The best books about Russia in Asia

Why am I passionate about this?

Sören Urbansky was born and raised in East Germany next to the Iron Curtain. Since embarking on an overland journey from Berlin to Beijing after high school, he became hooked by peoples’ lifeways in Northeast Asia. In college, Sören began studying history in earnest and grew intrigued by Russia and China, the world’s largest and most populous countries. He has published widely on this pivotal yet forgotten region. Sören is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute Washington and is currently embarking on a new project that examines anti-Chinese sentiments from a global perspective.


I wrote...

Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border

By Sören Urbansky,

Book cover of Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border

What is my book about?

Beyond the Steppe Frontier tells the story of the Sino-Russian border’s transformation—from a vaguely marked frontier in the seventeenth century to its twentieth-century incarnation as a tightly patrolled barrier girded by watchtowers, barbed wire, and border guards. Urbansky challenges top-down interpretations by stressing the significance of the local population in supporting and undermining border-making. Relying on a wealth of sources from little-known archives from across Eurasia, Urbansky demonstrates how states succeeded in suppressing traditional borderland cultures by cutting kin, cultural, economic, and religious connections across the state perimeter through laws, physical force, deportation, reeducation, forced assimilation, and propaganda. Beyond the Steppe Frontier sheds critical new light on a pivotal geographical periphery and expands our understanding of how borders are determined.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Russian Far East: A History

Sören Urbansky Why did I love this book?

When I met John J. Stephan for the first time in 2017 in Honolulu, I immediately recognized the wit, irony, and ascetic prose style that I had encountered in his monographs about the Kurile Islands, Sakhalin Island, and the Russian fascists of Manchuria. Stephan has always succeeded in bridging the ideological schisms separating Russian, Chinese, and Japanese historians as a politically uninvolved bystander and avid traveler. Since the 1960s, Stephan was a frequent visitor of the Soviet Far East. He had many friends and colleagues who shared their hopes, worries, and anecdotes. His most important work is The Russian Far East. Published in 1994, it is the result of almost three decades of research and the ultimate proof that even in a Cold War world without access to archives, historians do not have to resort to wild guessing but can produce accurate, intimate, and entertaining historiography. His comprehensive history of the Russian Far East remains unsurpassed to this day.

By John J. Stephan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Russian Far East as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first truly comprehensive history of the Russian Far East in any language, this magisterial work reconstructs the area's experience from paleolithic times to the present. Wedged between China, Korea, Japan, and the United States, the Russian Far East has long been a meeting ground for Eurasian and Pacific peoples and cultures. Conventionally regarded as a peripheral region, it in fact has a unique identity and dynamic. The author adopts a Eurasian perspective to chronicle the area's rich history.


Book cover of On the Edge: Life along the Russia-China Border

Sören Urbansky Why did I love this book?

Franck Billé and Caroline Humphrey’s On the Edge is an excellent example that two authors can write one compelling story. Based on solid on-the-ground observation of daily life and current affairs along the Russia-China border, the two anthropologists narrate the extraordinary contrasts they encountered in one of the world’s most enigmatic borderlands. In so doing, they give voice to indigenous people, and other subaltern groups often overlooked when writing about two geopolitical superpowers.

By Franck Billé, Caroline Humphrey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On the Edge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A pioneering examination of history, current affairs, and daily life along the Russia-China border, one of the world's least understood and most politically charged frontiers.

The border between Russia and China winds for 2,600 miles through rivers, swamps, and vast taiga forests. It's a thin line of direct engagement, extraordinary contrasts, frequent tension, and occasional war between two of the world's political giants. Franck Bille and Caroline Humphrey have spent years traveling through and studying this important yet forgotten region. Drawing on pioneering fieldwork, they introduce readers to the lifeways, politics, and history of one of the world's most consequential…


Book cover of Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power

Sören Urbansky Why did I love this book?

In recent years, we have seen a surge in books on contemporary Russia-China relations. Gregory Afinogenov’s Spies and Scholars takes us back to their humble beginnings in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. This pioneering study sheds new light on how the emergence of the Russian Empire as a global power was shaped through intelligence gathering in imperial China. A must-read not only for historians. 

