Saturday, January 24, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Where Does Siberia Begin – and End?

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 24 – Siberia, which in Soviet times referred only to that part of the Russian Federation between the Urals and Lake Baikal, is properly the name of a much larger territory including all Russian lands east of the Urals, according to regional activists who see this enormous territory as the basis for the salvation of Russia.
One of them, journalist Igor Severgin, has launched a new journal which is intended to promote this expanded understanding of the region. The first issue of “Neizvestnaya Sibir’” [“Unknown Siberia”], which appeared last month and is available online at, features his article on what the borders of Siberia in fact are.
Acknowledging that “no one can ever answer the question of where the borders of Siberia are” once and for all, Severgin insists that it includes all Russian territories east of the Urals and is “only only a geographic term,” but a space defined by the people who have lived or now live on these lands (
“Why did the Aleutian Islands cease to be [part of] Siberia?” he asks rhetorically. “Only because the state borders of Russia changed? Hardly. Russian Manchuria existed for almost a half-century on the territory of China. Completely autonomously. And it disappeared only in 1945 when Soviet forces entered Harbin.” Now, that land can be found only in dictionaries.
Siberia does not enjoy a good reputation because of its climate and history as a place of exile, and no one would ever confuse it with paradise, Severgin says, but this enormous land, which is both blessed and cursed by its enormous natural wealth, has another and more important contribution to make, if only its residents and Russians more generally will seize it.
Despite its despoliation by outsiders who see in it only a source for their own enrichment, Siberia, whose very severity of climate may ultimately save it, still has “places in it where health children are born, where they don’t use drugs, where they breath clean air and try to live according to conscience rather than according to cash calculations.”
In his article, Severgin recounted the reaction of one Siberian writer when he learned of the new journal. “What are you intending to make the journal about?” the writer queried. “About Siberia. Siberia is our all,” the editor responded in the form of a joke, to which the writer responded “No Siberia is all that we have left.”
And Severgin concedes that “Siberia is slowly fading away and losing its clear outlines. Much like an iceberg. Much like earlier faded Russian Manchuria until it finally disappeared. And the question even is not in geographic boundaries. Not in those enormous territories which have been “separated” from it over the last centuries.”
Its people are “being destroyed,” Severgin said, and because they help define it, “without them there will not be a Siberia. What will take its place? There will be tundra, the West-Siberian lowlands, the taiga, mountain peaks, and rivers. But Siberia will not exist,” and as a result, Russia will suffer.
Before the 1917 revolution, tsarist Prime Minister Stolypin considered Siberia as “the cradle” out of which “a new strong Russia” could eventually emerge, but he lacked the time to make that happen. And what followed in Soviet times, as Severgin points out, is “well known” and very sad.
“Judging from everything,” the Siberian activist said, “there is now once again a chance to stop [thinking about} Siberia primarily as an ‘oil plantation’ and to consider those strategic possibilities which are concealed within it. In contemporary language, that means to carry out a geopolitical reorientation,” one that would shift Moscow’s attention to the land beyond the Urals.
One group that is already promoting that idea is grouped around an Internet portal that wants Russia’s capital to move from Moscow to somewhere in Siberia in order to recover Stolypin’s vision of a strong Russia. Not surprisingly, that site has welcomed Severgin’s efforts with enthusiasm (
Meanwhile, however, problems with the definition of Russia and its borders were the subject of two other articles this week. In one, a Moscow commentator complained that there is one place where Russia itself has already disappeared: the page in Canadian telephone books explaining country codes for those who want to make international calls.
Although the Canadian phone book carefully lists the other post-Soviet states by name, it does not list Russia. Instead, it subsumes the codes for four major Russian cities under the rubric “the Commonwealth of Independent States,” the kind of treatment many Russians find inherently offensive (
And in the second article, a Russian nationalist journal has reprised the idea that East Prussia, called Kaliningrad since Stalin annexed it at the end of World War II, could be returned to Germany if Berlin would only “leave NATO and become our strategic ally” and “recognize all the historical borders of the Third Rome” (

No comments: