The Emotion & Enigma of Eastern Siberia

To most of the world, “Siberia” is an undifferentiated mass, a featureless land of prisons and snowdrifts entirely befitting its place in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. But the Russians themselves divide it up into three administrative units, each of which possesses its own distinctive landscapes, history and relationship to Moscow: Western Siberia, Eastern Siberia, and the Russian Far East. Of these, I have a soft spot for Eastern Siberia. Neighbouring Western Siberia is a watery, low-slung land of rivers, oxbow lakes, and damp, mosquito-ridden forests. The East, by contrast, is a vast, relatively dry plateau stretching from the grasslands of Mongolia to well beyond the Arctic Circle, spread with a mix of stony, short-grass steppe and mixed conifer and larch forests. After days on the Trans-Siberian, here there is air to breathe.

Travelling across Eurasia from Moscow, the Australian arriving in Eastern Siberia may register that he or she has somehow crossed the northernmost boundary of his own distinctive part of the world: the region’s biggest city, Irkutsk (population 625,000), an old Cossack fort on the banks of the Angara River, stands on the same longitude as Singapore, only 10 degrees short of the Western Australia coast.

Founded as a Cossack fortress in 1661, Irkutsk later prospered as a way station for the fur and tea trade between Russia and China

Here, beyond the limits of the city, where low rainfall and howling winter winds have driven back the forest, a sea of dunn-coloured grass prevails, fragrant with wild thyme. As the sun sets, an impossibly distant horizon vanishes in a blazing infinity of puffy white clouds. Winter temperatures can plummet here to -30 or -40°C, but on a summer afternoon, such big-sky country could just about also be the NSW Western Plains. The local history resonates too. Fur-seeking Cossacks conquered the territory for the Tsar in the 1650s, long before Australia became British. But Eastern Siberia was in essence a penal colony and before the 19th century, its most numerous European settlers were convicts (including a smattering of counts and princes, known as the “Decembrists”, exiled to hard labour in the nearby silver mines after rebelling against the Tsar in 1825). Today, their descendants flatter themselves for being more resourceful, more independent-minded and more self-reliant than their supposedly “wilting” cousins back home, west of the Urals.

Volkonsky House Decembrist Museum, which tells the story of the Decembrists – Russian noblemen who rebelled against the Tsar in 1825 and were exiled for life to Siberia

Above all, Eastern Siberia is where Russia wears its Asian face: China, under the Qing Dynasty, struck its first treaty with any European power here, at Nerchinsk, in 1689. For a century and a half before the foundation of Hong Kong, China tea reached Europe overland via Irkutsk, whose merchants, growing rich on the trade, sponsored the town’s surviving crop of baroque, onion-domed churches. Concentrated in the south along the railway – the so-called “Trans-Sib” is Eastern Siberia’s lifeline and few towns of any significance are found more than a 100km from it – the local population is to this day visibly a composite. On one hand are the descendants of the convicts, tea merchants, and free peasants who came in increasingly large numbers to farm the local steppe from the 1870s. On the other are the indigenous Buryats who, in the 12th century, supplied Asia – and the world – with one of history’s great conquerors: Genghis Khan, whose mother, it is believed, was a Buryat.

Buryats, a formerly nomadic people related to the neighbouring Mongols. Claiming the mother of Genghis Khan as one of their own, the Buryats have driven their herds across these lands for centuries (photo by avstraliavasin/Getty Images)

The Buryats have not forgotten their heritage. A proud people of typically Mongolian features and culture (with high cheek-boned, oval faces and traditionally dwelling in a collapsible, felt ger or yurt), they have always been horsemen and roaming herders. After the Russian conquest, the Tsars employed them as mobile border police. When Stalin decreed the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture in the 1930s, Buryat families slaughtered their herds rather than submit to a life no longer in the saddle. But a generation after the collapse of Communism the kolkhozy (collective farms) are gone and the Buryats’ flocks and herds have revived (though few Buryat herdsmen have returned to life in the traditional felt ger). Forget Soviet-era shortages and empty shelves. Today, the central markets in the regional hubs of Irkutsk, Ulan Ude and Chita overflow with locally produced fresh meat and dairy products. While the Buryat diet is heavy, like that of all pastoralists, on grilled meat (and the fried sour cream that functions as the local comfort food), the influence of neighbouring North Asia is revealed in tasty noodle dishes and steamed dumplings the size of a fist known as buuzy stuffed with minced lamb and mangir, a wild, native leek. The preferred drinks are airag (the local form of kefir) and Chinese green tea, taken with butter.

Buuzy is a type of Mongolian steamed dumpling filled with meat. An example of authentic Mongolian and Buryatian cuisine, the dish is traditionally eaten at home during Tsagaan Sar, the Lunar New Year

Food shortages and collective farms are not the only thing to have vanished since Soviet times. Communist ideology has too and across Russia, traditional religions have sprung back to life to fill the ideological vacuum Marxism-Leninism left behind. Strikingly in this regard, Eastern Siberia is only a partially Christian land. Here, the resurgent Orthodox Church and its centuries-old ideal of “Holy Rus” exists amid a more obviously Asian religious landscape. For generations, the Buryats practised an elaborate form of Siberian shamanism, which they shared with the reindeer-herding forest tribes further to the north (whose numbers were decimated by the arrival of the Cossacks). Rigidly suppressed by Communism, Siberian shamanism is undergoing a revival: the shamans are again seeking the favour of the spirits and everywhere roadside cairns bear witness to offerings made for their appeasement. Not necessarily in conflict with this (for Buddhism is a famously syncretic religion) is the post-Soviet retrieval of Eastern Siberia’s identity as the northernmost limit of East Asia’s “Tibetan commonwealth”.

