Tuesday, April 6, 2021

New Novel Imagines Russia Falling Under Chinese Control

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 3 – One of the greatest fears Russians have long had is that China, with its enormous population and rising economic power, will overwhelm their country much of which has few people and which is in relative economic decline. As with many such apocalyptic fears, this one challenges the ability of analysts to discuss its full dimensions.

            One of the few ways that such an apocalypse, and Russians are in full agreement about what Chinese domination of their country would be, can be explored is through dystopian fiction, a method that allows imagination to go beyond what current facts allow and to consider the meaning of things that may in the end never happen.

            A new Russian novel does just that. Pavel Zhang and Other River Animals by Vera Bogdanova (in Russian, Moscow: AST, 2021) has already attracted numerous reviews. Among the most thoughtful is one by Galina Yuzefovich (meduza.io/feature/2021/04/03/pavel-chzhan-i-prochie-rechnye-tvari-roman-very-bogdanovoy-o-nedalekom-buduschem-v-kotorom-rossiya-okazalas-pod-kontrolem-kitaya).

            Set in the indeterminant future of the middle of this century, Yuzefovich says, the novel tells the story of two interrelated developments: China’s domination of Russia which has reduced the latter to a supplier of raw materials and Beijing’s plans to extend its program of implanting chips in the brains of its residents to those of Russia as a means of ensuring complete control.

            Bogdanova has made this story plausible and come alive for readers because she has told it not in broad brush terms but via the experiences of a single individual, Pavel Zhang, the product of an ethnically mixed marriage who speaks both Russian and Chinese and finds himself caught up in both of the developments the novelist is concerned with, the reviewer continues.

            Zhang’s father, a teacher of Chinese language, leaves the family when Pavel is nine, and Pavel’s mother, a Russian beauty in Bogdanova’s telling, disappears soon thereafter. Pavel thus becomes the resident of an orphanage but later because of his language skills makes a brilliant career in the Moscow office of a Chinese IT-company.

            The novel’s protagonist appeared to have everything going for him until a Russian economic crisis led to the country’s decline into nothing more than a raw materials supplier for China’s booming economy and until Beijing’s use of computer chips inserted in the brains of Chinese began to be extended to Russians.

            Zhang is caught in the middle of this, as a Chinese-speaking Russian who specializes in computers; and those qualities allow Bogdanova in what is her first novel to discuss an enormous number of issues about Russia, China and the future in an entirely plausible and quite convincing way.

            The novel builds toward a climax in which the Chinese want Zhang, a Russian, to move to Beijing so that he can better serve the new imperial masters in controlling his country.  Yuzefovich says that the issues raised by all this are so important that she hopes that “in the near future there will be more such books” on offer in Russia.


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