January 26, 2003
The Big Country
'The Shaman's Coat: A Native History of Siberia' by Anna Reid
Reviewed by Richard Lourie
THE SHAMAN'S COAT
A Native History of Siberia
By Anna Reid
Walker. 226 pp. $25
The short history of Siberia is that the Russians expanded eastward and there were native peoples in the way. The result was their devastation; the means were both intentional (slaughter, the imposition of alien lifestyles) and inadvertent (the importation of disease and alcohol).
Rueful, witty and poetic, Anna Reid's account interweaves some five centuries of history with a personal journal of venturesome travel through mostly grim contemporary Siberia. Her emphasis is on the native peoples, whose absence from the story would be tantamount, she writes, to "leaving the Maya out of Mexico, the Aborigines out of Australia, or the Sioux and Apache out of the United States."
First she sets the scene, and here there are no surprises -- Siberia is very big and very cold. It constitutes 1/12th of the world's landmass, and when the temperature falls sufficiently, "Living trees explode with a sound like gunfire, chopped logs strike blue sparks, and exhaled breath falls to the ground in a shower of crystals, with a rustling sound called the 'whispering of the stars.' "
The Russian push to the east was motivated by profit but also by the search for vengeance and security -- the Golden Horde that ruled Russia for some 250 years had come thundering across the steppes in 1237. Soon after beginning to explore Siberia (which means the "sleeping land," a point the author oddly fails to mention) in the late 16th century, the Russians realized that it was ideal for conquest, being "rich and weak" -- rich in furs and, as was later learned, in natural resources such as diamonds, gold, timber, gas; weak because between Muscovy and the Pacific there were only some 250,000 widely spaced natives. Even the names of the indigenous peoples are essentially unknown to us. Anna Reid sets out to show us how they lived before the conquest, then under the czars and commissars, and how they fare now.
It's an ambitious undertaking, one matched by her travel to places that are breathtaking or godforsaken. She does not try in the least to be encyclopedic. The book is a spare, elegantly focused combination of fieldwork and research. We learn just the right amount about the throat-singing Tuvans or the Chukchi, the butt of Russian jokes the way "dumb Polacks" or "Newfies" are in other cultures. The Chukchi were Stone Age before the Russians arrived: "The old or sick asked to be ritually stabbed or strangled, and believed that they would spend the afterlife playing ball with a walrus skull in the aurora borealis. When the head of a household died his relatives ate his flesh, and kept his bones as amulets." But the Chukchi were able to resist the Russians into the 20th century, as if in proof of their own proverb: "Even a small mouse has anger."
The Buryat from the Lake Baikal region possessed a written language, firearms and metal and took 30 years to conquer but proved resistant to the high-minded evangelical Christians of the London Missionary Society, who in the course of 23 years among them in the early 19th century managed to convert only four. New threats have recently appeared on the horizon of eastern Siberia, including American oil companies recreating suburbia in their wake -- "smooth lawns, shiny houses, fat-wheeled, candy-coloured land cruisers."
Aside from introducing us to peoples who vary greatly in nature, culture and complexion, the author has unearthed any number of marvelous anecdotes. In the 1920s, Tuvans watched with wild enthusiasm a Soviet film about strikes on railroads and in factories, though they had never seen railroads or factories and had no idea what a strike was. Only the close-ups disappointed them: "We paid full price! We want to see a whole person!" But when the Soviets tried to impose their system by committees, the people weren't so naive, declaring that "they had always lived without [committees], and that if they elected one, the number of walrus would not increase." A few shamans -- "ones who know" -- remain, still believed in by the people, though one pocketed Reid's payment of his $8 consulting fee with "something suspiciously close to a wink."
Though the current situation of the native peoples of Siberia is even worse than that of the rest of Russia's citizens, Reid finds a measure of hope in their very survival: "It has been fashionable for a while to think of all national identities as invented. . . . But the native Siberians are an example of the opposite phenomenon; of how hard it is to disinvent nationalities, of how they persist in the face of governments' best efforts at their destruction." But then again, they had for centuries survived something even more durably severe than Russian imperialism or Soviet communism -- Siberia itself.
Richard Lourie is the author of "Sakharov: A Biography."