Siberia is the taiga and tundra of northern-central Asia, the great landmass of eastern Russia, the fear of anti-Soviet criminals, the home of a great number of Siberian native peoples.
The region covers about 7.5 million square miles and is populated by 25 million people. Its borders are undefined, but it is understood to stretch from the Ural mountains in the west (where Europe ends) to the coast of the Pacific, in the south from the Altai and Sayan mountain systems, the Kazakh steppes and the border of Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean.
Siberia was a new hope for the Russian people. The vast mass of land behind the mountains lay unexplored and unexploited until the end of the 16th century. It was rumoured to be full of gold and other treasures, but the cold of the land itself prevented a mass influx of settlers.
The land is indeed filled with an abundance of minerals and fossils, and is now a leading producer of Russia's gold, diamonds, mica, aluminium and nonferrous precious metals, as well as oil, gas and graphite. Timber is another major industry, and growing of wheats and oats is not entirely impossible - especially in the southern parts of the region. Traditional occupations in the North include keeping of reindeer, fishing, sealing, hunting, and collecting furs (they grow on trees, you know).
East Siberia is the harshest and most extreme part of the region. This is where Baykal, the world's deepest lake, is located. It is also home to the coldest permanent settlement on earth, Verkhoyansk, where winter temperatures average -49°C. Other important cities of this part of Siberia are Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Cheremkhovo, Yakutsk, and Chita.
In the west, between the Ural mountains and the river Yenisei, lies the marshy, but mild lowland. This southwestern part of Siberia is the centre of most of the major industry and seat of the largest cities, and about 60% of the people of the region live here. Novosibirsk, Siberia's answer to New York, is the main city of this area and an important stop on the Trans-Siberian railroad. With its 1.5 million inhabitants it is also Russia's third largest city. In addition the euphonic names of Omsk, Tomsk, Tobolsk, Barnaul, and Novokuznetsk can be found here.
In historic times, Siberia served as breeding grounds for hordes of raging barbarians: Huns, Mongols and Manchus all originated here. An inhospitable, barbaric wasteland, indeed.
Siberia was discovered long before America, that is, Russia knew it was there all right. Some Russians had even traded with natives for furs as early as the 13th century. But they knew the land was cold and bleak and not for settlement.
Czar Ivan IV, the Terrible, did not let popular sentiment stop him, and neither did his successors. Ivan started by conquering the Kazan khanate. A Cossack group under Ataman Ermak took Sibir, the capital of the Sibir Khanate, and when the Tatar khanate fell in 1598, Russia had no more competitors in Siberia. The Cossacks went further eastward still until they reached the eastern end of the continent, where they met the Pacific Ocean and the Chinese. The two unexpected neighbours came to an agreement, and in 1689 signed the Treaty of Nerchinsk, where Russia abandoned the region later called the Russian Far East. Treaties don't last forever, you know.
Gradually the settlers arrived. Zemleprokhodtsy, crossers of land, followed the rivers the Cossacks had first explored. Forts turned into towns, and most of them remained towns. Life in Siberia wasn't for everyone.
Mining became an important industry as the fur trade declined in the early 18th century and industrial calls for metals and minerals became louder. Siberia started its carreer as a penal colony for criminals and political prisoners early on, and lo! the leaders of the Decembrist Conspiracy of 1825 were quick enough to start a small, but vocal Siberian intelligentsia.
With the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861, poor people looking for free land came into the area and bravely faced the hardships of the climate to make their own livelihood. With the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, settlers found the entrance to the region easier, while at the same time trade became much smoother. Needless to say eastward migration rose sharply.
During the Russian Revolution, Siberia became the seat of the friends of the czar. In order to get better control of the region, perhaps, or because of their visions, the Soviet leaders decided to develop this land properly. The first Five-Year Plan saw coal, iron and steel being produced in the region by forced labour, in a system of labour camps invented by Stalin. Great parts of the rural population of Russia, especially the expropriated landowners or kulaks, were forced to resettle in the region. This policy worked. Between 1914 and 1946, the population of Siberia doubled.
Following the second world war, Soviet leaders decided that the current development of Siberia was not enough. To boost expansion they planned new cities, such as Akademgorodok, a town of science filled with academics moved there from Moscow and Leningrad. In a short time, they had made the area urbane as well as settled.
Today, the great majority of Siberia's people is Russian and Ukrainian. The native groups of the region are many, but small. They are Buryat, Tuva, Kharkass, Kemerovo, Khant, Mansi, Nenet, Evenkin and more. Many of these had to give up their nomadic lifestyle under the communist era and settle down to grow the earth instead. Recently, however, they have become more vocal in their fight for their own identity, environment, and political power.