Chapter Nine
THE ALTAI REGION AND REPUBLIC:
MYSTICS, MOUNTAINS AND NOMADS

In the north of the Omsk region, in the small town of Bolshie Uki, a museum dedicated to the Great Siberian Post Road offers visitors the unusual experience of what it was like to shuffle through Siberia in felt slippers and fetters. Instead of being flogged and cajoled along the twelve miles the prisoners were expected to cover in one day, visitors can get a taste of the exiles’ hardship by walking about eighty yards along a snowcovered track that was once part of the eighteenth-century post road.

The myth of Siberia as hell was for exiles, of course, no myth but a very real conclusion one might draw from exposure to the harshest of suffering. Today—when circumstances are re-enacted as in Bolshie Uki—the idea of Siberia as an underworld survives as a phantom itch in the cultural imagination. Yet in contrast to this image of hell, Siberia’s abundance and its history of offering freedom have also lent the subcontinent an aura of heaven. Serfs—and later poor peasants—belong to those who fled unfavourable conditions in European Russia and found a better life here. The author Harriet Murav says the Russian Romantic poet Nikolay Nekrasov (1821–78) thought of Siberia—albeit, from the distance of European Russia—as a source of purity because he idealized the common people of Russia, of which Siberia had many, and therefore it was a place where Russia might be reborn. For Decembrists, she observes, it was oppressive like hell but also exotic like heaven.

Contemporary Siberians could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about, especially in the more banal context of everyday life in the metropolises. In the 1990s, however, new life seemed to have been breathed back into the metaphor. Some Siberians in remote regions were cut off when infrastructure collapsed. They almost starved. Others sat in communal flats in Omsk and other cities during long winters watching the ice thicken and rise up alarmingly on the inside of their windows. Many Siberians had no choice but to resort to the seasonal abundance of the fields, forests and dacha gardens for subsistence. Stories circulated in the press of wages in Siberia being paid in the form of coffins and toilet paper.

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