North, Siberia, and the Steppe

Dealing with the Past in Russia’s North, Siberia, and the Steppe [Frederick Corney]

Unlike the Baltic States, with their recent periods of national independence during the interwar years, the ethnic groups in Russia’s subarctic north, those disparate groups that until quite recently had roamed the Russian steppe, and the groups that had experienced longer periods of settlement on the edges of Western Siberia had, for the most part, little of the impetus to ‘reclaim’ any perceived past national coherence and independence. Many of these areas were now considered by the Russian and Soviet authorities, and to a large extent by the ethnes themselves, to be Russian, in ways that the Baltic or Central Asian regions were not. They often became the subject of post-Soviet mythmaking, and in the post-1991 period similar mythopoetic forces of nationalism seen during the 19th century could be seen again, as the new Russian state, now shorn of its former satellites, arrogated to itself traits or moments from the pasts of these disparate groupings. The Mongols, Bashkirs, Nogai, or Kalmyks had been of use in various ways – both negatively and positively – to both tsarist and soviet regimes striving to produce a useful genealogy to undergird new ideologies. The mythic figure of Sten’ka Razin, for example, a Cossackwho raided tsarist lines in the mid-17th century, generated multiple cultural incarnations of the actual historical man. Most notably, he became the subject of a symphonic poem by the composer Alexander Glazunov in 1885, which in turn became the basis of a famous folksong called Sten’ka’s Dream. The poem, in which Sten’ka throws his love interest, a captured Persian princess, into the Volga river (picaresquely captured in Vladimir Romashkov’s 1908 movie, Stenka Razin) so that he can lead his Cossacks into a lost battle against the Russians, provides a range of heroic ‘moments’ or sites of memory useful to a post-Soviet group or nation searching for its own useable past. Or Emel’ian Pugachev, aCossack of the Don Host, who, a century after Razin, revolted against the Russian colonizers, and yet came to symbolize a rugged individualism and free will that was later coopted by tsarist and Soviet authorities as an essentially Russian characteristic. These symbolic figures are products of a process of cooptation by tsarist and later Soviet authorities of course in the service of a useable past, and the power to produce the past is at play here. The power play is unequal, however, and it is hard to imagine the scattered, indigenous tribal groups of the North or the Steppe, including the KoriakChukchi,EvenkEven, or Nenets, asserting themselves in post-independence Russia. Indeed, more powerful and cohesive groups than they had been subject to physical deportationwhen perceived as a threat at various times in the modern era.

Ethnic and Linguistic Composition [Liz Owerbach]

Siberia, the “Russian North” extending from the Ural Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, is believed to have been inhabited as early as 300,000 years ago by nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies (“Siberia”). These diverse, pre-conquest peoples can be linguistically delineated into Uralic (Finno-Ugric and Samoedic) and Altaic (Turkic and Tungusic) families. Samoed is a linguistic cousin of Finno-Ugric, believed to have split from it during the 4th century B.C. Siberia is also home to smaller groups of “Paleoasiatic” speakers, non-genitive indigenous languages (Slezkine, 2-3).

Though Russian fur traders crossed the Urals and interacted with the Siberian people as early as the 13th century, the first major intersection between Siberia and the outside world occurred with Mongols invasion of 1237 (“Siberia”). The Mongols established the Siberian Khanate, which reached North of present-day Kazakhstan to the Arctic Ocean (Olson, 2-3). The Mongol invasion upset the status quo of the forest and swamp-dwelling Ugrians and Samoeds who lived in the area, beginning the unalterable process of cultural assimilation (Findley, 117).

At the dawn of the Russian conquest of Siberia, the Samoed-speaking populations of the Nenets, Enets, and Nganasan remained dispersed throughout the Arctic North. The Sel’kup (also Samoed speakers) inhabited the Tym and Taz, and the Kamasin, Mator, and Koibal lived in Southern Siberia. The largest ethnic grouping was the Tungus-speaking decedents of the Turks and Mongols-predominately the Yakuts and Buryats-who lived throughout central Siberia and along the Sea of Okbotsk. Minority Tungus speakers included the Nanai, Ul’ch, Oroch, Orok, Udege, who inhabited the Amur and Sakhalin regions. Turkic speakers at this time included the Taimyr Dolgan, who would adopt the Yakuts dialect in the 18th century. The largest Paleoasiatic grouping was the Chukotko-Kamchatkan family, comprised of the Kamchatka Itel’men, Chukchi, and Koryaks, living on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Other, more isolated groups included the Eniseians of the upper Enisea and the Nivkh from the lower Amur and Sakhalin (Slezkine, 2-3).

