The Great Siberian Migration
Government and Peasant in
Resettlement from Emancipation
to the First World War


Princeton, New Jersey Princeton University Press

[SAC editor has marked certain passages in bold-face when they especially suit the needs of our course, and longer quotes have been indented. Also, some hyptertext links to SAC have been established to define and amplify key terms. Only the footnotes identifying quotations have been retained. Where Treadgold refers to a 1920 edition of Turner's thesis, these excerpts create a hypertext link to an electronic edition.]

Russian and American Frontiers

Siberian migration was one aspect of a broader process at work in Russian society during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a process by which the formerly legally stratified society was being replaced by one of legal equals, in which economic opportunity was increasingly accessible to all on equal terms. An important early landmark in this process was the Great Reforms of Alexander II (1855-1881), which freed the serfs and gave them land, created multiclass local self-government, reformed the judicial system, and made military service an obligation of all classes. During the reign of Alexander III (1881-1894) the operation of these reforms was restricted. Under Nicholas II (1894-1917) some of the limitations were in turn removed, and under revolutionary pressure in 1905 a national legislative assembly was created for the first time. Such political changes were paralleled by a diversification of economic activity, a growth of industry, and a notable broadening of the base of Russian culture through increased public education, expansion of the press, and a proliferation of the arts. One vital aspect of the whole process involved the agricultural population, which was numerically nearly the whole of the Russian people. Like other groups, the peasantry was moving in the direction of legal and economic equality, at a level where the individual and family were able to count for more than they had ever done in Russian history. All such changes were far from complete when the First World War broke out, but the degree to which they had made themselves felt deserves to be better understood.

Siberian migration affected, and was in turn influenced by, changes in population density, communal institutions in the village, land tenure and land use, the pattern of production, consumption, and trade, the use and payment of peasants for part-time industrial labor, the legal status of the peasant, his political rights, and many other developments in the homeland west of the Urals. Siberia had its own social, economic, political, and legal problems. Siberian migration was a phenomenon which thus involved European Russia, Asiatic Russia, and the Empire as a whole, and in particular its agriculture and its peasantry.

The Great Siberian Migration was an agricultural movement which led to greater social equality than had existed earlier. In this respect it readily suggests similarity to the American westward migration. My study was begun, in fact, with the aim of comparing the American and Siberian frontier movements.  [My article, "Russian Expansion in the Light of Turner's Study of the American Frontier," Agricultural History, October 1953, was written at the start of this study.] Turner declared, "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development" This was the core of his frontier hypothesis, which he formulated with reference to the United States alone. He later went on to suggest that comparison with "Russia, Germany, and the English colonies in Canada, Australia, and Africa" would yield similar results. Such comparative studies may well someday serve as a basis for a general theory of frontier movements in modern times. Such a theory, however, ought to be worked out in full consciousness of the different geographical, intellectual, and institutional contexts of the countries which have known great migratory movements. Turner believed that the American frontier had certain clear effects, including the emergence of a "composite nationality," nationalism, sectionalism, democracy, and individualism. Some critics have indicated that certain elements of each "effect" either existed prior to the westward movement or owed something to other factors besides colonization. Evidence of that sort does not vitiate Turner's findings, although it shows that he ought to have been more careful in what he claimed as the overall significance of the frontier. He should have expressed more clearly an awareness of cultural heritage and institutional origins. He might have thereby avoided implying that America was made only by Americans—or worse still, only by. American pioneers. Furthermore, like any other student of mass movements, he would have done well to remember more often that the story of a mass movement is far from the whole story of the thousands or millions of individual men and women who make it up. Anyone studying migration in some country other than the United States—not to mention today's students of the American frontier—would profit by examining very carefully the work of Turner and his school, then setting it aside to embark upon the study itself. In order to understand the ways in which the applicability of Turner's theory may be limited in areas outside America, it is well to have in mind the differences between the foreign movement studied and the main characteristics of the American frontier.

