Not long ago I spent time in Chukotka, in the Russian Far East. The regional capital enjoyed numerous features of urban development, such as a dozen sets of traffic lights, many of which worked. But it was isolated – eight time zones from St Petersburg with no roads at all beyond the urban centre – and this in a region bigger than France. A man once sellotaped an advert to a lamppost offering his flat in exchange for a one-way ticket to Moscow.
In her hugely informative new book, Janet M Hartley, a professor of international history at the LSE, analyses and explains how geographical isolation has moulded Siberian society since Russification took root in the 16th century, when sable hunters and ‘freebooting Cossacks’ began to kick up trouble in Sibir, then an independent khanate on the River Irtysh. After Ivan IV took the title ‘Tsar of Siberia’, colonisation hardened into state policy. Hartley is good on the ‘myth about the spirit of the Cossacks and the triumphal progress of Christian Russians against pagans and Muslims in Siberia’ – a myth that still persists, in various forms.
Trade rapidly expanded. For example, Siberia became the main overland route for the export of rhubarb from China to the West: in 1652 the government in Moscow declared rhubarb a state monopoly (surely it’s time for a Cod-style book on that tasty herbaceous perennial). Migration from European Russia, waves of