PEOPLE OF SIBERIA
The entire population of Siberia—about 33 million people—is equal to only three times the population of the Moscow metropolitan area. Most of the residents are Russians, followed by Ukrainians, Tatars, Germans, Jews, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Kazakhs and other nationalities from the former Soviet Union. The 30 or so indigenous Siberian ethnic groups make up only about 4 percent of the population.
Many of the Russians residents are decedents of labor camp prisoners who survived and raised families. Many others are people in Siberia who were enticed, or their descendants were enticed, by high salaries and bonuses. Wives of male workers in Siberia have a hard life as there isn't really much for them to do. Their husbands make good salaries but there is nothing to spend the money on.
Some common characteristics shared by all Siberia people include adapting physically and psychologically to the long winter; living in small, extended families organized into large kinship networks; a frontier, rough-and-ready mentality; and some kind of linked to shamanism.
Peter B. Golden wrote in the “Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia”: “Below a line running approximately from Kiev through Riazan to Kazan, lie the south Russian steppes. The region north of this line gives way to a transitional forest-steppe (lesostep') zone before becoming the densely wooded tracts of the Russian and Siberian forests. The latter, in turn, become the taiga and tundra zones in the far north. The great contrast in physical setting is reflected in the economic activities that evolved in these regions. The steppe, in historical times, was largely populated by pastoral nomads of Iranian and Altaic speech. The early population of the eastern Russian forests, our area of concern, consisted primarily of fishing and hunting peoples who spoke Uralic languages. The forest-steppe region became the contact zone between the southern nomads and the northern hunters and trappers. The former, when they entered the contact zone, made certain adaptations in their life-style, becoming semi-nomadic with ever greater emphasis placed on sedentary pursuits. Those Uralic elements that entered the forest-steppe zone, in turn, were drawn increasingly to the steppe and its mode of existence, becoming in time stereotypical, equestrian nomads. [Source: The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990]
“The medieval history of the Russian forest belt is largely concerned with three important movements of peoples. The first is the steady expansion of the Eastern Slavic population from the western periphery of the Eurasian forests to the East. This movement was particularly successful in the forest zone and brought the Volga—Oka mesopotamia into their possession. It also led to the absorption and or conquest of the Finnic peoples of Northern and Central Russia.”
In the Soviet era, people were very isolated. Many Siberians had never seen a black person before. If they did meet one they asked him for autographs. After the break up of the Soviet Union, high salaries were replaced by months without any wages. People began leaving in large numbers and those left behind often suffered in poverty. Siberians have low life expectancies and suffer more from malnutrition and infant mortality than the rest of Russia.
People of Siberia, Arctic and the Far East
There are 40 or so indigenous ethnic groups in Siberia, the Far East and the Arctic. Most have traditionally been shamanist, nomadic animal herders. They have traditionally lived a basic life in hash conditions in areas with few people and migrated over long distances. Those in the south herded sheep, horses and cattle. Those in north herded reindeer. Some were also fishermen, trappers and hunters. Few had written languages.
The people of Siberia, the Far East and the Arctic speak dozens of Uralic, Turko-Tatar and Paleosiberain language and many more dialects, with Russian serving as the lingua franca.
Siberia is defined by four main ecocultural areas: 1) western Siberia, a lowland agricultural area and home to relatively Russified groups such as the Nenets, Komi, Mansi and Khanty; 2) southern Siberia with its large industrial and mining operations; 3) the east-central area, home to traditional horse people like the Buryats, Tuven and Yakut; and 4) the Far East, with the northernmost people in Eurasia, Eskimos, Chukchi and Nivkh.
The Siberian region is shaped very much by the interact between Russians and other Slavs with indigenous Siberia groups. There has traditionally been a high degree of intermarrying between the different groups of the region among themselves and with Russians. Indigenous group are most well represented in rural areas and the wilderness while Russians and other Slavs dominate the large cities.