By Gregory Afinogenov,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Spies and Scholars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Financial Times Best Book of the Year

The untold story of how Russian espionage in imperial China shaped the emergence of the Russian Empire as a global power.

From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire made concerted efforts to collect information about China. It bribed Chinese porcelain-makers to give up trade secrets, sent Buddhist monks to Mongolia on intelligence-gathering missions, and trained students at its Orthodox mission in Beijing to spy on their hosts. From diplomatic offices to guard posts on the Chinese frontier, Russians were producing knowledge everywhere, not only at elite institutions like the…


Book cover of We Shall Be Masters: Russian Pivots to East Asia from Peter the Great to Putin

Sören Urbansky Why did I love this book?

Chris Miller has written a well-argued account of Russia’s various attempts to gain great power status in the Asia-Pacific over the five centuries – and its repeated setbacks. Russia’s imperial expansion to Alaska, Hawaii, and California reminds us that Russia’s expansionist dreams often amounted to little. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is another example that Putin’s ambitions in the East are restrained by the country’s firm rooting in Europe.

By Chris Miller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We Shall Be Masters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An illuminating account of Russia's attempts-and failures-to achieve great power status in Asia.

Since Peter the Great, Russian leaders have been lured by opportunity to the East. Under the tsars, Russians colonized Alaska, California, and Hawaii. The Trans-Siberian Railway linked Moscow to Vladivostok. And Stalin looked to Asia as a sphere of influence, hospitable to the spread of Soviet Communism. In Asia and the Pacific lay territory, markets, security, and glory.

But all these expansionist dreams amounted to little. In We Shall Be Masters, Chris Miller explores why, arguing that Russia's ambitions have repeatedly outstripped its capacity. With the core…


Book cover of To the Harbin Station: The Liberal Alternative in Russian Manchuria, 1898-1914

Sören Urbansky Why did I love this book?

Published in 1999, David Wolff’s To the Harbin Station was a pioneering work that paved the path for many historical studies that followed, and which remains an unparalleled analysis of Russia’s only colony and its imperial expansion into China in the two decades leading up to the 1917 revolution. The monograph is more than an urban history of Harbin. It is the history of a region, a railroad, and the nature of late tsarist imperialism.

By David Wolff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To the Harbin Station as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1898, near the projected intersection of the Chinese Eastern Railroad (the last leg of the Trans-Siberian) and China's Sungari River, Russian engineers founded the city of Harbin. Between the survey of the site and the profound dislocations of the 1917 revolution, Harbin grew into a bustling multiethnic urban center with over 100,000 inhabitants. In this area of great natural wealth, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and American ambitions competed and converged, and sometimes precipitated vicious hostilities.

Drawing on the archives, both central and local, of seven countries, this history of Harbin presents multiple perspectives on Imperial Russia's only colony. The…


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Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired english professor

Gabrielle's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Gabrielle found her grandfather’s diaries after her mother’s death, only to discover that he had been a Nazi. Born in Berlin in 1942, she and her mother fled the city in 1945, but Api, the one surviving male member of her family, stayed behind to work as a doctor in a city 90% destroyed.

Gabrielle retraces Api’s steps in the Berlin of the 21st century, torn between her love for the man who gave her the happiest years of her childhood and trying to come to terms with his Nazi membership, German guilt, and political responsibility.

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

What is this book about?

"This is not a book I will forget any time soon."
Story Circle Book Reviews

Moving and provocative, Api's Berlin Diaries offers a personal perspective on the fall of Berlin 1945 and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich.

After her mother's death, Robinson was thrilled to find her beloved grandfather's war diaries-only to discover that he had been a Nazi.

The award-winning memoir shows Api, a doctor in Berlin, desperately trying to help the wounded in cellars without water or light. He himself was reduced to anxiety and despair, the daily diary his main refuge. As Robinson retraces Api's…


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Interested in Russia, China, and the Soviet Union?

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