Centuries of religious exchange, of fluctuating intensity, have linked Greater Mongolia (of which the Buryat lands were historically part) with Tibet. Before the present day, the most recent wave of Buddhist lamas arrived in the 1690s, simultaneously to the Cossacks. But their mission was considerably more peaceful and, among the Buryat tribes closest to the border, Tibetan Yellow-hat Buddhism emerged within little more than a generation as the dominant local religion. By the 1890s a Buryat master was even serving as a spiritual instructor to the Thirteenth Dali Lama. Atheist Soviet authorities tried to stamp this “superstition” out in the 1930s: monasteries were demolished, libraries torched. But the link with Tibet could not be severed. Today, with the Soviet system gone, Russian Buddhism is flourishing again, as witnessed in the reconstruction of scores of monasteries and temples, often in dramatic locations, across the dry steppe that surround the dusty local capital of Ulan Ude (population 405,000), 400km east of Irkutsk. The reverence that locals have for the current Dalai Lama is a thorn in the side of Russia’s otherwise close relationship with China.

Ivolga Monastery – Etigel Khambin Temple. The datsan was opened in 1945 as the only Buddhist spiritual centre of the USSR

In this part of Eastern Siberia, the lamas share the sparsely wooded valleys with the so-called “Old Believers”. A people of great moral courage, they were driven out of early modern Muscovy when they rejected the changes made to the Orthodox Church’s service books in the mid-1600s. Famously refusing to make the sign of the cross with three rather than the (in medieval Russia) traditional two fingers, they were tortured, imprisoned and finally expelled to neighbouring Poland. Here they lived in relative security – converting their surplus wealth into the massive ropes and headdresses of Baltic amber that to this day are an essential element of a woman Old Believer’s Sunday costume – until with Catherine the Great’s three Partitions of Poland, the Russian Imperial state caught up with them. In the 1790s, Catherine decreed their exile, on foot, across 6,000km of grass and forest to the Mongolian borderlands. Thousands died during the journey. But here, in remote villages hidden in the folds of the steppe, they have lived proudly and, since the collapse of the Soviet Union (which as late as the 1970s denied them all civil rights, including that of travelling to nearby Ulan Ude or Irkutsk to go to secondary school) peacefully. To this day, they have preserved Orthodoxy as it existed in the middle ages and sing the songs that have sustained them in exile. No visit to the homes and villages of these warm and gentle people can be anything but moving.

The persecuted Old Believers, a people who have preserved their beliefs and customs in Siberian exile for centuries Photo by Martin Klimenta

The jewel of this region is, however, Baikal, a lake – the world’s oldest, deepest and most voluminous – that is really an ocean in formation.

Beautiful Lake Baikal, the world’s largest and deepest lake

Several millions of years from now, the scientists tell us, Siberia will have broken apart. As if in anticipation, some of the sea life has already arrived. Baikal’s most famous resident is the nerpa, a shy, bubble-shaped phocid having made its home at the heart of continental Asia, thousands of kilometres from the nearest coastline. At some point in the distant past they must have swum up Siberia’s labyrinthine system of rivers – amazingly, the world’s largest continuous tract of land is, with portages, navigable from the Urals to the Pacific: the Cossacks subdued it by boat. But nobody knows for sure. In any case, Baikal’s greatest wonder is not its mysterious seal but the body of water itself. Sacred to the local Buryats, Baikal is one of those places that casts a spell over the visitor without the latter being necessarily able to explain why. That this 600km-long, 80km-wide, and 1.6km-deep gash in the earth’s crust contains a quarter of all the planet’s freshwater is intellectually interesting. But what entrances above all is the play of light on the clear, fathomless waters, and the sight, on a clear summer’s day, of swallows soaring on an updraught over the sheer cliffs of a craggy headland dotted with scrappy pines decked in the blue, yellow, white, green, orange and pink of prayer flags, here at the geographical and, some say, spiritual heart of Asia.

Traditional rituals are still practised by Buryat shamans on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal

Dr Matthew Dal Santo

Dr Matthew Dal Santo is a writer, historian and foreign affairs commentator who currently resides in Copenhagen, Denmark. Born in Sydney, Matthew lived most of the past fifteen years in Europe. The current focus of his interest is Russia. From 2014 to 2017, Matthew was Danish Research Council Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen, with a grant to study how Russians think of themselves in the light of their history 25 years after the collapse of Communism and 100 since the 1917 revolution. He is particularly interested in how the revival of Orthodoxy has encouraged the return of the age-old idea of ‘Holy Rus’ as well as rehabilitation of the culture and achievements of Imperial Russia, as for example in the canonisation in 2000 of the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family as saints.

Upcoming tours led by Dr Matthew Dal Santo


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