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SiberiaA History of the People$

Janet M Hartley

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780300167948

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300167948.001.0001

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Land, Indigenous Peoples and Communications

Land, Indigenous Peoples and Communications

(p.17) Chapter Two Land, Indigenous Peoples and Communications

Janet M. Hartley

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks at the lands of Siberia and the indigenous peoples who were conquered. It also discusses the difficulties of communication over such vast distances and inhospitable lands. Siberia stretches from the Ural mountains to the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Strait in the east, and reaches from north of the Kazakh Steppe to the Arctic Ocean. It covers some 2,900,000 square miles (some 7,500,000 square kilometers), and crosses eight time zones. It comprises 77% of Russian territory and covers some 10% of the Earth's surface. By the end of the seventeenth century, some 100,000 Russians and other “foreigners” had settled in Siberia, but just over twice that number of indigenous peoples already lived in these lands. It is estimated that there are over 500 different tribal groups in Siberia, who between them speak some 120 languages.

Keywords:   Siberia, Siberian history, indigenous peoples, conquest, communication

ONE OF the chronicles describes the relief of Ermak and his Cossack band after they had survived their first winter in Siberia:

After this the winter time passed, the frost and cold were relieved by the warmth of the sun, a frozen crust formed on the snow, and it was time for hunting wild beasts, elks and deer…. When spring arrived and the snow was melted by the warmth of the air, every creature grew fat, the trees and herbs were sprouting and the waters were spread out. Then every living creature rejoiced, birds flew to those lands because of their fruits, and in the rivers fish were swimming because of their fruitfulness, and there was much hunting of fish and birds. By this hunting they were fed, and there was no famine among the people. The tribes who lived around that place, Tatars and Ostiaks and Voguls, who were under the sovereign's hand, both far and near, brought them provisions in great quantity of wild beasts, birds, fish and cattle, and costly goods, and all kinds of furs. Then the men of Moscow and the Cossacks by the grace of God were abundantly supplied with all foods and acquired much wealth for themselves from trading in furs. And being in such great joy and gladness, they gave thanks to almighty God, since God had granted to the sovereign such a land blessed with abundance.1

This, it has to be said, is not a typical description of the abundance of the Siberian lands. The chronicle was not only recording the survival of the Cossacks but also providing a justification for conquest –the richness of the (p.18) land and in particular its fur trade, which benefited both individual Cossacks and hunters but also, of course, the tsar. It foretells some of the assertions which would be made in the mid-nineteenth century about the wealth that would come to Russia if the Amur river basin and the far east were conquered, and the arguments in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries about the benefits which would accrue if railways were constructed across the whole territory. There was, and is, of course, vast mineral wealth, as well as oil and gas, in Siberia, which was at that time unknown to the Cossacks.

I have defined Siberia in the broadest sense in this book –as the vast landmass that stretches from the Ural mountains to the Pacific ocean and the Bering Strait in the east, and reaches from north of the Kazakh Steppe to the Arctic Ocean. It covers some 2,900,000 square miles (some 7,500,000 square kilometres), and crosses eight time zones. It comprises 77 per cent of Russian territory and covers some 10 per cent of the Earth's surface. Its vastness can only really be appreciated by flying over it, either to Vladivostok or to Japan, or by travelling by train from Moscow to Vladivostok, a journey of over 6,000 miles (over 9,600 kilometres).

The formal boundaries of Siberia have changed over time. The Kamchatka peninsula was reached at the end of the seventeenth century and the Kurile Islands in the early eighteenth century. Russia won part of, and then lost, the Amur region to China in the seventeenth century; it was only regained in the mid-nineteenth century. The Soviet army captured Sakhalin Island and occupied the Kurile Islands in 1945. In the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, the Russians established a presence on part of the coastline of Alaska and California. The Californian settlement of Fort Ross failed, and Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867, so ending the Russian presence in North America.

