Russia’s Pacific Ambitions // Stalin and the GWOT

Working, living, and floating around the Puget Sound gives one a certain connection to the power of the Russian Far East.  Colleagues describe their struggles with Sakhalin dialect; whale-watchers plug the jukebox while wondering aloud if their mammals slide past Wonson en route to the Kamchatka spawning; sea-lion counters exude happiness upon return from the mists of mossy aerodromes in northern Kuriles; friends from Khabarovsk  thwack pungent birch branches in self-built saunas in Seattle, etching outlines of snowmobiles lost to the summer…

And Russian merchants who once fattened you with crab-meat simply disappear.

The Seattle Times reports:

In September 2007, Bellevue businessman Arkadi Gontmakher was imprisoned in Moscow and accused by the Russian government of involvement in a criminal ring that poached massive amounts of king crab from waters off the Kamchatka Peninsula. More than two years later, Gontmakher, an American citizen from Ukraine, has yet to be brought to trial in a case that has drawn international scrutiny.

As a recent resident of Bellevue, that fair city (the largest metropolis between Seattle and Minneapolis!) on the shores of Lake Washington, I can testify both to the Russian influence in that fair clime, and the tremors this case continues to send through the rather affluent Russian community, on Seattle’s sprawling, trawling, and high-tech East Side.

Gontmakher's mansion in Bellevue, Washington

Meanwhile, while denying trial to the Bellevue crab-capitalist (reminiscent of his Gaszprom coup), Vladimir Putin hunts for oil and influence in the Russian Far East.

Lors de l’inauguration des nouvelles installations à Nakhodka, en Extrême-Orient russe, le premier ministre Vladimir Poutine a indiqué que le nouvel oléoduc allait permettre à la Rusie de pénétrer davantage le marché asiatique. Photo via AFP

The great Quebecois journalistic institution, Le Devoir, reports on the hunt via AFP (in French).

If you want to better understand Russian ambition in its Far East, might I recommend two highly entertaining yet obscure little tomes?

— The first is by B.L. Putnam Weale, the pseudonym of an intrepid fin-de-siecle Brit who traipsed all over northeast Asia, resulting in on-the-spot reportage from 1903 entitled Manchus and Muscovite (available here in full text).

— The  second is by the no less interesting and yet more recent work by the Canadian scholar David Schemmelpennick Van der Oye , an intense and living scholar at Brock University north of Toronto, entitled Toward the Rising Sun: Ideologies of Empire and the Path to War with Japan.


Faces and technology change, but some themes recur: Russian interest in the sea, in reaching Korea, in containing Japan, in exploiting the tremendous mineral and natural wealth of the Far East (which is distinct from Siberia!)…Vladimir Putin reappears as Sergei Witte.

But today we just speculate, as the magnates of Bellevue cry great tears of crab meat, locked up with Georgian wine CEOs, caviar merchants from Odessa, great fortunes brought low from Baku, crammed in with would-be geo-thermal wealth from Irkutsk.  Perhaps return of the Romanov elite brings inclines celestial in Moscow’s dark halls…

And what of the North Korean loggers, or the Koryo Saram, dear Miguk saram? –Personification of futility!

*  *  *

Now, pedal tone to this failed coda, MSNBC blurts a dull cacophony, Zeitgeist drone in the background:

“war on Terror…al Qaeda prisoners….war on Terror…the President prosecuting the war on Terror…address the nation at war….on Terror…former Vice President Dick Cheney…on Terror…the message is security this week, next week we will focus on the economy…the buck stops here”

David Gregory, constant presence, certainly without equivalent paid scribe in the Soviet-era Orient, where would we be without your grave analysis, your “inside sources”, your serious demeanor, your hemmed pants, your chuckle, your seat at the table?  I suppose we should have to listen to Juan Gonzalez talk about Puerto Rico on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, that’s where!  And where would that get us, for, what, after all, does Puerto Rico have to do with a war…on Terror?

And, to return to our crab-man, what does Terror on MSNBC have to do — with actual historical Terror?  Such as the terror of civilians being bombed in the Finnish borderlands?  or Stalin taking out his anger on the 10% in 1937?  or Richard Taruskin’s flaying of that loveliest and most obsequious of composers, Dmitri Shostakovich?

Dmitri Shostakovich writing the Leningrad Symphony, for the state, for Stalin

What does Shostakovich tell us about living in a Terror world?  That we ought to retreat into the Vermont woods and watch the world molt, like Solzhenitsyn?  Or perhaps that we watch to watch football, and lots of it, as the generals are purged, and the great leader hunts for railroads to the Far East…

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