Mirrorlands: Russia, China, and Journeys in Between
By Ed Pulford
Hurst, 2019, 360 pp.
Pulford begins his fascinating and enlightening travelogue in Moscow and ends it in Beijing, but his main route runs along the 2,600-mile border separating Russia and China. In Inner Mongolia, he finds a community of “Chinese Russians” who use Russian names and look “European” yet speak standard local Chinese, their Russianness serving mostly as an attraction for Chinese tourists. He finds himself in an obscure Russian settlement where North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il Sung, spent four years in the 1940s and where his son Kim Jong Il was born—although neither of those facts is recognized in North Korea’s official histories. Over the centuries, Pulford writes, Russia has played many roles in the Chinese consciousness: “from imperial adversary to Soviet inspiration, anti-Japanese liberator, socialist blood-brother, ‘revisionist’ enemy, post-Soviet trade partner and, most recently, authoritarian ‘friend.’” But despite the duration and diversity of the two societies’ interactions, human bonds and cross-cultural influences remain amazingly scarce: intermarriage is rare, work and business ethics differ greatly—and Russian food, as Pulford’s interlocutors repeatedly tell him, tastes terrible to the Chinese.