Settling the frontier Siberia, that is

February 01, 1994|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,Chicago Tribune

Siberia was Russia's Wild West -- or, to be more geographically correct, its Wild East.

In "The Conquest of a Continent," historian W. Bruce Lincoln details Siberia's role in Russian history, one remarkably similar to that of the frontier in the development of the United States.

The American West and Russia's Far East both were just across a mountain barrier from their country's original area of settlement. Both hinterlands were immense, sparsely populated regions that tempted the adventurous and restless.

In the 19th century, the United States enticed settlers to its western territories via the Homestead Act. The Czars similarly offered Russian peasants the inducement of free land on the Siberian frontier.

"Fewer than two hundred thousand natives scattered in tiny settlements and nomadic stopping places across Siberia's five and a third million square miles were all that barred their advance," notes Dr. Lincoln, a professor at Northern Illinois University.

Both Siberia and the American West were first explored by "mountain men" fur traders. Indeed, Dr. Lincoln notes, the Siberian fur trade literally made Russia's fortune.

Until merchant-adventurers, such as the famed Stroganov family, began shipping back Siberian pelts, Russia was a poor nation on the fringe of European affairs. But in the 17th century, a fur hat was the mark of a European gentleman, and the Siberian sable -- an animal the ancient Greeks called the "golden fleece" -- gave Russia its first export commodity.

"This small animal that was scarcely larger than a house cat became the magnet that pulled the Russians across the entire Eurasian continent before 1650," Dr. Lincoln notes.

Life on Siberia's frontier was as raw and rough as in Dodge City or Tombstone.

"They were without the fear of God and without feelings of shame," reported one witness to the Siberian pioneers' lifestyle.

When they'd exhausted Siberia's animal stock, Russian fur traders hopped across the narrow straits separating Asia from North America. For a brief moment, the Russians tested the possibility of expanding south to the Hawaiian Islands, thinking them a fertile place from which to draw food stocks badly needed by Siberia's population.

Only when they'd finished exploiting Alaska's fur-trading possibilities did the Czars sell off their North American territories to the United States.

Siberia was also Russia's Australia, a remote colony to which criminals and troublemakers could be exiled. Virtually all the players-to-be in the Bolshevik Revolution served an exiled apprenticeship in Siberia. Lenin and his wife (and co-conspirator) were married in Siberia.

With brutal irony, once they came to power, the Bolsheviks used Siberia as a place to warehouse their opponents on a scale that dwarfed the earlier Czarist prisons.

Siberian exiles were the labor force with which the communists hoped to harness Siberia's vast natural resources. The strategy worked: Siberian factories provided the war materiel that enabled the Soviets to repulse the Nazis during World War II. But the cost was tremendous: tens of millions of lives and staggering pollution problems.

"The Conquest of a Continent" is a big, panoramic book, in keeping with the immensity of its subject.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Conquest of a Continent"

Author: W. Bruce Lincoln

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 500 pages, $30

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