Findings made in the late 1990s indicate that Siberia was inhabited as early
as 300,000 years ago, rather than 40,000 years ago, as previously thought. According
to Radlov, the earliest inhabitants of Siberia were the Yeniseians. A lot of
knowledge about the early time of Siberia was gained by digings, during expeditions
or on huge building projects, such as dams or hydroelectric power plants.
Although Novgorodian traders crossed the Ural into Siberia as early as the 11th century to trade in furs with native tribes, the Russian conquest began much later. Czar Ivan IV's capture of the Kazan khanate in 1552 opened the way for Russian expansion into Siberia. In 1581 a band of Cossacks under Yermak crossed the middle Ural and took the city of Sibir (near modern Tobolsk), capital of the Sibir khanate, which gave its name to the entire region. Russia's conquest of the Tatar khanate was completed in 1598. The Cossacks rapidly penetrated eastward by land and on riverboats, building a string of small fortresses. They were levying tribute for Moscow from the sparse population in the form of precious furs. During the 17th century Russians had reached the Amur and the Sea of Okhotsk, an arm of the Pacific Ocean, and annexed all of West Siberia. This rapid conquest is accounted for by the circumstance that neither Tatars nor Turks were able to offer any serious resistance.
Russian Settlement and Administration
Russian settlement of Siberia was spurred by groups of zemleprokhodtsy,
also known as “crossers of land”. They came mostly from North European
Russia and traversed the easy portages linking the east-west Siberian river
systems to pioneer new forts and trading communities. As a colony of the Russian
Empire, Siberia was administered by a colonial office based first in Moscow
and later - after its founding in 1703 - in the new Russian capital of St. Petersburg.
From the early 17th century Siberia was used as a penal colony and a place of exile for political prisoners. Among the latter, there emerged a small but vocal Siberian intelligentia, who agitated for an end of Siberia's colonial status - especially after the exile of leaders of the Decabrist Conspiracy of 1825.
Meanwhile, Russian colonizers continued to push southward, establishing forts
along the steppe to thwart nomadic raids. Newly emancipated (1861) Russian serfs
were allowed to take free possession of Siberian land, but they received little
state assistance and suffered from intolerable hardships.
Siberian furs have been an important source of wealth for Russia. These furs
in connection with customs duties levied on all Siberian raw materials more
than reimbursed the state for the costs of its Siberian conquest and administration.
With the decline of the fur trade in the early 18th century, mining became the
chief economic activity in Siberia. The state was the chief entrepreneur, but
wealthy private families have been involved, too. Silver, lead, and copper mining
began around 1700; gold mining had not developed until the 1830s.
Under the Soviet government, Siberia suffered dramatic economic development. Especially the Ural-Kuznetsk complex was affected. Under the First Five-Year Plan (1928–33), forced labor was instrumental in mining coal and building the iron and steel complex of the Kuznetsk Basin. Besides, part of the agricultural colonization of Siberia was forced by the resettlement of large segments of the Russian rural population, especially the expropriated kulaks. As a result, Siberia's population doubled between 1914 and 1946. Forced labour was also employed extensively in the East Siberian gold mines.
Siberia's economic development increased dramatically during World War II with dismantling many industries from European USSR to the other side of the Ural. In this region they were less vulnerable to German seizure. Siberian grain was essential in enabling the Soviet Union to resist the German wartime onslaught despite the loss of valuable agricultural areas in West USSR.
Postwar industrialization of Siberia continued at a rapid pace, with special concentration on south-west Siberia and the Lake Baikal region. Siberian agriculture, which suffered during the Stalinist collectivization campaign, was revived in the mid-1950s by Premier Khrushchev's “virgin lands” program, focusing on cultivation in the steppes of south-west Siberia and North Kazakhstan. The Seven-Year Plan (1958–65) emphasized the construction of large thermal and hydroelectric power plants in Siberia and elsewhere.
© B. Merkel, 30.11.2004 http://www.geo.tu-freiberg.de/studenten/Baikal_2004/baikalexcursion/history/overview/overview.htm