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History of Siberia

The history of Siberia abounds in vast areas, many nations and extremes of climate and marginalisation.

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The shores of all the Siberian lakes which filled the depressions during the Lacustrine period[?] abound in remains dating from the Neolithic age; and numberless kurgans (tumuli), furnaces and so on bear witness to a much denser population than the present. During the great migrations in Asia from east to west many populations were probably driven to the northern borders of the great plateau and thence compelled to descend into Siberia; succeeding waves of immigration forced them still farther towards the barren grounds of the north, where they melted away.

According to Radlov, the earliest inhabitants of Siberia were the Yeniseians[?], who spoke a language different from the Ural-Altaic; some few traces of them (Yeniseians, Sayan-Ostiaks, and Kottes) exist among the Sayan Mountains.

The Yeniseians were followed by the Ugro-Samoyedes, who also came originally from the high plateau and were compelled, probably during the great migration of the Huns in the 3rd century BC, to cross the Altai and Sayan ranges and to enter Siberia. To them must be assigned the very numerous remains dating from the Bronze Age which are scattered all over southern Siberia. Iron was unknown to them; but they excelled in bronze, silver and gold work. Their bronze ornaments and implements, often polished, evince considerable artistic taste; and their irrigated fields covered wide areas in the fertile tracts. On the whole, their civilisation stood much higher than that of their more recent successors.

Eight centuries later Turkic peoples such as Khagases and Uighurs, also compelled to migrate north-westwards from their former seats, subdued the Ugro-Samoyedes. These new invaders likewise left numerous traces of their stay, and two different periods may be easily distinguished in their remains. They were acquainted with iron, and learned from their subjects the art of bronze-casting, which they used for decorative purposes only, and to which they gave a still higher artistic stamp. Their pottery is much more perfect and more artistic than that of the Bronze period, and their ornaments are accounted among the finest of the collections at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

This Turkic empire of the Khagases must have lasted until the 13th century, when the Mongols, under Jenghiz Khan, subdued them and destroyed their civilisation. A decided decline is shown by the graves which have been discovered, until the country reached the low level at which it was found by the Russians on their arrival towards the close of the 16th century.


In the beginning of the 16th century Tatar fugitives from Turkestan subdued the loosely associated tribes inhabiting the lowlands to the east of the Urals. Agriculturists, tanners, merchants and mullahs[?] (priests) were called from Turkestan, and small principalities sprang up on the Irtysh and the Ob. These were united by Khan Ediger, and conflicts with the Russians who were then colonising the Urals brought him into collision with Moscow; his envoys came to Moscow in 1555 and consented to a yearly tribute of a thousand sables.

Novgorod and Muscovy

As early as the 11th century the Novgorodians had occasionally penetrated into Siberia; but the fall of the Novgorod republic and the loss of its north-eastern dependencies checked the advance of the Russians across the Urals. On the defeat of an insurrection, many who were unwilling to submit to the iron rule of Moscow made their way to the settlements of a certain Stroganov[?] in Perm[?], and tradition has it that, in order to get rid of his guests, Stroganov suggested to their chief, Yermak[?], that he should cross the Urals into Siberia, promising to help him with supplies of food and arms.

Yermak and the Cossacks

Yermak entered Siberia in 1580 with a band of 1636 men, following the Tagil and Tura rivers. Next year they were on the Tobol[?], and 500 men successfully laid siege to Isker, the residence of Khan Kuchum, in the neighbourhood of what is now Tobolsk[?]. Kuchum fled to the steppes, abandoning his domains to Yermak, who, according to tradition, purchased by the present of Siberia to tsar Ivan IV his own restoration to favour.

Yermak drowned in the Irtysh in 1584 and his Cossacks abandoned Siberia. But new bands of hunters and adventurers poured every year into the country, and were supported by Moscow. To avoid conflicts with the denser populations of the south, they preferred to advance eastwards along higher latitudes; meanwhile Moscow erected forts and settled labourers around them to supply the garrisons[?] with food. Within eighty years the Russians had reached the Amur and the Pacific Ocean. This rapid conquest is accounted for by the circumstance that neither Tatars nor Turks were able to offer any serious resistance.

