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East of the Sun: The Conquest and Settlement of Siberia.

Benson Bobrick.

Heinemann. 542pp. 20.00[pounds]. 0 434 92889 5.

In his desperate struggle for survival President Yeltsin has sought the support of the 88 autonomous republics and regions of the Russian Federation. The signs are emerging that, at best, the Russian Federation will turn out to be an uncertain structure -- made up of practically free-wheeling regional, and often local bodies and authorities--unless, of course, a strong central leader should emerge, with the help of the army, of the Tsarist or Stalinist character. The more, therefore, we learn about these regions the better.

Siberia is a vital area of the Federation and for the Russians it is still proof of empire and world power status. This is not surprising. It is a huge area, five million square miles. If you could place Europe--outside Russia--and the USA together inside Siberia you would still have some 300,000 square miles left. It has about 32 million inhabitants. In its three bands of territory from the Arctic Tundra and Taiga through fertile country in the middle to the steppes and deserts along the central Asian mountain ranges, it has vast deposits of gas, oil, and all types of ores, the rarest among them, and all Russia's gold and diamonds. It is not surprising therefore, that last year, in the Hague, a |European Energy Charter' was signed by 36 governments including the EC, the USA, Canada, Australia and all former Soviet republics. The aim is to set up an entirely new energy structure ensuring a full-scale re-orientation of Europe's fuel and power industry, based, chiefly, on the resources of Siberia.

East of the Sun is rather a good find. The author has done impressive research back over nearly 400 years, to the start of what was an adventure, almost like the discovery of America. It is a story of brutal Cossack conquest, of adventurous noblemen, of daring peasants who escaped serfdom and, of course, of countless exiles and convicts. The tribes are mentioned too, some offering their women to visitors and feeling dangerously insulted if the offer was ignored. The author tells us about their food and their clothing and one realises the persistence and courage of the inhabitants facing the merciless Arctic winter. The author reports the cruel fur trade that attracted the Russians first; millions of sables for instance, killed, recently a $62 million trade.

He gives an account of the famous Siberian railway, the longest in the world, with scores of tunnels, all built by mostly convict labour, with thousands dying because conditions were so bad. In fact, the second track of the railway was laid only years after it started. There is still no proper main highway to the Pacific coast. The distances are enormous and, before the railway, it took months for even officials to get to the Arctic or Pacific coast. In this enormous country, 60 per cent of the population live in towns, some of them spots in an empty landscape. Stalin and Breshnev built up big heavy industry centres and power stations, disregarding environment and pollution problems. Western Siberia with 15 million inhabitants and the area around Lake Baikal, the biggest (and now polluted), sweet water on earth are centres. But the poor, backward road system suggests that enormous investment over a longish period is now needed to give a practical basis for the expansion proposed in the Hague Energy Charter.

The author gives a condensed account of the power struggle that followed the Russians reaching the Pacific. They were not quite sure for some time whether Siberia and Alaska were linked by land. They sold Alaska to the USA because it was too difficult to govern.

There is a brief account of the war with Japan, 90 years ago, and the rather confused efforts of the Western countries to use Siberia as the base for the over-throw of the Bolsheviks in 1918-1922 -- reminding one of the Bosnia manoeuvres. There is no doubt, too, that it was the Russian control of Siberia with its border with China that convinced Mao-tse-tung that Russia was the real enemy, never mind Communism!

From Bobrick's book there emerges a definite Siberian identity, different from the Russian. This does not seem to have registered in Moscow, and we will see in the next few years how the troubled Russians will react. Siberia now has quite a few autonomous regions, like the Yakut region, as big as Great Britain, with its gold, oil and gas. As the Central Authority in Moscow is noticeably declining, America, Japan and even ambitious China are establishing economic ties, eagerly welcomed by the regional authorities who often do not ask advance permission from Moscow.

East of the Sun gives a useful and fascinating background, enlightening us about little known aspects of the events developing before us. It is an arresting story too of personal adventure -- and misery.
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Author:Muray, Leo
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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