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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Siberian Cities

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

Most Siberian cities got their start as fortified military camps located at strategically important points and gradually evolved into permanent military-administrative centers. Such origins gave Siberian towns the look of the military, with their fortified walls and watch towers.

Slowly these fortresses grew into towns as they attracted traders, craftsmen, Russified natives, exiles, and itinerant laborers. Those towns on the roadways from Asia to Europe benefitted from transit trade. Towns such as Irkutsk and Chita especially profited from trade with China and Central Asia.

In the nineteenth century the Trans-Siberian Railroad had enormous significance for the growth of Siberian cities, as it linked Siberia with the markets and manufacturing centers of European Russia and also provided a conduit for massive migration into Siberia. Then in the twentieth century, Stalinist industrialization and the relocation of industry and population beyond the Urals during World War II fueled a massive growth in Siberian cities. Although Siberian urbanization lagged behind that of the American West, its rate of growth in the twentieth century has been spectacular--three of the largest contemporary cities east of the Urals were founded in 1929 (Magnitogorsk), 1932 (Komsomol'sk-na-Amure), and 1948 (Angarsk). Today, the third largest Russian city (Novosibirsk with a 1998 population of 1,399,000) and three other of the top ten largest Russian cities (Ekaterinburg, Omsk, Cheliabinsk) are in Siberia.

The Eleven Largest Cities of Siberia, 1897

  1. Barnaul (pop. 21,073).
    In 1739 the Demidov family founded a silver-refining works here; Barnaul was officially reclassified as a town in 1771. Barnaul was the center of the Altai mining region and, by the second half of the nineteenth century, a major trade center.
  2. Biisk (pop. 17,213).
    Originally a fortress, founded in 1709, Biisk was reclassified as a town in 1782. Biisk began to develop rapidly in the 1870s; with the Russian colonization of the Altai region and increased Russian activity in Mongolia, Biisk became an important center for trade with Mongolia.
  3. Blagoveshchensk (pop. 32,834).
    Founded in 1856 as a supply post to provision troops along the Amur, Blagoveshchensk was reclassified as a town in 1858. Its population grew very quickly in the last half of the nineteenth century due to the city's strategic and commercial importance on the Amur River.
  4. Irkutsk (pop. 51,473).
    Irkutsk was founded in 1652 as a wintering camp for fur tribute collectors. In 1661 a fort was built on the right bank of the Angara, where contemporary Irkutsk is located. Irkutsk rapidly became the main center of Cisbaikalia and the Russian trade route to China and Mongolia. In 1822 it was made the seat of the government of Eastern Siberia.
  5. Khabarovsk (pop. 14,970).
    Khabarovsk was founded as a military post in 1858. Located at the junction of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers, Khabarovsk developed quickly, becoming the administrative center of the Amur region in the 1880s.
  6. Krasnoiarsk (pop. 26,699).
    Founded as the fort of Krasnyi Iar in 1628 on the left bank of the Yenisei River, Krasnoiarsk became the main town of central Siberia after the Great Siberian Post Road reached it in 1735. In the nineteenth century the development of the gold industry in the region, and later the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, further stimulated its growth.
  7. Omsk (pop. 37,376).
    Omsk was founded in 1716 as a key stronghold of the fortified line between the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers. It developed into an important regional agricultural and administrative center. With the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, Omsk became a transshipment point for European goods and the city experienced rapid commercial growth.
  8. Tiumen' (pop. 29,621).
    The oldest Russian town in Siberia, Tiumen', was founded in 1586 on the site of the Tatar town Chingi-tura. Tiumen' became a major transit point for troops, trade, and migrants entering Siberia and an important factory center, noted for its leather industry, which began in the early seventeenth century.
  9. Tobol'sk (pop. 22,752).
    Tobol'sk was founded by the Cossack Danila Chulkov in 1587 on the site of a Tatar town. Tobol'sk is considered the father of Siberian cities. Thanks to its position on the Great Siberian Post Road, Tobol'sk became the main administrative point for all of Siberia; up to 1824 it was the seat of government for Western Siberia.
  10. Tomsk (pop. 52,210).
    Tomsk was founded as a fort in 1604 on the River Tom, on Tatar land, to protect the river crossing. It became important as a military center for pacifying the native people and evolved into a regional administrative center. Beginning in the late 1830s, its population grew quickly thanks to the intensifying gold-mining activity in the region.
  11. Vladivostok (pop. 28,933).
    Vladivostok was founded in 1860 as a military outpost. Located at the extreme south of the Russian Far East, with easy access to the Sea of Japan, Vladivostok was destined to become a vital port and naval base. The main Russian naval base was transferred there in 1872, spurring rapid growth. The construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway across Manchuria gave Vladivostok a more direct rail connection to the center of Siberia and further points west, stimulating further growth and cementing Vladivostok's position as the Russian metropolis of the Far East. By 1914 its population reached nearly 120,000; home to various international commercial enterprises, including German, Dutch, American, and Japanese, Vladivostok was a bustling cosmopolitan center.

Western Siberia. Prokudin-Gorskii Album

Views in the Ural Mountains and Western Siberia, survey of waterways, Russian Empire. LC Prokudin-Gorskii Photograph Collection

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1893-1944) was one of the first Russians to experiment with color photography. Traveling in a specially equipped railroad car-darkroom provided by Nicholas II, he made color photographs of Russian art works and architecture, industry, agriculture, topography, and daily life. Prokudin-Gorskii apparently completed surveys in seven regions--White Russia, the Ural Mountains, the Marinsky Canal system, the Volga River basin, the Caucasus, Turkestan, and the area traversed by the Murman railroad. At the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, the photographer escaped to Paris with glass plate negatives dating chiefly from the period 1909 to 1911. The Library purchased the material from Prokudin-Gorskii's sons in 1948. Each of the nineteen hundred negatives in the collection consists of three separate images exposed in rapid succession through different color separation filters. More than twenty-seven hundred contact prints prepared from the "red" separation images are mounted in albums. The photoprints are described in the catalog of the Prints and Photographs Division and most are keyed to the original negatives. English translations of the Russian captions are affixed to each album. Prokudin-Gorskii discussed his color experiments in Fotograf-Liubitel' (1906), a Russian photography journal that he edited.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii's 1912 trip began on the Chusovaia River on the eastern slope of the Ural Mountains and continued east to the Tobol' River and the city of Tobol'sk. His photo album documents the villages, mining sites, rock formations, and factories that characterize this part of the Eastern Urals and Western Siberia.

Voyage of the Clipper Ship Razboinik

Following in a long tradition of both naval and commercial vessels, the Russian clipper ship Razboinik conducted a round-the-world voyage between 1886 and 1890. In the process, its crew made observations and photographs of many stops along the way that included views of native life as well as local historic sites and geographical highlights.

In the summer of 1889, the Razboinik sailed in the North Pacific waters off Kamchatka and Chukotka. The ship called at the port of Petropavlovsk and the Commander Islands, both of which invoked the memory of the great naval captain of the eighteenth century, Vitus Bering. In its short stay along this northern coast, the Razboinik carried supplies for the new Anadyr' Regional Administration that had been named a year earlier as the governmental center for the northeastern tip of Russia. The crew also helped with the construction of a new village, Novo-Mariinsk (the present day city of Anadyr'), at the mouth of the Anadyr' River.