The earliest known Siberians were early stone age tribes that lived around Lake Baikal and the headwaters of the Ob and Yenisey rivers. Later stone age sites have been found all over Siberia. Many tribes were still in the stone age when they were discovered by Russians.

The oldest of the far northern people of Eurasia were Neolithic hunters of wild reindeer. Archeological evidence of their existence has been dated to the 5th millennium B.C.. Small scale reindeer herding is believed to have evolved around 2,000 years ago with large scale herding developing in the last 400 years.

When the Greeks dominated Europe, Siberia was inhabited largely tribes that originated in the Caucasus. After the 3rd century B.C. it was occupied by a secession of horsemen—Huns, Turkic tribes and Mongols.

Until the 16th century the population of Siberia, the Far East and the Arctic was the home of numerous indigenous groups that ranged in size for a few hundred members to several tens of thousands members. They traded with one another and sometimes gathered together and occasionally fought with one another, but for the most part they were independent and avoided conflict. A few regions were ruled under khanates.

Russians Takeover Siberia

Central Siberia was first explored in the 17th century by Cossack fur hunters, who built stockade towns and subdued local people such as the Yakuts and Evenks Jeffrey Tayler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “In the 1550s, Czar Ivan the Terrible of Muscovy crushed Muslim Tatars west of the Urals, spurring Russian expansion into Asia. The Cossack leader Yermak Timofeevich defeated the ruler of Sibir (Siberia) in 1581, whereafter the Russians began to absorb lands farther east. Lured by rumors of forests abounding in priceless furs (mostly sable and ermine) along a great river, a Cossack named Panteley Pyanda first reached the Lena in the 1620s. The Cossacks, from the steppes south of Russia, raised revenues for the sovereign in the form of a levy in furs, which they imposed on the sparse indigenous peoples, the semi-nomadic Evenks and Yakuts. [Source: Jeffrey Tayler, Smithsonian magazine, September 2005]

“Opening up Siberia, the Cossacks hastened Russia’s transformation from a middle-sized European country into a Eurasian superpower covering one-sixth of the earth’s land surface. Siberia was eventually to yield resources far more precious than furs, including gold, diamonds, uranium and, most important nowadays, natural gas and oil. In Siberia lie the bulk of Russia’s 72 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserve (the seventh-largest on earth) and 27 percent of the world’s natural gas. Oil alone accounts for 45 percent of Russia’s export revenues, and finances 20 percent of its economy. Only Saudi Arabia pumps more crude.

“ In czarist and Soviet Russia, the Lena served as a watery highway into an icebound hell of forced labor and exile, shackles and grief. Vladimir Lenin (né Ulyanov) may have confected his nom de guerre from the river’s name, in honor of revolutionaries like Trotsky who did hard time along its remote shores. Yet the Bolshevik coup that Lenin led in 1917 ushered in the river’s most tragic era, when Joseph Stalin dispatched millions to hard labor and death in Siberia. Countless barges carried inmates from Ust-Kut—once the Soviet Union’s busiest inland port—to prison settlements on the river’s banks.”

Acquisition of Siberia by Russia

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “The first Russian ruler to style himself officially as tsar, Ivan IV (Ivan Grozny, Ivan the Fear-Inspiring, the Terrible), was also the first to add “Lord of All the Siberian Land” to his titles. He was able to do this because he had conquered the Tatar city of Kazan, a Muslim stronghold on the Volga River which had long blocked Russian moves eastward. With Kazan out of the way, Russian adventurers could go beyond the frontiers to previously unexplored lands across the Urals. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 3, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“In 1581 and 1582, a band of Cossacks led by a Volga River pirate named Yermak Timofeyevich followed rivers into the country of the Khan of Sibir, fought several battles with the Khan’s forces, defeated him, captured his leading general, and occupied his fortress, Isker, on the Tobol River. Yermak sent envoys to Ivan with news of his victory and a rich tribute of sable furs, black-fox furs, and noble captives. This impressed Ivan favorably with Siberia’s possibilities, and the state then secured Yermak’s foothold with contingents of troops.