There were significant geographical, topographical and climatic differences between regions within Siberia (Siberia as I have defined it is today divided into three administrative divisions: Western and Eastern Siberia and the Far East). Western Siberia is a lowland plain, a great basin to the east of the Ural mountains, drained by the Ob and Irtysh rivers, which create swamplands and numerous lakes. The region has rich pasture and grasslands in the south; the woodlands are deciduous in the south and there are vast coniferous forests to the north. In the north, as across all of northern Siberia, the land is permanently frozen and the Arctic Ocean is icebound for most of the (p.19) year (although now navigable with icebreakers). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the bulk of the population of Siberia lived in the west, farming on the steppe and in the rich black-earth regions. The main cities in western Siberia before the twentieth century were Tomsk, Omsk, Tobolsk and Barnaul. Novosibirsk (called Novo-Nikolaevsk until 1926) became a prominent industrial and cultural centre in the last century. Vast coal deposits were found and developed in the Kuznetsk basin in western Siberia in the twentieth century.

Eastern Siberia was less populous, less fertile and more mountainous. The eastern Siberian uplands are drained by the river Lena. The tundra spreads further south and the forest is denser than in western Siberia. The main urban and cultural centre of eastern Siberia has always been Irkutsk since its foundation in 1661, but the towns of Iakutsk and Chita have also been significant centres. Lake Baikal, east of Irkutsk, is over 400 miles (640 kilometres) long and is the deepest lake in the world. Over 300 rivers flow into the lake; only one –the river Angara –flows from it. East of Lake Baikal, great mountain ranges, with peaks of over 10,000 feet (3,048 metres), stretch to the Sea of Okhotsk. The great Siberian rivers –the Ob, the Enisei, the Lena –all flow out northwards into the Arctic Ocean. In the twentieth century, vast reserves of oil and natural gas were discovered in eastern Siberia and in the very far north and far north-east.

The Kamchatka peninsula, on the north Pacific coast of Siberia, has mountains of over 15,000 feet (over 4,500 metres) and many active volcanoes. The far east is still the least populous part of the region, and its trade and contacts are becoming ever more orientated towards Russia's eastern neighbours. The climate of the Amur basin is warmer and wetter than further north and coniferous forests give way to deciduous woods. The main city in the Amur basin is Khabarovsk, at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri rivers, and the main city in the far east is the port of Vladivostok, founded in 1860, the home of the tsarist, Soviet and Russian Pacific fleets.

As we saw in the last chapter, Siberia was not uninhabited when Ermak and his men crossed the Urals. By the end of the seventeenth century, some 100,000 Russians and other ‘foreigners’ had settled in Siberia but just over twice that number of indigenous peoples already lived in these lands. It has been calculated there are over 500 different tribal groups in Siberia, who between them speak some 120 languages.2


Indigenous Peoples in Siberia in the Late Seventeenth Century



Teleuts and other Altai-Sayan Turks:


Ostiaks (Khanty) and Voguls (Mansi):


Samoeds, including Nenets, Tavgi and Selkups:


Ostiak-Samoeds (Kets):


Tungus, Evenki and Evens:


Iakuts (Sakha):


Kalmyks (Mongols), including Buriats:










Kamchadals (Itelmen):




Nanais and Ulchas:


Gilikas (Nivkhs):




Western Siberia was inhabited by Samoeds and Ostiaks/Voguls (now called Khanty-Mansi). Samoed is a Lapp word; the Russians took it to mean ‘self-eater’: they thought the Samoeds wild semi-humans who ate their own children, and were semi-aquatic and lived partly in the sea. Sometimes it was said that they shed their skin, or that they were hairy from the waist down, or that they lacked mouths and chewed their food with their shoulders.4 These fantastical ideas notwithstanding, the Samoeds were a group of Uralic peoples who lived west and east of the Ural mountains. South of the Samoed clans were the Voguls and Ostiaks, Finno-Ugric clans who lived in the Volga and Kama river valleys of western Siberia. Ostiaks were described by the German botanist and traveller Johann Georgi in the eighteenth century as ‘Timorous, superstitious, and lazy, dirty and disgusting, but tractable, mild, and a goodhearted people’.5 Ostiaks and Voguls were mainly semi-nomadic hunters and fishers but some were occupied in agriculture in the southern plains. All these peoples were shamanistic and believed in spirits in the forest or lakes, which could take the form of birds and animals. (p.21)


Land, Indigenous Peoples and Communications

Ethnic groups in Siberia.