Imperial Russian Expansion

In 1607 - 1610 the Tungus[?] fought strenuously for their independence, but were subdued about 1623. In 1628 the Russians reached the Lena, founded the fort of Yakutsk in 1637, and two years later reached the Sea of Okhotsk at the mouth of the Ulya river. The Buriats[?] offered some opposition, but between 1631 and 1641 the Cossacks erected several palisaded forts in their territory, and in 1648 the fort on the upper Uda River[?] beyond Lake Baikal. In 1643 Poyarkov's boats descended the Amur, returning to Yakutsk by the Sea of Okhotsk and the Aldan River[?], and in 1649 - 1650 Khabarov occupied the banks of the Amur. The resistance of the Chinese, however, obliged the Cossacks to quit their forts, and by the Treaty of Nerchinsk[?] (1689) Russia abandoned her advance into the basin of the river. In 1852 a Russian military expedition under Muraviev explored the Amur, and by 1857 a chain of Russian Cossacks and peasants were settled along the whole course of the river. The accomplished fact was recognised by China in 1857 and 1860 by a treaty.

In the same year in which Khabarov explored the Amur (1648) the Cossack Dejnev, starting from the Kolyma River[?], sailed round the north-eastern extremity of Asia through the strait which was rediscovered and described eighty years later by Bering (1728). Cook in 1778, and after him, La Pérouse, settled definitively the broad features of the northern Pacific coast.

Although the Arctic Ocean had been reached as early as the first half of the 17th century, the exploration of its coasts by a series of expeditions under Ovtsyn, Minin, Pronchishev, Lasinius and Laptev - whose labours constitute a brilliant page in the annals of geographical discovery - was begun only in the 18th century (1735 - 1739).

The Trans-Siberian railway, constructed from 1891 - 1905, linked Siberia more closely into the rapidly-industrialising Ruissia of Nicholas II.

Scientists in Siberia

The scientific exploration of Siberia, begun in the period 1733 to 1742 by Messerschmidt, Gmelin, and De Lisle de la Croyhre, was followed up by Muller, Fischer and Georgi. Pallas, with several Russian students, laid the first foundation of a thorough exploration of the topography, fauna, flora and inhabitants of the country. The journeys of Hansteen and Erman (1828ff) were a most important step in the exploration of the territory. Humboldt, Ehrenberg and Gustav Rose[?] also paid in the course of these years short visits to Siberia, and gave a new impulse to the accumulation of scientific knowledge; while Ritter elaborated in his Asien (1832 - 1859) the foundations of a sound knowledge of the structure of Siberia. T von Middendorff's journey (184? - 1845) to north-eastern Siberia - contemporaneous with Castrhn's journeys for the special study of the Ural-Altaic languages - directed attention to the far north and awakened interest in the Amur, the basin of which soon became the scene of the expeditions of Akhte and Schwarz (1852), and later on (1854ff) of the Siberian expedition to which we owe so marked an advance in our knowledge of East Siberia.

The Siberian branch of the Russian Geographical Society was founded at the same time at Irkutsk, and afterwards became a permanent centre for the exploration of Siberia; while the opening of the Amur and Sakhalin attracted Maack, Schmidt, Glehn, Radde and Schrenck, whose works on the flora, fauna and inhabitants of Siberia have become widely known.

Twentieth Century Siberia

Tsars from as early as the time of Peter the Great used Siberia as a place of exile and the site of forced labour camps, while simultaneously encouraging free settlers. With the coming of Soviet government to Siberia (after supplanting short-lived regional White Russian states in the region - see article on Kolchak) - these trends accelerated and expanded. The Gulag operated widely in Siberia, and the Soviet government increasingly saw the vast territory as a geopolitical continental heartland for settlement, for exploitation and as the site of re-located industry.

Original text from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica

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