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Siberia: One country, many peoples

Vladimir Pachkov, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Jul 23rd 2021


If Russia is a country of extremes, Siberia is so to a greater extent. In Europe, Siberia is a byword for the freezing cold, but not everyone knows that much of Siberia is tropically hot in the summer. Siberia is a part of the world rich in fossil fuels, which, while helping to keep the global economy alive, also greatly contributes to pollution and climate change. At the same time, Siberia’s woodlands, along with its tropical forests, are the lungs of the world. Also, it is here that up to 80 percent of the available, and largely still pure, drinking water of the entire planet is found.

Since the time of the Tsars, Siberia has been a major prison for both criminals and opponents of the regime, and this unenviable reputation grew with the Gulag camps during the Soviet era. On the other hand, the famous singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysockij, who died shortly before perestroika, having contributed significantly to the collapse of the communist dictatorship with his lyrics, could say of this country: “North, freedom, hope, country without borders. Snow without dirt, like a long life without lies.”[1]

No one knows exactly where the word “Siberia” comes from. It may be of Turkish origin (siber: “beautiful”) or Mongolian (schiber: indicates a marshy area with a birch forest), but it could also derive from the name given to the Mongolian tribe of Tatars: Sabyr.[2]

While the Siberian landscape is beautiful, and some aspects of life – such as the economy or its role in geopolitics – are very interesting, what is most striking are the people who live there. The long process of immigration and coexistence, with mutual adaptation but also conflicts and misunderstandings between the locals and those who came in different waves, offers a fascinating and instructive story for other peoples of the world as well.


Siberia, land of immigration

Although there are as many people living in Siberia – a vast area of almost 13 million square kilometers – as there are in Moscow and St. Petersburg, 17 million and 30 million respectively, if the vast areas of the Russian Far East are included, it is surprising how diverse its population is. In addition to peoples who have lived there since the Ice Age and who can truly be considered indigenous, there are many others who arrived later, mainly Turkish peoples, but also various groups of Slavs.

When one considers that Siberia is not the most hospitable region on Earth, one can only wonder that so many peoples have settled there. Yet Siberia was – and still is – rich in resources that humans need to live. The first hunters went north on the trail of the larger beasts of prey; the Russians first sought furs there, but then went in search of fertile land and eventually crude oil, natural gas, rare metals and even diamonds.

Who lives in Siberia?

Vasili? Osipovich Kluchevsky, a great Russian historian of the 19th century, stated that Russia is a country of immigration and that its territory suitable for immigration has been expanding with the expansion of the state. This process continues in our time.[3]  This is all the more true when it comes to that part of Russia which is Siberia.

The first obvious answer to the question posed in the title of this paragraph is: the natives of Siberia. However, the populations that today are considered indigenous also emigrated to this region, and many of them at a relatively late stage: for example, the “Jakuti” and the “Chukchi,” two great peoples who were formed only between the 8th and 12th centuries, when large groups of the Turkic population migrated northward, settling around Lake Baikal, partly driving out, partly assimilating the peoples who had lived there since the Stone Age (the Evenki). From this mingling came the people of the Jakuti, who today are considered the “original people” of Siberia. Further north, in the area of Siberia that is opposite Alaska, today’s natives, the Chukchi, have only lived there since the 20th century. Just 200 years ago it was the home of Eskimos.[4]

Until about 100 years ago, there were vast areas of Siberia where only natives lived, but this is no longer the case. Even the Slavic settlers who first arrived at the White Sea in the 14th century and later moved further east can be considered natives. So far the “Pomory” – meaning “people of the sea” – are not officially recognized as indigenous, although they consider themselves an independent people, who have had their own culture and have lived “forever” in the north and in Siberia.

In addition to the Pomory, there is another part of the population that considers itself an independent ethnic group, despite having much in common with the Russians: the Cossacks. They were a group of raiders during the Russian colonization of Siberia. Along with traders, they were the first to arrive in this country when, in the 16th century, Russia was taking control of that region. In Eastern Siberia, after the signing of the peace agreement with the Chinese Qing Dynasty (1689), the first area of Cossack self-government was established. Siberian Cossacks were not only border guards, but also rich farmers who knew how to use the agricultural potential of the region. But precisely as such, they were dangerous to the Bolsheviks, and as early as January 1919 a secret order was issued initiating their repression and eventually extermination as a social group. Only after the collapse of the USSR were the Cossacks able to resume their customs and culture.

