• Peripheral Histories

Brain Drain, Grigorii Z. Eliseev and Siberia’s Peripherality

Diego Repenning


The theme of ‘brain-drain’ has been an issue the Russian Federation has dealt with for a long time. After the fall of the USSR, and the ensuing social, political and economic chaos of the 1990s, educated people sought opportunities beyond their borders and away from their families, many times choosing the multidimensional distress that migration entails over the uncertain present in the newly-formed Russian Federation. However, the issue of brain-drain and the consequences felt by the territorial spaces suffering from it are not a new phenomena in Russia, nor one that can be only be found after the fall of the USSR. Siberia during the imperial era was a region that endured a long history of seeing their most educated people leaving their homeland to seek a better future elsewhere, being one of the layers that can help in explaining the enduring peripherality of Siberia within the different shapes assumed by the Russian state.


Grigorii Z. Eliseev (1821 – 1891) was one of these many intellectuals of Siberian origin who left their homeland in the nineteenth century. They usually left to receive an education and pursue a career in the capitals of the empire as opportunities were scarce and positions of importance in local administration were usually reserved for Russians coming from the other side of the Urals. This was explained by the inexistence of a landed nobility, or local settled elites in the region upon whom the state could trust to govern the land, as happened elsewhere in the empire. Besides, the local merchant class was perceived as unreliable and unable to be the natural leaders of society. Mikhail M. Speransky, the imperial bureaucrat who overhauled administrative structures in the region during the 1820s, made that clear by precluding them from attaining leading positions in Siberia’s imperial administration.


Grigorii Z. Eliseev


For that reason, it is possible to find many examples of renowned Siberian intellectuals that left their homeland and deprived their region of their talent, an especially troubling situation for a famously under-governed territory that was in a perpetual search for educated people to fill bureaucratic post. Ivan T. Kalashnikov (1797 – 1863) poet and writer, Afanasii P. Shchapov (1830 – 1876) historian, Dmitrii I. Mendeleev (1834 – 1907) chemist and creator of the periodic table of elements, Grigorii N. Potanin (1835 – 1920) ethnographer and natural historian, Serafim S. Shashkov (1841 – 1882) publicist and ethnographer, Ivan A. Khudiakov (1842 – 1876) folklorist and political activist, Nikolai M. Iadrintsev (1842 – 1894) ethnographer and publicist, Vasilii I. Surikov (1848 – 1916) painter, Konkordiia N. Samoilova (1876 – 1921) journalist and revolutionary activist, were just a few Siberian intellectuals who left Siberia for better opportunities in the capitals. All of these notorious individuals experienced in some degree what Russian elites felt during the nineties in the newly-created Russian Federation.


However, I would like to explore Eliseev’s example more closely, looking at the little known Siberian life of the influential journalist and publicist as his trajectory portrays the travails Siberians endured on account of the region’s relentless peripherality.


Eliseev was the son of a parish priest which afforded his family a modest living in the Siberian town of Spasskoe in the province of Tomsk in Western Siberia. However, at age nine he was orphaned and left in charge of his seminary educators. Fortunately, being part of the spiritual estate – soslovie – allowed him to access the educational networks of the Russian Orthodox Church. Moreover, excelling as a student granted him the opportunity to gain a university education. Since there were no universities in Siberia – not until 1888 when Tomsk University was founded – he left for European Russia where he entered the Moscow Theological Academy. The talents he had already showed as a seminary student in Tobol’sk were also demonstrated during his university years in the old capital of the empire, affording him a position at the Kazan’ Theological Academy as a lecturer in the early 1850s. However, the experience of intellectual excitement felt by the young intelligentsia throughout the empire in the years leading up to the Great Reforms, instilled in him the desire to engage in social work beyond the passiveness of his academic post. Already known among his colleagues and students as an intellectual moved by the moral duty of social activism, he decided to return to Siberia and immerse himself in working for the betterment of his native land using the talents acquired through his education.


Eliseev spent the years between 1854 and 1858 working in different positions and regions of Siberia as part of the imperial administration, engaged mainly in peasant affairs. However, he experienced there the reasons behind the ‘intellectual absenteeism’ that plagued Siberia throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[1] In an article he published in Otechestvennye zapiski in 1875, he explained the issue arguing that, as mentioned above, ‘there have always been a lot of people in Siberia who wanted to get a higher education, and there were many who have received it, […] but none of these people remained in Siberia.’[2] He explains that this happened because ‘they are usually rejected for work in Siberia. Every Governor-general – every provincial governor even – that goes to Siberia, knows this country so little that he imagines that its natural inhabitants would mainly consist of [natives], exiles and convicts.’[3] This set of preconceptions that elite European Russian administrators had of the region meant that ‘the rulers of Siberia have usually brought with them the darkness of Russian officialdom, most of them career seekers looking for easy money […] These officials have occupied all the most important and influential posts on the ladder of the Siberian official hierarchy’[4] leaving educated locals with no possibilities to achieve their desire to improve their land’s conditions from influential positions.


Eliseev was affected by this realisation and by the end of his bureaucratic experience in Siberia he became immersed in depression and alcoholism. Eventually, it became obvious for him that in order to have the opportunity to participate in the changes that were taking place in the empire, he had to leave Siberia and carve himself a position in the capitals of the empire. It was from this experience that Eliseev went on to become one of the most notorious publicists in the post-reform period working for Iskra, Sovremennik, and Otechestvennye zapiski, among other thick journals in St. Petersburg.


I found, as Erin Hutchinson did in a previous post in Peripheral Histories when discussing Soviet peasant writers, that Eliseev’s life embodies larger trends in Russian history, and that his life in Siberia is an analogy for the systematic peripherality of Siberia among the different historical regions of Russia.


Diego Repenning is an Adjunct Lecturer at the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Chile and a researcher specialising in Russian history. He graduated as a PhD in 2020 at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom with a dissertation about Siberian bureaucracy and civil society during the second half of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Find more information here or on his Twitter account @diegorepenning.

[1] Stephen Digby Watrous, Russia’s ‘Land of the Future’: Regionalism and the Awakening of Siberia, 1819 - 1894 (Washington: University of Washington, 1970), p. 32. [2] Sochineniia G. Z. Eliseeva v dvukh tomakh, c portretom avtora i vstupitel’noĭ stat’eĭ N. Mikhaĭlovskogo (Moscow: Izdanie K. T. Soldatenkova, 1894), Vol. i, p. 439. [3] Sochineniia G. Z. Eliseeva, p. 439. [4] Sochineniia G. Z. Eliseeva, p. 439.

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