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Siberia and the Russians

by W. Bruce Lincoln

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-679-41214-X
Publisher: Random House

 A sweeping, stark, and cautionary popular history of Russia's ruthless, centuries-old exploitation of its vast Eurasian hinterland. Lincoln (Russian History/Northern Illinois University; Red Victory, 1990, etc.) applies a broad narrative brush to tell a grand, terrible, and almost unrelievedly brutal tale that covers nearly a thousand years of history. On the heels of the retreat of the rampaging Golden Horde of the Mongols in the late Middle Ages came Russia's drive toward the Pacific--a drive led by successive generations of explorers and merchants ravenous for the raw materials that would enrich both them and the cash-poor tsarist kingdom as it strove to break out of its inconsequential Muscovy heartland to join the ranks of the great powers. Just as, in the 18th century, Siberian ``black gold''--priceless sables and other furs--formed the mainstay of the Russian economy during the nation's first great imperial expansion, so did oil and natural gas from the vast Siberian fields later fuel the Soviet push toward industrialization. And, of course, the forgotten reaches of the Siberian wilderness have provided generations of Russian rulers with a continent-sized dungeon for dissidents and defeated rivals, first in their thousands under the tsars and later in their millions in Stalin's slave economy. Lincoln stresses the terrible price that the ruthless Russian exploitation of Siberia's riches continues to exact--a price both human (from the dispersal and suppression of Siberia's aboriginal inhabitants to the mass deportations and death camps of the Stalinist era) and environmental (the near-extinction of Siberia's once-teeming fur supply through overhunting being merely a prologue to vast ecological catastrophes inflicted by reckless Soviet industrialization). Throughout, Lincoln's harrowing subject matter and epic scale recall Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore, though Lincoln lacks Hughes's ability to express his human sympathy through vivid individual characterization. Still, overall, a grimly compelling, richly rewarding trek. (Sixteen pages of b&w photographs, three maps-not seen)