2022), “the notion of following a river of 2,826 miles (the favoured estimate), as it flows through southeast Siberia then meeting China, then breaks for the Pacific, seems little more than a fantasy.”
Thubron is an old-fashioned British travel writer. In addition to writing novels, he specializes in telling stories of out of the way places that can be treacherous. An injury when his horse slips in a bog leaves him hobbling for days as he marches on.
But this story is more than a fantasy. Though Thubron may not have meant it to be, it is a surreal object lesson on the way environmental degradation has wrecked places that should still be beautiful.
Vast parts of the Amur River and the rivers that form it are pristine. Thubron’s first steps are into a wilderness once ruled by Genghis Khan. He and his guides “wade through a tide of wildflowers.” For six days they do not see another soul.
Each leg of the remaining part of the trip mixes scenes of raw beauty with scenes of ruin brought on by gross government mismanagement of people and places. The Soviet Union, in which Thubron is well versed, specialized in this.
I saw this for myself over and over when the USSR collapsed. There was the day I looked into a deep pit in the Bohemian region of what was then Czechoslovakia. Over the decades Communist industrialists dumped so many chemicals into this football field-size abyss that it was a bubbling cauldron even on that cold winter day. Equally unnerving was the farmer’s field of cabbage that came right up to the brink of the toxic dump.
A friend of mine in the Republic of Georgia — once part of the USSR — gifted me an “honor” that years before had been awarded to her grandfather for his leadership in building an industrial city. The award was two pieces of wood joined to look like the front and back of a book. Inside the front cover was a crude relief of Lenin and inside the other one of Stalin. Flimsy metal strips bound the book together. The book’s title was The History of Communism. I keep this on the bookshelf in my study as a metaphoric reminder that capitalism is not perfect but far better than this.
Scene after scene in The Amur River relates the consequences of Communism, sometimes simply by describing what can no longer be seen. The extinction of Buddhism is the consequence of Soviet leveling of temples, monasteries, and monks. The Amur leopard is almost extinct as is the majestic Siberian tiger, which can grow to 600 pounds.
Leaving Dauria in the Eurasian steppe, Thubron sees “birch trees yellow and turn gold, and larches blacken the skyline. It has a dense, hypnotic beauty.” Yet for two months the villages, towns, and cities he visits hold “no building of architectural beauty or any structure much older than I am.”
Not all the insults to the environment are communist-driven. Some are universal, such as global warming, which has turned permafrost into swamp.
One of the political forces that overturned communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe 30-odd years ago was the environmental movement, which miraculously had been allowed to flourish. The “green 1918” revolution, as it has been called, began with dissidents like scientist Andrej Sakharov. Sakharov predicted in 1968 that the burning of coal was “altering the heat-reflecting qualities of the atmosphere. Sooner or later, this will reach a dangerous level.”
Thubron does not talk about Sakharov or the “green 1918,” but his book shows how old political, social, and environmental habits persist. Suspicious police constantly impede his trip, sometimes holding him up for long periods. Their manner and method are a parody of the old Stalinist state. Thubron recounts the night he slept in a hotel room walled with composite boards that carried the inscription, “Exempt from Formaldehyde Regulations.”
Russia’s new political leaders are accomplices of the old ones. Consider the secret munitions-making city of Komosomoksk-na-Amure created by Soviet youth pioneers in 1932. Political pioneers were sent there to work in the arms factories. At night they huddled in crude log buildings. The camps are paved over now. On top of the grim old is the grim new — tenements and metallurgical works. Photos of the past do not appear in the local museum. It is reminiscent of the Kremlin propaganda technique of eliminating the images of individuals from photos because they have become enemies of the state — even though their successors were as bad.
The Chinese Communist side of the river is grim, too. In 2005 a chemical plant exploded. A benzene cloud 50 miles long floated far down the river. The river today is fetid, full of weeds and debris. “On the Russian shore down river they say the fish taste of chemicals.”
One day Thubron encounters two amused women who say he must not be Russian. Why? “Because you look happy.”
In its last hundred miles before reaching the ocean, the Amur flows into wild land. The dwindling settlements and virgin forests “give the illusion of return to some primeval Arcadia of recoil from a stricken present.” Then comes Nikolaevsk, where Thubron sees “buildings where no one comes or goes — a palace of culture, a medical school — and street lamps that are never lit.”
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