Sadly, it came as no surprise to learn that European Russian expansion into Siberia had some disturbing parallels to the European expansion into the Americas. Although the Slavs began their ingress into Russia and Siberia in the 6th century, the situation would escalate much later. Yes, the Slavic “white” Russians that have become our ill-informed stereotype were preceded by masses of prehistoric and classical tribes, traceable back to 45000 BC.
From the 16th century onwards, and with considerable discomfort to the local population, Siberia began to ‘open up’ to the ‘civilised’ western side of the country. Sadly through the process of conquest. It was once regarded as the country’s dangerous and colossal back yard; largely impassable and populated only by dangerous animals, indigenous tribes and the occasional fur trapper and trader from the West. Gradually, it came to be seen as something of a financial and territorial opportunity waiting to happen. This was aided in no small part by the Trans-Siberian Railway; from the late 19th century onwards and by the technological disparity that favoured European Russia.
It’s a weird paradox that those who often consider themselves ‘civilised’ are somehow not above the barbaric pursuits of subjugation, wholesale slaughter, invasion, cultural destruction, mass theft, population displacement, and outright genocide. These are same people who get to write the laws and history books afterwards, of course; re-framing events in a more palatable light for their descendants. My nation is one of the most guilty, undoubtedly. I can still find fellow Brits (depressingly close, unfortunately) who will tell me with a straight face how their ancestors did Africans a great favour by “bringing civilisation to them”. I digress.
Today, there are over 185 ethnic tribal groups that comprise around 10% of the Russian population. That’s “Russian” including “Siberian” of course. The delineation between Russia and Siberia seems to vary depending upon whom you ask. Residents of Yekaterinburg for instance, are proud of their ‘Urals’ city, even though the Urals are nearly 400 Km away.
“Yekaterinburgers will tell you with tightly clenched teeth that they are in the Urals. Not. Siberia.” Writes David Filipov in The Washington Post and frankly, it really is best not to argue with them. The clenched teeth is a particularly bad sign.
Essentially, it’s all “Russia” ultimately. However, Siberia’s regional span is as real, personally, to each inhabitant as any officially shaded/delineated area on a map issued by the government or tourist industry.
Mention Russia’s “S” word though and most will assume that you are referring to the vast expanse between the Urals and Vladivostok on the east coast. I’ve met white, Slavic Russians, identifying themselves as Siberians, who had fled from some Soviet, industrial hell, east of the Urals; to their ‘better’ lives in St.Petersburg. Quite what they had escaped from is unimaginable. I could hardly breathe the air in St.P, but to them it was a relative paradise!
So, is 185 surviving tribes uplifting or depressing news? Well it’s great that they are here today, in any number and in some form of relative stability after Soviet attempts to coerce, cajole and frankly bludgeon them into European Russian conformity via enforced collectivisation and urban living. Some were so traumatised by their displacement that they set up Gers inside their new, concrete homes: that’s all they knew. In spite of it all, somehow; many free tribes are still here.
Sadly, many are not. A great toll was taken by the ongoing, insidious forces of assimilation; either by merging with other indigenous peoples or into the mainstream “Russian” line itself (as we would know it). Some were wiped out by attack from Russian or ancient Mongolian forces, in at least one instance by plague, or by the gradual erosion of a viable population. Others are still hanging on and waiting out their time – either with uncertainty, or in the case of tribes with populations as low as 1, or 2: certain obliteration.
We need to look at this in detail next time.