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THE SHAMAN’S COAT by Anna Reid

THE SHAMAN’S COAT

A Native History of Siberia

By Anna Reid

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-8027-1399-8
Publisher: Walker

From the former Kiev correspondent for The Economist, a portrait of indigenous Siberian cultures all but destroyed by European expansionism and Stalinist suppression.

Siberia accounts for one-twelfth of the world’s landmass and retains huge expanses of unpeopled wilderness, notes Reid; this has led to a popular conception of “the sleeping land” as a remote wasteland nearly incapable of supporting human life. “If this big, cold Siberia of the imagination has inhabitants,” she observes, “they are probably Europeans: exiled revolutionaries, prisoners of war and Gulag slaves.” Yet Siberia was in fact settled long ago by more than 30 ethnic groups, collectively numbering perhaps a quarter of a million inhabitants at the time of the Russian arrival in the late 1500s. That number has grown today to some 1.6 million, no thanks to a murderous program of conquest that began with the czars and continued into the age of Lenin and Stalin. Where the czars sought territory and raw materials, however, the Communists aimed for the wholesale extermination of non-Russian nationalities, “especially those who possessed no industrial proletariat and had fought against the Bolsheviks during the Civil War.” Stalin’s efforts to extinguish the native cultures of Buryatiya and break the powers of the Buddhist lamas there were appallingly successful; as late as the 1970s, prominent followers of these lamas were declared insane and disappeared inside Siberian psychiatric hospitals—a matter on which, the author notes, the KGB archives are still closed. Taking an approach similar to her work in Borderland (not reviewed), a history of the Ukraine, Reid has combed the historic and ethnographic literature on Siberia and traveled a good portion of its territory. Yet this account is remarkably and regrettably colorless; readers will find it a challenge to distinguish Tuvan from Mongol, Ainu from Chukchi, on the strength of her descriptions, damning of European aggression though they are.

Serviceable, but readers seeking a more fluent overview should turn to Bruce Lincoln’s Conquest of a Continent (1994).