Russian and American migration may be compared briefly for the period beginning around 1800. American migration can be traced back to Jamestown, Russian migration to the settlement of the primitive Slavs in the Dnieper valley, in the early centuries of the Christian era, but a more restricted period may be more fruitfully used for comparison. By 1800 Russia had acquired substantially the same boundaries she kept until 1917 (the main exception being Central Asia, in most of which Russian migration was of lesser significance). The United States then had only a fraction of the territory she was to acquire through expansion. Therefore Russian migration proceeded almost wholly into areas already under Russian control, either to the Black Sea region, much of which was in 1800 newly acquired, or to Russian Asia, most of which had flown the Tsar's flag since the seventeenth century. In contrast, American migration had both to settle and annex new territory, beyond the land purchased as "Louisiana" in 1803.

The physiography of the two countries had similar and dissimilar features. Russia's mountains were mainly along the southern border, keeping out the warmth of the south and allowing Arctic cold to range freely over the land. Much of the climate was more comparable to Canada's than to that of the United States. The areas of tillable land in Asiatic Russia lay chiefly in one fairly long belt around 300 miles wide, running from the Urals to the Altai, between latitudes which were too cold or too dry for ordinary farming. America's farm land covered a vast area of a thousand miles square. Yet from the viewpoint of the pioneer there was something in common. The Russian crossing the Urals faced first the fertile farmlands of Western Siberia, then some wooded and mountainous terrain near Lake Baikal, and beyond it a small area of good land on the Pacific Coast north of Vladivostok. The American crossing the Appalachians found a great tillable Middle Western area, then the Rocky Mountains, then good land on the Pacific Coast (and, in addition, near the Rockies, a great desert, whereas Russia's Asian desert ran east and west, to the south of the migrants' route).

The institutional patterns were quite different. In 1800 Russia possessed the governmental institutions of bureaucratic absolutism, and manorial landownership accompanied by serfdom (replaced in 1861 by state-fostered communal landownership among the freed peasantry). America was a free republic, and landed property was allodially held (the slave system disappeared after 1863, though the problem of property was not solved for the freed slaves). Russia had the reputation abroad—especially from the reign of Nicholas I (1825-1855)—of being a land of political repression as well as geographical inhospitableness, while America enjoyed widespread renown in Europe as the Utopia of the Western world; as Goethe said, "America, you have it better."

Thus American migration had two related but not identical aspects. One was the mass introduction of foreign-born into the country; the other was the winning of the West. There was some difference in the motivation of the two groups of settlers. The immigrant came to escape political oppression or poverty, and was convinced that better things awaited him across the Atlantic. The native-born or Eastern-acclimated pioneer was a free man to begin with; he also sought economic opportunity in the West, though it was seldom because he was a pauper.

Russia knew nothing similar to the Atlantic migration, but its eastward movement was in many ways comparable to the winning of the West. Her settlers were initially serfs fleeing oppression and poverty, and even after 1861 the freed peasants were often escaping legal restrictions and economic want At the beginning of the nineteenth century they were corning to feel that a better life could be found in Siberia, but this was quite a new notion. There is a Russian proverb, "Even in Siberia people live," reflecting the old idea that Siberia was chiefly a frozen land and that to live there was in itself a punishment for exiles. However, there is also another proverb: "Siberia is said to be terrible, but those who live there live better than we do." This proverb probably mirrors an early stage of rosy rumors about a rainbow's end in the east, when such reports still sounded surprising.

Russians had more to escape from than Americans (and more than many of the Atlantic immigrants to America), and less to escape to. Nevertheless the Siberian settlers, like the American pioneers, voluntarily risked all they had and left accustomed surroundings to go into a wilderness in search of a better life. They knew hunger, disease, storm and drought, deprivation, homesickness, and loneliness before they succeeded in building new homes, planting new fields, making new neighbors, and finally gaining a new prosperity and a new happiness. Some died, some returned, some gave up after a year. The overwhelming majority stayed and survived.

