Western Siberia- Peoples

The history of Siberia is often difficult for Americans to understand because we bring our own historical perspective to our interpretations-- the dominant mainstream narrative of initial overseas contact; military conquest and spread of infectious diseases decimating Indigenous populations; and subsequent colonization of North America by European powers. But Russia is physically located within Eurasia, and the movement of peoples back and forth between Europe and Asia dates back to prehistoric times, especially in the southern regions. This complicates matters. The Indigenous Peoples of far northeastern Siberia that Dr. Causey talked about in his lecture on Eastern Siberia were very isolated from Europe, Central Asia and China, and were badly impacted by introduce diseases during early contact. But peoples living in the southern regions had long been part of the trade routes between China and Europe. In this case, the Black Plague traveled from Central Asia and Siberia with the fur trade, and populations in Europe were decimated by diseases from the east. Turkic peoples in Central Asia and south-central Siberia also had the military advantage, and in the early 13th Century the Mongolian political and military leader Genghis Khan (Temujin) controlled the steppes of what is now Siberia and European Russia, including Kiev and Muscovy.

This pattern reversed itself in the 16th Century, when Russians began to mass produce fire arms and were able to push back eastwards and expand their military and economic control into Siberia. The important point is that in this narrative, the Russian encounter with Indigenous Peoples, at least on the southern steppes, was far from "initial contact," and at least the trade routes known as the "Silk Road" were well known.

Let's begin with a recap of the Russian expansion before talking more about the Indigenous Peoples of Western Siberia.

Russians in Western Siberia

Russians living in the Urals in cities like Tobolsk and Tyumen do not consider themselves to be Siberians, to their minds they are part of European Russia and regionally part of the Urals, not Siberia. In this scenario, Tobolsk was the first capitol of Siberia because at the time it was the easternmost city of the Russian Empire (as opposed to the westernmost city in Siberia).

Tobolsk (Тобольск) was founded during the rein of Boris Godunov in 1587 by Daniel Chulkov, and is strategically located at the confluence of the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers. Under the leadership of Yermak, the Cossacks had previously captured Chingi-Tura (later Tyumen) but didn't stay, they went eastward to Khan Kuchum's capitol city of Kashlyk (this is the battle that Ivan Surikov memorialized in the painting we discussed in a previous lecture by Dr. Mikkelson view painting). Tobolsk, therefore, became the trade center and capitol of Siberia.

In his lecture on Eastern Siberia, Dr. Causey presented data on the importance of the fur trade in the Russian economy of the 16th and 17th Centuries. The pursuit of wealth from the fur trade drove the merchants and the Cossacks they employed eastward across Siberia, to Alaska and down the North American coast to Fort Ross in what is now California.

View Siberian expansion-REES 513 in a larger map

Furs from throughout Siberia and Russian America entered the Russian Empire through the Tobolsk port, up the steep slope and into the merchant houses next to the Kremlin. You can see this route in the first several photographs in the slideshow below. Tobolsk has a lower town, which historically was inhabited by tradespeople and workers, and an upper town, with a Kremlin, Orthodox churches, and the merchant houses with their warehouses for storing furs. In 1620 Tobolsk became the seat of the Diocese of Siberia1 and its importance was such that the first stone buildings in the Urals/Siberia were built in the Kremlin.


Tobolsk is no longer a economic center, its importance during the fur trade has been usurped by Tyumen (Тюмень), which is now the "Oil Capitol" of Siberia. We will have a lecture by Dr. Andrei Tolstikov later in the semester on the history of Tyumen and its role in oil and gas development in the West Siberia oil fields to the north.


Tyumen is a large, modern city with a population of 560,000 (although the economic population size is much larger, since it is the base for workers who rotate through the northern oil fields). Although most Russians in Siberia live in urban centers, much of the area of Western Siberia is sparsely populated. Rural villages tend to be isolated with poor infrastructure (no running water, poorly maintained roads, little access to medical facilities). Since the economic collapse during the 1990's the condition in most villages has continued to deteriorate. The important agricultural regions around Novosibirsk is modernized, but rural villages seldom have modern machinery and depend on traditional practices.

Indigenous Peoples of Western Siberian

Western Siberia has played an enormous role in the economic development of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and today in the Russian Federation of States. But it is also the traditional lands of a number of Indigenous Peoples. For a complete list with locations and population sizes, see the RAIPON website (Russian Association of Indigenous
Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East) and our textbook James Forsyth, A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony.

Later in the semester we will have guest speakers from universities in Siberia help us look in detail at two case studies, the Altai Republic and oil and gas development north of Tyumen. These two regions make an interesting contrast that illuminates a great deal about the current political, economic and cultural situation in Siberia.

The NASA satellite imagery below shows the lights and gas fires in the Central Siberian oil and gas fields in the Khanty-Mansisk Autonomous Okrug and the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. These two administrative units have historically been designated as Autonomous Okrugs because they are the traditional homelands of Indigenous Peoples. There are around 20,000 Khanty, Mansi and Forest Nenets in the Khanty-Mansisk Autonomous Okrug. In the past this represented a fairly substantial part of the population in this region, however, because of the influx of Russians and other European and American oil workers, it is currently only 1.12% of the number of the population of 1.5 million.2 The Indigenous population of Yamalo-Nenets include the Nenets, the Khanty, and the Selkup; together with other indigenous peoples, they make up about 6 percent of the current population. But despite their designation as "autonomous," both of these Okrugs are administered from Tyumen and have little or no governmental autonomy, and a lot of oil and gas development.

In contrast, approximately 30% of the population of the Altai Republic are from one of the groups that make up the Altaian peoples, and the Altai Republic has its own constitution, is able to designate both Altaian and Russian as state languages of the same rank, and has a legislature made up for 41 regional representatives. It is no coincidence that if you look at the Altai in the image below there is almost no industrial development, as indicated by the darkness of the night sky. The industrial cities of Novosibirsk, Barnaul and Biisk are all in administrative districts to the north (the Altai Krai and Novosibirskaya). And the Kuzbass Coalfields are also in other administrative districts. The proportionately large population of Altaians, combined with the lack of major resources, and the particular historical character of Altaian-Russian relations allowed the Altai Republic to separate from the Altai Krai and Novosibirsk (which administered the region during the Soviet period) in 1992 and form its own government.


In 1756 the Altaians petitioned Elizabeth I,who was then the Tsar, for protection from Chinese and Kazakh attacks. Altaians maintain the tradition that they voluntarily joined Russia, and were not conquered and colonized. They have also resisted conversion by the Russian Orthodox Church, Buddhism, and Islam (they are a Turkic linguistic and cultural group but are not Muslim). After the formation of the Altai Republic in 1992, Altaians began a cultural renaissance that has included the development of cultural festival, language immersion schools, furthering the development of written literature, and a revival of traditional practices.

A music academy was started by Mr. Konchev to teach traditional instruments and throat singing as part of a program to help at risk boys and young men. His training as a classical musician during the Soviet period has influenced his teaching methods, and students often combine training as classical pianists or guitarists with training on traditional instruments.

The influence of increasing tourism and "world music" can be seen in recent cultural festivals and the creation of groups who combine traditional instruments, throat singing, and modern rock and jazz music.


1. http://rbth.ru/articles/2010/12/10/tobolsk_siberias_first_capital05196.html

2. http://www.unesco.ru/en/?module=pages&action=view&id=55

3. Nenets traditional reindeer herding impacted by gas development

W. Bruce Lincoln, The Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and the Russians.
James Forsyth, A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony.