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Siberia, 1899-1900

Siberia is a vast region covering almost all of Northern Asia.  It was conquered by the Russian Empire in the 16th century and remains part of the Russian Federation.  It makes up about 77% of Russian territory (246,640 square miles) but its climate and harsh conditions mean that it is sparsely populated and home to only 28% of the Russian population.

The low population means that Siberia remains mostly wilderness.  Its key international role in the 19th century was as a repository for exiled prisoners who were sent to forced labour camps from Russia and its adjoining countries.  Around 1.2 million prisoners spent time in Siberia in the 1800s.  Some groups, most famously the Decembrists who had tried to overthrow the Tsar, remained there and became the centre of cultural life.

vegetation map of Siberia - dark green is taiga
Creative Commons Attribution Share Alikevegetation map of Siberia - dark green is taiga - Credit: Ville Koistinen

In 1891, the Trans-Siberian Railway brought the greatest historical change of all time to the region.  The railway brought more people to Siberia, enjoying the improved links to Moscow and the far east, and industrial towns sprang up to exploit the region's natural resources including metals, minerals, oil and gas.  However, the railway was not complete until 1916 and so in 1899, when the circus passed through, this industrialisation was only beginning.  Even today, vast swathes of Siberian wilderness remain uninhabited, or are home only to semi-nomadic tribes; an 1897 census set its total population at just over 12m people with the largest town, Tomsk, housing 52,430 of these.  In total, only 8% of the population lived in towns. 

The taiga is an extensive, coniferous forest covering most of the Siberian region - 17,000 square miles in 1900.  In the most populated areas along the line of the railway, average temperatures range from -15 to 19 celsius in January and July respectively.  Further north, recorded temperatures have dropped to -71 degrees celsius and winters are long, dark and frozen.

The tribes of Siberia have dropped greatly in number since the influx of Russian speakers at the turn of the century. However, around 4 million speakers of other languages remain in the region, often as nomadic groups or dwelling in fixed yurts.  Their language, appearance and lifestyle are influenced by the range of cultures around them, notably Mongolia, and it is thought that shamanism originated among these peoples.  There are many discrete traditions of local gods, although polytheism is popular and some of these religions have merged and shared themes.

Read the Guide to the Great Siberian Railway, published 1900, online.