• Peripheral Histories

Non-Russian Intellectuals of Siberia: Regionalism & the Transformation of the Russian Empire

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

Aleksandr Korobeinikov


The Russian revolution of 1917 marked a turning point in Russian imperial and world history. Explanations of this tectonic shift, however, cannot be reduced to a linear Russo-centric narrative. The revolution revealed and became a culmination of multiple ideas and projects that were initiated by local political actors in various regions of the Russian Empire. Among them were the high level of regional self-organization, the growth of political imagination, the importance of nationalism, autonomism, and other widespread discourses, as well as the necessity to regulate social and political control in various stateless regions. In regional contexts, political control was exerted by national intellectuals whose ideas and actions became instrumental for national historiographies across the post-Soviet space. The role of Alash intellectuals in Kazakhstan is one such example of the veneration of intellectuals from this period in national historical narratives.[1]


Figure 1: Contemporary visual appreciation of the Alash intellectuals in the Kazakh media sphere [Source: http://islamoved.ru/2017/lektsiya-dvizhenie-alash-i-alashskaya-avtonomiya/]


Unlike the post-Soviet republics’ representatives, Siberian non-Russian intellectuals who represented the main “national” peripheries of Siberia (which today we know as Buryatia, Khakassia, Altai, and Yakutia) remain largely unknown. Although the classic historiography on the Russian revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union does not pay a lot of attention to non-Russian political actors from Siberia,[2] recent post-imperial studies have demonstrated the crucial role of local non-Russian intellectuals during the imperial transformation and the formation of the new political and social order in Asiatic Russia.[3] In this paper, I show how local non-Russian intellectuals appeared in Siberia, who inspired their activity, and what actions they took to transform the existing order in Siberian regions.


Among other things, the mobilization of non-Russian peoples in Siberia resulted from the imperial logic regarding the land issue (colonization) that escalated after the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway. The land issue in Siberia was an outcome of the resettlement policy of late imperial Russia that promoted the massive relocation of Slavic peasants in the non-Russian regions in order to “merge” Siberia with central Russia. Since newcomers often occupied the best lands for their farms, this led to conflicts with the local Siberian population. The land issue thus strengthened the anticolonial discourse that rapidly spread across many non-Russian Siberian peripheries because of the rhetoric and activity of the Siberian regionalists.[4]


Siberian regionalism, defined as a system of views of local Siberian intellectuals on the past, present, and future of the region and as a socio-political and cultural movement, had a significant impact on the public (obshchestvennaia) life of Siberians in the second half of the 19th and first two decades of the 20th century. One of the key ideas of regionalism was the concept of Siberia as a colony, according to which Siberia had to work towards territorial self-government and autonomy, but not separation from Russia. Among the proponents of the regionalist movement were prominent Siberian scientists, publicists, and public figures such as Afanasy Shchapov, Alexander Adrianov, Pyotr Golovachev, Innokenty Serebrennikov, and many others. However, the true leaders were ethnographers, travelers, and publicists Nikolai Mikhailovich Yadrintsev and Grigory Nikolaevich Potanin. Their ideas included original approaches to the questions of imperial exploitation of Siberia’s natural resources, effectiveness of exile as both a means of penal colonization and a method of re-education of criminals, and the indigenous issue. According to the Siberian regionalists, the indigenous issue was about the “unfair” position of the indigenous population of Siberia in the social and power hierarchy of the Russian Empire. Not only did they have no political rights, but they were also obliged to pay tribute (yasak) and provide their territories for the settlement of Slavic peasants. The Siberian regionalists were among the first to draw attention to the practical helplessness of Siberian natives and tried to articulate this problem both on the Siberian and all-Imperial stage.


The indigenous issue in the regionalists’ agenda aroused the interest of indigenous people in the problem of colonialism and led to the formation of regional (national) Siberian intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century. The regionalists always underlined that penal colonization, drunkenness, and the land issue were critical issues that left Siberian natives in an “unfair” situation.[5] According to Grigorii Potanin, “the amount of land seized by Russians from natives was, of course, small, but over the years it gradually increased with the constant growth of the Russian colonization.”[6] Colonization thus was one of the crucial elements in the crystallization of regional identity in non-Russian regions of Siberia.


The problems and questions addressed by the regionalists were reflected both in the regional Siberian and St. Petersburg press. The Siberian regionalists not only wanted to draw the attention of the imperial center to the situation of Siberia and its people but also to involve the local Siberian population in the internal problems of the region. The colonial question and its criticism began to circulate in the Siberian and Central Asian regions due to the noteworthy publication of Nikolai Yadrintsev’s Siberia as a Colony (1883), as well as through the organization of societies in Tomsk and Omsk to discuss the imperial policy on the borderlands.


