Yermak's Conquest of Siberia by Vasily Surikov 1895
By Nat Hill
Picturing Siberia, one might imagine thousands of prisoners freezing to death in Gulag prison camps. One might imagine frozen diamond mines, vast oil fields or huge logging camps. Or one might picture an endless expanse of trees, snow, and ice, without people. Rarely, even in Russia, do people consider that Siberia is home to dozens of indigenous peoples and cultures.
Siberians are a diverse group of people stretching across a territory larger than the United States. There are the Buddhist cultures of Tuva and Buryat, hunter-gatherer communities such as the Khanty and Mansi, reindeer herders such as the Sakha and Chuckhi, and the Yupik whale hunters of the Bering Sea.
Russians look down upon Native Siberians and their cultures, typically viewing them as primitive and backwards. Russians refer to Indigenous Siberians using the pejorative word Ostyak (lit. easterner) to dehumanize them.
Native Siberians are repeatedly neglected in the mainstream versions of Russian and Soviet histories. Analogous to the European colonialization of America, Australia, and Africa; the Russian expansion into Siberia was characterized by the brutal murder, rape, enslavement, and decimation of indigenous populations.
The modern discourse surrounding Indigenous Siberians has yet to view their experiences and histories in the framework of “genocide”. This brief piece will present the extermination of Indigenous Siberian peoples within the modern understanding of genocide. It will also discuss the Native Siberians' current situation in the political landscape of modern Russia.
The Russian conquest of Siberia began in the 16th Century, with Yermak’s 1583 expedition (pictured above) against the Tatar Khan Kuchum and his Sibir Khanate, just east of the Ural Mountains. Yermak Timofeyevich was a Cossack leader employed by the Russian Tsar to subjugate Siberian tribes and secure new trapping territory for Siberia’s most lucrative resource at the time, fur.
Yermak has now entered the Russian historical memory as a near saintly figure; a devoted orthodox Christian who served both God and the Tsar in fulfilling Russia’s manifest destiny. Yermak is the Russian equivalent of Christopher Columbus.
In reality, Yermak, like Columbus, was a brutal tyrant, thief, and genocidist, to both his own men and to the Siberians he encountered. As a result of his conquest, Yermak opened Siberia for Russian eastward expansion and the future destruction of Native Siberian culture.
Over the next five centuries, Tsarist Russia intentionally subjugated and destroyed Native Siberian peoples. Indigenous communities were forced to pay a tribute in fur known as Yasak. Communities had to forgo traditional activities such as hunting, gathering, and farming to provide the tribute, leading to starvation, population decline and the decimation of the local fauna. Those failing to pay tribute were brutally attacked and murdered by gangs of Cossacks or exiled convicts from the Russian penal system. This commodity slavery is parallel to King Leopold's harvesting of rubber from the Congo, where if quotas were not met, Belgian forces cut off the hands of villagers and collected them in baskets.
Russian rule had a devastating effect on traditional Siberian culture. Alcoholism became rampant among Siberian communities. Diseases such as smallpox and typhus killed thousands. Crusading missionaries suppressed Siberian shamanism, customs, and language. While larger, more cohesive groups such as the Yakuts, Buryats, and Tuvans had the strength to resist total Russification; smaller groups such as the Ket and Itelmens had their populations and culture reduced to a few Russified survivors.
Soviet rule brought some improvements to Siberian life. Soviet organizers abolished the Yasak system, created new alphabets to educate in local languages, and created a local administration system with ethnic participation. Yet Soviet rule also brought new forms of oppression. Shamanism was persecuted to near extinction. State collectivization destroyed local forms of production. Soviet industrial projects and dams polluted large swaths of the environment.
Today, native communities still face large-scale destruction of their environments by the Russian mining, petroleum, and logging industries. Profits derived from the destruction of Siberia rarely, if ever, trickle down to Native communities. Indigenous civil society groups have come under attack from the Russian government. They are perceived as a foreign threat. Most recently, the Russian government suspended the leading indigenous organization RAIPON (Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North) for six months, accusing the organization of being in violation of Russian law.
Few, if any, human rights organizations have ever advocated for recognition of the destruction of Indigenous Siberians as genocide. These crimes seem to be lost and or overshadowed by the other heinous acts of mass murder and extermination that occurred in the Soviet Union (i.e the Ukrainian Holodomor, Stalin’s purges, etc).
It is time for genocide scholars and indigenous human rights advocates to reassess the way we think about Siberian history. It is time that we incorporate the intentional destruction of Indigenous Siberian peoples in the narratives of genocide we have finally recognized for indigenous communities in the Americas, Australia, and throughout the colonial world.
Nat Hill is the Co-Director of Research at Genocide Watch and the Chief Editor of "The Call" Blog
The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch