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A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia's North Asian Colony, 1581-1990.

James Forsyth's A History of the Peoples of Siberia is the first ethnohistory of Siberia to appear in English analyzing the ethnographic and linguistic features of the native peoples, tracing native history from the Russian conquest to the end of the Soviet Union in 1990. In addition, Forsyth examines Siberian relations with Kazakstan, Mongolia, China, Japan, and Korea. He shows how Russian settlement generated warfare, Yasak tribute payment of furs, and exploitation to such an extent that many by the nineteenth century doubted the capacity of the Siberian people to survive. The author found the Russian annexation of the northern part of western Siberia was neither peaceful or voluntary (pp. 46, 110). The seventeenth-century Russian peasants do not appear as bearers of humane attitudes or a higher culture than the natives (p. 47). Comparisons of the indigenous peoples of Siberia with those of North and South America are frequently made in the work. Russian governors frequently resorted to illicit brewing and distilling of alcohol as a valuable commodity of trade with the natives, equal to the pattern in North America among indigenous peoples. The work documents the increased exploitation of aboriginal people after the abolition of the government's monopoly of the fur trade in 1762. An incident of infrequent favourable action by the Russian government was Catherine 11's religious toleration which resulted in the Buryat Mongol adoption of Tibetan Buddhism and they became the only Siberian native people to have a written language before 1917.

Half the book is devoted to the Soviet period. The precarious nature of civil war after 1917 combined with the growth of Altai, Buriat, and Yakut separatist movements was followed by the new Soviet state bringing autonomy, education, and health services in the 1920s. Then native debts to traders were cancelled and the sale of alcohol prohibited in native territories, while consumer co-operatives provided a fairer basis for trade. While some communists wanted to leave the natives to their traditional way of life a 1926 law defined "crimes constituting relics of the tribal way of life," such as clan vengeance and bloodmoney, payment of bride price, and marriages between minors. Committees of the north in the 1920s provided medical stations, a veterinary station, a shop, and a school for the indigenous population. White agitation and Soviet rebellions as late as 1924 are documented in Siberia (p. 256). The Stalinist policies of collectivization, denomadization, amalgamation of settlements, Russification, and the destructive environmental effects of Russian mining and industrial development further undermined the native communities beginning in the 1930s. Soviet achievements include a standard alphabet for native languages based on Latin in 1931, changed to Cyrillic in 1937. Persecution of indigenous tribal shamans was documented from the 1930s onward. One little known aspect of Siberian native life revealed by Dr. Forsyth is the conscription of men for soldiers as inhibiting native welfare during the Second World War. The work concludes with Gorbachev's glasnost policy revealing to outsiders native suffering which led to a notable native rights' movement in the 1980s. Frequently, Professor Forsyth compares the Siberian experience with those of Indians and Eskimos in Canada and the U.S.A. The book provides anglophone readers with a vast amount of ethnographic materials previously inaccessible to western scholars.

James Forsyth is reader and head in the Department of Russian at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. This historical work fills a gap by concentrating on the native people of Siberia: who they are, how they lived before and during the Russian invasion, the effects of the Russians on their lives, their present state and prospects. While most of Siberia's population are Russian today (1.6 million among 32 million in Siberia in 1989) the native tribes predominated up to the eighteenth century. Professor Forsyth's book enables the reader to answer the question as to how well the indigenous peoples have been treated in Siberia by Russians and Soviets. The book is of interest to the reader concerned with the destruction of forest and tundra in Siberia in the rush to exploit oil, mineral wealth, and electric power.

Dr. Forsyth explains the way of life of the different aboriginal communities in changing and reciprocal relationship with the society and the history of the Russian incomers. The work is not a history of Russian Siberia as is Benson Bobrick's The Lure of the East which also appeared in 1992. Professor Forsyth is critical of "misconceptions" presented in Soviet works that the occupation of Siberia by Russians was on the whole a peaceful process, the incorporation into Russia was of more benefit than harm to the native peoples and there was no similarity between Russian and English, French, or Spanish colonial regimes. The author doubts that the Leninist Nationalities Policy led the world in humanity and justice, making this work a nice corrective to Farley Mowat's Siber which appeared in 1970.

The work is well supplied with clear maps locating the indigenous population in various historical periods and drawing and photographs of the native people through the ages. The extensive bibliography includes western language and Russian materials on ethnology, anthropology, and Siberian history.
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Author:Hanson, Gary
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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