Siberia lacked a number of features of the American frontier. The natives there were less of a problem than the American Indians, partly because the Russians treated their natives better, partly because the natives were seldom as warlike as the Indians, partly because they were not mainly in the agricultural areas where settlers headed at first (though when the Russians penetrated the Central Asian steppe, something very like an Indian problem arose, which erupted [later] in a great Kazakh revolt in 1916). Siberia had no cowboys, for cattle were raised as part of peasant farming rather than as a prime product for market Rail travel played a more prominent part in Siberian migration, partly because much of the American West was settled by the time the transcontinental railways were completed; when the Trans-Siberian was built, the bulk of the migrants were still to come [LOOP on railroad]. Siberian colonization lacked much of the local color which attended Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill, partly because of different cultural traditions, partly because the Siberian migrants were almost entirely family groups; much of the "wildness" of the American West was the work of bachelors. As a result of its less dramatic or dramatizable character Siberia's story was not carried to Europe, as the story of the Wild West was to the court of Queen Victoria and elsewhere. In Siberia there was no political slogan akin to "Fifty-four Forty or Fight." Even if Russian Tsars had had to win elections as American presidential candidates did, there might not have been any such slogans. No one had to suggest that it was "manifest destiny" for Russia to have Siberia because she had it already. Finally, Siberian settlers did not take up legally allodial holdings, and legally could undertake migration only with the government's consent, in return for which state aid was provided. This would appear to be a fundamental contrast; in actual fact it made much less difference than one might suppose.

With all its contrasts with the American movement, Siberian migration produced a society much more like that of America than was the Russian society from which it stemmed. The American historian, John D. Hicks, declares that Siberia "shows more similarities with the American frontier than with any other area." [ In a review of Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Frontier, in Saturday Review of Literature, December 37, 1952.] This study provides considerable evidence which might support that statement. Siberian migration resulted in the creation of a new Siberian society which had a higher level of prosperity and a greater degree of social flexibility than European Russia. The life of the new Siberian peasantry suggested both to officials and to peasants themselves, what the Russian peasantry might become. The departure of millions from congested European Russia was one factor enabling the peasants who remained to move nearer that goal. An important aspect of domestic improvement was the progress of "land settlement" (zemleustroistvo), the emergence of the legally independent farmer on a consolidated holding. Land settlement had its own European roots, and was developing independently of any direct or indirect relationship between the homeland and Siberia. Toward the end of the period in question, however, certain officials of the Tsar perceived the actual and potential link between Siberian migration and land settlement in European Russia and the way in which they complemented one another. Especially under the ministry of Stolypin, the government came at last to an active sponsorship of both movements. A paradox thereupon emerged. Though still a despotism, the government had accepted and championed what appeared to be a progressive movement among the agricultural population. The revolutionary intelligentsia, although consciously dedicated to progressive political and social change, opposed this same movement with vigor, partly because the Tsarist government which was now supporting it was their sworn enemy, but chiefly because they feared that it would lead to property relationships and attitudes which would prevent the attainment of some variety of socialism. One section of that intelligentsia, the Communists, finally seized power amid the governmental collapse which was hastened by the First World War. After a period of concessions to the peasantry, which was by that time close to independence [ID], the Communists reduced the peasants to a state of legal and economic subjection far more rigorous than before [ID].



"Perhaps Siberia may yet become what she is potentially already— the Canada of the East—the home of a great self-governing people, free to educate themselves, to direct in their own way and for their own benefit as well as that of the Russian Empire the development of the great resources of a country rich in minerals both 'precious' and 'useful,' in fact first in the world in gold mines; abounding in fine timber; spread with wide fields, growing wider every year, of grain and hemp; with vast grazing lands; with vaster tracts teeming with every kind of far-bearing animal; and peopled by a hardy stock of democratically-minded Europeans, trained to self-reliance and resourcefulness in no easy school."
—M. A. Czaplicka, My Siberian Year, London, n.d., pp. 305-06.

