What is Siberia?


It is always an interesting exercise at the beginning of the semester to consider what we, as Americans, typically think about when we mention the name “Siberia”.

What do you think about when you think of Siberia?

One student in the class volunteered that he grew up during the Cold War and served in the U.S. Army, which influenced his view of “Siberia”. The name makes him think of dissidents and exiles, and all of the political refugees that were sent there.

This first view of “Siberia” can be categorized as the view of “Siberia as a place of imprisonment and exile”. This is a common concept that many people think of when they are asked for a description of Siberia. Siberia as a place of exile began well before the Soviet period, really with the beginning of Russian domination in Siberia. The Tsars (who ruled Russia before the Soviet period) sent members of the political opposition to Siberia as early as the 17th century. During this period there were not large numbers of exiles, but this increased over time and reached an apex under Stalin during the 20-year period up to 1953 when he died. The “Stalin period” of Soviet History included the great purges of the  1930’s-1950’s when huge numbers were banished or executed.

Siberia as a place of exile is a valid image, but there was another motivation for sending people to Siberia during the1930’s (before the Second World War) and that was forced labor. Slave labor was used for the huge construction projects during forced industrialization (mining nickel, copper, gold, silver, rare metals, building the Trans-Siberian railroad, roads, hydroelectric power plants; most of the gigantic construction projects starting with the first Five Year Plan were almost exclusively built by slave labor). We will show parts of a film about the infamous Kolyma camps which were located in areas of the Russian Far East that have some of lowest temperatures ever recorded. Many were sent to work in mines under the most inhumane of conditions. The camps in Kolyma are considered the worst of the Stalin labor camps.

“Siberia” also conjures up mental images of a barren wasteland and cold. The coldest temperatures on planet outside of Antarctica were recorded in Verhoyansk (-94 C).

But another student volunteered that the name Siberia makes him think of untouched beauty—like the area around Lake Baykal.

If we try to formalize our definition of Siberia we can say that it constitutes the eastern 2/3rds of Russia. While Russia is the largest country (in geographic area) in the world, if Siberia was removed from it and made an independent country Siberia alone would still be the largest country in the world.

Siberia, however, would be considered one of most sparsely populated areas on earth—the maximum population, which occurred in the 1970’s was something more than 30 million people (contrast to California which has 36 million in a much smaller area). Many regions of Siberia have only 2 people per square kilometer. And the further north you go the more difficult it is to travel across Siberia, so economic activities become extremely difficult.

In contrast to our broad definition of Siberia, Russians define Siberia as everything east of the Urals up to the eastern mountain range (the Stanovor and Cherskiy mountain ranges). To the Russian mind Siberia is a more limited geographic area than to Americans. Russians divide the territory of what Americans think of as “Siberia” into three different territories: (1) the Urals (which include the cities of Perm, Yekaterinburg, and Cheliabinsk). This is a heavily populated industrialized region. (2) Siberia (West Siberia and East Siberia), which includes Omsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk). (3) The Russian Far East and maritime provinces (this includes the city of Vladivostok).

In this class we take the liberty of using the American more inclusive definition (in fact, the northern part of Kazakhstan may also sometimes be included).

Siberia as a “colony,” but Russia engaged in a land based colonization process, not a cross oceanic colonial expansion like the British, French, and other European colonial powers. The relationship between conquered and conquerer in this case was more complicated than you read in many historical accounts that take the perspective of Russian nationalism. We will explore this in some depth over the course of the semester.

Where did the name “Siberia” come from? The name of the place has not been definitely determined by linguists or historians. Sibir’ is how it is transliterated from the Russian into Latin letters. It is almost unanimously agreed upon that it isn’t a Slavic word: Mongol or Turkic perhaps, but not Russian or Ukrainian in origin. It may have originally been the name of a town that was later generalized to the entire region. So the origin is a mystery. But the name Sibir’ in Russian has lots of “magic” and “mythology” to Russians.  (As an aside, it is a feminine noun in Russian language and so it Siberia is often referred to as “she.”)

It is often thought of as a land of unlimited opportunities because of its vast natural resources. But in reality, these natural resources are in remote, rugged places. Siberia is swampy in the west where the gas and oil reserves are, and in general it is difficult to extract resources from anywhere in the region. The resources are there, they’re just hard to get.

The first natural resource that Russians were after when they crossed the Urals was fur. Sable, mink, fox—this was the principle form of exchange in pre-revolutionary Russia. Taiga-refers to the largest continuous boreal forest in world, which starts in European Russia, runs across northern Siberia, dips down and then goes east. In the northern most areas there is tundra, but much of Siberia is taiga. Taiga is made up of coniferous and deciduous trees. Furs from the Taiga were the primary motivation for colonizing Siberia; the key element of colonial policy was to claim the territory and claim indigenous peoples as subjects (as was common under international law at the time). The Russians required that there be no armed resistance and that the Indigenous Peoples pay tribute to them in furs. Each male was required to present certain number of pelts each year. Yasak-fur tribute. Colonization of Siberia was based on yasak (fur tribute). If it wasn’t paid the Indigenous Peoples were punished (Russians took hostages to enforce).

Next week we will focus on the city of Noril’sk. This city is a major environmental issue, since it is home to the world’s largest nickel smelter. The TV program 60 Minutes had a story about Noril’sk last week; Oligarchs bought the nickel industry very cheaply during the transition of the economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet economy was highly integrated, with different specialties in different regions. This is causing ongoing environmental problems that we will explore in some detail.