As imperial Russian subjects, the ethnic minorities of Siberia were subjected to both forced and natural assimilation. Larger tribes thrived off the system, exploiting natural resources for material gain. Smaller, weaker tribes did not share the same fate. The trend of disappearing ethnicities only increased during the Soviet period, as Siberia experienced rapid economic growth, particularly during WWII (“Siberia”). During this period, smaller and weaker tribes became subsumed by larger ethnicities with an economic advantage. For example, the Tungus-speaking Dolgans were almost completely assimilated with the Yakuts (Olsen, 200). The Yukagirs were also heavily impacted by Soviet industrialization, as relocation to the East Ural region forced heavily assimilation on the people (Kotajarvi). By the end of the Soviet period, the Samoed-speaking Kamasin, Mator, and Koibal had become all but extinct, and the Ket remain the only existing Enesie tribe.

Though the population of Siberia increased dramatically during the Soviet period, it remains relatively sparse to this day, with about 3 people per square kilometer (“Siberia”). Most Siberians are now ethnic Russians or Russified Ukrainians, but smaller ethnic groups still remain. The Yakut population was one of the few to increase-from 296,244 in 1970 to 382,255 in 1989-during the Soviet period. They remain the largest Siberian ethnic minority to this day (Olson, 732). Another relatively prominent ethnic group is the Chukchi, about 15,000 of which still inhabit the Kamchatka Peninsula (Krupnik). A small group of Koryaks inhabits this region as well. A small Yukagir population persists in the Sakha Republic, and their language remains one of the most threatened in Russia (Le Berre). The Evenks continue to inhabit an ever-narrowing land between the Ob river and Okbotsk sea (“The Evenks”). In addition, a small Aleut population still inhabits the Kamchatkan coast. The remaining ethnic groups have established organizations to protect their language and rights, and have found international champions in NGOs and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Persons. However, the Siberian ethnic minorities remain a largely endangered people.

Tsarist and Soviet Colonization Policies [John H. Kingery and Yevgeniya Derevyannykh]

The territorial boundaries of present-day Russia are the result of the state expanding its influences for financial self-interest as well as prestige. Yet in its efforts, Russian observers found that geographic and environmental conditions determined the manner and means by which colonization played out. The harsh winters in Russia’s extreme north made agricultural ventures virtually impossible. The tribes that inhabited this area knew the environment in which they had survived for centuries and had developed skills and adapted to conditions that were new to and inhospitable to outsiders. Despite their nomadic existence, Russian authorities saw the value of native tribes and sought to encourage their supplication to the sovereign. Focusing on the Steppe, Russian motives for expansion remained relatively unchanged, though their methods and policies were relatively different. This change in methodology was the result of the geographic make-up of the landscape, which still determined the exact processes by which colonial rule was executed.

Communism eventually moved into these regions, raising questions regarding the administration of the former monarchy’s land, while introducing and ‘influencing’ ideological certainties among the native populations. Again, the Soviets found that the geopolitical landscape that had helped determined the lifestyle of natives would also be an underlying factor when dealing with the ‘small’ peoples of the Russian North and the inorodtsy (aliens) of the Steppe. Moreover, the impact of their Euro-Russian neighbors has had a lasting legacy in the eyes of the natives, as Russian views and treatment have wrought havoc on the ‘small’ peoples while prompting a communal change of awareness and interdependence. Russia’s original motivations for entering the North resulted not from expansionist policies, but rather the desire for profit. Due to the harsh conditions of the circumpolar environs, attempts to establish an agricultural community were discouraging. Tsarist officials did find within some of the twenty-six ethnic groups, however, was the benefit of fur-trading – a venture that would bring profit to the empire, thereby legitimizing expansionist claims in the area. In the steppe, Russian territorial acquisition for farming was the motivating force. As time passed and settlers colonized the region, Russians began viewing the Steppe as something inherently and indisputably Russian. Natives eventually came to be viewed as intruders as expansionists established trade and undertook military endeavors.

The Russian north and the steppe provided similar incentives for exploration: the commandeering of tangible assets and resources to meet the needs of the Russian homeland. Russian migrations and colonizing practices were used to establish new borders, as well as national identities.  Sunderland writes that “the rendering of the region thus continued to involve an exploration of the identities, antitheses, shortcomings, and possibilities of the nation, though, building on the precedent of the earlier part of the century, the rendering itself was for from straightforward” (Sunderland, 162).

However, the policies that governed the natives of both regions varied in terms of their treatment at the hands of and the nature of their interactions with Russian settlers. The peoples of the North entered into treaties with the Russians and were required to pay iasak tributes to officials in exchange for protection and other goods. Most of these “small” peoples viewed the treaties as agreements among equal parties, whereas Moscow acknowledged them as a means of subordination. In terms of the Steppe, policies directed towards the nomadic tribes were developed with little concern to the population itself. The natives were viewed as insignificant actors in Russia’s overall goals and were regarded as negligible. With settlers moving rapidly into the Steppe, the natives found that all political and economic privileges were to be enjoyed by the Russian colonizer.

