Siberiaki - History and Cultural Relations

Trade between Slavic populations of Novgorod and Siberian natives (Ugrians) began as early as the eleventh century, but it was not until around 1580, when the famous Cossack brigand Ermak conquered the Tatar Kuchum's khanate of Sibir, that Muscovite power made significant inroads into western Siberia. By 1700 Cossacks had reached Kamchatka. The push across Siberia by small bands of determined Cossacks using native guides, taking native hostages, and playing native groups off against each other was remarkable for its speed. Bloodshed and brutality were mixed with political negotiation. After fort settlements were established, colonists with various goals and backgrounds built lucrative waterside villages. They were enticed by northern ivory, tales of fish so plentiful that they leaped into boats, and, most important, regions so rich in furs ("soft gold") that natives put ermine on ski bottoms. Some colonists were administrators authorized to take fur tribute (Russian: iasak ) from local hunters and to search further northeast for groups not yet under tribute. Others were missionaries or members of persecuted religious groups. Some came as government serfs, others as escaped serfs, viewing Siberia as a land of freedom in which to carve out new lives far from rigid Muscovite social hierarchies. To lure Slavic settlers, the government offered tax and transport incentives to build new villages. Siberiaki focused their colonies in relatively southern areas where they found agricultural land. Relations with natives were both exploitive and symbiotic. Some settlers learned to respect the subsistence skills of their native trading partners, whereas others stole the best fishing sites. Official alarm at the demise of native Siberians resulted in the Reforms of 1822, aimed at regulating and limiting settler-native contacts. But the Siberiaki had settled into patterns of relations with natives and officials that were difficult to break.

Industrialization of southern Siberia and development of the Trans-Siberian railroad meant a further influx of Slavic peoples. Released prisoners and exiles added to these numbers, with a few marrying Siberiaki and some establishing new villages. Many went to the towns, where, by the twentieth century, an intelligentsia had established a Siberian regional movement led by political activists and journalists such as N. M. Iadrintsev.

The October Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent 1918-1921 civil war had a great impact on all Siberian peoples, particularly because much of the Russian civil war between Red (Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky) and White (anti-Socialists under Kolchak) forces was fought in Siberia. Siberiak and native villages alike were caught in the crossfire, and sometimes burned to the ground as territory repeatedly changed hands. After the Bolshevik victory, recovery during the New Economic Policy was brief, for a collectivization campaign engulfed Siberia by the late 1920s. Siberiaki accused of being rich were threatened with jail or exile if they did not join the new collectives. Those who had isolated themselves, whether for personal, political, or religious reasons, found they could not escape Soviet collective farms in the same way they had escaped czarist administrators. In addition new, involuntary settlers arrived in the form of exiles and prisoners during the Stalinist era. Released prisoners were often forced to remain in Siberia, but they constituted a separate group, rarely integrating well with Siberiak and native populations. During World War II, requisitions of men, grain, and goods meant further hardship for villagers, whose female and elderly populations struggled to farm, hunt, and fish for survival. Newcomers poured into Siberia to escape the ravages of the war.

Postwar history has been marked by a decline of villages and the buildup of selected collectives into large state-owned enterprises that employ villagers as salaried workers. Siberiaki have lost some of the uniqueness that gave them a Siberian pride and a special relationship with Siberian natives.

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