by Richard Nilsen
You have no idea.
Russia is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the 7-Eleven, but that’s just peanuts to Russia.
The largest nation by landmass on the planet, it covers 11 time zones (recently simplified — perhaps out of modesty — by the Russian government to 9 expanded zones) and 9 percent of the earth’s dry land. What remains of the former Soviet Union actually has more surface area than the former planet of Pluto. It spreads across the globe like Michael Jordan’s hand on a basketball.
The Trans-Siberian railway, from Moscow to Vladivostok, is the longest single line in world; it would take 152 hours, 27 minutes to traverse — nearly a week — to go from one end to the other — that is, if it ran on time, which it notoriously never does.
Despite the hugeosity of the land, Russia has less than half the population of the United States. In fact, it has a population density of less than 22 people per square mile, compared to 86 per square mile in the U.S. It is less than half the population density of Arizona (57/sq. mi.). Yet, this figure is misleading, because more than three-quarters of Russia’s people live in the European one-quarter of the country. The population density of eastern Russia, aka Siberia, approaches that of the area in Arizona north of the Grand Canyon.
Even though the western quarter of Russia is just a sliver of the whole, even that western quarter occupies 38 percent of the land area of Europe. So, when we are talking big, we are talking big.
Most of the history of Russia, and most of its presence in the consciousness of the rest of the world can be found in that western quarter, the European Russia. Yet, even then, Russia has always had a whiff of the Asiatic about it. One thinks of those onion-dome churches or the long history of “Oriental despots” who have run things. For a large portion of Russian history, the land was ruled by the Mongols, a period known as “under the Mongol yoke,” controlled by that portion of them known as the Golden Horde, or the Tatars. Tatars remain a significant minority in the demographics of the Russian Federation.
But while the Tatars descended from the east to rule — or at least demand tribute from the Rus in Moscow, Kiev and Novgorod — in later centuries, the situation reversed, and Russian Cossacks returned the favor, invading and conquering the Russian East.
It is that huge expanse of sparseness that has fascinated me for many years; just what sort of land was it, what people lived there, what mythologies and religions did they live, how did they survive in the snowy emptiness?
It is this vast expanse of Russia that interests me, because hardly anyone ever thinks about it, except in terms of the Gulag prisons and the exiles of so many Russian artists, intellectuals and political dissidents to the wastelands of Siberia — a term, by the way, as indistinct and poorly defined as “the frozen north,” or “ultima Thule.” For most Americans, Russia is the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, Moscow and Vladimir Putin. If they have a sense of history, they may remember Krushchev, Stalin, the czars, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible. The mass of Russian history concerns European Russia — Russia west of the Ural Mountains. East, though — east is a vast land of pagan history and limitless forests and tundra. It is the source of 75 percent of Russia’s wealth, primarily in oil and natural gas, and the home of those few remaining indigenous peoples.
In many ways, Russian history is the mirror image of American history. We moved west, they moved east. We appropriated Native American lands, they did the same to the Yakuts, Nenets, Chukchis, and scores of other tribal groups. They did it through military conquest and the spreading of disease.
Until the 16th century, Russia was confined to the European part of the Eurasian continent, but beginning in 1581, the Cossack leader Yermak Timofeyevich led an army of 1,600 into what was then the Khanate of Sibir, in southwestern Siberia, and began to lay siege to its cities (although “city” might be too strong a word: Estimates for the primeval population of Siberia put the population of the entire area at something like 300,000). Yermak died during the siege of Qashliq (near the modern city of Tobolsk), but over the next century and a half, the vastness of Siberia was brought under the control of the Moscow czars. Their primary interest in the area was economic, and in that, primarily in furs. Just as in the American West, hunters nearly exterminated the bison, in eastern Russia, the reindeer herds of nomadic indigenous peoples were nearly gone. (Recent policy changes have brought back the herds, just as the bison have been revived in the U.S.)
Those tribal people who survived the genocide — there is no other word for it: At least 12 separate ethnic groups were wiped from the planet by the end of the 19th century — were forced to change their way of life, and learn Russian.
The conquering Russians, like their American counterparts, also used disease, if not consciously, at least to their benefit. According to historian John F. Richards, “New diseases weakened and demoralized the indigenous peoples of Siberia. The worst of these was smallpox because of its swift spread, the high death rates, and the permanent disfigurement of survivors. … In the 1650s, it moved east of the Yenisei, where it carried away up to 80 percent of the Tungus and Yakut populations. In the 1690s, smallpox epidemics reduced Yukagir numbers by an estimated 44 percent. The disease moved rapidly from group to group across Siberia.”
The Russian incursion into Siberia and the Far East (the official name for all of Russia east of the Ural Mountains) remains heaviest along the southern edge of the nation. The cities we think of in Siberia — Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk (I love those names: Saying them out loud is like chewing cabbage) — all hug the bottom of the map. Settlements that venture north tend to follow rivers, some of which are navigable in the summer and function as frozen roadways in the winter. The Trans-Siberian Railway follows that southern route. It has to.
But the north; the frozen, vast, icy, north, spreading to the Arctic Circle and east to the Kamchatka Peninsula and the end of the line at Vladivostok — is 1.5 times the area of the Sahara Desert and the largest sparsely inhabited region in the world. The north half of the Kamchatka peninsula features a population density of only one person per every 6.2 square miles. Talk about swinging a cat and not hitting anything.
When a meteorite (or comet or black hole) crashed into the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908, it hit with the force of 1,000 atom bombs of the size that destroyed Hiroshima, and flattened 770 square miles of taiga yet somehow missed killing anyone at all.
Film director Werner Herzog fashioned a wonderful film about the area near the Yenisei River north of Krasnoyarsk, and the native Ket people, re-editing footage by Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasukov into an atmospheric documentary that captures the vastness, drabness, emptiness and sublimity of the region, all to the soundtrack of his hypnotic voice-over. It is called, only half-ironically, “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.” I highly recommend it.
Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.