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Siberia: Colony and Frontier
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The margins of imperial Russia are no longer uncharted territory. Especially over the last two decades or so, a host of analytical tools and concepts from “frontiers,” “peripheries,” and “borderlands” to “(internal) colonies,” “Russification,” and “empire” itself have been applied to understand the exploration, conquest, and integration of regions from the steppe and Central Asia to Poland and Ukraine to the Volga–Kama region.

Siberia has not been neglected in this inquiry. Historians have examined the native peoples who first inhabited it and the ethnographers who in turn investigated them; scrutinized the geographers who mapped it; enumerated attempts to exploit its animal and mineral resources; catalogued the exiles sent there; and psychoanalyzed the intellectuals who wrote about them. Yet Siberia remains elusive. The reasons for this were spelled out with admirable clarity by Mark Bassin over 20 years ago: its status as a symbol and space has always been ambiguous. Into the 19th century, Bassin contended, Siberia was understood as both a “colony” and a “frontier.” As a colony, it appeared to be separated from the Russian heartland by the Ural Mountains, figuring in the Russian imagination as a “desolate desert of snow and ice.” It was at once empty and “foreign,” “Asiatic” both in its geographical location and in the ethnic composition of its inhabitants. Tungus, Yakuts, Eskimos, and other ethnic groups were most likely to feature in writings that stressed Siberia’s colonial status. As a frontier, by contrast, Siberia appears contiguous with the Russian heartland, facilitating centuries of contact across the Urals. Siberian territory was “a continuation or extension of the zone of Russian culture and society.” Frontier accounts tended to stress the presence of Russians, both pioneers and exiles. Such accounts also stressed Siberia’s untapped natural wealth and potential for “rapid progressive development” in a political sense.1 Frontiers have a nasty habit of becoming colonies, but in the Siberian case, as Bassin showed, it was the colony that became a frontier.

Directly or indirectly, those writing afterwards had to deal with this ambiguity. Bruce Lincoln’s Conquest of a Continent (1994) represented Siberia as a picture-perfect frontier along the lines Bassin had indicated, but Yuri Slezkine’s Arctic Mirrors (1994) muddied the waters. This was a remote territory in which indigenous peoples were uniquely visible; it was also a colony, but one with centuries of contact with Russians.2 A year later, Anatolii Remnev once again emphasized the distinction between Siberia’s “hypostasies”: one of “separation” (otdel′nost′) and the other of “integrality” (integralnost′). Only here, it was Siberia’s separateness that led to “romantic” promises of wealth and freedom; its contiguity, by contrast, frightened Russians, both on account of the fact that it was unknown, and because it was a land of “penal servitude and exile.”3

As can be seen in the contributions to the present issue of Kritika, this ambiguity persists. In “The Exile, the Patron, and the Pardon,” Daniel Beer introduces us to Siberia as an “economic” and “penal” colony. The region begins, in his account, as a known quantity, already depleted of its most lucrative natural resource—furs—and littered by the metropole with human detritus in the form of exiles. At the same time, vast parts of it remained uncharted; Beer shows us how a new maritime route was opened from the Enisei River through the Kara and Barents seas, creating new opportunities for the exploitation of Siberia’s natural resources by Russian entrepreneurs. Along the way, one Siberian exile would unexpectedly be transformed into a resource in his own right, becoming a national hero for having helped the Dawn navigate icy waters.

In “Those Elusive Scouts,” Lewis Siegelbaum notes that from the perspective of the state, Russian peasant migration to Siberia was a form of colonization. These “pioneering peasants” were, Siegelbaum warns us, no Daniel Boones and Davy Crocketts, confronting native peoples on unmapped terrain. Even so, the Siberia he portrays conforms neatly with the image of the frontier as Bassin described it: a territory believed to contain untold rewards for those brave enough to venture across the Urals. Scouts were purveyors of hope, “middlemen in the flow of information about new possibilities,” a position they...

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