Siberia: Great Land

The greatest Russian scientist of the 18th century, Mikhail Lomonosov, famously said that “Russia will increase through [the use of] Siberia.” In the early 21st century, his words have proven prophetic: Siberia is pivotal to Russia's economic might. It is part of Asiatic Russia and is usually defined as the land east of the Urals and west of the Lena River, sometimes including the entire watershed of the Lena. Thus the territory west of Siberia is European Russia, and the land east of it is the Far East, also called the Russian Pacific. The origin of the word “Siberia” is unclear, but it probably came from a Turkic word meaning “clean land” or “magic land” (or, alternatively, from a Mongolian word for “swampland”). In the 15th century a powerful Sibir khanate existed in western Siberia, populated by a mix of Turkic-speaking Siberian Tatars and some Uralic tribes.

As defined in the districting scheme of 2000, the Siberia federal district does not include the oil- and gas-rich Tyumen Oblast, which is now part of the Urals federal district. It includes four republics, two krays, and six oblasts located in western and central Siberia. It also does not include Yakutia (Sakha), which is part of the Far East district, although Yakutia is quintessentially Siberian in its nature and culture. Four areas that were previously autonomous okrugs within Siberia were merged with oblasts or krays in 2007–2008; some statistics may still be reported for those separately, however. The district center and the informal capital of Siberia is its largest city, Novosibirsk, with over 1.4 million residents on the Ob River.

Siberia thus defined (5.1 million km2) is just a little smaller than the largest (Far East) federal district, and is bigger than the European Union (EU) in size. Although it accounts for about onethird of Russia's territory, it has only 20 million residents, giving it an average population density of only 3.9 people/km2. The population is 71% urban. In many ways the region is analogous to west-central Canada in North America: It has few people, plenty of natural resources, and a very cold continental climate. Like the rest of Russia, Siberia is losing population fast—in part because of the usual demographic imbalance between fertility and death rates, but also in Siberia's case because of substantial emigration to the warmer European part of the country. The overall decline is about –0.6% per year, among the fastest in Russia. As a result, the shortage of workers is acute: In 2006 Krasnoyarsky Kray alone officially received 5,000 migrant workers from China (38%), Ukraine (27%), North Korea (10%), and Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states. The actual need in the kray was close to 70,000 workers per year, but only 40,000 were available from the domestic pool.

Physical Geography

Physically, Siberia has a vast lowland in the west and an upland in the east. The Western Siberian Lowland, partially discussed in Chapter 25, is a bed of an ancient sea, slightly smaller than the Amazon Lowland in size. It is drained by the slow, north-flowing Ob–Irtysh river system. Western Siberia forms a large saucer sloping very gradually to the north; the city of Omsk, for example, is located at only 94 m above sea level, although it is 1,500 km south of the Arctic Ocean. Eastern Siberia is drained by the Yenisei and is a plateau with elevations reaching 1,000 m (and, in Putorana, 1,700 m). The highest point in Siberia is Mt. Belukha in the Altay Mountains in the south, with an elevation of 4,506 m. The Sayans range farther east is a bit lower, reaching 3,000 m.

Siberia is famous for its lakes, including Lake Baikal, as well as Lake Taymyr in the extreme north, Khantayskoe near Norilsk, Teletskoe in the Altay, and saline Lake Chany in the steppe south of Barabinsk. As noted in earlier chapters, Lake Baikal is the deepest and oldest lake in the world and has the greatest volume of any freshwater lake (23,000 km?, or about 20% of all freshwater on the planet). Baikal is 636 km long and up to 80 km wide, and is about 25 million years old. It has exceptionally clear water, with visibility 40 m down. Lake Baikal is home to 1,500 aquatic species, 80% of them endemic to the lake, including 255 species of shrimp-like amphipods and 80 species of flatworms. Its most famous endemic is the freshwater Baikal seal (Phoca sibirica). There are also a few large humanmade lakes in Siberia, such as the large Obskoe reservoir upriver from Novosibirsk on the Ob, the Krasnoyarsk and Sayano-Shushenskoe reservoirs on the Yenisei, and the Ust-Ilimsk and Bratsk reservoirs on the Angara.

