Savage Christians or Unorthodox Russians? The Missionary Dilemma in Siberia

  • Yuri Slezkine

Abstract

Siberia can be defined only through Russia and in opposition to it. Siberia is real to the extent that it is different from Russia (in time, in space, and in essence) and insofar as it is attached to it (Siberia is by definition the Russian part of northern Asia). Similarly, the inhabitants of Siberia are “the other Russians,” depicted as movingly innocent or hopelessly retarded versions of the original. There are, however, “the other Siberians”: people who are not covered by the Russian word Sibiriak and who are defined exclusively through difference; people who are savages, aliens, or natives because they are not Russians. The greatest challenge that these “pre-Siberian” Siberians pose for those who attempt to classify them is, first, what makes them different (and hence what makes Russians Russian) and second, what should one do about this difference? Of all the groups and institutions that felt it their duty to provide answers to these questions, the Russian Orthodox Church was among the most consistent: The “real” difference was in one’s faith, and as there was only one true faith, the obvious way to overcome this difference was by conversion. The problem was that other groups and institutions—particularly the state—frequently disagreed on both scores, and that the missionaries themselves were not always unanimous on the meaning of “true faith” and “successful conversion.”

Keywords

Fishing Nomad Alan Smallpox Reformer 

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Notes

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© Galya Diment and Yuri Slezkine 1993

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  • Yuri Slezkine

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