Causes and Effects of Migration

What attracted the migrants to Siberia? The quest for land and freedom. What did they find there? More of both than they had ever known before. Often the settler gave his reason for departure as "lack of land," but if that is the only thing he sought he could often have had it at home by renting. Of course hard work and money were needed to make a land rental successful, but not only toil and cash were required of a prospective migrant, but also a break with his whole past and that of his ancestors. Mamin-Sibiriak expressed the feeling of an escapee from exile, who returns to his village, in regaining the only life he had known:

He longed for freedom, for open air, like every living being, and for him this freedom was to be found there in his own village. Now the world of the village appeared before his eyes in all its surroundings of toil, as it was constructed by his forefathers—nothing here was superfluous, each screw had its place, but the sundered individual was only a negligible particle of the great living whole and only within this whole did he have sense and meaning, like a thread in a fabric or a link in a chain. Each peasant fitted into this order and only through this order did he know what was good and evil; he rejoiced, mourned, hoped, wept, prayed, and, above all, felt himself to be at home. [D. N. Mamin-Sibiriak, "Letnye," in Izbrannye sochineniia, Moscow-Leningrad, 1940, p. 623]

To break away from a life in which the peasant felt secure and safe, whatever his wants, required more than simply the desire for a few more desiatinas of land. For millions of peasants, freedom was not to be found in their native village, and the opportunity to seek it even thousands of miles away compelled them to uproot themselves and risk everything for its sake. To separate "economic" freedom from "political" freedom is not warranted either in trying to analyze man's aspirations or in attempting to build a good state and society. Oppression and misery had never managed to extinguish in the peasant the desire for both "land and liberty"—the chance to care for his family decently and to call his soul his own.

The peasant's desire to seek afield for land in part reflected the crisis in communal land tenure and the three-course system of land use in south-central Russia. The growing density of population had rendered these institutions obsolete and inadequate to feed either the Russian village or the city. The Siberian migration showed the individual peasant family the way to realize its goals. For the Russian peasantry as a whole, migration had a double significance. It furnished the homeland a useful, and for the overcrowded central provinces perhaps an indispensable, catalyst for the successful execution of land settlement. It also created in Siberia a dramatic example of how rapid agricultural improvement could occur and what social and economic benefits it might produce.

The peasant's search for freedom was in part a consequence of his having already been relieved of the bondage of serfdom. He learned what a degree of independence could be like, and was eager for more. The breakdown of the legally stratified class system inaugurated by Alexander II's Great Reforms gave the peasant a chance to develop a sense of citizenship which he had hitherto experienced in only a very limited fashion within the village commune, where the power of the landlord—not to mention the state—was ever present. In European Russia, the destruction of class barriers— as in western Europe since the French Revolution—had deprived the upper classes of certain privileges and had given the lower classes more. Migration had a rather different effect. At first the prerogative of the lower and "protected" class of peasants, by its success migration attracted members of the "upper" classes, who sought to obtain the benefits of being a peasant (though by the last years of Tsarism, "farmer" may be a better word for the Siberian settler). In Siberia, the peasant learned that he could bend the law and officialdom to recognize and provide for his own needs; he even found it possible, as our evidence has repeatedly suggested, to evade the hand of the government entirely. There could be nothing servile about a man who managed to complete Siberian migration successfully.

The effects of Siberian migration, it was asserted at the outset, were in certain ways comparable to those of the American frontier movement. Turner believed that they included the development of a "composite nationality" of differing ethnic stocks, stimulation of a "nationalizing tendency" simultaneous with the creation of what he called "sections," and the encouragement of democracy and individualism. [Turner, The Frontier in American History [W]]

The mixing of ethnic groups which occurred in Siberia was of less dramatic dimensions than in America's melting pot, but it is still noteworthy. First of all, a considerable amount of intermarriage between Russians and the Siberian natives took place. [...] In the steppe region there were also numerous unions between Kazakhs and Russians, whose offspring were often largely Russified.

More important numerically than mingling with natives was the amount of intermingling of Russians from different regions. [...] Russians lived among, if they did not marry, natives. Great Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians, from Kiev and Kazan, Perm and Podolia, Viatka and Vitebsk, mingled, dwelt side by side, and intermarried.


