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Siberia

No words are big enough to truly describe Siberia. The vast area comprises around 9% of the world’s land surface, and 77% of the Russian Federation.

It is full of geographical extremes – the world’s coldest place, the deepest freshwater lake and the world’s most northerly inhabited places, for example.  In very general terms, Siberia consists of 3 regions from south to north:

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Siberia
Siberia
  • the steppe, open grassland, which historically has been home to nomadic cultures and a main through route for travellers between east and west.

  • the taiga, immense forests, dark and frequently wet, stretching for thousands of miles.

  • the tundra, an inhospitable wasteland of permanently frozen ground,  home to reindeer herders

  • the steppe, open grassland, which historically has been home to nomadic cultures and a main through route for travellers between east and west.

Within these, there are many sub-regions and local variations. Climatically, southern regions enjoy hot (sometimes blisteringly hot) summers and cold winters. Further north, the climate varies between cold and super-cold.

Siberia is generally sparsely populated. Despite its huge size, it contains only 25% of the population of the Russian Federation – about 36 million people. This emptiness arises primarily because of the marginal living conditions which prevail in many places.

There are cities in Siberia. In the southern regions these are former trading and administrative centres set up during the Russian conquest in the 17th century. There is a distinct line of now-important cities along the route of the ‘Trakt’ the road originally built to facilitate Russian conquest and governance. This route is also largely followed by the internationally- renowned Trans-Siberian Railroad.

In the north, towns and cities may be former stations of the fur-trade- furs (particularly sable) were the commodity which brought the Russians to Siberia – or outposts of the gulag era – or centres of the new mineral exploitation industries.

Many of the city-dwellers are wholly or partly Russian (or from other parts of European Russia) by ethnicity. Russians came originally as traders or soldiers. Later others came unwillingly as prisoners or exiles, and were sometimes followed by their families. More recently Russians have been attracted by the high bounties available for those who would go to service the new industries.

When the Russians came to Siberia they found around 80 tribal peoples, mostly nomadic hunters or herders.  Some were quite numerous but widely scattered. All had complex histories and distinct cultures adapted to the hostile environment. 

These peoples have universally suffered 400 years of more or less intense genocide.  They are, all too often, in the way of the economic exploitation of Siberia and many Russians over the years have wanted nothing for them but to die out. Most however, have defied the treatment they have received and live on, though in much-reduced numbers.

Russian traders and conquerors bought furs the Siberians caught for clothing and tents.    They brought alcohol, and stole women and goods. Subsequently, the Siberian tribesmen were declared subjects of the Tsar and Orthodox Christians. Failure to live up to these ‘privileges’ was severely punished.  Essential elements of culture, and even their indigenous languages were forbidden. Stalin compelled the tribes to give up nomadism so that they could be better provided for, but also so that they could be better controlled.  

Today, their environment - on which they still greatly depend - is increasingly occupied and polluted by oil, gas and mineral exploitation. Many are driven to the cities, where they increasingly lose their cultural identity.

Nevertheless, Siberia is one of the fastest-growing economic powerhouses in the world. It has prodigious reserves of oil and gas, comparable with the Middle East, and globally significant resources of industrial and precious metals. Over coming decades, this will profoundly change the directions of world trade and will give Russia renewed power and influence.

Siberia2

The direction of trade is also changing. Russia itself utilises Siberian resources, and exports gas and other products throughout Europe. Global warming is likely to make possible regular shipping across Arctic waters to North America - wheat from the US and Canada being exchanged for fertilisers from Siberian chemical industries, for example.

But the most significant element is the ability of Siberia to resources the growing industries of Asia, primarily China. This is already happening – with gas, timber, metal ores, etc. New pipelines, roads and railroads, are now traversing the border.   Some of this trade is official and some not. It will change the economic balances of the world, and will change the relationship between Russia and China – for better or worse.

Siberia has the possibility to be a storehouse for the benefit of the whole world, or the next source of global conflict.  Already there is a unique and undeclared competition amongst Arctic nations to stake claims to remote areas of Arctic seabed, which might just hold the next bonanza.

Christians in Siberia

Statistics for religion in Siberia are very difficult to give with clarity and accuracy. The Russian Orthodox Church undoubtedly has many strong congregations, in the cities but also in the remote areas.  But there are undoubtedly many people for whom Orthodoxy is a part of their heritage but nominal or non-existent in terms of their everyday lives.

Evangelical Christians (Baptists and Pentecostals mainly) from the Ukraine and elsewhere, have done great work over the past 30 years, bringing Christ to cities, small towns and the taiga and tundra. Many of the tribal groups now have some Christians, either a handful of individuals or self-sustaining churches. Christians have also, more recently, started to address the practical needs of remote communities, and to call for social justice.

But very much remains to be done, in basic evangelism and in showing Christ's compassion to peoples whose existence is under threat. This work is often discouraged by the authorities, for a wide variety of reasons.

May the economic and transport change which is beginning in Siberia lead also to a greater freedom for people to find Christ and worship Him.