Paradoxical Perceptions of Siberia: Patrician and Plebeian Images up to the Mid-1800s

  • James R. Gibson


Before the middle of the nineteenth century, when Siberia came to acquire a positive image in the minds of Russian nationalists such as the Decembrists, Petrashevtsy, and Slavophiles—including even Alexander Herzen—for ideological reasons, as Mark Bassin has so persuasively argued,1 this sprawling region east of the Urals2 generally provoked two contrary images or perceptions on the part of those Russians who ruled (the minority) and those who cowed (the majority). The rulers, or upper classes—aristocrats, bureaucrats, courtiers, officers, officials, merchants, clerics—viewed Siberia in much the same way as most Westerners do today—that is, negatively as a vast and remote wilderness covered with snow and ice and peopled by savages and convicts, Gor’kii’s “land of death and chains.” To them it was a place to be avoided, although it might have its uses as a dumping ground for exiles or as a hunting ground for sables (just so long as one did not have to spend much, if any, time there). In the words of the Marquis de Custine, a French journalist and monarchist who visited the Russia of Nicholas I in 1839 in order “to find arguments against representative government” only to be disillusioned by tsarist despotism, “at every step I see raised before me the phantom of Siberia, and I think of all that the name of this political desert signifies, this abyss of miseries, this graveyard of the living—a world of fabulous griefs, a land peopled by infamous criminals….”3


Gold Mine Freeze Ground Peasant Household Ideological Reason Central Siberian Plateau 
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© Galya Diment and Yuri Slezkine 1993

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  • James R. Gibson

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