Despite comprising over three quarters of Russia land mass, Siberia is home to only forty million people, one of the lowest population densities of any region or country in the world
0 minutes – Introduction
2:35 minutes – Lecture begins: An Introduction to Siberia
12:00 minutes – Similarities between Russia and Siberia
24:20 minutes – Relationships between Russians and non-Russians
33:20 minutes – Siberia as a land of wealth and trade
44:05 minutes – The Trans-Siberian Railway
47:10 minutes – Concluding remarks
View the Lecture here (23.03.15)
Siberia is a region of Russia, generally accepted to occupy the area east of the Ural Mountains and span the whole of North Asia. It is a huge area of land and ice, covering over 13 million km2 and eight different time zones. Despite comprising over three quarters of Russia land mass it is home to only forty million people, giving it twenty seven percent of the Russian population and one of the lowest population densities of any region or country in the world.
Location map of Siberia
It is commonly described as one of the most inhospitable areas of the world, yet little is really known of much of the region, even inside Russia. In an alliance with the Cossacks, Ivan the Terrible sought territorial possession of the province of Sibere in 1580 and settlers from western Russia began to slowly migrate into the region during the next century. Much of what was known about Siberia, until well into the late nineteenth century came through the relay of information from the 1725 Bering expedition. It took Danish explorer Vitus Bering and his team two years to cross Siberia on sledges before starting his exploration of the North East coast of the Asian continent at sea, and his observations of the vast region informed European cartographers of the scale and desolation that lay there.
One’s stereotypical image of Siberia may very well live up to the reality. A long held view by many Russians, as well as those outside the country is that Siberia is a place devoid of culture and geographically desolate. This view is closely linked to its climate: Siberia tends to have short summers (on the north coast these last just one month) and long winters that have a very cold climate. In the south of Siberia, where the majority of the region’s population lives, average January and July temperatures reach -20°C and 19°C respectfully.
Comparing the climates of Novosibirsk, Siberia and London, UK
The region has also traditionally suffered from poorly connected transport and communication networks. The building of new roads has been slow to infiltrate into the heart of the region, largely because it is nearly impossible to lay new tarmac in the harsh winter conditions. The use of frozen rivers as highways was common before the 1730s when the first roads started to be built, but they still serve many communities in the far north of the region.
Siberia’s extreme climate and remoteness made it the ideal choice of location for Russia when it looked for somewhere to send criminals and exiles. After the revolt of 1863, many young Poles were deported to Siberia after they refused to be conscripted to the Russian army, with many dying before they reached the prison camps. Religious dissidents, drunkards and those perceived to be against the state were sent to Siberia in the early years of Russia rule, a trend that continued with the deportation of dissenters, and often entire ethnic groups, during the 1930s to 1950s (as well as German prisoners of war from the Second World War) under the rule of the USSR. The forced labour camps, or Gulag camps, were harsh and their effects are estimated to have killed over one million people. Rates of suicide in Siberia were very high during this time, and continue to be today compared to the rest of Russia, suggesting that feelings of isolation and desperation remain.
Despite these negative images from history, many have also seen Siberia as a great land of opportunity. Where some people saw a depressing remoteness, others perceived there would be a sense of freedom there that would not be obtainable in Russia. Many Russians in the last two hundred years have left the west of the country to start a new life in the south of Siberia as farmers. Originally this stemmed from the lack of serfdom law that existed in Siberia but more recently the potential of the rich black earth, the abundance of nickel, gold, lead and coal to be mined, and the ease of trade via the Trans-Siberian Railway have been recognised.
Siberia and the more populated part of Russia on the surface appear to be very similar. Architecture, religion, law and education all reflect the Russian culture and visitors to Siberia may not notice the difference between the two parts of the country. Most Siberians are now ethnically Russian as west to east migration has taken place. At the end of the seventeenth century however, the make-up of Siberia’s people looked quite different: the mainly Muslim population of two hundred thousand in the region largely stemmed ethnically from modern day Mongolia and Kazakhstan. By the 1970s however indigenous Siberians represented only five percent of the region’s population and Siberians were starting to be seen as a less important and somewhat redundant minority group.
This has caused tensions between some Siberians and Russians and the legacy of history still shapes how people view the relationship between the two groups. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the Russians came to Siberia in order to exploit its one dominant commodity: fur pelts. The Cossacks, who entered and took over the region by violent force, created a tax system that left Siberians in debt and enforced to become slaves to the Russian colonisers, a practice that continued well into the nineteenth century. What should not be overlooked however is how much the Russians relied on the Siberian’s knowledge of the landscape and survival skills: early settlers were taught how to cope with the more challenging climate, as well as how to trap animals and catch fish, by the very people they sought to dominate.
