Why Siberia is not like the American frontier

After finishing Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, I felt like I needed to know more about Siberia. Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia turned out to be a wonderful guide. Ordinarily I don’t like long, discursive books with no real point, but all of these potential vices are turned into virtues by Frazier’s charming voice. He is particularly good on the surprisingly long and deep history of American involvement in Siberia; here’s one passage that encapsulates many of his themes:

When Wendell Willkie, the American politician, visited Yakutsk in 1942, he said it reminded him of Elwood, Indiana. Willkie grew up in Elwood and thus is another on the long list of Midwesterners who have traveled in Siberia. He came here because of the war. Although Willkie lost to Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential race, he was credited afterward with helping to unify America behind the war effort, and in that capacity he made a round-the-world tour in a U.S. bomber to represent his country and demonstrate the Allies’ mastery of the air. The part of Yakutsk that specifically evoked Elwood for him was the boardwalks on the bigger streets; his hometown had board sidewalks when he was a boy. Willkie also spoke more generally about the heartiness of Yakutsk’s citizens, the simplicity of their tastes, and the place’s “tremendous vitality.” He said, “The town itself seemed, in many ways, like a western town in my country a century ago.”

As possibly the only person on earth today who has actually seen both Yakutsk and Elwood, Indiana, I think I understand what he meant. The Yakutsk Willkie visited was a frontier city, as the Elwood of his youth was a frontier town. Both were lively settlements far from their country’s center (though the one, obviously, much farther than the other). Observers before and after Willkie noted the many similarities between the Siberian and the Western American frontiers—from the hogs running loose in the villages, to the smallpox epidemics that hit the natives, to the rumors of tribes descended from the ancient Hebrews somewhere out in the wilds, to the environmental problems of overplowing and dust storms that came with development, and so on. Willkie’s trip also took him to Cairo, Baghdad, Moscow, and Peking; he stopped in Yakutsk partly because he was going that general direction anyway, and of all the cities he saw, this raw metropolis in the dark of the forest no doubt did look more like someplace in America.

But today I don’t think anyone who saw Yakutsk would be reminded of Elwood, or of anyplace like it. Elwood is another small American town that has passed through stages of early settlement, enthusiastic development, industrial boom, and recent decline. In those terms, its frontier years ended ages ago. Yakutsk, on the other hand, is still a frontier place, still hanging on to the writhing wilderness by its fingernails.


In fact Chekhov himself, traveling in 1890, compared Siberia to the American frontier:

When I was sailing on the Amur, I had the feeling that I was not in Russia, but somewhere in Patagonia, or Texas; without even mentioning the distinctive, un-Russian scenery and natural conditions, it seemed to me the entire time that the tenor of our Russian life is entirely alien to the native of the Amur, that Pushkin and Gogol are not understood here, and therefore not necessary, that our history is boring, and that we who arrive from European Russia seem like foreigners.

Yet while Siberia has some “frontier-ness” in common with the American West, the differences are pretty obvious. So why didn’t Siberia end up as pleasant or prosperous as the American West? The geographic determinism argument would be that it is simply much colder and more remote. (A fun fact I learned is that Siberia is so cold not simply because it is far north, but because its east-west expanse means the distances from the climate-moderating coasts are so huge).

The other obvious difference is the one that Chekhov focused on: that Siberia was a penal colony not a zone of free migration. More informed reflections on this theme can be found in Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Centurywhich among its many wonders includes a direct comparison of Siberia and the American frontier (in the “Frontiers” chapter, one of my favorites):

In the nineteenth century, the thinking behind the Siberian system was that it would provide a “prison without a roof” for political opponents and marginal social groups, while at the same time providing a labor pool for the giant state projects of colonizing and “civilizing” the region. It was a colonial development program that had much greater affinities with the colonial corvée system than with the pioneering advance into the American West driven mainly by market forces and voluntary decision. At the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Western public opinion had long regarded deportation and forced labor as anachronistic and extremely hard to justify. In China, too, it had lost its usefulness to the state, having reached its peak in the eighteenth century. …

The [Russian] state tried to steer … every aspect of the opening of frontiers much more forcefully than in the United States or South Africa. The main contribution of the American state was to make cheap land available to settlers in an orderly manner. The pioneers were completely free individuals: no one could send them anywhere. In Tsarist Russia, by contrast, until the liberalization of agrarian policy under Prime Minister Stolypin, the state intervened to guide the process of settlement. This posed no problem in the case of “state peasants,” but even with other categories, whether dependent or “freed,” the state presumed to act in a guardian-like capacity. Although many settlers eventually shaped their own lives, the settlement frontier was not, as in the United States, theoretically formed by their free decisions.

A further difference with the United States was the small weight of urban settlements. The North American frontier was everywhere associated with the formation of small towns, some of which profited from a favorable transportation location to develop rapidly into major cities. At the western end of the continent, the frontier ended in a densely settled urban zone that did not actually owe its formation to the frontier. No Russian California would ever emerge; Vladivostok did not blossom as a second Los Angeles. But neither did frontier urbanization in the strict sense become a large-scale phenomenon.

One Comment

  1. Very interesting post. The move to the West that bears more resemblance to the Siberian frontier would be the one undertaken by the Spaniards one century before the young American republican. The Spanish colonization of the North American West probably offers a middle point approach to the two models you signal: market driven, individualistic approach, on the one hand, and the completely State- controlled drive in Russia, on the other.


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