Figure 2: The leaders of the Siberian regionalism, Grigorii Potanin and Nikolai Yadrintsev [Source: https://region.expert/siberian_lecture/]


According to the regionalists, the issue of the Russian colonization of Siberia was closely linked to the educational agenda and the indigenous question. Yadrintsev initiated a discussion on the issue of Siberian natives dying out because of the numerical superiority of the colonizers and their lack of education. As one of the solutions, the regionalists proposed the formation of indigenous intellectual societies that could foster the cultural development of the indigenous peoples of Siberia by familiarizing them with the European system of scientific and cultural values in direct interaction with Russian culture. Yadrintsev was sure that “Siberian natives who will acquire European enlightenment through the cooperation with Russian nationality can be very prominent mediators of this civilization and providers of great services to human progress.”[7] The Siberian region, according to Potanin, needed innovations in which each tribe “the Tatars, Buryats, Yakuts ... would have chances for cultural revival and self-determination.”[8]


At the same time, Potanin was outraged by the lack of an organized group of indigenous intellectuals. He claimed that they still “have neither concentration nor the Kyrgyz [Kazakh] or Buryat intellectual center.” However, Potanin considered the Yakuts as the most “promising” ethnographic group. Due to differences in the economic development of the region, he contended that “only the Yakuts seemed to have resolved this issue [of cultural development], or at least have the makings to resolve it.”[9]


Throughout the 19th century, the Yakut region remained one of the most remote areas of Siberia, a place of mass penal and political exile. The reforms of Mikhail Speransky in 1822 initiated a reorganization in the region: the Yakuts were enrolled in the category of “nomadic indigenous group” and the Steppe Duma was established as a local government body. This institution played an important role in the formation of the Yakut elite, who found themselves integrated into the imperial structures and initiated local social activities. The Yakut elite consisted of wealthy representatives of noble families, who were often also landholders. Due to the vastness of the Yakut territory and the unequal social status of its population, the region not only had a specific form of social interaction based on broad mobility of people but also a particular kind of economic development. This is probably why Potanin noted the specific nature of the economic development of Yakutia, in which the local elite not only had a different social status and economic state but could also afford a good imperial education for their children (many of them later became prominent representatives of Yakut intellectuals). The perception of Siberian natives as objectified “colonial elements” and the impossibility of their political representation within the imperial power authorities caused strong dissatisfaction among the local elites who united at the turn of the century.

By the beginning of the 20th century, there was a consolidation of the group of Yakut indigenous intellectuals who were thinking about the fate of the region.[10] The main catalysts of the members’ unification were the land issue, anti-colonial discourse, and the denial of the right to political representation in the imperial parliament. The opportunity to take part in the elections to the Duma became one of the instruments of intellectual revitalization in various non-Russian regions and the formation of political groups representing the interests of the region. The spread of the regionalist rhetoric throughout Siberia, good education, and personal cooperation with political exiles turned-ethnographers shaped the intellectual background of the political activist, lawyer and journalist Vasily Nikiforov-Kulumnur – the leader of the Yakut intellectuals. He was one of the natives of the Yakut elite who, thanks to the imperial education and the influence of regionalism, drew attention to the situation of the indigenous people of Yakutia and attempted to initiate social and cultural transformations in the region.


Figure 3: Vasily Vasil’evich Nikiforov-Kulumnur [Source: https://dnevniki.ykt.ru/Okrug/1169932?promo_inner]


Overall, there were around 15 active members of the Yakut intelligentsia at the beginning of the 20th century. Most came from wealthy families. They presented themselves as ambitious representatives of the Yakut-educated people and as proponents of social, cultural, and political reforms in the Russian Empire. A significant step for the Yakut intellectuals was the creation of the Union of the Yakuts, a political and cultural initiative of Vasily Nikiforov-Kulumnur. On 4 January 4, 1906, he and other organizing members wrote a proclamation that advocated for the introduction of zemstvo self-government, the recognition of the right to possess all lands belonging to the Yakuts, and representation in the State Duma. The main goal of the Union was to “firmly establish civil and economic rights” for the Yakuts.[11] This marked the rapid growth of social and political life in the Yakut region.


The discourse of self-government and other ideas of the intellectuals, such as political representation in Duma, cultural education, and social equality, began to spread across Yakutia thanks to the rudimentary mechanisms of the public sphere, namely the press, speeches, and literary evenings. Given the vast distances and underdevelopment of transport infrastructures, intergenerational and interpersonal ties played a crucial role in the transmission of information.