Western Siberia was also home to significant numbers of Turkic people, almost all of whom were Sunni Muslim. These included Bashkirs, Tatars, Kazakhs and Kirghiz. Bashkirs, who lived south of the Urals in lands that spanned European Russia and Siberia, acquired a fearsome reputation in the tsarist armies for their brutality as well as for their courage. ‘They are courageous, suspicious, obstinate, severe, and consequently dangerous,’ commented Johann Georgi.6 The original khanate of Sibir, conquered by Ermak, was Tatar. Tatars lived, and still live, in the regions around the towns of Tobolsk, Tomsk and Tiumen, and along the river Irtysh. Kuchum, the ruler of the Siberian Tatar khanate who was defeated by Ermak, was a Kazakh, and Kazakhs had mainly settled on the southern steppes of western Siberia and in the Altai region. Kirghiz settlements extended from the Ural mountains to the Lake Baikal area and to the Chinese border in the south. Kirghiz were occupied in hunting, agriculture and the mining of copper, gold, iron and tin, and also traded in goods across Central Asia and to China. The Kirghiz ruling elite were Turkic, but many of their subjects were from Samoed or other tribes.

Tungus (now called Evenki and Eveni) lived in lands which stretched from south-eastern Siberia across to Lake Baikal and reached the Pacific coast. They were mainly forest-dwellers and lived by hunting and fishing. In the north they had reindeer herds, and had developed saddles and bridles so that they could ride them. Tungus were formed into over 20 tribes, each made up of several clans, scattered over vast distances. South of Lake Baikal, Tungus had become cattle-rearers. Like other north Siberian people, Tungus had animistic beliefs and believed in the magical powers of the shaman.

The mountainous Altai region, south of Lake Baikal, was ethnically very mixed, and included Buriats, Kalmyks and other peoples. Buriats and Kalmyks are of Mongolian origin. Buriats lived mainly around the Baikal region and were involved in trade with Mongolia and Central Asia as well as within Siberia. Buriats were shamanistic when the Russians arrived but many converted from shamanism to Buddhism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Kalmyks lived in the Volga region, in a territory which spanned European Russia and western Siberia, and had contact, and conflict, with Bashkirs and Cossacks east of the Urals. In the 1770s, some 200,000 Kalmyks left their lands in Russia and attempted to make their way to their ancestral homeland in China. Kalmyks converted to Buddhism in the late sixteenth century, but many retained shamanistic beliefs alongside Buddhism.

(p.23) In the north-east lived Iakuts (now called Sakha), who are of Turkic origin. Iakuts were occupied mainly in hunting and fishing but had also settled along the river Lena. Iakuts remained shamanistic unlike other people of Turkic origin in Siberia. In the far north lived the Dolgan people, whose ancestors were Tungus but whose language had become a dialect of Iakut. Iukagirs lived to the north and east of the Iakuts. More settled Iukagirs lived by the rivers and fished or hunted; nomadic Iukagirs herded reindeer and hunted in the tundra.

Further east lived Chukchis, Koriaks and Eskimos, who also held shamanistic beliefs. The Chukchis have given their name to the far north-eastern peninsula of Chukotka. The islands in the Bering Strait were home to Aleuts, who speak a language similar to Eskimo. Koriaks, Kamchadals (sometimes called Itelmen) and Ainu occupied the Kamchatka peninsula. Kamchadals were distinctive in not having shamans, although they held similar animistic beliefs. According to a French traveller in the late eighteenth century, they were:

in general below the common height; their shape is round and squat, their eyes small and sunk, their cheeks prominent, their nose flat, their hair black, they have scarcely any beard, and their complexion is a little tawny. The complexion and features of the women are very nearly the same; from this representation, it will be supposed they are not very seducing objects.7

Ainus lived on Kamchatka and the Kurile Islands –they are rare among Asiatic peoples in having thick, wavy, dark hair. Those who had settled on the coast lived by fishing and the hunting of walrus, whales and seals in the Bering Sea. Others lived a nomadic existence herding reindeer or hunting. In total, in the seventeenth century, the Iukagirs, Chukchis, Koriaks, Itelmen/Kamchadals, Eskimos and Ainus comprised only some 40,000 people out of an indigenous population of Siberia of some 220,000 but inhabited a vast, and mainly hostile, terrain. Sakhalin Island, which was not completely occupied by the Russians until the late nineteenth century, was home to the Ulchi people.