Colonization of the steppe was strictly a question of agriculture for the Russians, in that it was understood as a focus of peasants and the rural economy. However, this did not stop the civilizing missions from attempting to undo ‘alien’ backwardness. For the Russian colonizer, “backwardness” meant the unsettled nomads of the steppe were uncivilized. It was a matter of importance for Russian colonization in the area. In the early 1800s, those missions were critically applied in designated areas that were deemed promising to Russian interest. Whereas in less promising, less important areas, a small native population would be exposed to ‘civilizing’ missions about a decade later. From the Russian viewpoint, what is clear is that though the steppe natives, natives had attractive qualities, “this was not enough to keep them-along with the rest of the empire’s backward natives-from being stamped as ‘congenital and apparently perennial outsiders” (Sunderland, 103).

Religion was an important element in the Russians’ definition of the native tribes. Being defined as ‘peoples of another faith’ only created a sense of mistrust between the Russians and ‘small’ peoples. Some adopted the view of the nomads as noble savages untainted by civilization and pure in the spirituality of their customs and habits. Sunderland notes that, Russian officials and commentators (the empress included) wrote about Bashkirs and Kazakhs who lived ‘according to the laws of nature’ and ‘knew nothing of the refinements of education that give rise to envy (Sunderland, 63). Despite this enlightened view, the natives were still viewed as totally backward in terms of their hygiene and general cleanliness. Furthermore, Catherine and her officials believed the noble savages deserving of enlightened methods due to the fact that they were viewed as an “immature people, lacking upbringing, morals, and manners” (Sunderland, 64).

Policies in the north dictated who could enter into trade agreements with the ‘small’ peoples, especially when such agreements took away from the Russian purse. Much of Russian migration was severely limited, as were attempts to civilize the North. As time progressed, the key economic factor from the North went into a state of decline; the loss of wealth from furs and tusks due to over-trapping led to the realization of a ‘noninterference’ approach, thereby allowing natives to maintain their custom and lifestyles. As a result of mismanagement and ineffectiveness of the government in such a remote and inhospitable region, the North was effectively abandoned. This kept the natives in their natural and ‘backward’ state, and the efforts to civilize the tribes would become an inherited problem for the Soviets.

The accession of the Communist Party in 1917 was accompanied by the collapse of old bureaucratic and administrative agencies throughout Russia. The Soviets inherited the problems that inflicted the tsar and the Provisional Government as well as conquered borderlands. However, the Soviets’ relations with the ‘small’ peoples of the North are similar to imperial interactions in the circumpolar region, though the Soviet presence in the steppe brooked no comparison with the monarchy. The relations between the Soviets and the ‘small’ peoples of the North contrasted markedly opposite to the contemporary situation on the steppe but similar to those of imperial times. Within the first years of Soviet power, efforts were made to respect the traditional elements of the northern tribes. This respect would be altered as the Soviets presented their views on nationality. The inhabitants of the North were considered ‘small’ and for the Soviets this meant primitive and classless. The result was the continuation of civilizing missions to bring not only Russia and “Russianness” to the east but, more importantly, socialism. The Soviet missions focused on prosecuting a war against “backwardnesss,” however such policies also heavily promoted ulterior motives. Officials saw that the mission to eradicate backwardness “must be gradual and ever so careful because any overly hasty assault on backwardness could result in the depopulation of a strategically important area” (Slezkine, 157).

As the Soviets gained a firm grasp on the tsar’s former territories, the strategic importance of the North was recognized with the introduction of collectivization and the heavy push to industrialize the nation. The North was a prime target for introducing new Soviet policies concerning the wealth from fur and tusks. At first, a general state of confusion over the new policy of collectivization engulfed the tribes. Tribes were further bewildered by accusations of belonging to the class of kulaks. The tribes did not understand such a distinction, given that all natives regarded themselves as poor. Eventually, when it was made clear what was expected of them, their reaction was ‘traditional’ in nature. “The native response took traditional forms:” writes Slezkine, “they asked for more time, withdrew into silence…those who could do so moved away or changed their migration routes” (ibid, 203). Officials encouraged tribe members with threats, blackmail, coercion and bribes in order to fill quotas for collectivization efforts. After a few years, collectivization took its toll on the people and the lands of the region. When there was nobody left and no more land to go to, the natives responded by killing their own herds, believing that “the reindeer will be taken away anyway…, so it’s better if we eat them ourselves” (ibid, 203).