More dams could be built elsewhere, but all of these projects are being challenged by environmentalists (especially controversial is the Katun Gorge project, discussed in Chapters 16 and 17). Siberia is also famous for its mineral riches. Its settlement by the Russians in the 16th and 17th-centuries was mostly driven by the insatiable demand for sable and mink furs in Europe. Later quests for gold and diamonds brought in miners instead of trappers. Coal, oil, and natural gas, as well as many metallic ores and uranium mining, brought in even more people in the 20th century.

Both the tsarist and Communist governments encouraged voluntary settlement of Siberia. They, especially the Communists, also sent millions of unwilling prisoners to the remotest and least hospitable parts of the region. Many mines and timber-cutting areas were developed first as tsarist-era penal colonies and later as Soviet GULAGs. Today Siberia produces 80% of Russia's coal, but only 3% of its petroleum and natural gas, if Tyumen Oblast and the two autonomous okrugs that are now part of the Urals district are excluded. Nevertheless, large yet untapped deposits of both oil and gas exist in eastern Siberia, in the Lena basin. Siberia also accounts for about 30% of Russia's timber production, from about 300 million ha of forest.

Eastern Siberia is 57% forest covered and western Siberia about 37%, although much of this land is occupied by unproductive larch forests in the Lena basin and only moderately productive fir and spruce forests along the Ob. The Yenisei and the Ob together account for one-quarter of all river runoff in Russia and a similar share of its hydropower potential. Fishing and hunting provide much-needed protein to the local population and are very popular subsistence and recreational activities.

Siberia also has a strong agricultural base, principally in the south (Altaysky Kray, Omsk and Novosibirsk Oblasts, and Tyva Republic). The region has 45 million ha of arable land, almost double what the Volga region has, but less than 40% of it is currently cultivated. Only very hardy varieties of barley, rye, oats and wheat can be grown in the south of the region and along the river floodplains. The rest of the agricultural land consists of scattered pastures and small vegetable plots. In drier or colder areas, sheep and cattle ranching are very common.

The Siberian climate is strongly continental. The bulk of the region is in the Koppen Dfc climate type, meaning that it is subarctic with enough humidity year-round, comparable to Yukon and central Alaska. The eastern parts of Siberia are in the Dw type, characterized by dry winters with little snow cover and severe frost; no exact matches for this exist in North America.

The coldest temperature recorded near Novosibirsk is –50°C, and in Chita –54°C. Summers can be as hot as +37°C, but they are short: Over much of the region, only 4 months of the year have average temperatures above freezing. Parts of Taymyr Peninsula have some of the thickest permafrost in the world, exceeding 500 m. Future warming of the Arctic is likely to have a huge impact on this region. The shores of the Arctic Ocean are at present tundra covered, but most of Siberia is forest covered, with forest–steppe and true steppe in Altaysky Kray and southern Omsk and Novosibirsk Oblasts.

The mountains in the south have distinct climate and vegetation belts that vary with the slopes' elevation and orientation. For example, the western slopes of the Altay receive over 1,500 mm of precipitation a year and are heavily covered in Siberian larch; the eastern slopes, on the other hand, may receive less than 200 mm of precipitation and support semidesert shrubby vegetation.

Siberia has many federally protected parks. The Great Arctic Zapovednik, created in 1993 on 4 million ha (including some sections of the Arctic Ocean), is the largest preserve in Russia. It is the Russian version of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, protecting the fragile ecosystems of the northern Taymyr coast at 73–75°N latitude. Herds of wild reindeer and dozens of shorebirds and geese make their homes here. Lake Baikal is a World Heritage Site, and also the location of two zapovedniks and three national parks. The Altaysky Zapovednik in the south protects the pristine forests and alpine tundras of the Altay Mountains along the eastern shores of Teletskoe Lake.

