I. Introduction

Siberia (Russian Sibir'), vast region comprising the Asian portion of Russia as well as northern Kazakhstan. Siberia is a treasure trove of natural resources, with huge deposits of oil, gas, and minerals and vast stands of timber. Historically, the region was notorious as a bleak place of exile for Russian criminals, and, when the area was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), for those considered opponents of the Communist regime. Siberia is bounded on the west by the Ural Mountains; on the north by the Arctic Ocean; on the east by the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Strait; and on the south by China, Mongolia, and the hills of north central Kazakhstan. The name Siberia comes from the Tatar term Sibir, meaning "sleeping land."

II. Land and Resources

The region of Siberia spans 13,488,500 sq km (5,207,900 sq mi) and is even larger than Canada, which is the second largest country in the world after Russia. The region is divided into three major geographic areas. In the west, between the Ural Mountains and the Yenisey River, is the West Siberian Plain, which contains large amounts of swampland. Between the Yenisey and Lena rivers lies the Central Siberian Plateau, with elevations ranging between 300 and 1200 m (1000 and 4000 ft). And to the east is a complex system of mountain ranges and uplands extending from the Lena River to the Pacific coast.

Siberia has several major mountain ranges. The mountain chain composed of the Yablonovyy and Stanovoy ranges extends from just north of the Mongolian border northeast to the Sea of Okhotsk. Also on the Mongolian border, south of the Central Siberian Plateau, are the Sayan Mountains. The highest mountains in Siberia are generally in the Altay range, south of the West Siberian Plain. Spanning portions of Russia's borders with Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and China, the Altay Mountains generally measure between 3000 and 4000 m (10,000 and 13,000 ft) in height, reaching their highest elevation at Mount Belukha (4,506 m/ 14,783 ft). At Siberia's northeastern extreme, a chain of volcanic peaks–some of which are still active–extends along the entire length of the Kamchatka Peninsula. One volcano, Klyuchevskaya Sopka, is the tallest peak in Siberia at 4,750 m (15,584 ft).

Siberia is traversed from north to south by three great rivers, whose tributaries intersect like branches of huge spreading trees. From west to east, these rivers are the Ob', the Yenisey, and the Lena, all of which flow north and drain into the Arctic Ocean. The three rivers are frozen from six to nine months of each year. Of Siberia's major rivers, only the Amur flows east, following a sharply winding course to the Pacific Ocean. Southeast of the Central Siberian Plateau, near the Mongolian border, is Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake. Lake Baikal holds one-fifth of the earth's fresh surface water and contains a great diversity of plant and animal species, many of which cannot be found anywhere else on earth.

Except in the south, Siberia experiences long, cold winters that last for seven to eight months in most parts of the region and even longer in the far northeast. Summers in Siberia are short and generally moderate. The average temperature tends to rise as one moves south. In Tomsk, in the West Siberian Plain, the average temperature in January is -21° C (-6° F), and the average temperature in July is 18° C (64° F). Irkutsk, in central Siberia, has an average January temperature of -21° C (-6° F) and an average July temperature of 16° C (61° F). And Verkhoyansk, in the far northeast, averages -51° C (-60° F) in January and 14° C (57° F) in July. The vast Siberian interior receives scant snowfall. Precipitation is usually light, except along the Pacific coast.

Major vegetation zones extend in bands from east to west across all of Siberia. Extending south from the Arctic Ocean for a distance of about 430 km (about 270 mi) is the tundra, a belt of treeless marshy plains. Most of the tundra is in a permafrost condition, perpetually frozen to great depths; however, the top 90 to 120 cm (3 to 4 ft) thaws enough in the summer to permit mosses, lichens, flowering plants, stunted shrubs, and hordes of mosquitoes to flourish. To the south, the tundra shades into the taiga, a vast belt of mainly coniferous forests, in which the most common trees are larch, pine, Siberian cedar, and fir. Along the southern edge of the taiga is a transitional forest belt with deciduous trees, such as birch, willow, and poplar. This area then shades into the steppe, or grasslands, of the southwest, which contains Siberia's richest farmland.

