The Conquest of a Continent

A review of

The Conquest of a Continent

Siberia & The Russians

by W. Bruce Lincoln, Random House, 1994
Originally published in 1994

Siberia and Canada have much in common by way of geography and history. Europeans were first attracted to both regions by the lustrous furs to be taken in the taiga, tundra and boreal forests. In each case, trappers and traders soon proved it possible to deplete animal populations, even in seemingly limitless regions, unless attention was paid to conservation. In the ensuing centuries, prospectors in both countries found precious minerals, heavy metals, and petroleum in the most inhospitable of locations, spurring engineers to learn about permafrost, meltwater bogs, and shifting ice floes.

In both countries, colonizers have overwhelmingly clustered in a narrow band along the southern borders. Finally, the ways of the peoples who have made the northern lands their homes for millenia have been generally ignored by the newcomers.

If Siberians and Canadians have a great deal to learn from each other, there was little opportunity for contact for most of this century. But in the last few years, many Canadian companies with experience in resource extraction and arctic construction techniques have been welcomed in Siberia, while travelling delegations of native peoples have shared perspectives on preserving their cultures in an industrial age.

With these new opportunities for interchange, a familiarity with Siberia’s history is essential to many people. W. Bruce Lincoln’s new book tells part of this story ably, although Lincoln gives us only fleeting glimpses of the native peoples of Siberia, and almost no sense of how their cultures fare today or how they have contributed to Siberia’s history.

Lincoln’s opening sentence provides a controversial if succinct interpretation of history: “Nations are born of battle, and conquest makes them great.” The gory opening chapters on the Mongol armies, who exited history’s centre stage as quickly as they entered, may lead some readers to conclude that the book will equal the average action movie in its insights into the human condition.

Deeper into the book, however, Lincoln rounds out the story, even though the tales for the most part remain chilling. We learn about the slow progress of Siberian industry, as hundreds of thousands of workers carve railways through mountains and dig mineshafts in rock-hard permafrost. Lincoln weaves together many threads of political economy, to illustrate how the maneuverings of empire-building politicians in Europe often resulted in the starvation of prisoners thousands of miles away.

With only a few brief exceptions, each brutal regime seemed to beget an even more brutal regime, until the Bolsheviks, desperate to create an industrial colossus out of the reach of rival armies, sacrificed forced labourers by the hundreds of thousands. In the process, land and people suffered equally: “Siberia’s Soviet masters had transformed the fragile ecology of the tundra and taiga . . . into some of the most noxious surroundings on earth.” While Russia’s most recent rulers are seeking technical help to make Siberian industry more productive, the whole world, and especially the circumpolar countries, have an interest in helping Siberian industry clean up its act.

Lincoln’s book relates hundreds of tales of conquest in Siberia, but very little that could pass for greatness. With a lot of luck, perhaps the greatness will yet come.

Review originally published in the 150th Anniversary Edition of the Globe & Mail, March 5, 1994.