Cultural and Historical Features

Culturally, Siberia is about 85% Russian, with substantial Ukrainian and German minorities in the agricultural south and a few dozen indigenous tribal minorities in the north. The Tunguss-Manchu people of the Altaic language family are well represented by the Evenki, living along the eastern tributaries of the Yenisei. These are people adapted to the harsh life of northern forests, who traditionally would be reindeer herders and hunters. The mysterious Kety people of the middle Yenisei have no ethnic relatives anywhere, and are apparently an indigenous Siberian tribe of uncertain origin. In the south, the Altaitsy and Tuvins are Turkic-speaking pastoralists who live in the mountains.

The region's most important city, Novosibirsk, was dubbed “Siberian Chicago” for its rapid rise from a little village along the newly built Trans-Siberian Railroad in the 1890s to the third largest city in Russia (with over 1.4 million people in 2006). Other important cities include Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Barnaul, Novokuznetsk, Kemerovo, and Tomsk ranging in size from 500,000 to slightly over 1 million. Some Siberian cities, such as Biysk (Vignette 27.1), were founded during the 17th and 18th centuries as forts along rivers to facilitate Russian settlement of the distant parts of the expanding Russian Empire. Some have historical city centers (Tomsk and Biysk), while others (Novosibirsk and Kemerovo) do not, because they were developed primarily during the Soviet period.

All Siberian big cities, except Norilsk, are located between 49°N (the same latitude as most of the U.S.–Canada border) and 60°N (cf. Anchorage, Akaska). Norilsk, with 213,000 residents, is the largest city above the Arctic Circle in the world, located on top of a massive polymetallic ore deposit at almost 70°N. It is connected to the nearby port, Dudinka, by railroad and highway links; it is also one of the most polluted cities in Russia.

Siberia is certainly the region of the free and the brave. It shares a lot of cultural characteristics with Alaska and the Yukon. The Russian word for a native of Siberia, sibiryak, connotes health and reliability. Siberians are known for their resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and independence. The Russian peasants in Siberia have never known serfdom and live in spacious villages along lush river valleys. The Siberian Cossacks formed a distinct frontier subethnic group of the Russian people and are famous for their hunting and horse-riding skills. Today Siberian culture is known through the crafts, songs, and folklore of the indigenous Siberian tribes (especially the Yakuts and Evenks) on the one hand, and through books and movies about Siberian Russia on the other. The beauty of the wild Siberian nature and the epic struggles of the people sent to conquer the willful land are two sources of inspiration for these books and films. Well worth reading are the works of the Soviet-period writers Viktor Astafyev (Krasnoyarsk), Valentin Rasputin (Irkutsk), and Vasily Shukshin (Srostki, Altaysky Kray). Siberia is also known for its talented sportsmen (e.g., Irina Chashchina from Omsk, a world-class gymnast). Kalinov Most from Novosibirsk and Grazhdanskaya Oborona from Omsk are two well-known Siberian rock bands. On the technical front, the Siberian inventor of the AK-47 automatic rifle, Mikhail Kalashnikov, is from Altaysky Kray; he celebrated his 90th birthday in 2009.


Siberia is an economic powerhouse, mainly in the extracting industries (coal, timber, gold), as well as in metal smelting (nickel, copper, aluminum). It also generates hydropower; produces specialized military equipment, weapons, and electronics; and manufactures many other industrial products. Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, and Barnaul have excellent technical universities and dozens of large research institutes. Siberia is particularly attractive for Asian investments: It shares a long border with China, while Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are also relatively close by.

In the west of the region, Omsk and Tomsk specialize in petroleum refining and petrochemical production. Omsk is also a large military–industrial center. Tomsk has the oldest university in Siberia (established 1880) and is a refined intellectual center. However, it lost out to Novosibirsk when the Trans-Siberian Railroad bypassed Tomsk in favor of better-located Novonikolaevsk (as Novosibirsk was then called) on the Ob in 1896. Novosibirsk is the largest financial and business center in Siberia; it is also its main manufacturing, transportation, and high-tech research hub.

