TOBOLSK: FROM “SODOM IN THE
TAIGA” TO A CULTURAL HEARTLAND
Almost from its earliest days of colonization, Siberia was burdened with a reputation for debauchery. The view of Siberia as a hotbed of vice goes back to the arrival of the Church in the form of its first archbishop. In 1621, when Cyprian took up his post in Tobolsk, he reported (at the more harmless end of the scale) street fighting and stabbings and scarcely any attempt to bring the culprits to justice. As elsewhere, local officials were brutal and exploitative in their zeal to collect tribute from the indigenes. Few people in Tobolsk observed religious rituals, and Cyprian also complained about couples marrying without involving the Church; religious fasting periods passed unobserved or broken. If that had been all, Archbishop Cyprian could have counted himself lucky. Alas, it wasn’t. Men were treating their wives as slaves, he reported, and selling them or lending them out to other men while husbands performed duty in the taiga. Incest had become a serious problem. Men, he believed, were marrying anyone who would have them—sisters, illegitimate daughters, even their own mothers. Alcoholism and theft were rampant, as were a myriad of lesser vices the Church liked to keep under control.
The shortage of women in Siberia was a recurring problem during the seventeenth century, and to redress it, about 300 women from north-east European Russia were dispatched across the Urals in the 1630s to marry Cossacks, who had long looked to the local indigenous populations for wives, sometimes killing Khanty and Mansi menfolk to take them. It was also apparently usual for Cossack detachments to demand (and receive) a contingent of local women from the indigenes wherever they stayed in Siberia. In eastern Siberia this practice is said to have survived well into the nineteenth century. Native boys were also being captured and sold as slaves.
In 1761, when the French astronomer Jean Chappe d’Auteroche (1722–69) arrived in Tobolsk to observe the passage of Venus, he not only collected knowledge like a two-legged encyclopaedia, but was propelled to strange heights of moral projection when he tried to turn his knowledge