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Sunday, October 22, 2017

A History of the Peoples of Siberia; Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990 (1992) by James Forsyth


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The path of settlement in the Russian Far East

Book Review
A History of the Peoples of Siberia;
 Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990 (1992)
 by James Forsyth
Cambridge University Press

  The Russian settlement of Siberia, still called the "conquest" of Siberia in places like, I don't know, Wikipedia, is on any top 10 list of poorly understood historical events.  It's obscured, first, by the lack of first hand accounts by the People's of Siberia, who were largely illiterate nomads (though not all of them). Second, by the fact that the Russian Empire was a pretty shitty place and it didn't produce many settlers who were interested in documenting their experience.  Third, by the Communists, who had a vested interest in obscuring the excesses of the Empire and their own failures to further their goal of discrediting the mistreatment of Native People's by the United States.  You could probably add a fourth level to the post-Communist regime in Russia, strident nationalists that they are, any criticism of the type contained in A History of the Peoples of Siberia by Scottish Professor James Forsyth, is likely to evoke disbelief and condemnation by modern Russians.

   So the Russian settlement of Siberia is a big blank space in historical consciousness, by Forsyth does much to redress this with his excellent history, one that focuses on the experience of the Native People's who were settled over.  Forsyth methodically works his way through the various regions and peoples.  You've got Western Siberia (main area of settlement), Eastern Siberia and the Russian North east. 

  Much of the initial push was driven by the desire of Western European markets for Russian furs.  The Czar sent Coassacks into Siberia, and they forced native tribes to pay a kind of protection fee (or tax, if you will) in fur, due and payable every year.  This dynamic of Russians collecting furs from the native is the dominant motif in Eastern Russian/Siberian history from the very beginning all the up until AFTER World War II, where the Russian Communist government finally began to exploit the ample mineral resources of the area.   A secondary motif is the often forced migration of Russian peasants into Siberia to "Russify" the area.   Forsyth, with his focus on the impact of Russian intrusion on the lives of Native Peoples, has little to say about  these Russian settler.
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The Russian Republic of Sakha
  If there is a discovery to be made among the Native Peoples of Siberia it's the Yakuts, a Turkic speaking people who control a vast area of territory shown above- today known as the Russian Republic of Sakha.  The Sakha Republic is the largest sub-national territory in the world- as big as the Indian subcontinent, and the Yakuts are the only ethnic group that both held their own and expanded their territory.  For centuries, the language of the Yakuts was the colonial language among the less organized nomadic tribes of the region.  Their isolation off the main path of Russian peasant settlement, along with their possession of a written language and a native ruling class and intelligentsia meant that they were able to stay on top of the Russians all the way up to and past the Russian revolution.  Unfortunately their heroic Russian revolution generation of leaders, like many others, were liquidated during Stalin's purges during the 1930's.   In this, the Yakuts did no better or worse than any of the other groups who suffered under Stalin.

  Ultimately, there are many direct comparisons to be made between the Russian settlement of the Far East and the American settlement of the West, at least in terms of their treatment of Native Peoples.  Both events are shocking to the modern conscience, and even without Forsyth often observing that a direct comparison exists, you can see the similarity of the cultures in the pictures of the Peoples that are part of the book.  If anyone tells you the Russians did a better job with their Native population, they are incorrect.

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