Rasputin's Siberia, Siberia, and Russian Colonialism --Soviet and Post-Soviet

Ewa M. Thompson, Professor of Slavic Studies, Rice University

This document is excerpted from from chapter five of the author's Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism, which the author and her publisher, Greenwood Press, have graciously shared with the readers of the PoCo Web.

Nowhere in Siberia, Siberia is there an indication that the living standards of non-Russians in Siberia have been dramatically different from those of the Russians. In 1989, only 3 percent of native dwellings had gas, 0.4 percent had water, and 0.1 percent had central heat. Most had no sewage disposal, and their size was half of that of Russian dwellings.

The native villages were often destroyed by fiat of the Moscow government, and the natives were forced to move to larger settlements, which made it difficult or impossible for them to provide for themselves. Pollution and financial troubles affected primarily the native peoples. As Russians tried to extract the maximum amount of oil, gas, timber, and furs, from tundra and taiga, the interests of native peoples came dead last. In the 1990s, the native inhabitants of Siberia tried to reassert their right to the land by staging demonstrations and electing representatives. Their voices were drowned in the cacophony of competing interests in Moscow.

These developments surfaced in postcommunism, but they were just beneath the surface in the mid-1980s; as a writer attuned to the land, Rasputin must have been aware of them. But there is no trace of native-oriented advocacy in his books. Nor does Rasputin mention the issue of property rights: he takes it for granted that the wealth of Siberia belongs to the Russians, whether they be Nemtsov and Chubais in Moscow or people like himself in Irkutsk. Yet as Victor Mote points out, if the wealth of the native peoples belonged to them, the richest province of the "Russian" Federation would be Khantia-Mansia in western Siberia; each member of these two small nations would have been a millionaire many times over.

Rasputin does distinguish between Russians who treated Siberia as a way station and those who decided to make it their home; however, he also insists that both groups acknowledge the primacy of Moscow as the center of the empire and that they harbor no separatist dreams. In his view, the problems of Siberia can be solved by a dialogue between these two groups. It does not occur to Rasputin (even as a point to debate and dismiss) that the administration that Moscow imposed upon Siberia has been disastrous for that land and that native Siberians such as himself, in alliance with the non-Russian population, might want to say no to Moscow and ask for a genuinely federal status. This inability to put the good of the people above the good of the Russian imperial state is characteristic of Russian nationalism, and it is also its Achilles' heel. For Rasputin, if there is a guilty party, it is modernization. "When the tsars were here, Siberian wilderness was in less danger," he maintains. Perhaps the fact that Rasputin subsequently joined the most reactionary current in Russian society, supporting the anti-Yeltsin coup in 1993 and making anti-Semitic statements in 1998, is not unrelated to the point of view he adopts in his Siberian-based panegyric to Russian colonialism.

Other Excerpts


Ewa M. Thompson. Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Postcolonial OV discourseov

Last modified: 15 June 2000