Janet M. Hartley is professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Scholar in the fields of Russian history, the Napoleonic Empire and the history of early modern Europe, Janet’s major works include ‘Alexander I‘, ‘Russia-1762-1815: Military Power, the State and the People’ and ‘A Social History of the Russian Empire 1650-1825′. Theodora Clarke, Editor of Russian Art & Culture, spoke to Janet about her recent work, ‘Siberia: A History of the People’, in which the author explores the history of Siberia through the lives of the people who settled there, either willingly, desperately, or as prisoners condemned to exile or forced labor in mines and gulags. Theodora Clarke: What made you decide to write a book of such a huge subject as the history of Siberia? Janet Hartley: Well, that’s a good question because I am a Russian historian, not a Siberian historian, and all my other work has been focused on European Russia. But a few years ago I was writing a book on the impact of war in Russia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and by chance I came across records of military garrisons in the north east of Siberia. They turned out to be absolutely fascinating. They told of how people lived there, what happened when there was not enough food, what happened when soldiers arrived and married indigenous women. After that, I realised that I hadn’t seen a study on how people lived in Siberia. I’d seen narrative descriptions and descriptions of various events, and I’ve read books about the Revolution, Empire and the relationships between the centre and periphery, but I hadn’t really seen anything on just what it’s like to live there. So, that was the origin of the book. That is why it’s structured in the way it is, with a chapter on what it’s like living in the village, and what it’s like living in the town. When I wrote about the Civil War, which is not a well-known event, I tried to focus on what it was like living in the town. So it’s about how people lived in Siberia.Siberia is such a huge area of Russia, how do you go about tackling a subject of such magnitude? It’s true, it is difficult. I picked some regions within Siberia, and tried to make that clear within the text – the differences between the West of Siberia, which is much more settled, much more populated; the far East, which was only acquired later; the very far North, where there are really not many settlements at all. So there are different zones. It’s like Canada, that’s probably the best comparison – you’ve got a strip of territory where most people live, and then you’ve got these vast areas where there are very few people. Since I’m mostly talking about people, I focus on the areas where people went to – it’s not an anthropological study of a small tribe in the very far North. But I do try to make a distinction between East and West, between the major cultural centres in the West, such as Tomsk, and major cultural centres in the East, such as Irkutsk. On the other hand, the settlers were mostly Russians, some Ukrainians, some Belarussians, some Germans, so they were all “foreign”, if you like.They were outsiders coming into the region from the West, mostly, and this colours how they lived. So I don’t think there is much difference in the sense of how village looks in western Siberia or eastern Siberia, or how a city looked, how people dressed, what they ate. Could you just pick out one or two things which really struck you in your writing that you found really fascinating? Yes. One was a military outpost, in the very far North East, in the place called Gizhiga, at the Sea of Okhotsk. I was astonished that there was anything there at all, it’s even difficult to find it on a map. And to think that at some time there were three or four hundred people living there, just existing in this absolutely desolate spot. Another one is when I turned to look at early nineteenth century Jewish emigration to Siberia. I found a small town called Koinsk, where over half the merchants were Jewish, and I was just totally unaware that the whole town had this particular ethnical identity. One other thing would be Far Eastern settlements of religious dissidents, particularly the Skoptsy, the self-castrators. They seem to fascinate people. People were normally exiled there for disgusting practices or sometimes they just went there in order to escape the persecution. They set up villages of like-minded people with their own agriculture, their own form of administration, they cut themselves of from the rest of society. And they were just really weird, frankly. Where did you mainly do your research? It’s an archival study, so I can’t pretend that I have crossed the breadth of Siberia! When I went there I focused on particular archives and used them to get a better sense of that region. Particularly good sources were in Tomsk, and in Omsk, in Western Siberia. Eastern Siberia is more difficult. I did go to Irkutsk and Khabarovsk, I got most of my good archival materials from the West, simply because the records are very good, and in fact dealt with other parts of Siberia – they weren’t totally localised. I went to Vladivostok once just because I wanted to see it. I went there on the way to Beijing, I thought it was sort of around the corner, but it was not quite as close to Beijing as I thought it was! How did you bring together word-of-mouth stories and anecdotes with the archival data you found in Siberia? Well, it is difficult, and actually the book is not a detailed, sophisticated archival study. But I went to the archives to look at fairly specific things which gave me a more colour about people. In one archive I looked at church records which told me what the composition of the villages were, in another archive I focused on education and how they taught non-European languages and non-Russian languages. I was always looking at a particular angle, particular things, which might be interesting, quirky. And then for the modern period I did attempt an oral history which added a little bit of colour, to show what it was like living there. I was really struck by your chapter on religious belief and superstition, and the Old Believers. Could you just talk a bit about the cultural history in the book as well? I am an historian, not an anthropologist, so when I talk about indigenous people, I always really talk about them in