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Sibiryak today -- "We just say what we think."

June 1, 2012 at 1:21 am
By Misha and Sophia

      The Russian settlement of Siberia began in the 1570’s, when a company of Ivan the Terrible’s men headed by the now-legendary Yermak Timofeevich crossed the Ural mountains.  Exiles, convicts, trappers, traders, government officials and others joined, disenfranchised, and displaced natives as inhabitants of this vast territory.  But the original “Sibiryaki” (Siberians of European origin) were somehow “different from European Russians: cannier, more self-reliant, and less obedient to authority.”(Reid 19)  During our trip to Siberia, we got to see for ourselves just how different the Sibiryak of today are from their fellow Russians back home in Moscow.

      Some of the first Siberians we met were our hosts in Ust Barguzin,  a small town on Baikal’s eastern shore.  We drove down main street—Ulitsa Lenina—a wide sand road lined by log houses with ornate wooden shutters.  Each had an indestructible-looking Soviet all-terrain “UAZik” van parked outside. Houses gave way to piles of lumber and Ulitsa Lenina became a narrow forest road. We turned.  At house # 2 /16 ul. Kedrovaya, a beaming woman with graying blond hair bustled us inside, told us not to flush toilet paper, and poured tea.  Later, after our copious dinner, Nina sat down, poured more tea, and explained we might not meet her husband Misha tonight.  He was at his job at Zabaikalsky National Park fighting Siberian forest fires.

      Eventually, we did meet Misha. We heard a van pull up and he walked past us with barely a nod, his army fatigues reeking of smoke and sap.  Handing his thermos to Nina, he disappeared.  Five minutes later he walked back outside to the banya —shirtless.  Yes, he was a real Sibiryak man, and he knew it. 

      The next night, during our third round of tea, we heard the van again.  Misha entered, plopped down several pine cones (filled with delicious nuts) and hunks of chewable sera (tree sap).  In lieu of a chair, he pulled a stool into the corner and leaned his head nonchalantly against the hot pechka (Russian wood stove). As a former soldier who moved east, married a Siberian, headed further east to make quick money herding reindeer on the Kamchatka, and eventually returned west to live a “comfortable” Siberian life in Ust Barguzin, he fit our original description of a Sibirya.

            Talking with Misha was fascinating, and our conversation ranged from his kids, China, the roads, reindeer on the Aleutian Islands, tourists, obligatory Russian military service, to Putin and beyond...  While Misha told about his time on Kamchatka, he revealed his views about Russian-native relations, which was particularly interesting because we’ve spent a great deal of class on this topic.  He confirmed what we had discussed about native populations being small, while the number of tribes represented is quite large—around 30 on the island of Sakhalin alone.  However, some of Misha’s comments came off as rather condescending—like when telling how natives still barter instead of using money and showing us his fridge magnet with two stuffed Eskimo dolls (“look at their funny clothes”).  He told us he didn’t have anything against native culture, yet he also took us BB shooting on what he said us was a sacred area for Shaman ceremonies.  Nina’s views on this topic were interesting, too.  She looked like she had Buryat ancestry, yet still evidenced a marked pro-Russian us-versus-them mentality.  When we told her about our visit to a Buryat village, she asked if it had been dirty, and commented “Well, everyone in our village has jobs…” 

      Another aspect of the Sibiryak mindset which emerged during our time with Misha is the relationship to the land.  Misha was proud of his Siberian world.  He confirmed that there are ecological problems and seemed genuinely worried about Lake Baikal, telling us pollution from chemicals and trash, poaching of Nerpa seals, and supposedly protective (but unhelpful or exploitative) laws passed by Moscow politicians, who “don’t even know where Baikal is.”  Nevertheless, these problems were not his fault: “Russians are cleaner” than Buryats.  But he also drove us straight into the lake so we could take better pictures of the sunset (even the UAZik stalled out.)  Yes, he chided fishermen for leaving bottles and plywood to wash up onto Baikal’s shore, but assured us that “thankfully,” litter on the beach just proves that “Baikal cleans itself out.”

      After meeting Misha, it seems to us that the Sibiryak today is as much his own “breed of man” as ever—although the distinguishing qualities of the Sibiryak seem rather contradictory. Ethnically, though there’s little difference between “native” and “Russian,” separate “Buryat” and “Russian” villages are the norm, and racial identification continues to be important. As another Sibiryak—our driver Yuri—put it “By nationality I’m Russian, but a real Sibiryak—he’s a mix. I’m Buryat, Russian, Polish…” Geographically and politically, the Sibiryaki inhabit their own Siberian world, which has problems and provides possibilities different from those of European Russia. As we heard time and again, “Moscow is a separate country.” However, it’s unlikely that Siberia could survive a separation from Moscow. Despite these contradictions, Misha knows he’s a Sibiryak, and he knows what that means. After a few hours of talking, he yawned, chided us for planning to sleep in the next day, and left us sitting meekly in the kitchen, while he went off to bed.



Sources and further information:

The English-version page about Zabaikalsky National Park (where Misha works) on the “Center for Russian Nature Conservation” website:


Here's the wikipedia page about Yermak--arguably the first famous Sibiryak. It's really, really long and detailed, but the "Commemoration" and "Popular Culture" sections are pretty interesting--this guy was (and still is) a big deal for Russia.



Reid, Anne. The Shaman's Coat: a Native History of Siberia. Walker & Company: New York, 2002.

introductory quote from Reid's interview with a taxi driver in Tobolsk (page 19)