Siberia is rich in animal life. Among its more common mammals are foxes, otters, wolves, hare, elk, reindeer, polar and brown bears, sable, seals, and walruses. Leopards, tigers, and antelope inhabit the Amur River region. Sturgeon, salmon, and rare freshwater seals inhabit Lake Baikal.

Vast oil and gas deposits constitute Siberia's most valuable natural resources. The region also has huge reserves of mineral resources, most notably coal, gold, copper, and iron ore. The Kuznetsk Basin in southwestern Siberia, generally referred to by Russians as the Kuzbas, contains about 600 billion metric tons of low-sulfur coking coal (coal used in steel production); the brown coal deposits of the Kansk-Achinsk Basin in south central Siberia are nearly twice that size. The forests of the taiga represent an estimated 40 billion cu m of timber (141 billion cu ft). Siberian mines have placed Russia, and before it the USSR, among the world's leading producers of gold.

Since the 1960s vast deposits of petroleum and natural gas have been discovered along the Vilyui River in the Russian republic of Sakha (Yakutia) in eastern Siberia and in western Siberia between the Ob' and Yenisey rivers. In western Siberia, the city of Tyumen' serves as a gateway to the oil fields of Samotlor and the natural gas reserves of Urengoy. The cities of Tomsk and Tobol'sk have huge petrochemical complexes. Siberia has significant deposits of uranium, nickel, manganese, diamonds, tin, and cobalt. Huge hydroelectric complexes were built in the 1970s and 1980s on the Angara River at Bratsk and Ust'-Ilimsk, and on the Yenisey River at Krasnoyarsk and Sayano-Shushenskoye.

Pipelines that carry oil and gas from Siberia to European Russia and the West pose huge dangers to the region's environment. Leaks in the oil pipeline system reportedly release 5 to 7 percent of Russia's total oil production each year; oil spills in 1991 alone amounted to about 7 million barrels. Even more dangerous is the pollution from Siberia's urban industries. The city with perhaps the most serious pollution problem is Noril'sk, located north of the Central Siberian Plateau inside the Arctic Circle and the site where most of Russia's platinum, copper, nickel, and cobalt are produced.

III. Population

In 1994 Siberia had an estimated population of 25,116,000. Overall, the region is sparsely inhabited, with an average population density of two persons per sq km (five per sq mi). The population is concentrated mainly along the Trans-Siberian Railroad in southern Siberia, and in the southwest, where the climate is relatively mild. Most major cities lie along or near the Trans-Siberian Railroad. From west to east, these include Chelyabinsk, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Novokuznetsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Khabarovsk, and Vladivostok. Yakutsk and Yeniseysk are located farther north, on the Lena and Yenisey rivers.

The great majority of Siberia's population is Russian. Other groups in the region include the Kazakhs, of northern Kazakhstan and neighboring Russian territory; the Buryats, most of whom live near Lake Baikal; and the Yakuts, a farming people in the middle Lena basin. Peoples of northern Siberia include relatively small populations of Tungus, Chukchi, and Koryaks. While Russian is the dominant language in the region, the non-Russian peoples speak a variety of other languages of the Paleo-Asiatic, Uralic, Altaic, and Indo-European language families.

IV. Economy

As the source of most of Russia's oil and natural gas, Siberia plays a major role in the country's struggling free-market economy. Three-quarters of Russia's hard-currency receipts come from the sale of petroleum products abroad. Nevertheless, the remoteness of many of Siberia's oil and gas deposits makes access and transport expensive. The Russian government has encouraged companies from other countries, including Japan and South Korea, to invest in projects to develop Siberia's raw materials.

From its widely dispersed sources of raw materials, Siberia's industries produce metal and metal products, textiles, vehicles, agricultural equipment, and construction materials. Industrial areas include the Kuznetsk Basin, the Yenisey River valley, and the Lena River valley near Yakutsk. Noril'sk is a major center for metal production.

