Siberia and Spirit

The travel writer Colin Thubron wrote of Siberia in terms of its representing ‘Russia’s Elsewhere’, ‘the symbol and repository of Russia’s otherness’. Such otherness, Thubron noted, can involve a rendering of Siberian space as atemporal: ‘Hegel placed it outside the pale of history altogether, too cold and hostile to nurture meaningful life.’ Or alternatively, as Thubron saw, the conceit of Siberia as Russia’s Otherness can involve an invocation of mortality and a consequent association of Siberian land with a transcendental realm. This is ‘the ultimate, unearthly Abroad. The place from which you will not return.’ This is posthumous real Russia: as Moscow progressively Westernizes and monetizes, ‘so Siberia becomes enshrined in the Slavic imagination as the Russia that was lost, the citadel of the spirit’.[i]    

Yet Thubron also pointed to the inseparability of Siberia from the remainder of Russia, when he observed that ‘the boundary between Europe and Asia is only an imagined one. Physically the continents are undivided.’[ii] Daniel Beer, in his recent study The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars (2016), likewise comments on how Siberia’s history post-colonization has been indivisible from European Russia’s. ‘Siberia has never had an independent political existence; it has no clear borders and no binding ethnic identity.’ Russia’s own transition from being a small part of Europe to being something beyond a European country – a meta-Europe – was of course only enabled by its assimilation of Siberia. ‘The conquest of Siberia transformed Muscovy from a second-rank kingdom on the edge of Europe into the world’s largest continental empire.’[iii]

Siberia now, Thubron suggests, can become a fantasy projection of a post-Soviet Russia scarred by capitalism, a sort of ultra-Russian utopia: ‘Siberia is more Russian than Russia is, people say, as if it were a quintessential Russia, or the imagined country which Russia would like to be.’[iv] But the nineteenth-century exiles could already identify Siberia with heightened intellectual and spiritual freedom. Beer cites the Decembrist Nikolai Basargin commenting that ‘the further we travelled into Siberia, the more fetching it seemed in my eyes. The common people seemed freer, more lively and more educated than our Russian peasants’. Such a view, Beer argues, underlay ‘a growing Romantic perception among reform-minded Russians of Siberia as a democratic alternative to the rigid and suffocating hierarchies of European Russia’. Later exiled radicals ‘discovered in Siberia new opportunities to pursue their economic, publishing and educational interests’, Beer writes. ‘Out here, nobody worries about saying what he thinks,’ Anton Chekhov wrote home in 1890. ‘There’s no one to arrest you and nowhere to exile you to, so you can be as liberal as you please.’[v]

Beer quotes the French republican Émile Andreoli, who was sent to Kadai in the Nerchinsk mining region:

‘However severe our physical sufferings and our privations, they were as nothing when compared with the inner torments that slowly but surely weigh down on the heart of a penal labourer in Siberia. Woe is he who does not more or less willingly devote himself to some or other challenging pursuit or spiritual labour, which allows him to not think of everything that he once had, his distant homeland, his relatives, about everything that he loves.’[vi]

For Andreoli it is devotional activity, or access to spiritual compulsion, which enables psychological and emotional survival during exile. His description of the turn to ‘spiritual labour’ amidst a brutalizing environment recalls Thubron’s lines on how ‘Siberia, exempt from religious surveillance, harboured magic cities. Surrounded by clamour, they could be reached only underground; but once inside their walls an unearthly silence fell.’[vii] It is as if mythic cities such as war-fleeing Kitezh symbolize the spiritual liberality born out of the devotion of those far from home.

Beer notes how ‘thousands of religious dissenters fled persecution in European Russia to establish colonies further east where they could practise their beliefs unmolested by the authorities’. Religion was viewed by tsars as an ‘ideological bulwark of political legitimacy’, and so dissenters were exiled beginning from the time of Catherine the Great, who deported thousands of Old Believers and members of utopian sects such as the Flagellants and the Milk Drinkers. Thubron recalls the sizeable extent of the population of Old Believers (those Orthodox Christians who had rejected the 1660s liturgical reforms): by 1917 the industrious people of the Old Belief numbered 15 million – one tenth of Russia’s population – and owned over half the country’s capital. They were ‘ripe for Stalin’s sickle’.[viii] The Siberian sectaries’ hopes provoked some of Thubron’s best writing.