Siberia likewise developed both strong national and strong regional feeling. Aziatskaia Rossiia ascribes to the migrants the creation of

that inner living and close tie which has been established between Russia proper and that most distant of its frontier regions, to the extent that they have been settled by migrants from the central provinces. Feeling far from the homeland with especial straining towards her, spiritual nearness, and unity, the migrants there also act as living and convinced conductors of a common faith in the wholeness and indivisibility of our fatherland from the banks of the Neva to the heights of the Pamirs, the impassable crests of the Tian Shan, the border windings of the Amur and the far-off coast of the Pacific Ocean, where all—in Asia, as in Europe, our one Russian land—constitutes one great and inalienable possession of our people. [Aziatskaia Rossiia, vol. 1, p. 199.]

In this case the lyric qualities of nationalism are produced by the educated man who is writing. Though the migrant might not verbalize his feelings thus or even share those expressed fully, it seems plausible that he often may have become conscious of the expanses and potentialities of his country, even of being a Russian, in a manner quite new to him and hitherto utterly foreign to his experience.

That did not mean the settlers were indifferent to the distinctiveness of the region to which they had come. As in America, nationalism and sectionalism both developed powerfully. The aspirations of the sibiriak, his expression of regional needs and uniqueness, and the growth of ambitions for regional autonomy or even independence, cannot be explored here, though a considerable literature on the subject may be consulted. The opportunities which arose for Siberian autonomism and the successes and mishaps of attempts to exploit them during the Civil War must likewise be deferred for examination elsewhere, although in many ways those events make a climax to the whole story of the Great Migration. Despite the fact that the Soviets did not feel the need for even nominal recognition of Siberian regionalism—since the Siberians did not make up a minority "nationality"—it is possible that such aspirations may one day be heard again.

Finally, what may one say of the development of democracy and individualism in Siberia? Democracy in the sense of popular participation in government had not been fully attained. On the village level there had long been self-government, as in European Russia. Although the Siberian commune was nearly defunct as a manager of agriculture, the village assembly was a functioning organ of democracy, subject to far less outside interference in Siberia, where there was no gentry, than in the homeland. As for representative government based on suffrage, Albert J. Beveridge once asked some Siberian peasants through an interpreter, " 'Did they want to vote?' Why, they did that now. Did not all of them, even the women who were widows, have a free voice in their communes, etc. ?" But to his question whether they wanted to take part in government in the sense of making laws and the like, they replied in the negative.1" [Albert J. Beveridge [ID], The Russian Advance, New York and London, 1903, p. 332. Pavlovtky, op.cit., p. 173.]

Part of this attitude doubtless belonged to the widely observed indifference of peasants to urban politics which comes from the lack of acquaintanceship with it; the explanation may partly have been that in Siberia the laws interfered so little with the lives of the peasants, while "making laws" had a vague connotation of encouraging officials to skulk about villages making trouble. Nevertheless, Beveridge's report dates from 1903, and beginning in 1906 Siberians, perhaps including Beveridge's apolitical informants, voted for deputies to the Duma. As noted earlier, there was certainly mounting agitation for county and provincial self-government in the form of the zemstvo, though how widespread this demand was would be difficult to establish.

Some writers on Siberia used the word "democracy" to mean chiefly social and economic equality. Commenting on the failure of the law of 8 July 1901, which envisaged sale of land to private capitalists east of the Urals, Pavlovsky writes, "Hence, as before, Siberia remained wholly democratic, a country of peasant farmers settled on State-owned land." By "democratic" Pavlovsky means nothing pertaining to government, but rather he refers to the economic order of factual smallholding and the attitudes of equality which attended it. Compare Turchaninov: "The class composition of the population beyond the Urals is extremely homogeneous. Russian Siberia is at the present time a solid 'peasant sea.'" Turchaninov continued,

Representing, in the person of the old-settlers, the descendants of daring escapees from Russia proper, having moved here under harsh conditions sometimes even prior to the conquest of the region, and in the person of the recent settlers, the most energetic and enterprising representatives of their milieu— for only such migrants become firmly acclimatized and strike root in the new regions—the Siberian peasants indeed differ from the remaining mass of the Russian peasantry ... in their greater steadfastness ... in the struggle with [nature] . . . their greater mobility and readiness to accept every kind of innovation. . . . [N. V. Turchaninov, "Naselenie Aziatskoi Rossii," Aziatskaia Rossiia, Vol. I, pp. 74-75]