Siberia may be more fertile, and more populous, in reality than it is in popular imagination, but the sheer size and nature of the terrain hindered communications, and this has had a profound effect on its development. The first settlements in Siberia were wooden forts, which were positioned at key points on the rivers. Forts were constructed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries along a ‘Siberian line’ running across the south (on roughly (p.24) the later route of the Trans-Siberian railway), with spurs along the rivers in order to found settlements to the north.

The main highway across Siberia was a ‘post road’. Post houses, with horses, were established along its route so that travellers could change horses and coachmen. The short distances between post houses, however, indicate that travellers progressed only slowly. There were 20 post houses between the towns of Tara and Tobolsk in 1745,8 a distance of only 240 miles (384 kilometres). The traveller John Ledyard took two and a half months to get from St Petersburg to Irkutsk in 1787, using post stations every 26 miles (42 kilometres). The journey in 1858 undertaken by a party of peasants who were settling in Tomsk province required 17 post stations to cover a journey of only 300 miles (480 kilometres).9 The distance from St Petersburg to Iakutsk, in north-eastern Siberia, is some 5,700 miles (over 9,000 kilometres), but even in the 1860s that journey required as many as 368 post stations.10

In Russia, there was a special legal category of people called ‘post-drivers’ or ‘coachmen’, who lived in separate settlements and were obliged to provide post horses for officials and other travellers on these major state roads. It was a duty often poorly and grudgingly performed, but it was nevertheless a vital means of ensuring communication by road and an important state service. It is significant then that some of the earliest settlements in the seventeenth century in western Siberia were villages comprising 50 families of postdrivers, each responsible for a stretch of road in return for a small payment and a plot of land.11 By 1662, there were some 3,000 post-drivers in Siberia.12 They were relatively few in number but crucial in maintaining lines of communication –not so different from railway workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The difficulties of travel are well illustrated by the first Bering expedition, which took one and a half years to move men and supplies across Siberia to the port of Okhotsk on the Pacific coast.13 Vitus Jonassen Bering set off with 33 men in January 1725 on the route through Vologda and reached Tobolsk on 16 March. He then had to wait until May, when the ice finally melted on the river Irtysh, to navigate through dangerous rapids to the settlement of Ust-Kut on the river Lena. The party had to winter there as, in his words, ‘we could not get through to Iakutsk owing to the snow and cold’. They constructed heavier barges, which took them to Iakutsk in the spring of 1726. The unwillingness and inability of local inhabitants to help them (they did not have dogs to pull the sledges) slowed the party. Local people were also poor carpenters (p.25) as ‘not many were capable of this work because they were blind or limping or suffering from diseases’. There were many desertions en route and outbreaks of sickness. Bering had five soldiers whipped ‘to serve as an example’, but then recorded: ‘On December 19 I examined all the workmen and military men…. I found 11 of the workmen and 15 of the military men from Iakutsk to be ill, had the shivers or had other diseases. 59 of the workmen and military men were in good health.’

Individuals, however, were easier to transport than goods. Bering travelled further with a small party of men with packhorses to Okhotsk, but it was ‘impossible to make use of wagons owing to the mud and the hills’ so the equipment and foodstuffs required for the expedition had to be transported separately. Bering had to leave Lieutenant Chirikov and some of the equipment behind at Iakutsk. Chirikov finally arrived in Okhotsk in January 1727 but had had to leave material behind in four places as the party: ‘had been on the road ever since 4 November and during that time had suffered greatly from hunger, having been compelled to eat the dead horses that had dropped by the wayside, the harness, their leather clothing, and boots.’ The return journey to Moscow, at the end of the expedition and without the supplies, took nine months.14

Travel continued to be slow and treacherous well into the nineteenth century. In the 1830s, Major-General Termin reported that the roads between Iakutsk and Okhotsk in the east were ‘everywhere in a bad condition and the journey could only take place on saddle horses’.15 Ferdinand von Wrangel, manager of the Russo-American Company, a trading company which established trading posts on the North American coast, and in effect governor of these settlements, commented on the difficulty of acquiring supplies for Russian settlers in North America, which had to be transported across Siberia and then shipped from the port of Okhotsk; he noted that ‘in Siberia the Okhotsk road means the most fatiguing and the most dangerous journey’.16 As if the physical conditions were not bad enough, travellers also had to contend with corrupt officials, who cheated them, and escaped convicts, who attacked them. The trail to Okhotsk was strewn with the carcasses of dead horses and skeletons. It was said that up to half of the horses died on each trip, particularly during rainy summers. Even in the 1830s it took up to two years to complete the journey and, by the time the goods reached the colonists in Alaska and California, much of the flour and meat was spoiled. It was easier to transport goods by sea round the Cape of Good (p.26) Hope in South Africa to Russian North America than to take the overland route across Siberia.

