In 1985, the late Stuart Kirby, veteran British scholar of what he liked to call ‘SIBFE’ (Siberia and the Far East) wrote: ‘The Russian literature specifically on Siberia would fill a large modern library, the non-Russian at most a few shelves.’1 Since he wrote those words 25 years ago, the situation regarding western studies of Siberia has changed considerably. There has been published a range of erudite monographs and anthologies analysing various aspects of Siberia's history, exploration, economic resources, environment and indigenous peoples (see ‘Suggestions for Further Reading’). In 1981, a unique, multidisciplinary academic journal entitled Sibirica, devoted to research on all aspects of Siberia's rich history and culture, was founded, first edited by the present author and now taken over by a team of experts based at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. However, despite the increased number of specialized investigations of ‘Russia's Frozen Frontier’, much of them connected with its crucial role as a colony exploited for its natural resources, there still exists an alarming amount of public ignorance about what is one of the world's most enormous territorial-administrative regions, and the source and depository of boundless subterranean and surface wealth. At the risk of making an over-generalization, when one speaks to people either in a university senior common room or in the local village pub, Siberia – its location, its size, its global significance – is as much known about or understood as life in Tiruchirapalli, Tierra del Fuego or Timbuktu. As far as I know at the time of writing, not a single undergraduate university course specifically on the history and culture of Siberia exists anywhere in the Western world.
This book seeks to dispel something of that miasma of ignorance and misconception surrounding this vast expanse of the planet's land-surface, its fascinating history, its natural environment and – most importantly – the peoples who live, or have lived and died, there. The methodology and approach I have adopted here is very much influenced by the great nineteenth-century Siberian regionalist writer and scholar, Nikolai Mikhailovich Yadrintsev, whose work and that of his fellow oblastniki (regionalists) is discussed in Chapter Four. The core of Yadrintsev's thesis was that right from the ‘conquest’ of Siberia by Russian cossaks in the late sixteenth century the territory, its natural reserves and its indigenous peoples were ruthlessly and recklessly exploited for the benefit of the autocratic, tsarist government located in European Russia. The whole political, social and economic history of Russia has been marked, like that of other nations, by what was defined by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as ‘the history of class struggles’.2 In the case of relations between the European-based metropolitan centre of the Russian Empire and its north Asian provinces of Siberia, the peripheral yet fabulously profitable possessions over the Urals, the notion – and the actuality – of social struggle between the lower and the ruling classes, known in Russian as the nizy and the verkhi, were overlaid by a continuing conflict between the Kremlin or the Winter Palace on the one hand, and the increasingly resentful inhabitants, both native and immigrant, of the continent beyond the Urals. Indeed, the very term ‘beyond the Urals’ to describe Siberia betokens an obviously Eurocentric view of the place. After all, if one looks at it from the Siberian, i.e. Eastern, perspective, ‘beyond the Urals’ signifies not Asiatic, but European Russia. Over the centuries since the original Russian conquest and subsequent colonization of the territory, the Siberians (sibiryaki), including both the aboriginal peoples and the Slavic incomers who later became known as the starozhily (old inhabitants), gradually developed a sense of their own specific regional identity, and even nationality, with their own specific interests that challenged those of Muscovite and Imperial Russia. (The situation is very similar to that of European refugees, migrants and intruders who crossed the Atlantic and began to call themselves ‘Americans’.) It is hoped that the contents and arguments of this book will substantiate Yadrintsev's hypothesis of ‘Siberia as a Colony’ – the title of his magisterial work published in 1881.
A mixture of chronological and thematic approaches has been adopted, starting with a description of the geophysical environment of Siberia and the Far East, and moving on through an analysis of Slavonic incursions – military, mercenary and scientific expeditions – across the Urals from the late sixteenth century up to the dying decades of the Russian Empire. Two separate chapters are devoted to the plight of the Siberian aboriginal peoples, and to the history of the notorious Siberian exile system. A whole section deals with the building of the great Trans-Siberian Railroad. The final chapters address the revolutions of 1917 and the ensuing Civil War, of which Siberia and the Far East were the major theatre, the development of Siberia during the period of Stalin's dictatorship, including the infamous labour-camp operation – the GULag – and the years following his death in 1953 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A brief afterword follows, indicating the role of Siberia and the Russian Far East in the early twenty-first century, and possible future political and economic developments in this gigantic and important area of ‘Russia's Frozen Frontier’.