Siberia: A History of the People by Janet M Hartley, book review: A guided tour of the frozen wastes


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The Independent Culture

A grim waste of ice and snow dotted with unspeakable penal colonies. That's all we know about Siberia. The first surprise in Janet M Hartley's fact-packed survey of 400 years of Russia's Wild East is that Siberia is a rich country.

In 1571 Tsar Ivan IV "the Terrible" received a tribute from the Khan of Sibir, the Mongol territory just east of the Urals which would give its name to the region stretching as far as Alaska. The Khan sent 1,000 pelts of sable, the most highly prized of furs. Unsurprisingly, a small army of Cossacks, led by a tough freebooter called Ermak, employed by the Stroganov merchant clan and acting under a commission from the Tsar, was soon crossing the Urals into Asia.

The musket-armed Russians made short work of the bow-armed Mongols. (Just as, at Lepanto in that same year of 1571, Christian musket-fire did for the Turks and their superb composite bows: the late 16th century saw the end of three millennia of military archery.) On the Asiatic side of the mountains they opened up a country rich not only with firs but with fish, game, minerals and agricultural land, already inhabited by a variety of Muslim and shamanistic peoples. By 1700 the Russians had reached the Pacific and Siberia was on its way.

For peasants it was a land of relative freedom – the conditions of serfdom were less onerous there than in European Russia – and many thousands of families emigrated of their own free will to found new village communities. For merchants and industrialists there were fortunes to be made. But already in the 18th and 19th centuries Siberia could be a place of heart-breaking exile for Russian criminals and dissidents.

Professor Hartley's deadpan delivery takes nothing away from the horrors: "Forced labour was concentrated mainly in the silver and lead mines of Nerchinsk, where conditions were particularly harsh. Food and accommodation were poor, corporal punishment was common and men could be permanently chained to wheelbarrows." And after that, the Stalin era is still to come!

But all the same, as so often in Russia it seems, high culture coexisted with oppression and disorder. The aristocratic Decembrists, exiled for their revolt of 1825, spent their time in Siberia setting up schools – with an ambitious curriculum – for the children of the natives.

A pity to end with a gripe, but if Professor Hartley wants an even greater readership beyond the groves of academe than she already enjoys, may I humbly suggest that she renounce the donnish habit of repeated agenda-setting? Chapter Four, for instance, ends thus: "But what sort of life awaited these settlers – male and female – after the first century of settlement? This is the subject of the next four chapters."

Blimey: four chapters on the everyday life of Siberian folk! The "general reader" girds his loins, but his frivolous heart sinks. Just tell us about it, Prof: don't tell us in advance what you are going to tell us.