It should be noted that the Russian migrants, in the period between the 17th and the beginning of the 19th century – in contrast to the later mass migration, which began after the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway – not only formed a culturally distinct community, but, having arrived in small groups, were able to integrate into the life of the local people almost without problems and even managed to mix with them. These “old Russian” settlers spread from Jacuzia to Kamchatka. Their language was interesting. On the one hand it possessed the traits of the old Russian dialects of the north; on the other, it borrowed from the languages of the local people. Also their religion was a mixture of Orthodox faith and Siberian shamanism. The descendants of such settlers still live in the northernmost Siberian villages and still retain many distinctive features inherited from their ancestors.

Settlers moved to Siberia not only for its riches, but also because they could escape state coercion there. Old Believers emigrated to Siberia so that they could live out their faith without being disturbed by the government and the church hierarchy. In the European part of Russia, but especially in Siberia, the Old Believers became established businessmen.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries they developed Russia’s modern industry and  followed a strict work ethic. They banned drinking and smoking and they sent their children to school so they could read the Bible for themselves.

Prison without walls

It seems that every aspect of extremes is characteristic of this country: Siberia was a land of freedom, but also of prisons, even centuries before the Communists and their Gulag. It was used by the Moscow government as a place of exile as early as the 16th century, when it was not yet completely under its control. It seems that the first exiles were residents of Uglich, who were accused of killing the heir to the throne, Dmitri (1593). However, the Tsarist government wanted not only to exile their opponents, but also to use them to develop the potential of the region and colonize it. Criminals and opponents of the government were sent to prison, or simply exiled to Siberia, very often with their families. There they were able to rebuild their lives and even achieve some prosperity.

Exile had a twofold effect on the morale and mentality of the people living in Siberia. On the one hand, parts of the criminal subculture were incorporated into their lives; on the other hand, as “political” opponents of the regime were exiled, many educated people arrived in that territory, bringing with them knowledge and ideas that greatly enriched the lives of local communities.

The story of Siberian prisons was well known even in the days of the Tsarist empire, but the reputation was much worse than the reality. Although it appeared as an authoritarian state, at the beginning of the 20th century, in terms of prisoner numbers, Russia was ranked in the last place of countries surveyed with only 60 per 100,000 inhabitants, serving an average prison sentence of two months.

The Bolsheviks drastically changed this situation. The policy of concentration camps began in the years following the October putsch. The first of them was established in the former Solovki Monastery on the White Sea islands in 1923. However, mass arrests began only after the mid-1930s. Between 1935 and 1953, the number of detainees in the Gulag increased from 966,000 to nearly 2.5 million.[5] Even after their release, many detainees remained in Siberia, either because they had no one to return to, because they had no possibility of finding work elsewhere, or because they were explicitly forbidden to leave the region.

Immigrants from the Far East

In Siberia, as in other areas of the Russian Far East, immigrants from other countries of East Asia have been settled for generations. The first Koreans arrived in Russia in 1861. They were well received, which encouraged further immigration from Korea. Already in 1868 there were 1,800 Koreans living in the Russian Far East (Russians and Cossacks together numbered 6,200). They quickly integrated:  They learned the Russian language and even wore the clothes of Russian peasants.

The Chinese constituted another very important group in the development of the country. Until 1910, the government employed only Chinese as construction workers, mainly for the construction of ports and railways. The governor general of the Amur region in 1903 said that he was against the transfer of Russian workers because very often they were unsatisfactory, while the Chinese worked hard and did not complain.[6] Before the Revolution, Vladivostok was more like Shanghai than a Russian city, and the majority of the population was Chinese.  In 1902 there were 11,500 Russians, 15,000 Chinese, 2,300 Koreans and 2,400 Japanese living there; there were also 13,000 Russian soldiers. However, since many illegal immigrants also lived there, the Russians were in the minority. In the 1930s, the Chinese were driven back into China, or suffered a worse fate.

Siberia experienced the largest population increase in the second half of the 20th century, due to the industrialization of the region. Even today, many migrant workers from other parts of Russia move north, because they can earn much more there than in their own region.[7]

A difficult process of coexistence

Coexistence between the different groups was not always harmonious, although they all basically belonged to one people, despite having arrived in Siberia at different times.

At the end of the 19th century, although very sparsely populated, the country was not empty, and the Russian farmers who arrived there could not simply ignore the locals. Interestingly, Russians who had come to Siberia much earlier, and who were then considered long-time residents, disdainfully dismissed the new settlers as “clumsy peasants” who had brought “Russian customs” to quiet, orderly Siberian life. The main reason for conflicts was not different cultures or cultural perspectives, but disputes over fertile land. Newcomers very often had to compete for land with long-time residents, because the administration had failed to distribute available resources equitably.