In the initial days of Soviet rule, communist mission were established to attract the natives to in these ‘strategically important’ area (ibid, 157). Communists were sent to recruit the future communist elites thus giving way to the kul’tbaza (cultural stations). The kul’tbaza would include “a hospital, a veterinary center, a school, a museum, scientific laboratories, and a House of the Native, were local folds could relax with a cup of tea and a newspaper” (ibid, 157). This provided the missionaries with accommodations and introduced Soviets ideologies in a pleasant atmosphere. Furthermore, serious methods were made by the Soviet to promote nationalities within the natives. Soviet officials recognized that the ‘small’ peoples of the north need some form of protection due to the effects of colonization and economic development. However, these destructive effects on the circumpolar populations were prominent ideologies for Communist. To abandon them in its efforts in the extreme north was out of the question. What was introduced to the North was application of natsional’ noe raionirovanie, which sought to differentiate the ethnic boundaries. Anatolii Skachko stated that such a policy aimed toward the natives’ “all-around cultural and national development and their participation as equal (not just in principle by also de facto) and active partners in the socialist economy” (ibid, 270).

The Soviet plans for industrialization and mining the resource rich North also included the incorporation of the native tribes. It was believed that the mining and industries would bring a new economic source for the native population. However, the people of the circumpolar region did not have much interest in Soviet plans. The majority remained connected to their traditional means of income of fur-trapping and fishing. This was the case during Stalin’s reign. With his death came change, however, as the convict labor-based industrial growth in the region literally shut down. The government realized that the natives, “having become irrelevant to the industrialization effort as sources of labor or food supply… became economically ‘unviable’ and thus useless (ibid, 339).

In the final days of the Soviet Union, the North suffered under conditions which threatened their cultures and traditional existence. Soviet efforts to bring socialism to the natives were a failure. The peoples of the North “have not accomplished the ‘great leap from antiquity into socialism’…Instead…for over twenty years northern schools have been producing people who are not prepared for any form of productive work” (ibid 374). The speakers of the various native languages were decreasing in number. Similarly, the number of young natives continuing the traditional lifestyle and work of the tribes also was in a state of decline. Also, as perestoika was griping the nation the media focused on the environmental condition in the region as poor mining practices and dilapidated infrastructure were causing harm to the natives’ way of life. However, there was a conscious effort to promote ‘reasonable interference’ to protect all forms of ‘ethnic uniqueness’ by supporting the peoples of the circumpolar region as well as the nations who labored to preserve that uniqueness (ibid, 381).

The process of colonization exhibited by both Imperial and Soviet governments were met with both successes and failures. The steppe was viewed as a land of wild beauty and untamed peoples in need of the Russian efforts to modernize their livelihood. The Russians connected themselves to the native population by declaring themselves ancestors, thus legitimizing their acquisition of territories and rights to convert nomadic tribes. Very early on in the days of the empire it was argued that “the steppe, it seemed, was becoming more like Russia, though this view naturally depended entirely on how one defined ‘Russia’ and ‘the steppe’ and who was doing the defining” (Sunderland, 160). The ones defining were also committing themselves to civilizing issues that were designed to contribute to Russian self-interest. In the end, the lands were collectively Russian.

However, the peoples of the Russian North could not be identified as Russian and Russification efforts, in the end, were fruitless. Any connections made between the natives and Russia where strictly one-sided, as gain and exploitations were recurring themes in Russian behavior. The North continued to be viewed as a region of the Russian landscape that was foreign and alien. Regardless of missionaries and literary champions of the rustic living of the circumpolar peoples, it was clear that old classifications remain to this day. Slezkine writes that they are still viewed as “alien insofar as they remained ‘unsettled,’ these peoples have repeatedly posed a challenge to government officials, Orthodox missionaries, and assorted intellectuals seeking to define Russianness and otherness to both Russians and others.” (Slezkine, ix). Finally, the past has definitely impacted these regions, as the native languages are struggling to live or have died out altogether. Pollution has only left reindeer herding and polar fishing more dangerous that before. The history of the North and the steppe is still alive and will not soon be forgotten.


Sources cited

  • “The Evenks.” Russia the Great. 2009. Russia Information Network. 11 Mar 2009.
  • Carter Findley, The Turks in World History (Oxford University Press, 2005), 117.
  • Blake Kotajarvi, “Yukagir Culture,” in E Museums. 2002. Minnesota State University. 11 Mar 2009.
  • Igor Krupnik, “Chukchi,” in Arctic Studies Center. Arctic Studies Center, The National Museum of Natural History. 11 Mar 2009
  • Marine Le Berre, “Sakha Republic–The Yukaghir,” Yukon College. 11 Mar 2009.
  • James Olson, An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of the Russian and Soviet Empires (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994), 2-3.
  • “Siberia.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 2007. Columbia University Press. 11 Mar 2009
  • Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).
  • Willard Sunderland, Taming the Wild Field: Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).



  • Peoples of the Russian North and Far East
  • Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North
  • Arctic Network for the Support of the Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Arctic (ANSPIRA)
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