terms of their contact with settlers. I don’t tend to do an analysis of spiritual and religious beliefs, because it’s outside my area completely. But when it comes to dissident religious groups in Russia (Old Believers, Skoptsy, self-castrators, etc), then I think it’s important because this was a territory of Russia, where Soviets had far less control than they had in European Russia. The groups were left alone, left to flourish more, and they clearly did colour Siberia very much, right through, I think, to the end of Collectivisation. Then they were pretty much wiped out. Interestingly, the Old Believers are coming back into Siberia. I mentioned in the book that I saw a reconstructed Old Believers church in Khabarovsk, built by a former Old Believer who had gone to Canada. But I feel that this sort of diversity was absent in the Soviet period simply because of the social pressure. It was one of the brutalities of Collectivisation. How much of Siberia’s identity do you think was lost during the Soviet Union? Has it been regained in any way? I think it did have an impact simply because of the numbers involved. With the population increasing so much, urbanisation was also on the rise. However, urban Siberia was really very different from urban European Russia. I would not say that there was simply a blanket Sovietisation, because in an odd way the Soviet economic system preserved some elements of Siberian life. A normal, modern capitalist system probably would have eliminated it faster, because it simply would not be economically viable. I do give some examples of this phenomenon, like villages in Yakutia, up in Eastern Siberia. These villages were artificially kept alive during the Soviet period, by virtue of having to grow grain and by being subsidised, being collectivised etc. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, the settlements collapsed. If they were under capitalism, they would have done this much earlier. And in an odd way it also therefore preserved some of their languages and their cultural habits. So, I don’t think it’s clear-cut – I don’t want to say that the Soviet Union just destroyed everything. But it was despite the system, not because of it, that these unique elements survived. Can you share with me your experiences writing about one of the most well-known parts of Siberian history such as the Gulags, forced labour camps and prisoners? Personally, I found it a very difficult chapter to write. I didn’t like writing it, because it’s beyond normal human comprehension to actually describe that amount of suffering and cruelty. I had to be slightly careful writing this, because of course not all Gulags were in Siberia, as is certainly assumed in the West. It was simply because of the remoteness of Siberia and the belief that Gulags were not just places of punishment, they were also places that were supposed to bring forward the economic development of the Soviet Union. And for those reasons some of the cruelest Gulags were in Siberia, in the very remote, North-Eastern parts. And yes, the death rates were absolutely horrendous. What I have tried to do a little bit in the book was try and grapple with the difficult question of how people outside the Gulags in Siberia reacted to this. I was trying to look at what was it like in Vladivostok when they saw prisoners being marched through. Or what was it like if somebody actually escaped from these places or you heard people’s cries. That is a very difficult one, and I don’t think anyone from that era has really come to terms with it. But what it must it have been like to see these sealed trains in railway stations? People just looked the other way, I suppose. But people don’t write about that. I imagine writing about this could have caused you problems, as a Western researcher in Russia. For example, Antony Beevor noticed that files he was examining suddenly disappeared in the archives,, probably to stop him writing something that painted a negative picture of Soviet history. Did you have any issues like that? Not at all. I found them very welcoming and very friendly. But then most of the archival material I used was pre-revolutionary, because this is my area of specialty. I was not looking at Gulag archives, or Civil War archives, for that period I just looked at memoirs. I just found Siberia very friendly, and actually the archivists were much friendlier than archivists in Moscow, perhaps because it is so unusual to have a Westerner there. They made sure documents were ready for me relatively quickly, and my friends in all these places ordered stuff in advance for me. I think the only negative thing I felt was just being an awful long way away from home. Early on in the book you talk about ancient indigenous cultures, like in Chukotka. Did you visit these areas? I didn’t go to Chukotka, no. I would have liked to have gone to Gizhiga, as I wrote a special chapter on that garrison, but it would be completely impossible. To be honest, it wouldn’t have been particularly useful for me to go there. I speak Russian, but I do not speak any indigenous languages and to really understand these groups you need to be an anthropologist and live there for a long time. Who is your target audience for the book? Is it an introduction for people who may be have never been to Russia? Yes, I think so. I’ve not written a book like this before. I deliberately tried not to use Russian terminology, unless I absolutely had to, and I didn’t assume any detailed knowledge of Russian history. I was targeting a sort of educated non-specialist audience: people who enjoy reading about history, people who read biographies, etc. A lot of people who are not Russian specialists have got in contact saying that they have enjoyed it. To challenge to stereotypes is one thing, but I also did want it to be quite a serious history. If it were just to challenge a few stereotypes about ice and tigers and prisoners then I could have written an article for a journal or a newspaper. Are you doing any book lectures, or talks? I am doing a public lecture and a book launch at the London School of Economics on October 9th. It is a public event, all are welcome! Siberia. A History of the people By Janet M. Hartley Published by Yale University Press 321 pages with 26 black & white illustrations and 11 maps Please click here to read our review of the book.