After spending three years on a scientific journey in Kamchatka, an 18th century Russian wrote, "Only in their power of speech do [these natives] differ from animals. Nonetheless...they believe that the earth, sky, air, water, land, mountains and forest are inhabited by spirits whom they fear and honor more than their god...[and are] convinced that there is no way of life happier and more agreeable than their own."
Books: A History of the People of Siberia by James Forsyth (Cambridge, 1994), Forgotten People of Siberia by Fred Mayer (Scalo, 1993)
Life in Siberia is shaped by the cold. People have traditionally worn thick, many-layered clothing made with animal hides and furs and lived tents in made of hides, insulated log cabins or houses built partly underground and covered with sod. Siberians stay warm by drinking samogon—white lightning—and amuse themselves by wandering the tundra picking berries and mushrooms. One of the biggest highlights of the year is Miss Siberia beauty pageant.
People of Siberia have traditionally survived on hunting, fishing, trapping and herding in animals such as reindeer and cattle. Many areas of Siberia are warm enough to supports some agriculture, particularly in the southwest, where there is extensive dairy and wheat farming.
Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, cabbage and other vegetables are produced in greenhouses made of birch poles and plastic. Some people have wages jobs in factories, mines and the service industry.
In some places housing is a problem. Some families live in shacks they have fashioned out of discarded construction supplies. In the Soviet era, waiting lists for real houses were up to seven years long. The traditional Siberian bathroom is an outhouse beyond the kitchen garden. A visit at night in the middle of winter are not so pleasant.
Polyandry is practiced by several Siberian tribes such as the Gilyaks of Sakhalein Island. For some tribes in Siberia the word "kiss" means "smell."
Siberiaki is the name given to Russians, Ukrainians and other Slavs who migrated to Siberia and made their home there. The live in pockets throughout Siberia and the Far East. Most are descendants of families that settled in Siberia before the Russian Revolution in 1917 and World War II. Many Siberiaki had adopted certain elements of local Siberia culture and intermarried with local indigenous groups. They differentiate themselves from newer settlers, whose loyalty to the region is regarded as suspect. It is difficult to determine the number of Siberiaki. People of Russian and Slavic descent make up the majority of the population but determining which are Siberiaki and which are not is difficult. Old style Siberiaki tend to live in rural areas. Urban areas tend to be dominated by non-Siberiaki Russians and Slavs.
Most Siberiaki are farmers who grow grains, beets, potatoes, hemp and carrots. Some raise cattle; others horses. Some tried their hand at raising reindeer. Most supplement their meager yields by hunting and trapping. Wage work has been provided by mines and factories. Some make a living through folk arts such as wood carving and declarative textiles and basketry.
The Siberiaki have traditionally been very self sufficient. They often made their own furniture, utensils, fish nets, carts and sleds. Women spun cloth and took up “male” activities when their husbands were away on hunting and fishing trips. Large families, especially with lots of males, were regarded as a blessing. because that meant that there were that many more hands to help do chores and help.
Most Siberiaki are Orthodox Christians but many have incorporated Slavic folk beliefs and local beliefs into their personal religious schemes. Shaman are still sought for blessings and treatment of illnesses. Some attend shaman seances and learn shaman spells themselves. Among the groups that came to Siberia to escape religious persecution are Old Believers,Dukhobors, Molokany, Khysty and Pentecostals.
Local government was provided a peasant mir, a community of household heads that determined land use, raised taxes and organized community activities on a consensus basis. These unit often managed to stay intact despite changes that occurred on the national level. This changed in the 1930 when the Communist Party began to assert more control on the local level.
Siberiaki Homes and Villages
The Siberiaki settlers built villages and homes likes those in their home villages in northern Russia and the Ukraine. Villages were strung out along rivers and roads. The wooden houses were surrounded by a fence. Buildings organized around a courtyard included a separate bathhouse, storehouse and a stable for animals. Poorer homes had a barn attached to the main house and people and animals shared warmth generated by a large wood-burning stove. Sometimes the land was privately owned. Often it was leased from the government.
