A groundbreaking exploration of life on the 26,000-mile frontier between Russia and China, On the Edge yields wide-ranging and illuminating insight into the policies and histories of the neighbouring giants and those who inhabit their borderland.
Shortlisted for the Pushkin House Book Prize 2022
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 and enigmatic borderlands.
It is telling that, along a border consisting mainly of rivers, there is not a single operating passenger bridge. Two different worlds have emerged. On the Russian side, in territory seized from China in the nineteenth century, defense is prioritized over the economy, leaving dilapidated villages slumbering amid the forests. For its part, the Chinese side is heavily settled and increasingly prosperous and dynamic. Moscow worries about the imbalance, and both governments discourage citizens from interacting. But as Bille and Humphrey show, cross-border connection is a fact of life, whatever distant authorities say. There are marriages, friendships, and sexual encounters. There are joint businesses and underground deals, including no shortage of smuggling. Meanwhile some indigenous peoples, persecuted on both sides, seek to "revive" their own alternative social groupings that span the border. And Chinese towns make much of their proximity to 'Europe', building giant Russian dolls and replicas of St. Basil's Cathedral to woo tourists.
Surprising and rigorously researched, On the Edge testifies to the rich diversity of an extraordinary world haunted by history and divided by remote political decisions but connected by the ordinary imperatives of daily life.
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Number of pages: 400
Dimensions: 210 x 140 mm
A wonderfully illuminating book, filled with insights about the frontier between Russia and China and the peoples who live in and alongside the border zones. Beautifully written and immaculately researched, this is an important book that draws on the past and present—and has obvious implications for the future. - Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
A fine-grained account of the awkwardness, asymmetries, and paradoxes of life…along the 2,600-mile border between Russia and China. - Adeeb Khalid, Times Literary Supplement
Deeply revealing about both the geopolitical relationship of Russia and China and their strikingly different modes of operation. - Sheila Fitzpatrick, London Review of Books
The first comprehensive analysis of how the lived experiences of the inhabitants of these peripheries intersect with the grand national and geopolitical visions emanating from the political centers of Moscow and Beijing…Fleshes out reductive media representations, illustrating how the ostensible political friendship between Moscow and Beijing is manifested, rejected, and contested in the everyday lives of ordinary people. - Emily Couch, Moscow Times
Enlightening…Billé and Humphrey record the results of their studies and visits to this border, taking in a number of themes, including environmental protection, indigenous peoples, cross-border trade, migration, friendship and neighborly attitudes. Each chapter reveals much about the borderlands, and much about the policies and histories of these two giants, which once shared a ruling ideology. - Katie Burton, Geographical
A close examination of a stretch of the Amur where Russia and China stare at one another in a fragile friendship. [Billé and Humphrey] approach their topic through the perspective of the people who live there and make the river border work or, in some cases, not work. - Jack Weatherford, Mekong Review
[A] sparkling book…which transported me to familiar and new places. - Peter Frankopan, The Spectator
For an ethnographic-cum-geopolitical account of Russia’s long border to the east, see the terrific book by Franck Billé and Caroline Humphrey, On the Edge: Life along the Russia-China Border. - Sheila Fitzpatrick, Australian Book Review
[A book] with remarkable depth and ambition. A combination of shoe-leather ethnography and macroscopic economic and political analysis, this book not only explains the stark differences in prosperity between the struggling Russian Far East and the flourishing Chinese Northeast, but also debunks a number of myths that have come to shape the popular understanding of the region. - Gregory Afinogenov, Russian Review
Through their enthralling ethnographic description of many social groups’ lived experiences at the border, the authors both enrich and challenge the existing studies on Sino-Russian relations…Essential for acquiring knowledge about contemporary Russia, China, their comparability and dissimilarities, and Northeast Asia and Eurasia at large. - Liao Zhang, Journal of Borderlands Studies
A book rich in insight and offering a fascinating and unique way of exposing the real contours of this hugely important relationship…Russians and Chinese, if they do share ethnic, kin or other bonds, simply view the world in a different way, framed by the national sentiments prevailing on the particular side of the border on which they happen to live. - Kerry Brown, Asian Affairs
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the continuing relevance of borders, despite all the paeans to mobility and globalization. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, has imparted even greater significance to Moscow’s relationship with China than it had before. Before these twin crises, the issues in this book were consequential; more recent developments have rendered them even more important still. On the Edge is thus a timely intervention. - Paul W. Werth, Ab Imperio
In this rich and wonderfully written book, two giants of twentieth-century socialism meet in the cities, forests, and along the rivers of northeast Asia to show how much is at stake for so many in competing visions of a postsocialist future. - Bruce Grant, New York University
Where the edges of Russia and China meet is perhaps the world’s most politically unknown but consequential borderland. Franck Billé and Caroline Humphrey provide the missing picture of how multicultural peoples carry on a burgeoning trade that is transforming life along this vast frontier. The authors show that despite different historical imaginations and personal stories on both sides, variant forms of capitalism—mafia and state—help weave friends, foes, and kin across the border. - Aihwa Ong, author of Fungible Life: Experiment in the Asian City of Life
Relations between Russia and China are usually discussed through a top-down approach—the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of a Putin and a Xi Jinping. Billé and Humphrey on the contrary turn to the ordinary lives of people living on and working across the border. A beautiful exploration of the daily reality of these border lives, revealing tensions, relations, and emerging trends that top-down approaches have missed entirely. - Michael Puett, Harvard University
For centuries, Russia and China have confronted each other along one of the longest, most important but least understood land borders in the world. On the Edge is a fascinating ethnographic study of life in this border region today that works on two levels, offering a highly focused and personalized consideration of cross-cultural and transnational interactions across a remote borderland while at the same time providing valuable insights into the dynamics that both impel and complicate the evolving Sino–Russian relationship. - Mark Bassin, Södertörn University
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