A History of the Peoples of Siberia:
Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990

James Forsyth

Cambridge University Press 1992

Siberia: A History of the People

Janet M. Hartley

Yale University Press 2014
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015 http://dannyreviews.com/
These two books have the same geographical scope, but focus on different, almost complementary, sides to Siberian history: Forsyth's centres the indigenous peoples of Siberia, while Hartley's is "primarily a study of what Russians and other colonists did in Siberia and how they lived". One common interest is identity: one of his major themes is the extent to which groups have managed to preserve their cultures, languages and identities, while one of her central concerns is the extent to which modern Siberians have a separate identity to other Russians, and how that came to be.

A good part of A History of the Peoples of Siberia is ethnohistory, combining ethnographic description of customs, clothing, ways of life, and so forth with explanations of the broader political and economic changes, education and language policies, and suchlike that were changing those. This often involves surveys of different ethnic groups:

"In seventeenth-century Yukagir society clans were a social reality, dictating restrictions in the choice of marriage partners. One of the features of the clan system was that each clan had its priest or shaman who presided over the cult of the ancestor after whom the clan was named. ..."

with some narrative:

"The first reconnaissance of north-eastern Siberia was carried out by boat during 1633-8, when men of service from Yakutsk sailed down-river to the mouth of the Lena, explored the Arctic coast to west and east, and sailed up the rivers Olenyok, Yana and Indigirka. Meanwhile other Russians, travelling overland, had reached the upper courses of these same rivers. ..."

These quotes come from a chapter "Central and North-East Siberia in the Seventeenth Century". As well as the thinly populated north, Forsyth covers the rather different southern rim of Siberia, with its settled Turkic and Mongolian peoples and Korean and Chinese populations and foreign policy concerns, in this case in a separate chapter "The Mongolian and Chinese Frontier in the Seventeenth Century".

As the subtitle suggests, Forsyth also covers the broader political and economic history, treating Imperial and then Soviet policies and administrative realities. Again this is often done in parallel chapters. So "The Native Peoples of Siberia after 1945" is a region by region and ethnic group by ethnic group survey, while "Soviet Siberia after 1941" covers the Second World War, relations with China and Mongolia, and industrialisation.

On the continuing importance of furs, even after the end of the yasak fur tribute system:

"During the period 1924-1929 furs accounted for between 10 and 15.3 per cent of the total value of Soviet Russian exports".

On the integration of Siberia into the Soviet Union:

"Despite all its racial variety, Siberia is in fact the part of the Soviet Union most completely integrated from the ethnic point of view with the central Russian lands around Moscow. ... The needs, or demands, of central planning generated by the military and political interests of the state assumed an absolute priority against which consideration for the traditional way of life of the native peoples or the natural environment carried little weight."

Now rather dated as a "current situation" overview, with little on post-Soviet Siberia, Forsyth's final chapter offers an overview of the situation in the 1980s, including some comparisons with the treatment of indigenous peoples in Alaska and Canada (both those made by Soviet authorities themselves and less flattering ones). In the worst case, in Taimyr:

"what had been communities of hardy nomadic hunters and reindeer-herders, possessing a unique, highly developed culture, had been reduced to apathy and alcoholism, frequently resorting to fighting with knives, and having a cowed sense of inferiority reinforced by taunts and physical attacks by Russian chauvinist hooligans if they visited the administrative centre of 'their' autonomous region".

There is some narrative in Siberia: A History of the People, notably in the opening chapter, which starts with Ermak and describes the roughly century-long conquest of Siberia, and then in the account of the tumultuous events of the first half of the twentieth century. Mostly, however, Hartley offers a more synchronic picture of life in Imperial and then Soviet Siberia.

She covers the indigenous peoples briefly, along with Siberian geography and the challenges that posed for communications, then outlines the early patterns of trade and tribute-taking and the demographics of settlers, free and unfree. There are separate chapters on life in villages, towns, and remote garrisons. These include broad descriptions:

"there was very little that was distinctive about early eighteenth-century Siberian towns compared with provincial towns in European Russia, except that there were fewer stone buildings, and styles of churches and stone buildings were probably slower to change than in European Russia. Baroque-style churches, for example, came late to Siberia."

as well as some detailed local studies, for example of the remote garrison at Gizhiga, on the sea of Okhotsk north of Magadan, where among other details we are told:

"a larger number of soldiers were married and had families. In 1809, 176 males and 122 females were listed in the fort — a very high proportion of women. Gizhiga also had a garrison school which was attended by sons of Cossacks and soldiers. There were 82 boys at the school in 1809, aged between seven and 17."

Hartley covers the development of government and administration, the system of sending exiles and convicts to Siberia (where prominent roles were played by Poles and by the Decembrists, a group of high-level protestors exiled in 1825), and the role of scientific expeditions and imperial ideas. Siberia was also a refuge for religious malcontents, such as Old Believers and 'spirit-wrestlers', as well as for popular beliefs and paganism.

The trans-Siberian railway brought major changes, geopolitical, economic, and social; its route decided the fate of individual towns. Assisted by the abolition of serfdom, it helped to enable major migration to Siberia in the latter part of the nineteenth century and, along with other reforms, drove industrial growth.

But what looked like a promising future was ended by the Russian Revolution and above all the ensuing Civil War: "Siberia, which had entered the new century with such confidence, emerged from the Civil War a shattered land." Among other topics Hartley considers the failure of Kolchak or any other White leader to espouse a cause capable of rallying the people of Siberia. Traumas continued, with attacks on "kulaks" leading the broader assault on traditional ways of life that came with collectivisation. And Siberia had a central role in the gulag system, which extended the Tsarist exile system in scale and severity.

In "The New Soviet Citizen" Hartley tries to convey the genuine enthusiasm felt by, for example, many of the Komsomol volunteers who moved to Siberia, the early promise of Akademogorodok, and other positive aspects of life in Siberia. But she also describes the negative effects of industrialisation and demographic growth, on new and established settlers as well as the indigenous peoples, and the region's social and political and environmental problems.

A brief final chapter covers the post-communist period. The loss of subsidies and the closure of industries has brought economic dislocation, but also the (recurring) promise of resource riches. And a broad variety of regionalisms, environmentalisms, and religious enthusiasms have arisen, or in some cases revived.


Forsyth is sometimes a little indigestible, with a fair density of facts and figures and some monotony resulting from his attempt to be comprehensive. His subject material is also sombre, documenting the decline or destruction of indigenous ways of life, languages and so forth. For anyone whose primary interest is the historical experience of the indigenous peoples of Siberia, however, he provides what is still the best book length treatment.

Hartley includes some broad statistics and uses data from local archives, but relies more on first-hand accounts and case studies. Her work is shorter (266 pages including endnotes versus 418 pages with footnotes) and more readable, as well as being more up to date, so it is more likely to appeal to (say) a curious traveller to Siberia wanting some background reading.

March 2015

External links:
A History of the Peoples of Siberia
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Siberia: A History of the People
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- buy from Wordery
Related reviews:
- books about the Arctic
- books about Russia + Russian history
- more ethnography
- more social history
- books published by Cambridge University Press
- books published by Yale University Press
%T A History of the Peoples of Siberia
%S Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990
%A Forsyth, James
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1992
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521477719
%P 455pp

%T Siberia: A History of the People
%A Hartley, Janet M.
%I Yale University Press
%D 2014
%O hardcover, b&w photographs, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780300167948
%P 289pp