‘In Siberia, where worldly authority ebbed away, they could save their souls. For them, with the apostasy of the Czar and of the Church, history itself had died. Its sanctity and meaning gone, they lived outside it, in a tremulous limbo. […] Their lives passed in a dream-filled restlessness, haunted by memories of the past and omens for the future. But in the present they could only wait. They took as their talisman the legendary City of Kitezh, which had sunk beneath the waters of a lake during Mongol invasion centuries before, and would rise from them again when Russia was purified. True believers, it was said, could hear its church bells ringing in the depths.’[ix]

Thubron here defines the spiritual dissenters as at once transcendentally Other and intrinsically related to (European) Russia’s history: this is the nature of their traumatized ‘tremulous limbo’. Siberia itself likewise emerges from Thubron’s account as both an image of salvation and a repository of historical waste. It was seen as ‘a haven of primitive innocence and salvation, and peasants located their Belovodye here, their Promised Land’. Yet ‘paradoxically’ it was also ‘a rural waste into which were cast the bacilli infecting the state body: the criminal, the sectarian, the politically dissident’. Thubron backs up Hegel’s idea of an ahistorical Siberia by alluding to the name’s etymology, ‘a mystical conflation of the Mongolian siber, “beautiful”, “pure”, and the Tartar sibir, “sleeping land”’.[x] Yet we can begin to see that to stress Siberia as a symbol of purity and innocence, ‘the symbol and repository of Russia’s otherness’, is to point to the transcendental otherness within impure Russian history itself.

If the religious dissidents in Siberia could hold to a life of uncanny vigilance, their tremulous limbo, those exiled to penal labour were forced to inhabit what Beer calls a ‘suspended death sentence’. Beer cites Basargin’s reaction to being condemned and pronounced ‘civilly dead’ – ‘I no longer considered myself an inhabitant of this world’ – as if suggesting that the political prisoner’s exile was also to a transcendental realm.[xi] Siberian space was transcendentalized again when it was described (as by one explorer in 1830) as ‘a vast dungeon, inescapable and eternal’.[xii] The experience of being held within this dungeon could lend the consequent earthly process of political radicalization an unworldly character, Basargin recorded:

‘Having deprived us of everything and having suddenly placed us as outcasts on the very lowest step of the social ladder, it gave us the right to see ourselves as the purifying agents of a future transformation of Russia. In a word, the government turned us from the simplest and most ordinary of people into political martyrs for our ideas.’[xiii]

Dostoevskii’s experience of Siberian exile too lent his political thinking a spiritual aspect; as Beer notes, the writer’s imprisonment in the early 1850s ‘might have stripped away his idealistic preconceptions about the common people, but it ultimately ended up reaffirming – or perhaps necessitating – a belief in their spiritual sensibilities and thirst for redemption’. Twenty years before Dostoevskii’s time in the penal fort at Omsk, Adam Mickiewicz, in works such as his epic verse The Books of the Polish Nation and of the Polish Pilgrimage (1832), was launching what Beer describes as an ‘emerging Romantic narrative of national martyrdom’.[xiv] Following the failure of the November Insurrection against the Russian Empire in 1830, Mickiewicz’s writing brought Polish patriots to believe that their exiled countrymen were ‘assuming the burden of the sins of the entire nation and thereby securing its redemption’. The Siberia to which they were sent, Beer writes, ‘assumed the sanctity of Golgotha: a place of both execution and spiritual rebirth’. Mickiewicz:

‘But […] the Polish nation did not die: its body lieth in the grave, but its spirit hath descended from the earth, that is from public life, to the abyss, that is to the private life of people who suffer slavery in their country and outside of their country […]

    But on the third day the soul shall return to the body, and the Nation shall arise and free all the peoples of Europe from slavery.’[xv]  


[i] Colin Thubron, In Siberia (London: Vintage Books, 2008; first publ.[London]: Chatto & Windus, 1999), pp. 3, 75, 113, 2, 114.
[ii] Thubron, p. 2.
[iii] The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars ([London]: Penguin Books, 2017; first publ.[London(?)]: Allen Lane, 2016), p. 3, 14.
[iv] Thubron, p. 114.
[v] Beer, pp. 71-72 (quoting Basargin), 305 (quoting Chekhov).
[vi] Andreoli quoted from Beer, p. 205.
[vii] Thubron, p. 114.
[viii] Beer, pp. 14, 22; Thubron, p. 195.
[ix] Thubron, pp. 184-85.
[x] Thubron, pp. 3, 113.
[xi] Beer, p. 53 (quoting Basargin).
[xii] The quote is from Beer, p. 71.
[xiii] Basargin quoted from Beer, p. 80.
[xiv] Beer, pp. 186-87, 156.
[xv] Beer, pp. 135-36, 156 (quoting Mickiewicz).


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