The Wild East
March 10, 2006 9:39 AM   Subscribe

What was life like in Siberia circa the mid-1820s? Specifically, what was life like for Decemberists who were exiled there? I have heard that it was like the Wild West, only much colder. Are there any good books on this? I've found a couple of websites referenced, but, well, I don't speak Russian. Academic history papers are also appreciated. Any good authors, novels, histories, authorities would be a help. (As a corrolary— was there a concerted exploration and surveying movement in that area at the same time? What would it have been like to be on the frontier? How would it have been different from the American frontier of a similar time [which would have been around Ohio and Michigan]?)
posted by klangklangston to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Bruce Lincoln's Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and the Russians. Russian history was my secondary area in grad school and I studied under Lincoln. He did a lot of work on the Decembrist movement. The bibliography is a good place to start.

As for your specific questions, I know little of the specifics, as I was more interested in 19th Century Russian Intellectual History. I can recommend tons of books on that.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:40 AM on March 10, 2006

Also, the frontier was farther advanced in 1820 in the U.S. Remember, Illinois became a state in 1818.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:47 AM on March 10, 2006

In regards to Siberia in that time period, I wouldn't attempt to make too many American West comparisons. Siberia was really a cold, nasty place to live.

A good book on Siberia, and its native inhabitants (I.E. not the Russians soon to extend their empire over them), is Artic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North, by Yuri Slezkine.

It details how the Russian Empire and later, the Soviet Union, extended and established its control over the region. This should answer most of your questions, such as government policies, surveying, etc. It is an academic book, so at times you might encounter some more sophisticated writing than a general popular history.
posted by Atreides at 10:52 AM on March 10, 2006

Response by poster: (Ironmouth— As a side note, Illinois was still considered 'the frontier' when Lincoln was elected, despite being a state already.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:16 AM on March 10, 2006

Response by poster: But thanks! Now I need to go to the library and start reading!
posted by klangklangston at 11:17 AM on March 10, 2006

It's later, the turn of the 20th century, but I thought Dersu Uzala was stupendous as a movie. It's Kurosawa's take on the Siberian frontier. Not about the Decembrists.
posted by OmieWise at 11:18 AM on March 10, 2006

You might enjoy Tent life in Siberia by George Keenan - it's amusingly written. Keenan was a 19th-century American traveler in Siberia, and I believe he was actually there on a surveying expedition. My memory is hazy, but he may have been largely in Kamchatka (though naturally he would have had to go through more southern areas to get there).

Ledyard, another American, travelled through Siberia in the 18-century in an attempt to locate the northwest passage, I believe (?). His book isn't very good, actually - he wasn't a good observer, for example, after already having been in Russia two years, he learned a very few words of Russian in the mistaken belief he was learning Yakut - but he's a fascinating figure. He sailed with Cook during Cook's first visits to New Zealand and Hawaii, and died (from a stroke induced by a fit of anger at delays) at the beginning of an expedition to find the source of the Nile, which he believed was near the source of the Congo. Apparently he was not afraid of hardship - he walked all the way around the Gulf of Finland to St Petersburg at the beginning of his Siberian journey, in the middle of winter!

Another good book, if you are interested in geographical detail, is Asiatic Russia, by George Frederick. It's certainly out of date (first published around the turn of the 20th century), but comprehensive.

I found Forsyth's A History of the Peoples of Siberia : Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990 useful (it's on the same topic as Streides's recommendation), but it's a little dry.

None of the above works really addresses your question, though. I would be interested to find the work that does! Maybe I should try the Lincoln.... and yes! my library has it.

I lived in the Chita region for a couple of years, and the Decemberists are well-remembered there. The library and the pedagogical university there were founded by them. Culturally, it was quite bare at the time.

On preview: OmnieWise is right. That's a great movie.
posted by pamccf at 11:26 AM on March 10, 2006

Since no one's mentioned it already, the book The Princess of Siberia: The Story of Maria Volkonsky and the Decembrist Exiles seems directly on point for your question. From one of the three five-star reviews: "A fascinating account of the aftermath of the Decembrist uprising in 1825 and the major role taken by Mariya Volkonskaya in creating a livable environment for the families of the exiled rebels."
posted by mdevore at 12:00 PM on March 10, 2006

Good recommendations, pamccf, but that's Kennan, not Keenan. (Incidentally, he was related to the diplomat, but not closely.) Another of his books sounds like precisely what klangklangston wants: Siberia and the Exile System. (I'm surprised it's not online for free, since it was published in 1891, but you should be able to get it from a library if you don't want to shell out $37.50 for the paperback.)
posted by languagehat at 2:51 PM on March 10, 2006

For online resources, you can't beat the Library of Congress' Meeting of the Frontiers, which has tons of books, photographs, pamphlets, etc., about Siberia, Alaska, Russian-American relations, and so on, in both English and Russian.

Highlights include the papers of George Kennan (mentioned above)-- including President Roosevelt's copy of Tent Life in Siberia (yes, the whole thing, in image format)-- and some of the color photographs of Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii. But seriously, the whole site is absolutely amazing.
posted by posadnitsa at 7:24 PM on March 10, 2006

Also, the frontier was farther advanced in 1820 in the U.S.

not in michigan ... most of the towns in s w michigan weren't established until the 1830's or even 40's

alaska and the far northern stretches of canada would be a better comparison anyway
posted by pyramid termite at 7:10 AM on March 11, 2006

« Older BrooklynFilter   |   Baby music Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.