Russian Acquisition and Migration
This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.
Over the course of four centuries, Siberia became legendary as a land of involuntary exile and imprisonment. Waves of forced migration populated the territory east of the Urals, giving Siberia its unique history. Along with those compelled to move to Siberia, other groups, including missionaries, peasants, and religious nonconformists, found both opportunity and a new life on the furthest borders of the tsarist state.
In the first years after Yermak's conquest of the Khanate of Sibir' in the late sixteenth century, a growing number of promyshlenniki (frontiersmen) and Orthodox clerics began to crisscross the Russian hinterland as they traveled eastward in search of converts and fur pelts. Following the tributaries of the great Siberian rivers, they established forts and towns in their inexorable march to the Pacific Ocean.
In the wake of these pathfinders came an assortment of new arrivals, including many who sought to escape persecution in central Russia and to carve out a new existence for themselves far from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Religious zealots such as the Old Believers found refuge in the distant wilds of the frontier. After the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, many more migrants moved eastward, establishing agricultural and industrial communities along the new transportation corridor.
As a land of forbidding climate and terrain, however, Siberia was never a great magnet for free settlement. Incarceration and exile remained a major mode of populating the region and developing its economy. Aside from labor, forced migration also brought education and culture to parts of Siberia. Many of the Decembrists, who were exiled to the east after 1825, were erudite military officers. Poles who were sent to Siberia following the failed uprisings against Russian rule in the nineteenth century transported European culture and Roman Catholicism to cities such as Tomsk and Irkutsk.
In the Soviet era, Stalin created a vast network of labor camps where prisoners slaved to help carry out his ambitious campaign of industrialization. Known as the Gulag and stretching to every corner of Siberia and the Soviet Far East, this system included numerous prisoners from Eastern Europe and other foreign countries that helped to impart a multinational character to the communities of Siberia that persists to the present.
Within the tsarist autocracy, multiple layers of bureaucracy regulated life across Russia. In the twentieth century, the Soviet government reinvented and even enhanced methods of central control. In both cases, a cumbersome governmental edifice both served and threatened the populace. Levers of authority radiated out from the capital, whether Moscow or St. Petersburg, and reached far into the frontier. In Siberia, the governors-general and other regional officials implemented tsarist policy through a network of provincial and local administration. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet commissars revived similar patterns of governance under the guise of a new ideology.