In the center of the region, Kuzbass is the largest coal-producing basin in Russia, accounting for about 70% of the nation's total coal production. Kuzbass coal is low in ash and sulfur content, and about 50% of it is now mined above ground. Nevertheless, the area still leads the country in the number of tragic underground mining accidents, due to frequent violation of safety norms by greedy mine owners. The presence of cheap coal and local iron ore in Shoria and Khakassia permitted the development of an entire agglomeration of cities specializing in coal, steel, plastics, and fertilizer production: Kemerovo, Novokuznetsk, Kiselevsk, Prokopyevsk, and others.

Just to the east of Kuzbass, the Kansk-Achinsk coal basin in Krasnoyarsky Kray contains even larger coal deposits. Coal-mining machinery is also produced here.

Located in central Siberia on the Yenisei, Krasnoyarsk is an important center of scientific and military research, including a few cities in the vicinity directly involved in the nuclear weapons production. Krasnoyarsky Kray is the leading producer of hydropower in the country, with over 20,000 megawatts (MW) installed capacity in four giant dams on the Yenisei and its Angara tributary. Because of all this hydropower, aluminum smelters are also located here, taking full advantage of the low electricity rates. Moreover, Krasnoyarsky Kray and Irkutsk Oblast together account for about 20% of all timber harvested in Russia. Major paper and lumber mills are located here, and much timber is also exported as logs to China, Japan, and other countries via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Krasnoyarsk also has many machine-building enterprises for the coal and transport industries.

In the east of the region, Irkutsk is a historical Siberian city (established 1661), an important university and industrial center, and a gateway to Lake Baikal. Nearby Angarsk is the eastern terminal of a large pipeline and a site of major petroleum refinery. Sayansk (salt, plastics), Angarsk (petrochemicals), and Irkutsk are responsible for a lot of air and water pollution in eastern Siberia. Chita Oblast and Buryat Republic mine copper, molybdenum, tin, and uranium. Over 70% of their agricultural production is beef, lamb, and wool. Few crops are capable of growing in eastern Siberia's severely continental climate, with
almost no snow in winter, but with frosts averaging –30°C.

Siberia is located in the very center of Northern Eurasia, with rail connections to east and west via the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Baikul–Amur Mainline (BAM), and summertime river links to the Arctic Ocean via the Ob and the Yenisei. The BAM at present is running at only 20% capacity; completion of a new tunnel in Chita Oblast will allow the Trans-Siberian's capacity to double. Novosibirsk's international airport, Tolmachevo, has an ambitious program for development as a continental passenger and cargo hub. Lake Baikal is a gem of global significance, but is at present only moderately visited (400,000 people visit Irkutsk Oblast per year, including about 50,000 foreign tourists) because of distance, expensive transportation and food, and lack of tourist infrastructure and advertisement. Baikal also continues to be polluted by the discharge from the Baikalsk paper and pulp mill, located at the southern end of the lake. Despite 40 years of public protests and political declarations, the company remains there and keeps polluting the lake.

Challenges and Opportunities in Siberia

The future of Siberia depends on the ability of the federal and regional governments to stop dramatic population loss, increase investments in social and physical infrastructure for those who still live in the region, and provide additional incentives for people from outside the region to come and settle here. Nearby China is a source of cheap labor, but also a looming demographic threat, at least as perceived by the locals. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, on the other hand, are eager suppliers of new technologies and financial backing for future development. Altaysky Kray is one of only four subjects of federation in Russia chosen to have a free gambling zone, and this should attract much investment and attention to the region. It is also the main tourist destination in Siberia, with Lake Baikal in second place.


  1. Find specific examples from recent economic development that support Mikhail Lomonosov's prediction about Siberia.
  2. Use a world gazetteer, the Website of Russia's 2002 census, or any other source that lists all major cities in Siberia with their populations. What proportion of these are located right on the Trans-Siberian Railroad? What major cities are exceptions? What are the reasons why these cities far away from this main transportation artery are so large?
  3. Using Table 27.1, try to find counterparts to each of Siberia's subjects of federation in your own country, based on similar economic profiles. This may be a small-group class activity.
  4. Search for online collections of photo portraits of Siberians (both Russian and non-Russian ethnicities). Share pictures that you like with your classmates, and discuss differences and similarities between these people and anybody you may know. To what extent is the Siberian culture evident in these photos? What are its characteristics?