“After Russia acquired Siberia, tsars of the seventeenth century sometimes were told by Westerners that their dominion exceeded the size of the surface of the full moon. This information pleased the tsars, who probably did not look too closely into the math of the statement. The surface area of the moon is about fourteen million six hundred and forty-six thousand square miles (although the tsars would have measured in desyatins, or square versts, or something else). When the moon is full, the part that’s visible is, of course, half of the entire moon, or about seven million three hundred and twenty-three thousand square miles. Whether Russia in the seventeenth century could honestly claim to be larger than that is not certain. It had not yet taken over the Baltic territories, the Crimea, Ukraine, or the Caucasus, and most of its Siberian territory was unknown in size. Mapmakers then had little information about Siberia’s eastern regions, and were not even sure whether it joined North America. Those details weren’t important, however. To say that Russia was larger than the full moon sounded impressive, and had an echo of poetry, and poetry creates empires.

Impact of Siberia on Russia

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “Many of the objects in museums and churches in western Russia have spent some time in Siberia. During the Second World War, state treasures and works of art and historic archives were put in crates and shipped east. A lot of western Russia’s heavy industry also moved to temporary factories beyond the Urals. The instinct to withdraw, to disappear far into the interior, figures often in Russian history. During invasions from the West, Russia’s strategic option of nearly unlimited retreat made it, in a sense, unkillable. After Napoleon began his invasion of Russia in 1812, an adviser told Tsar Alexander I, “I am not afraid of military reverses. . . . Your empire has two powerful defenders in its vastness and its climate. The emperor of Russia will always be formidable in Moscow, terrible in Kazan, and invincible in Tobolsk.” Tobolsk, at the junction of the Irtysh and Tobol Rivers, was at the time the administrative capital and ecclesiastical seat of western Siberia. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 3, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“On the question of whether Russia’s vast size has benefitted or hurt it over all, historians and others disagree. Those who take the negative side say that Russia has been too big and spread out ever to function properly, that it has been “crippled by its expanse,” that much of its land is not worth the trouble, and that Siberia is a road leading nowhere. A few years ago, two public-policy experts at a Washington think tank wrote a book advising Russia to close down its remote and hard-to-supply Siberian cities and villages and concentrate the population in locations more practical for transportation and the global market. The far places should be left to a few skeleton-crew outposts, and the difficult environment allowed to revert to wilderness, the experts maintained.

“Those on the positive side of the argument (a larger number, in total, than the nays) say, basically, that Russia was not really Russia until it began to move into Asia. Before, it was a loose collection of principalities centered on trading cities like Novgorod and Vladimir and Moscow. The pro-Siberians say that other nations became empires by crossing oceans, while Russia did the same by expanding across the land it was already on. At weak moments in Russia’s history, it could have been partitioned between hostile countries that were then more powerful—Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, the Ottoman Empire, Germany—had not the resources and hard-to-subdue vastness of Siberia kept it alive. Possessed of Siberia, Russia became a continental country, not only an ethnic entity on the map of Eastern Europe. Or, as Joseph Stalin once told a Japanese interviewer, “Russia is an Asiatic land, and I myself am an Asiatic.” (Stalin, by the way, was exiled to Siberia an indeterminate number of times during his years as a young revolutionary, and claimed that he escaped from Siberia six times. He was, of course, alive during the Second World War, and so did not make a posthumous visit via cold storage.)”


One of the earliest Russian revolutionary groups, later called the Decembrists, launched a day-long revolt on December, 14, 1825 with the goal of overthrowing tsar Nicholas I. Hastily launched after Alexander I's death, the revolt was put down by tsarist troops who first tried peaceful methods and then opened fire with artillery, leaving dozens of dead and wounded in St. Petersburg's Senate Square, where the revolt took place.

Many of the participants in the revolt were idealistic young aristocrats, who called for an end to the monarchy, freedom for serfs and the establishment of a constitutional government. Stirred by ideas of freedom and equality put forth by the American and French Revolutions, the rebels also included noblemen, military officers, philosophers and poets. The average age of the ones arrested was 26.

Nicholas I, who had been in power less than a month before the Decembrist rebellion took place, and hadn't even been crowned yet, had been regarded as a potential reformer. He responded to the revolt as a threat on his leadership, however, setting the scene for a repressive 30-year reign with the establishment of a censorship system and establishing the Third Section, a secret police force that was a forerunner of the KGB.

Decembrists Executed and Sent to Siberia

Nicholas I saw the Decembrist uprising as a personal betrayal. Many of the participants were his close friends. After the leaders of the rebellion were hung, Nicholas said, "It is my duty to give a lesson to Russia" Nicholas I also led a campaign a against what he considered to be corrupting Western ideas. Ideas that aimed to give people more power and rights were suppressed.