Assimilation is always a difficult process, and migration very often led to misunderstandings, even between culturally similar groups, such as Russians from the European part of Russia and Russians from Siberia. In this case, not only external events generated conflicts, but also the encounter between immigrants and long-time residents from the very beginning involved disputes and a range of problems. Relations with the natives were even more complicated because of the significant cultural differences. Each side considered the other a foreigner. To the Russians, the locals were “pagans, Asians, people belonging to a horde.” This contempt meant that violence was seen as the easiest way to resolve disputes. This happened, for example, in July 1908 at a fair in Turgai, where there were casualties.[8] This was not the only conflict between the locals and the newcomers where weapons came into play.

We can see that the tendency to settle disputes with violence was greater where the cultures and mentalities of the parties involved were more diverse. This resistance on the part of the natives very often resulted in the failure of the migrants to adapt and so they returned to European Russia. There were also hostilities between the Orthodox and the believers in the ancient traditional religions. The latter, who had lived in Siberia for centuries, did not allow others to settle in their villages. There is a story told, for example, of an Orthodox man who had built a house in a village of Old Believers. This did not please the locals, who destroyed his stove (and without a stove in Siberia you cannot survive). There were no specific reasons for such an action other than the fact that that person “did not belong” to that village.[9]

There are many cases in which, at the beginning of the 20th century, the locals managed to keep out the newcomers. But later – already at the time of the USSR – the number of new settlers became so great that the locals had to adapt to new living conditions and cultures. Processes of mutual adaptation then often went in the direction of assimilation of the natives, who were numerically inferior to the immigrants.[10]

The difference between the natives of Siberia and the 1930s immigrants was mainly cultural. The “we” and the “they,” from the immigrants’ point of view, was specified as follows: “we” build factories, roads and airports, and “they” live in the woods with their deer. To the locals, moreover, all immigrants were “Russians,” regardless of their nationality (Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian, or other).

If in the 1930s the local “Russian” population lived more or less in the same conditions as the natives, in the 1960s and 1970s there was great disparity. In fact, all those who came from other regions of the USSR immediately obtained many privileges simply because they had agreed to work in the north: they earned almost twice as much as locals for the same work and paid less in taxes.

After a few years, the difference reached 300 percent (because you could earn 10 percent more each year). The higher the position, the greater the difference in income. Hence there was strong competition for well-paid jobs, from which the local population was soon excluded. Thus the difference between those who had come just to make money and the locals became visibly acute. In the eyes of the natives, the newcomers, although pragmatic, were greedy, while they were tied to the land of their ancestors in a very deep way. On the other hand, the natives were considered by the newcomers as lazy people who lived at the expense of the state and even entrusted their children to its care.

From 1990 onward, however, “Russians” who had come to Siberia and the north, and especially their children, considered this country as their home and also began to feel a deep emotional connection. Moreover, they saw the culture of the local people not as a foreign national tradition, but as part of their own culture and history. The country their fathers had entered, with all that distinguishes it – deer, fairy tales, folklore, nature – became for many their home. The reason was that after the collapse of the USSR there were no longer any material incentives – at least in the 1990s – to stay in Siberia and the north:. Many left, and those who remained entered into a closer relationship with the locals.

The disintegration of communist ideology also left a spiritual vacuum, and many Russians turned to the original culture – including the spiritual culture – of the locals. Life circumstances in the 1990s forced many former industrial workers to turn to the local people’s traditional engagement with nature (farming, hunting and fishing) in order to survive. And they did so in the way that locals had practiced such activities for millennia. It is one thing to go fishing in a modern boat, quite another to go out into the open sea in a small canoe.

Even more important was how, as for centuries before, the survival of the family depended on the success of hunting. This led to a change in mutual perception that occurred among both locals and “Russians.” Self-identification based on nation gave way to self-identification based on common life and destiny. Mutual integration led not only to the assimilation of the natives by the “Russians,” but also to the fact that the “Russians” living in the north developed their own identity, which often had much more in common with the culture of the natives of Siberia and the north than with that of their relatives in European Russia.[11]

So all newcomers, whom the locals previously considered foreigners, regardless of their origin, and had identified as “Russians,” now became “Siberians”. They were so regarded by the locals and saw themselves as such.[12]

What does this Siberian ‘identity’ mean?

