History in my Mailbox


Vladimir Arsenyev’s 1921 “Across the Ussuri Kray”

Last week, at one of the many airports between Myanmar and Minnesota, I received an email from Carol Ueland, my undergraduate advisor at Drew University’s Russian Department. She forwarded me a Russian academic listserv message from a woman offering up a copy of Vladimir Arsenyev’s “Dersu Uzala” free to anyone who wanted it. Carol knew I had just translated Arsenyev’s “Across the Ussuri Kray” and thought I might also be interested in “Dersu Uzala.”

I wrote the woman, sent her my address, and the book arrived at my home in Minnesota a few days ago. I almost passed out when I opened the package.

I had assumed this would be a copy of Malcolm Burr’s translation of “Dersu,” probably the 1996 reprint, but that’s not what I received. This was a first edition of Vladimir Arsenyev’s “Across the Ussuri Kray,” from 1921.  The unabridged, uncensored version that my translation was based on (I used a contemporary copy). I’ve been looking for this book for years, and it’s NOT easy to find.

It was self-published by Arsenyev in Vladivostok, at the height of the Russian Civil War. I’m not sure how many were printed but not too many survived. Paper quality was poor and the volume was extremely popular, so the books simply disintegrated as they passed from one eager reader to the next.

Over the years I’ve found a few records of copies sold at Russian auctions, where they fetched $500-$1000, and the only copy I’ve actually seen for sale had a $1000 price tag. So owning a copy has been a bit of a pipedream for me—even if I found one there’s no way I could afford it.

Yet here one was, sent me to me randomly and unintentionally by a stranger.

Yes, the copy I received is in terrible shape: the paper is brittle, the binding is broken, and it’s missing the title page (which is why the sender misidentified it as “Dersu Uzala”). But the book is an absolute treasure, historically and personally, and I am thrilled to put it on the bookshelf next to my translation of this Russian natural history classic.


End of Year Summary: 2016


Best Wishes for 2017! (Charyn River, Kazakhstan)

Writing-wise, 2016 was a fantastic year for me. By my account I published 22 pieces—that’s about one article every two weeks. A full list is below. I also had an art show, was called the Jane Goodall of Fish Owls, and was on the BBC.

Not sure how I can top this next year….with any luck my fish owl manuscript—a 100,000 word text describing five years of Blakiston’s fish owl fieldwork—will be ready to shop to publishers in the next few weeks.

Thanks for reading in 2016, and see you in 2017!


Web Articles:

Magazine Articles:

  • Russian Life: a six-page spread in the September/October 2016 issue about Vladimir Arsenyev

Scientific Articles (in print):

  • Ursus: a paper about how gorging on salmon gives brown bears uncontrollable diarrhea, and what they do to mitigate that (Seryodkin, Panichev & Slaght 2016)
  • Bird Conservation International: the culmination of my PhD work: guidelines for conservation of Blakiston’s fish owls in Russia (Slaght & Surmach 2016)
  • Integrative Zoology: a paper evaluating effectiveness of anti-poaching methods in tiger habitat in Russia (Hotte et al 2016)

Scientific Articles (accepted but not yet in print):

  • Slaght, J.C., B. Milakovsky, D. Maksimova, I. Seryodkin, V. Zaitsev, A. Panichev, and D. Miquelle. Habitat selection by Siberian musk deer: anthropogenic influences on the distribution of a Vulnerable coniferous forest specialist. Oryx in press, Nov. 2016
  • Slaght, J.C., D.G. Miquelle, and G. Tukhbatulin. Logging roads and Amur tigers in Russia: demonstrating the threat and proposing solutions. Conference Proceedings. International Conference on the Amur Tiger: Population Status, Problems, and Conservation Prospects. 13-15 December 2015, Institute of Biology and Soil Science, Vladivostok, Russia. In press, Oct. 2016

A Long Walk through Leopard Country


First signs of autumn in southwest Primorye, Russia. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

My latest from Scientific American:

In 2011 I was asked last minute to give a plenary talk about Amur tigers at a conference in Ussuriisk, Russia. Unfortunately, when I received this request I was twenty kilometers from the closest highway, and the conference was in only a few days.

I was volunteering at the time at an isolated Amur leopard trapping camp in southern Primorye, Russia, where scientists were putting radio collars on a few of these critically-endangered cats to better understand their movements. I was there as an extra pair of legs to hike up and down the steep slopes to reach the trap lines, and as an extra pair of ears to monitor the trap transmitters through the night in case of a midnight capture.

My boss, through the muffled static of a satellite phone, laid out the plan for the talk: I would walk the twenty kilometers to the highway, where a colleague named Andrei would meet me. The closest town to my location, called Nezhino, was small and only had a few stores. Andrei was to meet me at the one right next to the highway. He’d have a USB flash drive containing the presentation and would drive me sixty kilometers to Ussuriisk in time to deliver the talk.

I woke at dawn on the designated day, zipped out of my tent, and hit the trail early. I was tracing the same route I’d followed to reach the leopard camp so it was familiar, but I hesitate to call it a road. Yes, vehicles can travel on it, but it’s not something I would recommend. Napoleon Bonaparte noted that “in Russia, there are no roads: only directions in which one travels,” an 18th century quote apt in this case. The road was a muddy network of intersecting, waterlogged ruts where, if you didn’t know exactly which fork to follow, you were guaranteed to get your car stuck.

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