A Warning of Challenges that Remain


The Russian Far East. A Reference for Conservation and Development. Newell, J. 2004. Daniel & Daniel Publishers, McKinleyville, CA. 486 pp. (466 + xx). $99.95 (hardcover). ISBN 1-880284-76-6.

This second edition of Josh Newell's 1996 book is an appropriate example of why disparate information available on the Web is no substitute for a well-crafted and thorough reference book. The author sets out to provide a guide for people interested in resource economics, geography, and conservation issues in the Russian Far East, hoping that people can pick up the book and connect with different topics of interest. It turns out, however, that the book also delivers some serendipitous additional benefits: it becomes a portrait of an important region in the aftermath of the Soviet era and turns into a reference source about local experts as well as a place. This last bonus for the reader results from the fact that Newell has succeeded in bringing together an impressive team of Russian and western contributing authors. The book reads as a “who's who” of experts on conservation and resources of Russia. Although the original book had 18 contributing authors, this expanded version lists more than 90.

People interested in conservation would do well to pay attention to the list of contributors—a drawback of post-Soviet environmental support from people outside Russia often lies in the fact that local voices are ignored. It is as though environmentalism sprang from a vacuum in the post-Soviet republics, waiting for American or European experts to come in and “discover” the issues. Both in the first edition of The Russian Far East and this excellent update, Newell pays homage to the rich knowledge held by Russian scientists. Therefore, this book is a good reference and a model of how western environmentalists might adopt a more helpful attitude toward the community of experts in Russia. This is their book.

Above all, Newell and his coauthors have created a useful text. It is clearly designed to provide maximum value to the reader who seeks data and explanation. Although the 1996 edition is 200 pages with simple maps, no index, and only 26 data tables, the new edition is 466 pages, has a good index, excellent color maps (by Mike Belts and Rankin Holmes, although many others contributed to the database and preparation of the extensive maps) and many photographs (including striking satellite imagery), 45 major tables, and 11 appendices with extensive data. It also redefines the region, breaking out new subregions (e.g., the Chukotsky and Koryak Autonomous Okrugs and Jewish Autonomous Oblast) and dropping Chita Oblast (which was included in the 1996 edition). The lexicon of Russian terms furnished at the beginning is much more extensive in this new book and of great value to readers unfamiliar with Russian terminology for geographic, economic, and environmental expressions or agencies. In fact, this feature alone makes it a useful reference book for anyone studying contemporary Russia.

Although the book is best at giving details about each region of the Russian Far East (an enormous territory, two-thirds the size of the United States and stretching from the Arctic to the border with China), it also gives holistic information that creates a snapshot of a very important area of Russia in terms of biodiversity, resources, and Pacific conservation issues. For example, the summary table of major environmental issues and problem areas could be lifted out of the book and used as a guide for Americans unfamiliar with the region. Newell's overview discussion of factors that influence the outlook for the environment of the Russian Far East is an appropriate critique of policies that have been designed to improve the situation but often fall short. Perhaps a key conclusion of the book, written by Newell, is that “Despite more than a decade of sweeping privatization and radical political restructuring, the aging and inefficient military-industrial complex built by the Soviets remains largely intact” (p. 11). Examples of these challenges abound in the book. The sections on mining and energy, timber, fisheries, protected territories, and certain endangered species (such as the Amur tiger, Panteria tigris altaica) are particularly strong, but agriculture is not given much emphasis.

Perhaps the only drawback to The Russian Far East is the same as its strength: it provides up-to-date and detailed information. The data will age quickly and the heroic amount of work required to bring together this group of experts may be difficult to repeat for a third edition. Meanwhile, I highly recommend the book to western conservationists, geographers, economists, and even those interested in developing business ties. The Russian Far East is littered with corpses of ventures that did not work out from either a profit or environmental perspective. The book serves as a good warning of the challenges that remain for nature and the people of Russia.