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|Print version. Published on site Rusnet.NL 26 April 2004
Findings made in the late 1990s indicate that Siberia was inhabited as early as 300,000 years ago, rather than 40,000 years ago, as previously thought. In the historic period, Southern Siberia frequently served as the point of departure for several nomadic groups, such as Huns, Mongols, and Manchus, who conquered and lost immense empires. Among the political entities emerging after the breakup of the Mongol state of the Golden Horde in the mid-15th century was the Tatar khanate of Sibir.
Although Russian traders from Novgorod crossed the Urals as early as the 13th century to trade in furs with native tribes, the Russian conquest began much later. Tsar Ivan IV's capture of the Kazan khanate in 1552 opened the way for Russian expansion into Siberia. In 1581 a band of Cossacks under Yermak crossed the middle Urals and took the city of Sibir (near modern Tobolsk), capital of the Sibir khanate, which gave its name to the entire region. Russia's conquest of the Tatar khanate was completed in 1598, and during the 17th century Russia annexed all of Western Siberia.
The Cossacks rapidly penetrated eastward by land and on riverboats, building a string of small fortresses and levying tribute for Moscow from the sparse population in the form of precious furs. By 1640 they had reached the Sea of Okhotsk, an arm of the Pacific Ocean, and soon afterward they collided with Chinese troops. By the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689), Russia abandoned to China the region later known as the Far Eastern Territory (Russian Far East), which was ceded to Russia only from 1858 to 1860. The Chinese still have claims over parts of the border, including islands in the Ussuri River.
Russian Settlement and Administration
Russian settlement of Siberia was spurred by groups of pioneers, who came mostly from North European Russia and traversed the easy portages linking the east-west Siberian river systems to pioneer new forts and trading communities. A colony of the Russian Empire, Siberia was administered by a colonial office based first in Moscow and later (after its founding in 1703) in the new Russian capital of St. Petersburg.
Although military governors collected tribute, they interfered little with native Siberian customs and religions; while the smaller, weaker ethnic groups succumbed to Russian influence, larger tribes such as the Kazakhs and Yakuts thrived and reaped material benefits under Russian administration. Siberian furs constituted an important source of wealth for Russia and figured prominently in Russian trade with Western Europe. These furs, along with customs duties levied on all Siberian raw materials acquired by Russian entrepreneurs, more than reimbursed the state for the costs of its Siberian conquest and administration.
With the decline of the fur trade in the early 18th century, mining became the chief economic activity in Siberia. The state was the chief entrepreneur, but wealthy private families were also involved. Silver, lead, and copper mining began around 1700; gold mining did not develop until the 1830s. Forced labour in the mines, often using convicts, proved generally unproductive; the gold miners were usually free labourers. Siberian agriculture was stimulated in the late 16th and 17th century by the needs of the Russian military and administrative personnel stationed there.
From the early 17th century Siberia was used as a penal colony and a place of exile for political prisoners; among the latter there emerged (especially after the exile of leaders of the Decembrist Conspiracy of 1825 - see Decembrists) a small but vocal Siberian intelligentsia, who agitated for an end of Siberia's colonial status. Meanwhile, Russian colonisers continued to push southward, establishing forts along the steppe to thwart nomadic raids. Newly emancipated (1861) Russian serfs were allowed to take free possession of Siberian land, but they received little state assistance and suffered intolerable hardships.
Russian settlement of Siberia on a large scale began only with the construction (1892-1905) of the Trans-Siberian Railway, after which the eastward migratory movement reached major proportions. Peter Stolypin, the interior minister under Nicholas II, made a special effort to reduce rural overpopulation in European Russia by encouraging Siberian colonisation. The railway also enabled European Russia to obtain cheap grain from Western Siberia and butter from the Baraba Steppe. The railway's needs spurred the development of coal mining and the opening of repair shops. Before the Russian Revolution, however, Siberia contributed only a minute fraction of Russia's industrial output, mainly in the form of gold.
During the Revolution
Siberia played a key role in the Russian civil war of 1918 - 1920 (see Civil Wars). An autonomous Siberian government formed in early 1918 was soon superseded by the regime of the counterrevolutionary Admiral A. Kolchak, who made his capital at Omsk. The White forces were aided by contingents of Tsarist political exiles and by the Czech Legion, a group of Austrian army deserters who had hoped to fight alongside the Tsarist army.
In August, 1918, a US, British, French, and Japanese expeditionary force joined the anti-Bolshevik units in Siberia. The main purpose of this allied expedition was probably to prevent German use of Siberian resources in World War I. Most of Siberia was in White hands by late 1918, but Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks at Yekaterinburg that year. Early in 1920, Admiral Kolchak's government collapsed, and he was executed.
Under the Soviets
Under the Soviet government, Siberia, especially the Ural-Kuznetsk complex, underwent dramatic economic development. Under the First Five-Year Plan (1928 - 1933), forced labour was instrumental in mining coal and building the iron and steel complex of the Kuznetsk Basin. In addition, part of the agricultural colonisation of Siberia was carried out by the forced resettlement of large segments of the Russian rural population, notably the expropriated kulaks (wealthier peasants). As a result, Siberia's population doubled between 1914 and 1946.
Siberia's economic development increased dramatically during World War II with the transfer of many industries from European USSR to the other side of the Urals, where they would be less vulnerable to German seizure. Siberian grain was essential in enabling the Soviet Union to resist the German wartime onslaught despite the loss of valuable agricultural areas in Western USSR.
Post-war industrialisation of Siberia continued at a rapid pace, with special concentration on South-Western Siberia and the Baikal Lake region. Siberian agriculture, which suffered during the Stalinist collectivisation campaign, was revived in the mid-1950s by Premier Khrushchev's "virgin lands" program, focusing on cultivation in the steppes of South-Western Siberia and Northern Kazakhstan. The Seven-Year Plan (1958-65) emphasised construction of large thermal and hydroelectric power plants in Siberia and elsewhere.
The resulting destruction of natural areas and the gross waste of resources led to strong environmental opposition. Centred on the issue of the polluting of Lake Baikal, Siberian environmental groups became some of the first organisations to challenge the Communist party's decisions openly. Indigenous peoples also protested the destruction of their autonomous regions. With the fall of the USSR, Siberia became more open to foreign travel and trade, while local Siberians sought to distance themselves from the Russian government in Moscow.