Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Country of the week: Siberia

Series returns. After this post I will no longer call this series the country of the week, as I was never really posting every week. That had been my intent, but is hardly practical for my lifestyle.
During the past few months, with the election and then being severely busy during the holiday season I didn’t spend any extra time doing any reading up on countries or anything else.

I have recently picked up a book on Siberia. Specifically it is called “In Siberia” by Colin Thubron. Colin makes a living traveling the world and writing about his travels. Specifically he describes the places he goes, the people he meets, and conversations he has with those people. It’s a great book and is a deeper look into this remote region of the world, at least from one man’s point of view.
And yes, I'm aware the Siberia is not a country, but a region of present day Russia. The area is so geographically distinct from European Russia that I wanted to treat it as such just for this post.

One thing about the book that I felt was missing was the several year gap since it was written. Colin appears to have taken this journey just after the Soviet Union dissolved. So things could be dramatically different over there after 5-10 years.

First the geography.
Siberia is thought to originate from the word Sibir, ancient Mongolian for “the calm land.”

Siberia, if it were it’s own country, would still be the largest country in the world. It’s 9.6 million square km and 32 million people is comparable to Canada. It occupies 9 time zones, spanning almost 1/3 of the circumference of the earth at that latitude.

Siberia may be divided into either it’s four distinct zones of vegetation (tundra, taiga forests, mixed forest belt and steppe) or geomorphologic areas (west Siberian lowland, Central plateaus, southern mountains and northeast mountain systems). It’s main drainages, the Ob, Yenisei and the Lena, all drain from south to north and all empty into the Artic Ocean. Except for small aircraft the rivers are the primary north/south transportation system. The primary east/west system is the Trans-Siberian railway.

About 60% of the population of Siberia is contained in the Southwest lowlands. This area contains much of the industrial complexes of the region as well as agriculture. The largest city in Siberia is here, Novosibirsk, and is generally thought of as the capital of Siberia.

Then the history.
Siberia has been populated by nomadic peoples for thousands of years. Some say that it extends back more than 30,000 years. The native peoples west of the River Yenisei are thought to originate from eastern Europe and the peoples east of the Yenisei from Mongol and Turkic peoples.

The Mongols invaded in the 13th century and the region became a Khanate, operated autonomously for centuries until the growing power of Russia started to move slowly across the land. By the mid 17th century Russia controlled territory all the way to the Pacific.

One thing to note here is that although these powers invaded and conquered, they didn’t actively subjugate the peoples all the time. Siberia is a harsh environment, and most of the activity of ruling powers operated in the southern parts near Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan.

Russia’s domination of the region is a history of conquest. Except for some disputes with China, Russia has ruled over this area for the last 400 years. They created ports on the Pacific: Vladivostok, Kamchatka, Sakhalin, and used those ports to continue on to Alaska, which was just an extension of Siberia until the US bought it in the 19th century.

During the 19th century, and then the 20th century the czars and the communists used Siberia as a place for exiling those that they didn’t want interfering in the politics of the day. Criminals and Political prisoners were sent here. Some to colonize and work the mines. Some, like the Jews, to get out of the mainstream of Russian life in the west. Eventually exile meant the Gulag, sending prisoners to places barely livable by human beings. Read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago for a detailed explanation of what that was like under communism during Stalin’s time.

Siberia is still recovering from the fall of Communism. Things are hard there as people had to stop relying on Moscow for needs and realize grabbing the reigns of capitalism and re-creating the economy. Many people moved elsewhere or are living in poverty because of the adjustment.

But generally things are looking up. Here is a great series done by Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post after he took a month long journey through Siberia in 2001. He describes optimistic prospects, as well as outdated infrastructure and corruption that still inhabit all of Russia.

Here’s a great page on DNA and tracking the migration of the various native populations of Siberia over history (Smithsonian). The page itself doesn’t have concrete conclusions, but there is a great intro to some of the major ethnic groups and where they might have originated.

There’s been a lot of talk about a pipeline transporting oil from Taichet, in Siberia, to the Pacific ocean for export to the US and Japan. It’s unknown when the construction will take place, or how it will affect oil markets. It will be built by the state oil monopoly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

kool blog is this still up?