Monday, November 03, 2003

A Fossil of History

While reading about Jewish immigration to the UK during the 1930s, I noticed references to a Soviet 'Jewish Autonomous Republic' set up on the Manchurian border in the revolutionary ferment of the 20s and officially sanctioned by Stalin in the 30s.

It's still there.

Just north of the Chinese border, between the Ussuri and Amur Rivers, in some of the most difficult terrain in Russia, part forest, part swamp, with hot summers but bitter winters. The area was the setting for W.E. Johns "Biggles Gets His Men".

"So there are tigers there, eh ?" murmured Bertie.
"Plenty. The Amur tiger is first cousin to the Bengal tiger. There are panthers, too, and bears. Their skins are another export."
"What about the country itself ?" asked Biggles.
"Well, one's first impression is that nature has played a cockeyed practical joke. That is due to the fact that you are at the spot where the Arctic and the tropics bump into each other, so to speak. Thus, you get the flora and fauna of both - tigers, panthers, wild boar and pythons tread the same tracks as reindeer, wolves and sables."

A short history of the Republic is here, a 1991 Guardian article on the remaining Jews here, and the views of US venture capitalists here. Pleased to hear about the micro-brewery, not sure about "the Jewish Autonomous Region’s unique version of Jewish home cooking" and interested to hear of the 80,000 hectares of uncultivated farmland - that's 80% of the arable land.

"Whereas much of the Russian Far East is dominated by passive Soviet-era managers with a greater taste for vodka than serious business, the 200,000-person JAR bustles with primitive, entrepreneurial energy, and has a feel not unlike the Garment District of lower Manhattan."

Can't say I know the Garment District but it sounds a bit Brick Lane to me, if you can imagine a Brick Lane with a population density of 20 per square mile.

What's the skiing like ? Uh-oh.

"Forests cover almost half the territory, but the wood is not export quality. The climate is monsoon. Winter is cold and dry with a little snow. The average temperature in winter is –22 – 25C, and in +20 – 25 in summer." Whew ! Pretty fierce winters but not much snow !

As well as Russians, ethnic Koreans, Chinese and Jews, the region is home to the Ussuri Cossack Host, as well as the shamanistic Orochon people, whom Biggles and Co. weren't too keen on.

"The people lived by hunting, and buried their dead - if we can say buried - in trees. The body is rolled in birch bark and hoisted up out of the reach of wolves. You come across these grisly cemeteries all over the place. After the funeral everyone gets drunk on vodka. Drinking seems to be the only recreation".

"Nice people," murmured Biggles.

A more sympathetic portrait of Orochon hunters here, bearing out Capt. Johns' observation that "what with flesh, fish and fowl, a man with a gun need never starve".