Homes and buildings were often built using communal labor provided by friends, neighbors and relatives. Before construction began an animal or fowl was sacrificed and placed under the foundation Each house had a “beautiful corner,” an area diagonal from the entrance where an icon shelf was displayed. Decorations including carved designs around the windows and bird figures situated below the eaves. The first fire in the house was lit with embers from a fire from another house to encourage the family’s guardian spirit to move to the new house.
Villages were basically of two types; small ones with less than 100 people and larger one with up to several thousand residences. Large towns grew from trading posts and transportation hubs. In the Soviet period villagers were encouraged to collectivize and move into larger settlements. Many small villages were allowed to die.
There are around 400,000 Germans in the southern part of western Siberia. They still identify themselves as Germans even though they have been in Siberia for many generations. Many continues to identify themselves by the places their families originally came from such as Bavaria or Schwab. They often spoke dialects from these region that were so distinct that other Germans could not easily understand them when they spoke German.
Many Siberian Germans settled in another part of Russia before coming to Siberia. Some came to Siberia because land prices were cheaper there. Many of these took up sheep farming on the steppes A large number were Volga German deported to Siberia during World War II.
Most Siberian Germans traditionally practiced farming and/or animal husbandry. They generally produced plenty for themselves and sold surpluses of things like butter, wool, sausages and vegetables for income. Most were Protestants, especially Lutherans and Evangelicals.
The German communities were often very tight knit and self sustaining, German children often went to German schools. Larger communities had their own German newspapers and even German television and radio stations.
Life of the Siberian Germans
Siberian Germans are generally bilingual: fluent in Russian, often speaking it better than German. But in many cases they have kept their own culture, Rather than building Russian-style peasant homes as other settlers did they built German-style homes with allowances made for the availability of building materials. Farmsteads often contained German-style summer kitchens and smoke houses. The outer trimmings of the houses were often painted with contrasting colors and painted with images of flowers and swans.
The German houses tended to be more durable and last longer than the houses built by other settlers. The German villages were very tidy and clean. The Siberian Germans ate many German style foods such as potato soup, German-style dumplings, vanities of strudels and fruit soup with sour cream.
Traditional German weddings featured a festive procession through the village, the displaying of the bride for the guests, traditional songs and parting words for the young and festive games such as stealing the bride’s shoes. Before everyone left it was customary to take a wreath of wax flowers from the bride’s head. Holidays were often celebrated with a large feast, bonfires and dancing to accordion music.
Siberia Tatars are people of Turkish-Mongol origin that live in Siberia. They basically fall into two groups: 1) those who are descendants of people who have lived in Siberia for some time; and 2) those who are more recent immigrants. There are about 500,000 Tatars in Siberia, of which only 200,000 are ancestors of people living in Siberia at the time the Russians arrived in the 16th century.
Most of the immigrants are from the Volga and Urals, and include Volga Tatars (Kazan Tatars and Mishers), Kryashen Tatars and other groups of European Tatars. The aboriginal Tatars are made up of three main groups: 1) the Tomsk Tatars, composed of Kalmaks, Chats and Eushta who have traditionally lived around the Ob River in the Tomsk area; 2) the Barabinsk Tatars, from the Barabinsk steppe in the Novosibirsk region; and 3) the Tobolsk, the largest group, consisting of Kurdak-Sargatsk, Tobolsk, Tiuemn and Iaskolbin Tatars, who hail from the Irysh and Tobol rivers in the Omsk region. The is a wide range of clan and tribal groups, over 250 by one count.
The aboriginal Siberian Tatars are believed to have a more complex ancestry than that of the Volga and Crimean Tatars. They are a mix of Ugric, Samoyed, Turkish, Iranian and Mongolian blood. The initial penetration of Kipchaks to the region from the Altai has been dated to the 5th to 7th centuries and the creation of the Siberia Tatars began sometime around the 14th century, when the first Siberia Tatar khanate was formed. The region was largely ignored by the Mongols but was occupied by groups that had ties to them. In the 15th century a large Siberia Tatar knanate was based in the city of Sibir (Kashlyk). In 1563 it was overrun by Kazakhs. In 1582 Russians and Cossacks arrived.