Farming in Siberia is limited mainly to the west and southwest, where wheat, rye, oats, barley, and sunflowers are cultivated intensively. A prosperous dairy industry, which developed in the early 20th century, is located in this area. Farther east, potatoes, grain, sugar beets, and flax are grown, and in the far eastern part of the region, people herd reindeer for their milk, flesh, and hides. Siberia also has significant lumber and fishing industries.

The backbone of Siberia's transportation system is the Trans-Siberian Railroad (completed in 1905), which is now supplemented by the Turkistan-Siberian line (1931), the South Siberian line (early 1950s), the Central Siberian line (1980), and the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM; 1989). Because constructing roads and railroads on permafrost is difficult, air transportation has become increasingly important in supplementing Siberia's overworked railroads. A number of Siberia's airports are located along the Trans-Siberian Railroad at Tyumen', Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, and near the Chinese border at Khabarovsk. Other airports include one at Yakutsk and one at Magadan, a port city on the Sea of Okhotsk.

V. History

Although nomadic peoples first entered Siberia about 50,000 years ago, the region's first settled communities date from about 10,000 BC. Evidence of these settlements is abundant in southern Siberia, which was drawn into the trade that flourished along the ancient Silk Road linking China with imperial Rome. When the nomadic Scythians surged out of their homeland on the edge of present-day Mongolia around 700 BC, the great grass road that stretched along Siberia's southern lands became the route by which they invaded Europe. Using the same road, the Sarmatians followed in the 3rd century BC, and the Huns overran the area in the 4th century AD. In the 13th century the Mongols swept in and took control of southwestern Siberia. In the 15th century the Mongol Empire dissolved into many smaller states. One of these states was the khanate of Sibir, whose capital was located near present-day Tobol 'sk.

A. Russian Exploration and Conquest

In the 16th century the first Russian conquerors marched against Sibir. Financed by the powerful Stroganov family, the Russian Cossack adventurer Yermak led a force of Cossacks that defeated the armies of Sibir in 1582 and claimed all of Siberia in the name of Russian tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich , also known as Ivan the Terrible. Yermak's success soon led to other Russian incursions. By 1639 Russian settlers had reached the Pacific Ocean, and in 1648 Russian explorer Semyon Dezhnyov sailed through Bering Strait, rounding the easternmost tip of Asia.

Far to the south, other Russians explored the Amur valley on the southeastern edge of Siberia, which led to conflicts with China. By the terms of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed in 1689, Russia gave up all claims to the territory. It was not until the 1850s that Russia regained the area, when it was seized by Russian general Nikolay Muravev. As general governor of the province of Eastern Siberia, Muravev signed an agreement with China in 1858 that established the Russo-Chinese border.

Like the Mongols before them, the Russians collected tribute from Siberia's natives in the form of furs. Great quantities of fine Siberian pelts were exported, first to Europe and later to China, until furs from North America began to compete on a large scale at the beginning of the 19th century. At that time, the mining of iron, silver, copper, and gold, performed by Russians and Russian convict labor, began to replace fur-gathering as Siberia's main economic activity.

B. Influx of Russians

Siberia's harsh climate, poor roads, and limited food supplies kept the Russian population in the region small until 1861, when the Russian imperial government freed the country's serfs (peasants legally bound to the land they worked) and significant migration began. When construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad began in the early 1890s, hundreds of thousands of Russian settlers arrived in the region, and farming began to develop in Siberia on a commercial scale. Before this time, Russians living in the region had been mainly soldiers, government officials, runaway serfs, peasants, and religious dissidents.