Over 100 Decembrist men that were captured were sent to Siberian camps, where they survived with the help of their wives and lovers, who made the 4,000-mile, three-month journey to join them. These women, many of whom gave up lives of luxury for winters in peasant shacks in -40 degree temperatures, were credited with saving the lives of their men and they were referred to as "guardian angels."

In Siberia, the Decembrists attempted to establish an ideal society in the prisons with their own garden plots and schools that offered courses in chemistry, geology, literature, economics, military strategy and ten languages.

Dostoevsky in Siberia

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is regarded as one of the giants of modern literature and the "the greatest interpreter of the limitless depths of the Russian soul." After his mock execution he spent four years in chains, from 1849 to 1854, at a labor in Omsk, Siberia doing hard labor "packed like herrings in a barrel" with low born thieves and murderers. He believed his punishments were deserved. The New Testament was the only reading material he was allowed in prison and he read it over and over. He suffered a number of epileptic seizures while in prison.

Dostoevsky's experience in prison gave him a more positive outlook on life. Hist religious faith was resurrected in a mystical and humanistic form in which he equated Christ's suffering with the experience of the Russian working people and the criminals he met in prison.

After finishing his sentence in Siberia, Dostoevsky was given an additional penal term as a common soldier in Semipalatinsk, a military outpost in present-day Kazakhstan. Here, he played by the rules, and became a junior officer. In his free time Dostoevsky read books and befriended a troubled, tubercular widow, Marie Isavea, whom he later married and whom brought him nothing but grief. Finally after persistent lobbying, his friends secured his release.

Upon his return to St. Petersburg in 1860 Dostoevsky recalled his prison experiences in the”House of the Dead” (1861-62), a novel about a man condemned for murdering his wife. Serialized in his won literary magazine “Vremya”, the work helped Dostoevsky recapture some of the fame he had won with “The Poor Folk”.

Lenin in Siberia

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “At times, Siberia has supplied a lot of western Russia’s butter, and some of England’s and Western Europe’s, too. Just before the First World War, sixteen per cent of the world’s exports of butter came from Siberia. N. S. Korzhanskii, a revolutionary who knew the father of the Russian Revolution, V. I. Lenin, when Lenin was living in England in 1903, recalled a meal in Lenin’s London apartment: “I was amazed at the wonderful, beautiful-smelling creamy butter, and was just about to burst out with some remark about the wealth of the British, when Vladimir Ilyich said, ‘Yes, that must be ours. From Siberia.’ ” [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 3, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“Lenin went to Siberia on two separate occasions. He was sent into exile there following his arrest for revolutionary activities in St. Petersburg in December of 1895. Lenin was twenty-five then, and still using his original name, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. Sentenced to three years’ exile, he was sent to Shushenskoye, a village on the Yenisei River, in south-central Siberia. Exile under the tsars could be a rather mild proposition, especially compared with what the Soviets later devised; during his exile Lenin received a government stipend of twelve rubles a month, which covered room and board along with extras like books. He was able to get a lot of reading done. All in all, Siberia seems to have agreed with Lenin splendidly, and seasoned him as a political thinker.

“The second time Lenin was sent to Siberia he had been dead for seventeen years. After leading the revolution and maneuvering the Bolshevik state through the power struggles that followed, he suffered a series of strokes; a convalescence did not restore his health, and he died, of another stroke, in January of 1924. Because of Lenin’s importance to the revolution and the saintlike status the Communists gave him, the Soviet government decided to have his body preserved. Embalmers and other technicians did such a skillful job that when they were done he looked better than he had in the months before he died. To house him, the government built a temporary and then a permanent tomb on Red Square, in Moscow, where his body went on display for the crowds who filed reverently by.

“In 1941, with the Germans approaching, an icon as important as Lenin could not be left at risk of destruction or capture, so the body was packed into a railroad car and shipped to the western Siberian city of Tyumen for safekeeping. There, far from the front, it waited out the war. In 1945, after the Allied victory, Lenin again returned from Siberia, and went back to his Red Square tomb.

Siberia Under the Soviets

The Russian Revolution caused great upheaval in Siberia as it did everywhere in Russia. Much of the fighting between the Red and the Whites took place in Siberia. Many civilians died and villages were obliterated as territory changed hands and then changed back again. Siberia was involved in mass collectivization campaigns but was largely spared fighting during World War II but local people were required to turn over their food supplies for the war effort

Under the Soviets, the identity of the Siberia’s indigenous groups was threatened by Russification and collectivization. Many of these groups were forced to settle on fishery collectives, reindeer farms and agricultural collectives. Forced collectivization caused great disruption to traditional culture and way of life. Some groups attempted to escape. There was also religious persecution, cultural destruction and severe environmental damage.