A traditional Siberian home in Buryatia Republic, Siberia. (Flickr Source: Martha de Jong-Lantink)
Today, the imposition of the Soviet way of life is still felt and indigenous practices such as herding reindeer and fishing have become eroded by collectivisation and the appropriation of some areas for oil and natural gas exploration. The loss of culture is also felt through media and television where there is no use of Siberian native languages and a Moscow-centred rhetoric underlies most programming. Further cultural erosion was created by the fact that Siberian women were often chosen for marriage by Russian men. Siberia has in the past witnessed a considerable gender imbalance with the early settlers and those exiled to the region being almost entirely male. This injection of high numbers of young men into Siberia created many ethnically mixed relationships as with gender politics of the time favouring men, the culture of the Siberian wives was lost to their children. This became more formalised as in order to marry, Siberian women had to be converted to Orthodox Christianity: something that occurred on such a scale that whole village ceremonies were sometimes carried out. Although the trend today has very much reversed, with women in the region out living men on average by eleven years, the cultural legacy of the previous gender imbalance is still being felt.
The potential of large profits to be made in the fur trade made Russian traders expand quickly into Siberia. Pelts were extremely valuable at the time and hunting grounds moved deeper and deeper into the less hospitable parts of the region. The acquisition of the Lower Amur River by Russia in 1860 made trade with China much more feasible and goods such as grain, medicinal herbs and mammoth tusks, silk and tea started to flow into Siberia.
However this trade was highly seasonal as the river froze over in winter and proved difficult to navigate towards the western extent of Siberia where it was either too shallow for cargo boats or in a constant state of flood. The banks of the river were also heavily wooded restricting the ability of traders to build roads or holding market centres along its banks.
Between 1891 and 1916, the Trans-Siberian railway was built to ease this problem. At over nine thousand kilometres long, it is the longest rail line in the world and is still being lengthened and updated today. The rail line represents an extraordinary feat of engineering. Travelling from to Moscow in Russia’s west to Vladivostok on its eastern coast with the Sea of Japan the railway transformed the economic potential of southern Siberia. The rail line became a magnet for industry that could process and use goods that passed along its length. Towns that initially sprang up in order to house the track workers started to build factories and the coal fields of southern Siberia began to feed some growing heavy industries, including British and Danish operatives. The railway also brought mass migration to the Siberian region, raising its population of six million in 1893 to ten million in 1913, and thirty million a hundred years later.
Route of the Trans-Siberian railway
Throughout the two world wars in Europe, trade through Siberia became essential as Russia became annexed from Western Europe, but in the 1980s, when weaknesses in the socialist economic model were starting to show, industry in the southern area of Siberia started to stagnate. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 new hope came through the area and once again people started to migrate from western Russia into the region as new reserves of oil and gas were found and new energy pipelines built that linked China to southern Siberia.
Siberia now represents a diverse range of people, cultures and centres of different economic potential. While some of the larger cities such as Novosibirsk have become epicentres of vibrant youth culture, more northerly areas retain more traditional cultures and farming economies. Yet Siberia challenges the idea that the culture and the economy of a place have to be intertwined. While still viewed unfairly as ‘backward’ by many Russians, the economy of Siberia is essential to the overall financial health of Russia and the country’s long term future as a whole looks increasingly reliant on the region remaining prosperous and able to trade with China.
All data in the above piece relates to figures taken from Janet’s lecture.
The ideas, customs, beliefs, values, knowledge and social behaviour of a particular people or society.
The forced removal of a person from a country or region.
The state of being cut off from other people and places due to a lack of communication and connection infrastructure.
Students can make a list of adjectives which they think describes Siberia before they investigate its culture and landscape. Following on from research into the region, they can then see how many of their original adjectives still apply and how they may have changed their mind about certain things.
Studying the climate data of a typical Siberian winter, students can suggest ideas about how their lives may have to change and be adapted in order to live comfortably there. Adaptations can come under various categories such as housing, transport, clothes and diet, allowing students to think about how many different aspects of their lives would have to change.
Using online research, students can create a photo-montage of Siberia covering its different regions. These could include photographs of landscapes, people and buildings which can be attached to a map to show the differences between the different areas.
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