C. Place of Exile

In the 1660s the Russian government under Tsar Alexis I had begun the practice of punishing common criminals and political offenders by exiling them to Siberia. Among those exiled during the 17th and 18th centuries were the archpriest Avvakum, who had defied the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church; Aleksandr Menshikov, the favorite of Peter the Great, who succumbed to court intrigue after the emperor's death; and progressive writer and critic of serfdom Aleksandr Radishchev. By the 1870s the number of exiles had grown to more than 10,000 per year. Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky all served terms of exile in Siberia in the 1890s and 1900s for revolutionary Marxist activities.

D. Soviet Period

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, which brought the Bolsheviks (later Communists) to power in Russia, civil war broke out between the Bolsheviks and their adversaries, most notably the counterrevolutionary White forces (see  Russian Civil War). White armies led by Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak fought the Bolsheviks for control of Siberia and its natural resources. After Kolchak was defeated in 1920, Siberia came under Soviet rule.

Siberia's development accelerated under the Soviets, especially after Joseph Stalin came to power in the 1920s. Stalin began using forced labor to mine the region's minerals, particularly iron, coal, silver, gold, and diamonds; cut timber; and build cities and industrial complexes. Brutal forced labor became a major aspect of the ongoing practice of Siberian exile. The Soviet leader condemned millions of men and women to the Gulag–a vast system of work camps and prisons in Siberia–during the 1930s and 1940s. Usually convicted on trumped-up charges, those exiled included intellectuals, party or army officials, and ethnic minorities who Stalin believed could pose a threat to his power or obstruct state policies. Some of the USSR's greatest writers, scientists, and military leaders, including World War II hero Konstantin Rokossovsky, served prison terms in Siberia. Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and other survivors have described the horrors of Siberia's labor camps in vivid detail. After Stalin's death in 1953, the labor camp population dropped dramatically.

Beginning with the first economic Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), Soviet planners made strenuous efforts to develop Siberia. In the south and southwest, the huge industrial complexes of the Kuzbas and of Magnitogorsk both owed their beginnings to the early five-year plans. So did Noril'sk, which grew during this period from a tiny frontier town into a sprawling complex of plants processing uranium, copper, nickel, and platinum. The Soviet government encouraged Russians to move to Siberia voluntarily by offering high wages for work in the region, and Russians poured into the newly built industrial centers. Some Siberian cities grew by more than 600 percent between 1927 and 1940.

During World War II (1939-1945), Soviet planners shifted much of the USSR's heavy industry from Ukraine (then a Soviet republic) and European Russia to Siberia, where it lay beyond the reach of Germany's longest-range bombers. In the 1960s and 1970s the Soviet government built gigantic petrochemical complexes at Tomsk and Tobolsk. In the 1980s and 1990s huge mining operations in the Siberian northeast–which formerly had depended on forced labor–began to be modernized and expanded with Western assistance.

E. Recent History

Today Siberia plays an important role in the Russian economy, although it still faces some of the problems that impeded its development in earlier times. The region's remoteness and harsh climate obstruct the exploitation of natural resources and make it a difficult environment for human existence. Perhaps the most serious problem facing Siberia today is its severe pollution, which is largely a result of the aggressive, careless ways in which the Soviet government pursued industrialization. The open-hearth furnaces of Magnitogorsk have so polluted the atmosphere that about two-thirds of that region's children and more than half of its adults suffer from respiratory illnesses. Some of the lands around Lake Karachai (near Chelyabinsk in western Siberia), where a nuclear weapons factory dumped its waste for years, contain more than 20 times the radioactivity released by the Chernobyl' reactor accident in Ukraine. In 1990 a Russian government commission reported that more than 500 million cu m (18 billion cu ft) of Siberia's freshwater lakes and streams had become radioactive from the dumping of nuclear waste. In recent years, many of the people who moved or were sent to Siberia during the Soviet period have left the region to seek better lives elsewhere.

Contributed By:

W. Bruce Lincoln, B.A., Ph.D.

Late Distinguished Research Professor of History, Northern Illinois University. Author of Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of a Thousand Years of Artistic Life in Russia and other books.


"Siberia," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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