Under the Soviets, there was large scale economic development, especially in industry, mining and “virgin land” agriculture. The Soviet brought healthcare and schooling. Children were often required to go off to boarding schools and spent large amounts of time away from their parents. Some groups, namely the Yakut and Tatars, were large enough to maintain some degree of economic and cultural viability.

Mass Deportations of Ethnic Groups

In the 1930s, a number of ethnic groups, including the Greeks, Tatars, Koreans and Volga Germans were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile n Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Some were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” More than 1.5 million people were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

Initially the Greeks prospered under Soviet rule. Greek schools, newspapers and culture flourished in places where there were large numbers of Greeks. The number of Greek schools rose from 33 in 1924 to 140 in 1938. There a was political drive to create an autonomous Greek territory.

Things changed in 1930s, when Stalin included the Greeks among the groups that were persecuted and deported. Greek schools were shut down. Publications in Greek were banned and much of the Greek population was suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Many were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” In 1949, Stalin exiled tens of thousands of Pontic Greeks in Crimea and the Caucasus.

During World War II, the Volga Germans and Caucasus ethnic groups such as the Chechens and Ingush were rounded up a transported in cattle cars to new "homelands" in Siberia and Central Asia. After Stalin died some were allowed to return. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

Mass Deportations of Chechens

In 1936 Stalin created the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic. In 1943, when Nazi forces reached the gates of the Chechen capital, Groznyy, Chechen separatists staged a rebellion against Russian rule. In response, the next year Stalin deported more than 1 million Chechens, Ingush, and other North Caucasian peoples to Siberia and Central Asia on the pretext that they had collaborated with the Nazis. The remaining Muslim people of the Chechnya region were resettled among neighboring Christian communities. Stalin's genocidal policy virtually erased Chechnya from the map,

Some Chechens and Ingush had collaborated with the Nazi who occupied the northern Caucasus briefly from later 1942 to early 1943 but less of them did than Ukrainians and Byelorussians were not similarly persecuted. No Chechens or Ingush were spared, even those who fought for the red Army on the German front. A third of the population of Chechnya is believed to have died from suffocation, hunger, disease and cold. It was clear the goal was to eliminate Chechnya and the Chechens. Chechnya was divided among its neighbors. Mapmakers and historians were instructed to remove all references to Chechnya and Chechens from maps, textbooks and reference books.

The carefully prepared operation began on February 22, 1944, towards the end of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Chechens were packed into cattle cars in trains in the dead of winter and taken on a three week journey for "resettlement". Many Chechens regard the operation as an act of genocide. Most ended up in Kazakhstan.

The operation was organized by the Lavrenty Beria, the head of Stalin's secret police. In a memo he wrote: "The eviction of the Chechens and Ingush is proceeding normally: 342,647 people were loaded onto trains February 25 and by February 29] the number had risen to 478,479 of whom 91,250 were Ingush and 387,229 were Chechens...The operation proceeded in an organized fashion, with no serious instances or resistance, or other incidents. There were only isolated cases of attempted flights."

As many as a third of the Chechens died in transit. According to one memo only 12,000 railway carriages were used instead of the planned 15,000 because of "compressed cargo" and large numbers of children were shipped because they took up less space.

Forced Exile of Crimean Tatars

On May 18, 1944, towards the end of World War II, all of the Crimean Tatars—some 230,000 of them—were roused from their beds and rounded up in one night, under orders from Stalin, and forced onto trucks and rail cattle cars for the long trip to Central Asia (mostly to Uzbekistan) and the southern Urals. The Tatars were falsely accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis— even though they supplied a large of soldiers to anti-Nazi units in the Red Army—and were exiled as punishment. The Tatars were one of a dozen or so ethnic groups accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis.

One Tatar late told the Washington Post, "A Russian officer came with three soldiers and ordered us to leave. He said the Tatars were traitors to the Motherland. My father gave him documents showing that my brother was fighting the Germans in the Red Army, but [the officer] threw them aside. He said that meant nothing.”

The Tatars were locked inside the cattle cars. At stops some food and water was thrown in and dead bodies were removed. As many 100,000 of them died—nearly half their entire population— during the journey and the early days or resettlement. Those who survived lost their land, lost their identity and were subjected to crushing restrictions.

Image Sources:

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.

Last updated September 2020

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