Convicts travelling to exile in Siberia before the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway were supposed to walk 15 miles (24 kilometres) a day. Their sentence only technically started on the day they arrived at their destination, and in 1863 it was commented, tragicomically:

The majority of prisoners come from distant Russian provinces, and to get to assigned locations takes them two years, but in case of illness and convalescence in hospital, all of three years. There are examples of some prisoners taking four or five years, and I know of one example where a prisoner came to Irkutsk only after eight years, and when he entered the factory this marked the first minute of his sentence of eight years.17

And Irkutsk was still over 660 miles (1,056 kilometres) from Nerchinsk, where convicts were sent to work in the mines.

In 1890 an intrepid British nurse, armed with a revolver, visited leper colonies in remote parts of Iakutsk province. Even she found the journey across Siberia almost too much:

Bump, jolt, bump, jolt –over huge frozen lumps of snow and into holes, and up and down those dreadful waves and furrows made by the traffic –such is the stimulating motion you will have to submit to for a few thousand miles. … You ache from head to foot; you are bruised all over; your poor brain throbs until you give way to a kind of hysterical outcry…. You are then, in a semi-comatose state, dragged from the sledge; and, on gaining a footing, you feel more like a battered old bag of mahogany than a gently-nurtured Englishwoman.18

Even after the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway at the end of the nineteenth century, and the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) railway in the twentieth century, the journey across Siberia to any settlement located any distance from the railway line remained difficult. Prisoners in the 1930s and 1940s could take several weeks to reach the Kolyma camps in the far northeast of Siberia by rail and sea. Inmates in the Kolyma camp referred to other cities, in southern Siberia as well as in European Russia, as the ‘mainland’. Railways in Siberia are still painfully slow: it takes seven days to complete the (p.27) journey by the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok. The aeroplane transformed travel to and within Siberia in the twentieth century, but even today the remoteness of the deposits of oil and natural gas makes extraction very difficult, and the distance and expense of air travel to Moscow mean many Siberians feel divorced from events and life in the capital.

Despite the physical difficulties of communications within Siberia, many Russians/Ukrainians chose, or were obliged, to leave their homes in the seventeenth century and start a new life east of the Urals. The reasons for this are presented in the next two chapters.


(1) . Armstrong, Yermak's Campaign in Siberia, p. 54.

(2) . This section is drawn from Forsyth, A History of the Peoples of Siberia.

(3) . Forsyth, ‘The Siberian Native People before and after the Russian Conquest’, pp. 69–71.

(4) . Martin, Treasure of the Land of Darkness, p. 80.

(5) . Georgi, Russia, vol. 1, p. 178.

(6) . Ibid., p. 132.

(7) . Lesseps, Travels in Kamtschatka during the Years 1787 and 1785, p. 95.

(8) . Etnografiia russkogo krest'ianstva Sibiri XVI–seredina XIX vv., pp. 79–80.

(9) . Tomsk, GATO, f. 3, op. 20, d. 20, on the settlement of peasants, 1858.

(10) . Safronov, Russkie krest'iane v Iakutii, p. 48.

(11) . Krest'ianstvo Sibiri v epokhu feodalizma, p. 132.

(12) . Lantzeff, Siberia in the Seventeenth Century, p. 159.

(13) . Golder, Bering's Voyages, vol. 1, pp. 11–17, 20.

(14) . Smith, The First Kamchatka Expedition of Vitus Bering, pp. 61, 89.

(15) . Bol'shakov, Ocherki istorii rechnogo transporta Sibiri XIX vek, p. 16.

(16) . Gibson, Imperial Russia in Frontier America, p. 61.

(17) . Quoted in Gentes, Exile to Siberia 1590–1822, p. 200.

(18) . Marsden, On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers, pp. 18–21.