Sunday, July 28, 2019

Japanese Book ‘Independence for Siberia!’ Retitled by Russian Publisher as ‘A Life for Siberia’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 26 – A book by Japanese scholar Tanaka Katsuhiko on Siberian oblastnik leader Grigory Potanin was entitled Independence for Siberia! When it was published in Tokyo, but a Russian publishing house that has put out a translation has retitled it to conform to “current realities” A Life for Siberia.
            But that change does not make the book any less important as an introduction of a 19th century regionalist movement that few in the West know about or as an indication that the Japanese to this day remain vitally interested in what is taking place in Russia east of the Urals. Indeed, the change in title by the Russian publisher may be the best indication of how much is.

            Recently, Tanaka Katushiko, who has devoted his life to the study of linguistics, history and culture in Mongolia, visited Tomsk on the occasion of the launch of the Russian edition of his new book and gave an interview to TV-2 on the continuing importance of the oblastniki (, reposted at

            For many Japanese, he says, Siberia is “a territory of suffering” because after World War II, 600,000 Japanese prisoners of war were compelled to work there. Tens of thousands of them died. But the views of those who experienced this suffering about Russia divided between those who hated it and those who had fallen in love with it.  Some of the latter inspired him.

            Initially, the 85-year-old scholar says, he had the stereotypical view of Siberia as a cold place; but now after many visits, he is struck mostly by the warmth of its people.  Tanaka Katsuhiko says that he doesn’t see a great difference between Siberians and other Russians, but Russians in Moscow clearly do.

            “When I was in Moscow,” he says, he found that many of its residents “think about Siberia as a place far from civilization” and express wonder that anyone would want to spend time there or study it. “Why go to such horrible places,” they ask, “when there are so many beautiful ones in Russia?”

            The scholar says he first encountered Potanin when he was in a used book shop in Tokyo in 1957 and picked up a copy of a translation into Japanese of Potanin’s works that the Japanese Institute for East Asia had published in 1945 just before the end of World War II.  The American occupation forces shut down that institution seeing it as a source of militarism, he continues.

            It is paradoxical but true, Tanaka Katsuhiko says, that “in the 1930s and 1940s when Japan was at war, scholarship in Japan and research on Asia and East Asia was very strong.” Numerous monographs were published and each month, the World of Islam was published in 2,000 copies.    

            The Japanese scholar says he first came to know Potanin as an ethnographer and historian and only later focused on his activities as a Siberian regionalist (oblastnik), activities which most Russians do not know a great deal about, although there have been some good studies (in microscopic print runs) by Russian scholars in recent years. 

            Marina Sesyunina’s very good study was published in only 500 copies, Tanaka Katsuhiko notes. 

            Vladimir Putin has turned away from federalism, the scholar continues, and that has had an impact on Russian scholarship which has generally avoided discussing those, like Potanin, who favored the development and strengthening of federal structures. That helps to explain why the Russian publisher changed his title.

            His Tomsk interviewer, Viktor Muchnik, says that “after the 1917 revolution, the ideas of the oblastniki it would seem could have come to life. They held a congress in 1917, Viktor Pepelyayev was Kolchak’s prime minister, and his brother Anatoly Pepelyaev also sympathized with the ideas of the oblastniki and was one of Kolchak’s generals.”

            Moreover, Muchnik continues, “Pepelyaev’s units fought under the white-green flag of the oblastnik movement.”  Why didn’t this succeed? he asks. Tanaka Katsuhiko politely replies: “I am all the same a foreigner, and it is hard for me to talk about this … It is an internal Russian political problem.”

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