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Seeing the Backstory in Siberia

May 31, 2010 at 10:10 am
By Ben Hellerstein

In St. Petersburg we encountered the world’s largest vase. At least six feet tall and ten feet wide, weighing several tons, it appears less like the work of human hands than some natural geological phenomenon. The room in which it stands, in the first floor of the Winter Palace, is not large. The vase itself is several times wider than any of the room’s doors, suggesting perhaps that the vase was not moved into place but has stood on the same spot since the beginning of time.

In reality, the vase was carved in Siberia, from a single enormous piece of green jasper that was unearthed there. It was then laboriously transported across the Ural Mountains to the mouth of the Neva River, and installed in the first floor of the Winter Palace while the building was still under construction and the walls had not yet been put up.

St. Petersburg at times seemed like a city constructed out of thin air, a wonderland of stone cathedrals and stucco palaces, gilded domes and spires, that showed no direct evidence of the tremendous amount of human energy and natural resources that was expended in its construction. All of that wealth must have come from somewhere. In fact, much of it came from Siberia, and our weeklong trip to one small corner of Russia’s vast eastern territories afforded us a glimpse of the hidden infrastructure that made St. Petersburg and Moscow’s modern European lifestyle possible, the backside of Russia’s rise to prominence as a global power.

The primary motivation for Russia’s eastward expansion in the 16th and 17th centuries was Siberia’s immense stores of natural resources – not only the large deposits of precious metals and stones that would provide the raw materials for so many ornamental vases and other decorative objects to fill the thousands of rooms of St. Petersburg’s hundreds of palaces, but also furs. As Anne Reid describes in The Shaman’s Coat, an account of the colonization of Siberia and its present-day consequences, sable pelts were considered the ultimate luxury item in Europe, and Russia was the main supplier. Though Russia’s European lands were soon hunted out, Siberia’s vast forests offered an apparently limitless new source of sable. Revenues from the sable trade helped to stabilize the Russian state during the 17th-century Time of Troubles, when the line of succession to the throne was disputed and Russia was invaded by foreign armies, and to fuel Russia’s growth as a military and economic power to rival any European state.

Russia obtained wealth not only from Siberia but through it as well. On our first day in Siberia, we drove to the city of Kyakhta on the Mongolian border. Our first stop was the city’s historical museum, which told the story of the city’s rise to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries. At that time, Mongolia was part of the Chinese Empire, and Kyakhta was one of only two points along the Russian-Chinese border where trade was permitted. As a result, Kyakhta’s merchants grew tremendously wealthy and funded the construction of several enormous European-style cathedrals. We admired the museum’s collection of artifacts from this period: the elaborate clothing and furniture of Kyakhta’s merchant families, luxury items imported from China, fragments of glass columns and gold icons from the city’s churches.

As we continued our tour of the city, it was clear how far Kyakhta’s fortunes had fallen since the late 19th century, when the advent of new modes of transportation, more rapid than camel caravans, made Kyakhta obsolete as a node of trade. The churches that looked so stern and solid in the museum’s photographs now stand in varying states of decay. Still, walking up to one of these semi-ruined cathedrals today, its massive Classical columns and pediments standing against the distant low mountains of Mongolia, you gain an appreciation for the true extent of Russian power – an empire that imported European culture and religion to the most distant reaches of the Siberian steppe.

Sometimes the exportation of culture from European Russia to Siberia was unintentional. In Irkutsk, we toured the former mansion of one of the Decembrists. The Decembrists were a group of military officers from noble families who, on December 14, 1825, assembled their troops in St. Petersburg’s Senate Square to demand human rights for all Russians and the end of autocratic rule. The uprising was quickly and violently broken up, and many of the conspirators were sentenced to years of penal servitude in Siberia. After their sentences were over, these former noblemen were barred from returning to European Russia. Settling in Irkutsk with their wives and children, they sought to recreate in Siberia as much of St. Petersburg’s cultural life as they could. The mansion itself, despite being constructed of wood, was an impressive structure: two stories tall, with formal reception rooms as well as private quarters for the entire family. Musical instruments were imported from the West to provide entertainment for evening parties.

From the perspective of St. Petersburg, the Decembrists’ involuntary departure for Siberia places a firm end to that episode of history. In Siberia, though, we saw that the story of the Decembrist Uprising continued long after St. Petersburg had ceased to pay attention. In Siberia we understood that the story of Russian history is continuous across the Ural Mountains. The same themes we have studied in Moscow and St. Petersburg have played out in the East as well, whether for good – the exiled Decembrists established many of the artistic and musical institutions that exist in Irkutsk to this day – or for bad – as in Stalin’s attempts to wipe out Buryat shamanism and Buddhism.


  • June 2 2010 at 9:05 pm

    I see being in this very serious country has not robbed you of your sense of humor!  Loved your piece and look forward to seeing you SOON. I've found I couple of Russian speaking folks here who can help you keep your newly acquired skills alive.