Chapter Two

“The procession stretched out in a long line along the broad Sibirsky
Trakt… And so we approached the place where a stone pillar with a coat
of arms stood on the border. On one side was Perm Province, on the
other side was Tobolsk Province. This was where Siberia began. Here
our long cortege stopped. Someone seized a ‘small handful of native
soil’. Generally everyone seemed a little moved.”

Vladimir Korolenko (1853-1921), deported to Siberia in 1879

The early European travellers crossing into Siberia from the west arrived from the Novgorod Republic, which dominated Russia between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries and at its height stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Urals. The Novgorod region occupies a unique place in Russian history as it is seen as the cradle of modern Russia. It was in this region that Rurik, a Varangian (Viking) chieftain, established his dynasty in 862. Two decades later, Rurik’s successor Oleg united this and other conquests into the powerful Ukraine-based republic of the Kiev Rus, and from the early twelfth century a Novgorod Republic established itself and thrived in part because of its ties with the German-dominated Hanseatic League of traders.

The Novgorod traders used two routes, both of which involved sailing up the rivers and hauling their boats between rivers on a couple of short portages. Both of the routes they took were in the north, leading into Siberia either near the town of Salekhard where the Gulf of Ob widens and runs to the Arctic Ocean, or near Berezovo, several hundred miles south of the Gulf of Ob. There were good reasons for using such a northerly route. One was that few Tartars lived there, so traders met less resistance. Another was that the valuable fur-bearing animals sought by the Russians lived in the forests of the Siberian taiga of the north.

By the early sixteenth century Russians were trading along the northern coast from the Kara Sea to the mouth of the Ob, and some adventurous traders were possibly sailing to the Yenisey river. The vessels they used


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Siberia: A Cultural History


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