Siberian Tatar Culture
The Siberian Tatar languages are derived from Kipchak Turkish but are district from the languages spoken by the Volga and Crimean Tatars but is much closer to the Volga Tatar language. Their conversion to Islam began in the late 14th century and gradually all Siberian Tatars became Muslims.
Siberian Tatar culture is a unique synthesis of Siberian and Muslim culture. In the old days they lived in sod houses with sayings from the Koran hung in the walls. The practiced agriculture, herded animals, hunted and fished. Many worked as traders. In the old days bride abduction was practiced and they wore traditional costumes and boots with curvilinear designs without any underclothes.
The Siberian Tatar practice Islam spiked with folk beliefs in spirits. Boys have traditionally undergone a sacred washing and their lips were rubbed with a mixture of honey and grease to protect them from evil spirits. Here are also cults involving sacred trees, the earth, fire, the sun and a variety of animals. The Siberia Tatars have a rich tradition of folklore, with legends, songs and riddles that have traditionally been performed to the accompaniment of native musical instruments. Folklore also played a role in passing on knowledge about animal behavior and weather patterns.
Siberian Dishes include pelmeni (ravioli-like, meat-filled Siberian dumplings, often smothered with sour cream), complex soups and meat stews, omul (a tangy, salmon-like fish from Lake Baikal), talkan (a kind f porridge made from barley, oats, flour and water), baursaki (fried dough made of flour, eggs and water), sansu (ribbons of dough fried in fat or butter) and pies with a variety of stuffings. A Siberian outdoor feast include tomato-and-cucumber salad, coleslaw, whole tomatoes, cold cuts, cheese, slices of brown bread, guran (small Siberian deer) meat, sashlik (Russian shish kebab), bukhely (dill-seasoned-soup with bone and potatoes in a beef broth) and five kinds of berries.
The Ket are a remnant population of moose and reindeer hunters, fishermen and gatherers who have traditionally lived around the Yenisei River. There are only around 1,300 Kets left. They are related to several groups that spoke Kott languages and are now extinct.
A 17th century Chinese traveler wrote: They “lived directly north of the Turki...in the mountains...where there was always snow...They plowed with horse traction...but did not ride horses although they drank mare’s milk...They often fought with the Khakass but spoke a different tongue. They tied logs...and covered them with birchbark...for their dwelling. Each community had its own chief independently of the others.”
The Ket traditionally hunted in the winter and fished in the summer. Under the Russians they became commercial squirrel hunters and fishermen and adopted reindeer herding and trapped Arctic foxes. In the Soviet era they were moved into settlements. After that they settled for part of their year but spent a lot of their time on the move in birch canoes, sleeping in tipis, fishing and hunting.
Ket Life and Culture
Ket weddings were presided over by a shaman with tambourines. The wedding began with the bride having her hair ceremoniously washed and the groom and his father offering a bride-price of 50 squirrel skins. After a feast the couple returns to their parents for three days. Before then they could not speak to each other.
The Ket worshipped a number of spirits of the earth, stone and heavens. They believed that even objects like sleds and doors could “see” if they had eyes painted on them and the souls of bears and people passed back and forth between one another. Because animals could understand human speech and were sensitive to the smell of women a number of taboos were observed. If a woman stepped over hunting gear, for example, the gear had to be ritually cleaned and purified. Fires cold only be shared by kin members and were believed to offer warning in the future by cracking and certain times.
Shamans inherited their calling and alternatively were a man and then a woman in the same line. Those who were chosen were told in a vison or dream followed by a sickness cured by a shaman. Most shaman relied on seances, tools like phallic symbols and human bones to communicate with spirits in the upper worlds. Special bear shaman could communicate with spirits in the lower world.
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016