Siberian identity had emerged as early as the 17th century, although it underwent profound changes during the 20th century due to mass immigration from other parts of the USSR. The first to speak of a particular Siberian identity were Siberian intellectuals in the 19th century. They thought of Siberia as a colony, but with the special role of a bridge between Asia and Europe: it was a meeting place of peoples. At the same time, Siberia was called to protect its distinctiveness in the face of other cultures.[13]

According to Jadrintzev, a well-known Siberian intellectual, the path of Siberia was not just towards East or West, but a real integration of these two paths. The fusion of cultures and populations – Russian and local – led to the birth of a Siberian civilization with its own identity. However, the relationship with European Russia remains the most important point of reference, because Siberian civilization consists mainly of the Russian and indigenous elements. Siberia is a part of Russia, but a part that has a special relationship with Russia.[14]

Another important component of Siberian identity is the expression “being Siberian,” which has become proverbial in Russia and other countries as well.[15] Although there is no such thing as a “Siberian” ethnic type, nevertheless one can speak of the people living in Siberia as an ethnic group with its own distinctive features. About this there is no doubt. Siberian identity was formed in the process of the incorporation of Siberia into Russia. The differences between the inhabitants of Siberia and those of the European part of Russia lie in their mentality and self-identification. Their declaring themselves “Siberians” is mainly important to themselves, although there are no fundamental differences between them and other inhabitants of Russia. The name they share has its own strength for them.[16]

The term “Siberian” has been known since the 17th century.[17]  While Siberian regional identity, as we mentioned, existed since the 17th century, the emergence of a consciousness of the existence of a Siberian identity occurred only in the late 19th century, and this process continues to this day.[18]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 8 art. 3, 0821: 10.32009/22072446.0821.3

[1].       ???????? ????????, ????? ????????? (V. Vysockij, “White Silence”), in

[2].       Cf. ?????? ????????????? ???????? ?????? (“Versions of the origin of the name ‘Siberia’”), in http://xn—-9sbubb4ahmf1byf.xn--p1ai/content/11

[3].       See ????????-????? ?. ?. ???? ???????? ?????? (“The Directions of Development of Siberia”), in

[4].       See ????????? ?????? ? ?????? (“The Population of Siberia and the North”), ???. 2016, at

[5].       See ??????? ?. ?., ????? (????????-??????????????? ??????) (W. N. Zemskov, “Gulag [historical-sociological aspects]”), in

[6].       Cf. W. Kolarz, The Peoples of the Soviet Far East, New York, Frederick A. Praeger, 1954.

[7].       Cf. ????????? ?????? ? ?????? (“The Population of Siberia and the North”), op. cit.

[8].       The episode was reported in the newspaper Siberian Life, July 31, 1908.

[9].       See ??????? ?. ?. ?????????, “????????” ? ???????? ? ????????? ?????? ? ????? XIX – ?????? XX?.: ??????? ????????????? (A. G. A. Starozhily, “Foreigners” and New Settlers in Asian Russia in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: Factors of Conflict), in

[10].     Cf. ?????? ?. ?., ??????????? ????????? ? ??????????? ???????? ???????? ????????????? ??????? ??????, ?????? ? ???????? ???????. ???????????. 2003 (V. A. Tishkov, “The Current Situation and Prospects for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East”, Novosibirsk, 2003), in

[11].     Cf. I. Krupnik, “In the ‘House of Dismay’: Knowledge, Culture and Post-Soviet Politics in Chukotka, 1995-96”, in https//

[12].     Cf. ????????? ?????? ? ?????? (“The Population of Siberia and the North”), op. cit.

[13].     Cf. ?????????? ?. ?., ?????????????? ?. ?. ????????? ??? ????????? ????????? ???????????????? (T. N. Emelyanova, “The Regionalism of N. M. Yudintsev as a Philosophy of Russian Reality”), St. Petersburg, Info-Da, 2004.

[14].     Cf. ???????????? ?. ?., ????????? ???????????? ? ??????? ???????????????? ??????? (A. Zaynuntdinov, “Siberian Identity in the Mirror of Civilization Analysis”).

[15].     Cf. ????? ?. ?., ????????-?????????????? ? ?????????????? ??????? ? ????????? ?????????.// ??????. ?. ???????? ?????????. ?????????????? ???. ???????. ????????????????? ????????? ???????????? (A. P. Shchapov, “Historical-geographical and ethnological notes on the Siberian population”, in Id., Complete Works. Supplementary Volume, Irkutsk, 1937).

[16].     Cf. ???????????? ?. ?., ????????? ???????????? ? ??????? ???????????????? ???????, op. cit.

[17].     Cf. ???????? ?. ?., ???????? ????????? ???????? ????????????// ????????, ?????, ???????? (A. O. Boronoev, “Problems of Siberian Identity Dynamics”, in Society, Environment, Development, 2010, No. 3).

[18].     Cf. ???????????? ?. ?., ????????? ???????????? ? ??????? ???????????????? ???????, op. cit.

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