Book note: A journey around Russia

THE BORDER: A JOURNEY AROUND RUSSIA through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway and the Northeast Passage by Erika Fatland (2017) translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson (2020)

Russia is the largest country in the world, and has the largest border.  The circumference of Russia is half again as large as the circumference of the globe itself.

A young Norwegian woman named Erika Fatland circumnavigated Russia, which is no small feat, and wrote this book about it.

She visited every country on Russia’s southern and western borders. She saw the sights in each country, talked to some of the locals and brushed up on the history of its relations with Russia.  

Every one except Norway bore the scars of having been attacked or occupied by Russia at some point in its history, most of them in the 20th century.

The implication is that there is something about Russians that makes them a standing threat to their neighbors, no matter whether they are ruled by Tzars, Communists or Vladimir Putin.

I don’t agree with this framing.  Russia itself has been attacked and invaded many times.  And, like the 18th century conservative Edmund Burke, I know not the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people.  

Even so, I found the book worth reading.  I learned interesting things from it.  I thank my friend Judith Judson for recommending it.

 It is too big to summarize.  I’ll hit some high points.

Fatland’s first stop was North Korea, whose existence is a reminder that totalitarianism is real.  People there have less freedom than an American or Briton in prison, yet they think they are free.  They are poor and backward, yet they think they live in the most advanced nation in the world.  

Or so they said.  But maybe the system of surveillance is so complete that many or most North Koreans inwardly have doubts, but don’t dare to say so.  The result is the same.

Back in the 1950s, many of us liberals feared that totalitarian governments could come to dominate the world and establish a complete system of thought control.  North Korea shows that danger wasn’t altogether imaginary.

I found Fatland’s account of Mongolia was the most interesting section of the book.  Mongolia adopted Tibetan Buddhism in 1586 and their spiritual leaders came from Tibet.  But the prediction is the next Mongolian lama will be incarnated in Mongolia.   Fatland heard a Mongolian throat singer, who’d mastered the art of singing in two tones.  

She interviewed reindeer herders in Tuva, the remotest part of this remote country.  She talked to “ninja miners,” individuals who prospect for gold and other minerals in this mineral-rich country.

Kazakhstan is a prime example of Soviet and Russian imperialism.  Along with the other Central Asian nations, its government is a continuation of the Soviet government and it is under the thumb of Russia.  An uprising a few months ago was quashed with the help of Russian troops.

Fatland noted that more than a million Kazakhs, a quarter of the population, died of starvation as a result of forced collectivization of agriculture, part of the process that also resulted in the Ukrainian Holodomor.  Joseph Stalin’s second largest concentration camp was at Karaganda in Kazakhstan; more than 800,000 people were kept there between 1929 and 1953.  

Kazakhstan is home to descendants of many of the six million Tatars, Germans, Balts, Poles and other “unreliable” nationalities forcibly deported from the western USSR in the 1930s and 1940s.  It also is the site of Soviet and Russian nuclear weapons tests, and Russia’s Baikonur space launch faciltiy.

She found Azerbaijan and Georgia full of warm-hearted, hospitable people who treated her as if she was their own daughter.  They lived in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, and served wonderful food.  They also had done horrible things to each other, and hated each other.

Erica Fatland

When the Soviet Union broke up, the Soviet Socialist republics, the so-called “union” republics become independent nations.  But the USSR also was a patchwork of smaller “autonomous” republics, including Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Chechnya in Russia itself and Crimea in Ukraine.  The peoples of many of them have a strong sense of identity and desire for independence, which the “union” republics don’t

I had always thought the breakup of the Soviet Union was the result of a power play by Boris Yeltsin against Mikhail Gorbachev, but according to Fatland, the initiative actually came from Ukraine.  The people of Ukraine voted for independence in 1991, prior to the breakup, and, Fatland said, Ukraine’s leader Leonid Kravchuk persuaded the leaders of Russia and Belarus to support him, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The populations of Ukraine and the Baltic states had been shrunk the by the Holodomor famine in 1929-1933 and by massive forced deportations from the newly-conquered Baltic states and eastern Poland in 1939-1941.  Fatland said six million people were deported.  

The impact was so great that there were manpower shortages, which Stalin dealt with by sending Russians into these areas.  That’s why some many people in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia regard their Russian-speaking neighbors as interlopers.

Many people remember how Finland, under the leadership of Marshall Mannerheim, won its independence from Russia in 1918 and resisted Soviet aggression in the 1938-40 Winter War.  

But few also recall that Finland joined with Nazi Germany in invading the USSR in 1941.  By 1944, realizing the war was not going well, Mannerheim sued for peace with Stalin.  He politely requested Hitler withdraw German troops from Lapland, which—astonishingly to me!—Hitler agreed.

Fatland wrote that the countries formerly subject to Russia are at risk of being subjugated again.  At the same time, she doubts the Russian Federation will survive for another century.  There are too few Russians occupying too much land, she wrote, and they share it with nearly 200 other nationalities and ethnic groups.


Another thing I got from reading book was a realization of how tourism is taking over the world.  Places such as Mongolia and Kazakhstan were remote and inaccessible a century ago.  Now they are accessible by train or bus, and accommodate tourists/

The city of Harbin in Manchuria was founded by Russian exiles, but they have left.  The Chinese have recreated it in all its authenticity as a tourist attraction, and tourists come there for the Russian experience.

North Korea is a tourist destination.  So is Chernobyl.  A government official in Donetsk told Fatland was she was inventorying possible tourist attractions.

Fellow passengers on her Arctic voyage were hard-core tourists whose aim was to visit as many places as possible during their lifetimes.  Some had traveled multiple times to Antarctica.

Mass tourism is a really big deal.  I don’t know how long it will last in the light of fuel scarcity and rising prices. 

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