go to content go to search box go to global site navigation

Siberia

History

Siberia's early Altaic people were conceivably progenitors of the Inuit-Arctic cultures and of the Mongol-Turkic groups which expanded in westbound waves with Attila, Chinggis (Genghis) Khaan and Timur (Tamerlane). The name Siberia comes from Sibir, a Turkic khanate and successor-state to the Golden Horde which ruled the region following Timur's 1395 invasion. From 1563, Sibir started raiding what were then Russia's easternmost flanks. A Volga brigand called Yermak Timofeevich was sent to counter-attack. Though he had only 840 Cossack fighters, the prospect of battle seemed better than the tsar's death sentence which hung over him. With the unfair advantage of firearms, the tiny Cossack force managed to conquer Tyumen in 1580, turning Yermak into a Russian hero. Two years later Yermak occupied Sibir's capital Isker, near today's Tobolsk. Russia's extraor- dinary eastward expansion had begun.

Initially, small Cossack units would set up an ostrog (fortress) at key river junctions. Local tribes would then be compelled to supply Muscovite fur traders, and villages slowly developed. Full-blown colonisation only started during the chaotic Time of Troubles (1598-1613, p000) as Russian peasants fled east in great numbers. Local Altaic peoples were decimated by imported diseases like smallpox. Meanwhile settler numbers were swollen by exiled prisoners. Old Believers then followed after the religious rift of 1653. Other banished troublemakers included the influential Decembrists who'd failed to pull off an 1825 coup.

Siberia's fur-based economy rapidly diversified, and discoveries of gold, copper and ferric metals further encouraged colonisation. Despite quarrels over the status of Altai that weren't resolved until 1864, trade with China brought considerable wealth following the treaties of Nerchinsk in 1689 and Kyakhta in 1728. Lucrative tea caravans continued trudging the seemingly endless Siberian post road until put out of business by the Trans-Siberian Railway after 1901. The railway instantly changed the fortunes of cities according to whether or not they were on the line. By 1914 it had carried another five million new Russian settlers east.

Russia's revolutions had reverberations in Siberia. In 1919 Omsk was the centre of Admiral Kolchak's anti-Bolshevik White Russia, and from 1920 to 1922 eastern Siberia was nominally independent as the pro-Lenin Far Eastern Republic centred on Chita. As the USSR stabilised and Stalin's infamous Gulags developed, Siberia reverted to its old role as a land of banishment. Nonetheless unforced colonisation continued apace, especially after WWII when much heavy industry was shifted east for strategic security. Patriotic workers and volunteer labourers as well as prisoners undertook grandiose engineering projects, building dams, railways and whole new cities whose glum concrete realities often belied the dream.

Since the USSR's collapse in 1991, certain settlements built with Soviet disregard for economic logic have withered into gloomy virtual ghost towns. In contrast, discoveries of vast oil and gas deposits in the frozen north have proven Russia's greatest economic asset. Today petroleum as well as timber and minerals provide the wealth that is visibly transforming the region's most prosperous cities, notably Tyumen and Krasnoyarsk.