August 2009


Beginning chapter eight, I see that again Benson makes errors when he ventures from Russia to discuss the New World. He claims that native americans were baffled by the concept of private property, believing all land was holy and belonged to nature. That was a myth made up to justify seizing their land, then later adopted by environmentalists sympathetic to their plight. A few pages later he writes “the local Buryats seemed able to make as many distinctions between one kind of dung an another as Eskimos could with snow”. The Eskimo-words-for-snow meme is also mythical. What is it about native americans that results in this stuff being so widely believed?

I just picked up Benson Bobrick’s “East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia”, and while I’m only a few pages in, it seems quite good so far. I don’t have any choice quotes to share with readers yet, but in the meantime you can enjoy ZenPundit’s review of a book on the Russian Civil War general Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian Ungern von Sternberg, who went all Colonel Kurtz in his fight against the Reds across Transbaikal and Mongolia. Hat tip to John Robb. For more light-hearted fare, there is the late Soviet era animated film about the Polmors, Laughter and Grief by the White Sea, available on google video.

UPDATE: Pretty early on I’ve found a mistake. Describing Yermak’s expedition against the Khanate it is said “Indeed, it was their military superiority through firearms that would prove decisive, as it had for Cortez in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru”. Firearms were still fairly primitive in Cortez’ time, they were not the primary armament of his forces and primarily served to amaze the natives rather than play a major role in military tactics. The horses and steel armor plus weapons were more important factors (along with the fact that Aztecs were used to fighting with the aim of capturing their opponents and had thoroughly pissed off other tribes in the area). Think the last rather than first member of the triad “Guns, Germs and Steel”. Speaking of which, I wonder if differences in resistance to various diseases played a significant role in Russian expansion to the east. The Siberians were not isolated from large agricultural civilization like New Worlders but rather had some connection to China. China or Mongolia is supposed to have been the source of the Black Death which ravaged Europe, though I don’t know how much of a problem it was in east asia.

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