Sören Urbansky is a historian of Russia and China in the modern era, specializing in imperial and racial entanglements, emigration and the history of borders. Before he joined the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., he has taught Chinese and Russian history at the Universities of Munich and Freiburg and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge.

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Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

The Sino-Russian border, once the world’s longest land border, has received scant attention in histories about the margins of empires. Beyond the Steppe Frontier rectifies this by exploring the demarcation’s remarkable transformation—from a vaguely marked frontier in the seventeenth century to its twentieth-century incarnation as a tightly patrolled barrier girded by watchtowers, barbed wire, and border guards. Through the perspectives of locals, including railroad employees, herdsmen, and smugglers from both sides, Sören Urbansky explores the daily life of communities and their entanglements with transnational and global flows of people, commodities, and ideas. Urbansky challenges top-down interpretations by stressing the significance of the local population in supporting, and undermining, border making.

Because Russian, Chinese, and native worlds are intricately interwoven, national separations largely remained invisible at the border between the two largest Eurasian empires. This overlapping and mingling came to an end only when the border gained geopolitical significance during the twentieth century. Relying on a wealth of sources culled from little-known archives from across Eurasia, Urbansky demonstrates how states succeeded in suppressing traditional borderland cultures by cutting kin, cultural, economic, and religious connections across the state perimeter, through laws, physical force, deportation, reeducation, forced assimilation, and propaganda.

Beyond the Steppe Frontier sheds critical new light on a pivotal geographical periphery and expands our understanding of how borders are determined.

“Beyond the Steppe Frontier offers a sweeping history spanning three centuries, and an anthropological close-up into the quotidian lives of Chinese and Russians, Mongols and Cossacks. The result is a colorful and vivid account of the Russian-Chinese borderland.”
—Sebastian Conrad, Free University of Berlin

“This masterly panorama brings history vividly to life. Urbansky does not restrict himself to the empire-centered narratives of Russia and China, but uses meticulous research to bring us the voices of ordinary borderlanders, from communist partisans to smugglers. Beyond the Steppe Frontier is microhistory within macrohistory, a superb feat of sleuthing that introduces a cornucopia of fresh materials while also providing a compelling analysis of the volatile relations between these two giant countries.”
—Caroline Humphrey, University of Cambridge

“This is the first comprehensive history of the Sino-Russian border, from the late seventeenth century through to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Once the longest land border in the world, it is also one of the less studied, making this work an important contribution to the field of border studies. Impressively balancing microhistorical research with the bigger picture of international relations, this is a major work.”
—Thomas Lahusen, University of Toronto

“Beyond the Steppe Frontier takes a historical look at a little-known region located at the present-day intersection of Russia, China, and Outer Mongolia. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including eyewitness accounts, interviews, and archival materials, Urbansky brings to life the varied and rich experiences of the local inhabitants, from nomadic herdsmen, merchants, artisans, and Cossacks, to border guards and visiting foreigners.”
—Alfred Rieber, University of Pennsylvania

“In this remarkable book, Urbansky’s extensive archival research on both sides of the Argun river yields a riveting look at a shape-shifting frontier. The result is a comparative and linked history of Chinese and Russian state-building efforts, and a nuanced exploration of transborder connections among nomads, pastoralists, peasants, and ethnic groups. This is an outstanding contribution to boundary and borderland studies.”
—Peter Sahlins, University of California, Berkeley, and author of Boundaries

Kolonialer Wettstreit: Russland, China, Japan und die Ostchinesische Eisenbahn, Frankfurt: Campus, 2008.

Zwischen der Mongolei und Korea liegt die Mandschurei, ein zu Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts dünn besiedeltes, aber rohstoffreiches und strategisch wichtiges Gebiet. Seit dem Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts versuchten sowohl Russen als auch Japaner, dieses Gebiet zu erringen. Russland begann daher 1896 mit dem Bau der Ostchinesischen Eisenbahn, die eine exterritoriale Verlängerung der Transsibirischen Eisenbahn war und deren Geschichte Sören Urbansky hier erzählt. Die Bahn erweist sich als Verkehrs-, Kommunikations- und Kolonisationsmittel: Sie war nötig für den Transport von Menschen und Waren und den Austausch von Informationen. Den kolonialen Wettstreit gewannen am Ende die Chinesen: Sie nutzten die Eisenbahn am umfangreichsten zum Transport von Siedlern. 1952 übergab die Sowjetunion die Ostchinesische Eisenbahn an die Volksrepublik China damit endet dieses spannende Lehrstück der Kolonialgeschichte.

“A welcome and long overdue study.”
—Russian Review

“Written in a refreshing lively style often missing in publications of this kind.”

“Ein gutes, lehrreiches Buch.”
—Süddeutsche Zeitung

“Ein sehr lesenswertes Buch, nicht nur wegen seiner Fülle an Informationen, sondern vor allem auch wegen der Anschaulichkeit der Darstellung.”

Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2018. (Ed. with Franck Billé) 

China’s meteoric rise and ever expanding economic and cultural footprint have been accompanied by widespread global disquiet. Whether admiring or alarmist, media discourse and representations of China often tap into the myths and prejudices that emerged through specific historical encounters. These deeply embedded anxieties have shown great resilience, as in recent media treatments of SARS and the H5N1 virus, which echoed past beliefs connecting China and disease. Popular perceptions of Asia, too, continue to be framed by entrenched racial stereotypes: its people are unfathomable, exploitative, cunning, or excessively hardworking. This interdisciplinary collection of original essays offers a broad view of the mechanics that underlie Yellow Peril discourse by looking at its cultural deployment and repercussions worldwide.

Building on the richly detailed historical studies already published in the context of the United States and Europe, contributors to Yellow Perils confront the phenomenon in Italy, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria, Mongolia, Hong Kong, and China itself. With chapters based on archival material and interviews, the collection supplements and often challenges superficial journalistic accounts and top-down studies by economists and political scientists. Yellow Peril narratives, contributors find, constitute cultural vectors of multiple kinds of anxieties, spanning the cultural, racial, political, and economic. Indeed, the emergence of the term “Yellow Peril” in such disparate contexts cannot be assumed to be singular, to refer to the same fears, or to revolve around the same stereotypes. The discourse, even when used in reference to a single country like China, is therefore inherently fractured and multiple.

“A timely and provocative book.”
—China Quarterly

“A remarkable, coherent, and recommendable work that offers … innovative panoramic discourses about China from a contemporary perspective.”
—China Review International

“An elegant and timely collection of essays showing the persistence and the virulence of many varieties of ‘Yellow Peril’ discourse—both in the West and within East Asia itself. A touchstone for further work on this important subject.”
—Michael Keevak, author of Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking

“Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World initiates an area of study that is of crucial importance in our increasingly polarized societies.”
—Modern Chinese Literature & Culture

Yellow Perils is a fascinating read for students interested in the global reconfigurations of interethnic relations, particularly those that have been triggered by the twenty-first century rise of China.”
Pacific Affairs