Russians got Siberia. How?
November 28, 2009 8:11 PM   Subscribe

How did the Russians get Siberia?

I don't understand why this area was not occupied and claimed by the Chinese, Koreans, and / or Japanese long before the Russians colonized it.

Was it because before the railroad and the rifle Siberia was securely held by the natives? Or did the Asians not appreciate the potential value of the territory? Or some other reason?
posted by Meatbomb to Law & Government (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I imagine it was held by the Mongols when China was powerful. Asia was mostly navel gazing and irrelevant when Russia took it. Wikipedia says the Russians conquered it by taking and fortifying the less inhabitable northern part first, and did so for furs.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:23 PM on November 28, 2009

By force of arms: Russian Conquest of Siberia

Following the khan's death and the dissolution of any organised Siberian resistance, the Russians advanced first towards Lake Baikal and then the Sea of Okhotsk and the Amur River. However, when they first reached the Chinese borders they encountered people that were equipped with artillery pieces and here they halted.

The Russians reached the Pacific Ocean in 1639.[1] After the conquest of the Siberian Khanate the whole of northern Asia - an area much larger than the old khanate - became known as Siberia and by 1640 the eastern borders of Russia had expanded more than several million square kilometres. Many modern Russian cities in West Siberia were founded during the Siberia Khanate period, including Tyumen and Tobolsk. In a sense, the khanate lived on in the subsidiary title "Tsar of Siberia" which became part of the full imperial style of the Russian Autocrats.

posted by Comrade_robot at 8:24 PM on November 28, 2009

I'd expect the furs are an extremely important point, Siberia was extremely expensive to colonize, but the furs made it economical, and Russia had ports that were well located for exporting furs.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:27 PM on November 28, 2009

Somewhere, maybe in a Peter Hopkirk book, the average # of square miles Russia added every day for between 1600 and 1900. It is a huge #. Also a corresponding quote about "once the Czar acquires lands, he does not ever give them up."
posted by charlesv at 8:42 PM on November 28, 2009

That should start "I read"...
posted by charlesv at 8:47 PM on November 28, 2009

Best answer: A lot of the terminology used is misleading. The name "Siberia" implies a single land, but the reality is that this was (and remains) largely rugged and inaccessible territory and territory occupied by zillions of little groups of people. Many of these peoples simply didn't organize along the sort of nation state lines that characterize Western thinking, so it may seem like Siberia was just sitting there, ripe for the picking . . . but the reality was that the southern parts, at least went back and forth through various dominions, and the north was left pretty much alone. Much of the territory wasn't probably considered worth "occupying" until relatively recent history - even in the past century, much of Siberia's wealth was obtainable only through what amounted to slave labor and gulags. The southern part of Siberia was controlled by the Mongols for a long time. How the Russians got in their was to venture westward in the less hospitable north and then sort of move into the south when circumstances allowed - pretty much what jeffburdges wrote.

Your question about the time "before the railroad and the rifle" steers answers wrong a bit, for the simple reason that, in the north at least, there weren't people vying for the land, until recent history - and so there wasn't anything of universal value for the natives to securely hold. Many of the people who live there are still fairly disconnected from the rest of the world and even follow ancient animistic beliefs (for instance) - you can pick up "The Reindeer People: Living With Animals and Spirits in Siberia" by Piers Vitebsky for a penny, used. It's pretty interesting stuff. Additionally, I have a few linguistically-oriented Hungarian friends who visited the Khants, in far western Siberia. They speak a language that more closely related to Hungarian than any other on Earth, except possibly for their neighbors, the Mansi. Their reaction to the rough comforts of this (relatively hospitable) part of Siberia? "Never again!"

The Russians more or less got in their at the right time, under the right circumstances, not thinking of the plentiful gold and other minerals, oil and all that. Just a burgeoning European desire for furs.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:09 PM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Siberia proper is north of the nomadic zone, which is where the Manchu interests ended. (The Manchu ruled China at the time.) Japan and Korea were not doing anything outside their borders.

The Manchu did extend their control westward, but never as far as what became Russian Turkestan.
posted by zompist at 11:09 PM on November 28, 2009

Best answer: Also take into account that like many empires, Imperial Russian control was fairly lax over most of its marginal territory. The local tribal bands got on with their own thing much as they had before except in the immediate vicinity of railways and towns. Imperial Russia was sovereign over the territory in that it could exclude the interests of other state powers, not in that it exercised day-to-day control over most of the Northern Siberian territory.
posted by atrazine at 11:25 PM on November 28, 2009

Best answer: Pretty important to the conquering of Siberia was the Stroganov family - their history is inextricably tied to imperial Russia's forays there. Any book that talks about them will give you some insight into this process.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:37 AM on November 29, 2009

Many of these peoples simply didn't organize along the sort of nation state lines that characterize Western thinking

Nitpick: Nation state lines are a fairly modern notion in the West, too, and there are still holdouts (the Lapps, for example).
posted by rodgerd at 12:59 AM on November 29, 2009

Best answer: Consider that huge area of Alaska was sold in 1800s for a relatively small sum to reluctant US government. That's the general opinion of worth of northern lands that people had.

