This detailed and always intriguing book shows the interconnecting lines of history, politics, international relations, wildlife, and human personality. Of the non-fiction books I’ve read recently, many of them were intelligent but superficial accounts of their topic. I think in particular of the recent The Destiny of the Republic and of the seemingly encyclopedic Columbine. Tiger is intelligent and deep. We learn much about tigers and their natural behavior, about the inhabitants of Siberian Russia. It details the attack of a male tiger on residents of Luchegorsk, in far eastern Russia, near the Chinese border, and of the efforts to hunt it down. In the beginning I was mainly interested in tigers, but soon found compelling the discussions of Yuri Trush, the man assigned by the Soviet Union to head up the Inspection Tiger unit that protects tigers, tries to prevent poaching, and deals with various aspects of human and wildlife relations.
For me the attractions of this book beyond the tiger himself lay in its coverage of a part of the world that I and most other western readers would normally dismiss as an uninteresting backwater of the old Soviet Union—Siberia, shades of Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Stalin. It is much like a frontier, even as elements of the contemporary world gradually make their way in. The region also hovers on the cusp of the Russian and Chinese borders, and the differing attitudes of the Chinese and the Russians towards preservations of tigers and other wildlife is an indication of the tensions between these two large nations. Chinese expansionism, Perestroika, Stalin’s purges all have had an impact on the region and the welfare of the Siberian tiger. Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Valliant (Vintage, 2010) provides a glimpse into a subject that was largely unknown to me before, and leaves me feeling more ignorant, more parochial, less worldly than before as well.