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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Meeting of Peoples: Russia

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

As in the American West, the native population of Siberia became swamped by Russian immigrants, but did not entirely vanish. The native peoples of Siberia spoke a great variety of languages and ranged from pastoralists like the Tatars and Buryats of southern Siberia to the Chukchi of the far northeast, who hunted sea mammals and herded reindeer.

Etnograficheskaia karta Aziiatskoi Rossii, M. Veniuko. LC Map Collections. This late nineteenth-century map seemingly depicts a balance of ethnic groups in "Asian Russia," but the population figures in the upper lefthand corner reveal the predominance of the 5,265,000 Russians.

As in the American West, many tribes faced severe demographic challenges because of Russian colonization. The Nanai of the Far East suffered great population losses after their hunting grounds were depleted, their fishing grounds taken away, and their communities exposed to epidemic diseases such as smallpox. After assimilation, intermarriage, forced resettlement, and the destruction of their traditional means of livelihood, only some twelve thousand Nanai of mixed origins now exist, many of whom consider Russian their native language.

Besides the migration of peoples such as Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews from European Russia to Siberia, thousands of East Asians moved to Eastern Siberia, looking for economic opportunity. Chinese came to the Amur and Ussuri regions to hunt for ginseng and furs, farm, mine, and become merchants and dock workers in towns such as Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. Koreans also cultivated land in the Russian Far East and sold vegetables to the hungry settlers in the new towns; some were miners or worked building railroad lines. Japanese migrated mostly to the towns of Siberia, where they worked as merchants and tradesmen, such as barbers, photographers, and domestic servants. They also fished the coastal waters of the Okhotsk and Bering Seas.

East Asians were particularly prominent in Vladivostok, in 1902 comprising nearly 40 percent of the population. As in America, racial discrimination could run high against Asians and occasionally produced mass violence, such as the 1900 Blagoveshchensk massacre of some five thousand Chinese.