Figure 4: The representatives of the Yakut intellectuals – Vasily Nikiforov-Kulumnur, Gavriil Ksenofontov, Gavriil Nikiforov [Source: https://nazaccent.ru/content/17114-politicheskaya-etnografiya.html]


The First World War played a decisive role in the regionalization of Russia’s imperial spaces.[12] The impossibility of conscripting the Siberian indigenous populations into the active army was perceived by the natives as a symbolic exception from the common imperial civil space. The development of public spaces, the ideas of education, social justice, and democracy, as well as the processes of regional modernization led to the emergence of a social (“national”) movement in Yakutia. The rudimentary mechanisms of the public sphere in this context played a key role in mobilizing the population of the Siberian peripheries, their involvement in the modern discourses of nationalism, self-government, and autonomism, as well as influenced the growth of the reading public and the formation of the Yakut “imagined community”.


Thanks to the influence of Siberian regionalism, expansion of social and communicative spheres, the increase of educational opportunities in the Russian Empire, and the general political crisis of the Empire there were possibilities for the formation of non-Russian intellectual forces even in the most remote imperial corners such as Yakutia. On the one hand, the example of Yakutia, along with other regions (Buryatia, Khakassia, or Altai), is a typical example of imperial political transformation in the Siberian borderlands. On the other hand, the peculiarity of Yakutia lies in its remoteness from transport infrastructures. In this respect, it was precisely the discursive (non-physical) spaces of Siberia that played a key role in the formation of the Yakut intellectuals.


Aleksandr Korobeinikov is a historian of Russia and Siberia with a particular focus on late imperial and early Soviet Yakutia. Currently, he is doing Ph.D. research on various logics of socio-economic imagination in post-imperial Yakutia at the Central European University in Budapest and Vienna. He earned his MA in Comparative History at the Central European University in Budapest and his BA in History at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg.

[1] On the history of the Alash movement see, Ivan Sablin, Alexander Korobeynikov, “Buryat-Mongol and Alash Autonomous Movements before the Soviets, 1905-1917,” AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples 12, no. 3 (2016): 211-223. [2] See, for instance, Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001); Terry Martin, Ronald G. Suny eds., A State of Nations: Empire and Nation‐Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005). [3] Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015); Ivan Sablin, Governing Post-Imperial Siberia and Mongolia, 1911–1924: Buddhism, Socialism and Nationalism in State and Autonomy Building (London: Routledge, 2016); Ivan Sablin, The Rise and Fall of Russia’s Far Eastern Republic, 1905–1922: Nationalisms, Imperialisms, and Regionalisms in and after the Russian Empire (London: Routledge, 2018). [4] See the historiography of Siberian regionalists, Norman G. Pereira, “Regional Consciousness in Siberia before and after October 1917,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 30, no. 1 (1988): 112-133; Norman G. Pereira, “The Idea of Siberian Regionalism in Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia,” Russian History 20, no. 1-4 (1993): 163-178; Stephen Watrous, “The Regionalist Conception of Siberia, 1860 to 1920,” in Between Heaven and Hell: The Myth of Siberia in Russian Culture, 113-132; James Hughes, “Regionalism in Russia: The Rise and Fall of Siberian Agreement,” Europe-Asia Studies 46, no. 7 (1994): 1133-1161; David Rainbow, “Siberian Patriots: Participatory Autocracy and the Cohesion of the Russian Imperial State, 1858-1920” (PhD diss., New York University, 2013). [5] See, Nikolai Yadrintsev, Sibir’ kak koloniia: k jubileju trehsotletija. Sovremennoe polozhenie Sibiri, ee nuzhdy i potrebnosti, ee proshloe i budushhee (St. Petersburg: Tipografia M. Stasulevicha, 1883). [6] Grigorii Potanin, “Nuzhdy Sibiri,” in Sibir’, ee sovremennoe sostoianie i ee nuzhdy, ed. I.S. Mel’nik (St. Petersburg: Izdanie A.F. Devriena, 1908), 279. [7] Nikolai Yadrintsev, Sibir’ kak koloniia, 125. [8] Grigorii Potanin, “Nuzhdy Sibiri,” 287. [9] Grigorii Potanin, “Goroda Sibiri,” in Sibir’ ee sovremennoe sostoianie i nuzhdy: sbornik statei, 259. [10] On the history of the Yakut intelligentsia formation, see Aleksandr Korobeinikov, Egor Antonov, “Toward a Postimperial Order? The Sakha Intellectuals and the Revolutionary Transformations in Late Imperial Russia, 1905–1917,” Sibirica: Interdisciplinary Journal of Siberian Studies 20, no. 2 (2021): 27-59. [11] Dokumenty o revoliutsionnykh sobytiiakh 1905–1907 gg. v Yakutii(Yakutsk: Knizhnoe izd-vo, 1957), 164–165. [12] Joshua Sanborn, Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

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