Lecture Essay for

The Harriman Expedition Retraced 2001


David Koester

Department of Anthropology

University of Alaska Fairbanks



The Historical Dynamics of Politics, Culture and Social Life in the Russian Far East


The peoples of the Russian Far East (eastern Siberia) have seen numerous changes during the period since the world at large has known about the region.  Inhabited by various indigenous groups for at least the last 14,000 years, the Far East contains a rich panoply of cultures over environments that range from bounteous salmon habitat to extreme arctic tundra to harsh but sea-mammal rich coastlines.  Since contact, the important periods have been (1) the imperial period of conquest, fur collection and commercial exploitation, (2) the Soviet  period of forced economic and social changes and (3) the post-Soviet collapse and indigenous cultural revitalization.


Some Soviet historians argue that during the early period, the peoples of the Far East were treated more harshly than other conquered peoples.  There were two primary reasons for this.  On the one hand, the fur collecting emissaries of the tsar were hardened figures working on the basis of years of experience in conquest.  They were either personally involved in nearer conquests or knew of them.  Hostage-taking had, for instance, become a standard practice for extracting fur payments and many reports to the tsar were about the care procurors took in seeing that their official hostages were neither abused nor allowed to die.  On the other hand, the further from Moscow, the more the "representatives" of the crown took liberties both in the process of collection and in what was done with the furs once collected.  Bickering, fighting and complaints to the tsar about fellow conqerors were common.  The fur tax system was also complicated as they reached the coast where sea mammal hunting supplanted any inland hunting of fur-bearing animals. 


Furs and sea mammal hunting remained important during the Soviet era.  What changed were patterns of living and working.  The Soviet government saw it as its obligation to help the "primitive" peoples of the North and Far East move swiftly past capitalism to socialism.  The route to socialism lay through the routines of industrialized economic activity.  Instead of functioning within family units, hunters and herders were reorganized into brigades.  For this they received pay, usually in good from the general store.  New educational opportunities had both benefits and drawbacks.  The benefits were that many students were able to get a higher education and use that back in their home or other Chukotkan village.  The negative effects were that children were often taken from their homes so that they could study in boarding schools and that much language loss took place as a result of later Russian-only policies in the classroom .  Parents often complained as well that their school-bound children would not learn the toughness that it took to survive in arctic and subarctic environments.  Many families suffered from the Stalinist repressions.  For others the greatest disruption in their lives occurred with the closing of villages.  The Soviet government sought to make more efficient the delivery of government services and the distribution of production both to and from the region.  Villages were closed and the labor force was concentrated in new Soviet micro-cities.  These miniature cities had electricity, radio, telephone, then television and eventually consumer goods in the state stores.  They were, however,  highly dependent on the central government for their functioning. 


Displacement and dependency became the critical aspects of life after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Knowledge of cultural practices adapted to life in the harsh environments of northeast Russia had waned and been transformed with young people in formalized schooling and adults no longer living in the surroundings familiar to their parents and grandparents.  People were equipped to live in villages with electricity, to hunt with snowmobiles and motorboats, to wear  clothing, and were used to receiving salaries, buying necessities at a state-stocked village store and receiving medical care from state-funded and state-supplied clinics.  When the state went away, village services disappeared and villagers were left to make do in a surreal environment of Soviet economic planning with no fulfillment of the plan. 


The collapse came just as indigenous groups throughout Siberia and the Far East were beginning to see the opportunity to take cultural revitalization into their own hands.  Native organizations were formed all over the Russian North in the early 1990s, language programs were reinstated in schools and attempts were made to reinhabit closed villages.  After the collapse, however, the organizations quickly became human rights organizations, fighting for local resource rights, receipt of pay for work done and basic services.  As one native leader put it, under these conditions, neglect by the government can be seen as a form of ethnocide.