I've read that Russian authorities never told anyone to conquer Siberia, there were just roving bands of Cossacks, very small, a few dozen men each, who fought strictly for their own profit and at their own risk. Siberian Khanate had much larger armies but poorly armed and not well organized. And cossacks were pretty tough!
posted by rainy at 1:01 AM on November 29, 2009

Best answer: There was an awesome 2 part article in the New Yorker a couple months back about Siberia that discussed some of the history. I believe the writer, Ian Frazier, is working on a book about it. When I say it was awesome, I mean, OMG AWESOME.
posted by sully75 at 5:06 AM on November 29, 2009

Best answer: As to why the Chinese and/or Koreans didn't exert more influence... we're talking about Siberia. There's one whole hell of a lot of nothing out there, and until the discovery of oil deposits, that was about the end of it. Manchuria is a far, far nicer place to be, if you've got the option, so the Chinese never really expressed much interest in the land to their north. The Koreans would have had to go Chinese territory to get there, so that was a non-starter. No other sovereign power had even remotely direct access to the region, so it was kind of Russia's by default, once a Russian monarch expressed any interest. The region has never really seen a civilization organized even to the standards of ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt. Nomadic hunters is about all you've got, and if I remember correctly, it wasn't until the twentieth century that permanent settlements of any size worth talking about were common at all.

So yeah, conquest, but it wasn't as if there was all that much competition from organized sovereign powers. As far as I can tell, Russia is still more than welcome to it. I don't think China would take it if it were offered.
posted by valkyryn at 6:27 AM on November 29, 2009

Best answer: A good parallel is North America. How did the United States and Canada wind up with almost all of it? By steamrolling indigenous peoples. In the case of the US and Canada, the natives were largely killed off by disease, which the Siberian peoples would have already been exposed to, but their level of organization and ability to mount a defense would have been comparable.

The reason no empire had taken Siberia before was that there was very little of value there, as far as anyone knew, and no way to get what was there. Without agriculture, almost no population. With no population, no one to tax or dragoon into doing things. Siberia might as well have been Antarctica or the Moon: nothing and no one there, and no way to get anything out of it if you found something.
posted by musofire at 10:23 AM on November 29, 2009

Best answer: Oh, another point: the rivers in Siberia flow North into the Arctic Sea. Since, prior to rail, almost all trade (by weight) moved by sea, that really put a damper on civilized people moving in.
posted by musofire at 10:26 AM on November 29, 2009

Somewhere, maybe in a Peter Hopkirk book, the average # of square miles Russia added every day for between 1600 and 1900. It is a huge #. Also a corresponding quote about "once the Czar acquires lands, he does not ever give them up."

The Great Game
posted by Pollomacho at 12:03 PM on November 29, 2009

Best answer: Or some other reason?

It was too fucking cold. And too fucking remote.

Seriously. You know how most of Canada's population lives within 100 miles of the U.S. Border? And how Canada has these vast Arctic territories occupied by a few thousand people?

It's the same principle. Most of the Russian inhabitants of Siberia live in a belt hugging the extreme southern edge of the territory. And if that's as far north as they cared to go, I can't imagine the Japanese or Chinese Empires taking much of an interest in the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990 (Google Books)
posted by jason's_planet at 1:54 PM on November 29, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks all. I suppose this was mostly review and recap of what I already knew and seems obvious now that I reread the question and answers.

The only thing I'd quibble with is "As far as I can tell, Russia is still more than welcome to it. I don't think China would take it if it were offered." Given the current world situation of coming resource scarcity and China's growing hunger for everything, I doubt that statement very much.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:49 AM on November 30, 2009

Seeing as how the Russians and Chinese were shooting it out as recently as 1969 over their borderlands and they finally (mostly) worked out the lines in 1991, I'd say there's quite a bit to quibble with!
posted by Pollomacho at 4:38 AM on November 30, 2009

A Sino-Russian war over Siberia and its vast mineral deposits is pretty much inevitable in the next 100 years. I would not bet against US/Japanese/NATO involvement in that conflict.
posted by charlesv at 1:43 PM on January 5, 2010

(Questionable list of the aforementioned deposits.)
posted by charlesv at 1:44 PM on January 5, 2010

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