We asked all our Siberian studies scholars to come up with one book to introduce Siberia to an interested academic public. It turns out that one book is simply not enough.
Professor Kathryn Graber
There is no single, comprehensive book covering all aspects or eras of Siberia, though people are currently working on projects like that. I would suggest A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony 1581-1990 by James Forsyth (1994) as a start. It addresses European Russians as a civilizing force.
Between Heaven and Hell: The Myth of Siberia in Russian Culture, by Slezkine and Diment (1993), is a collection of essays on how Siberia figures in the Russian imagination—that is, mostly as a cold, savagely romantic place where bears walk the streets.
Red Ties and Residential Schools: Indigenous Siberians in a Post-Soviet State, by Alexia Bloch, is one of several ethnographies written instead from the perspective of indigenous Siberians, in this case the Ewenki. That is required reading for anyone interested in the legacies of boarding schools for Native Americans and First Nations peoples on our own continent.
If you want to understand human-environment interactions, social change, and desperation in postsocialism, I’d recommend The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia, a very accessible book by Piers Vitebsky. That is one of my favorite books to teach. It is dark though, and not to be consumed with vodka (I am only partly kidding). One of my students last semester said it helped her understand the opioid crisis in the U.S.
There are also many travelogues on Siberia, but I would suggest Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier (2011) because he doesn’t make fun of the region or overstate its scariness, he respects it.
There is also translated Russian literature on Siberia by Valentin Rasputin that is informative and sheds light on how Siberia figured in the Russian imagination, like Siberia, Siberia (1997) and Siberia on Fire: Stories and Essays (1989).
One of IU’s CEUS PhD graduates, Tristra Newyear Yeager, recently published a historical romantic fantasy novel set in Buryatia called The Tomb and the Stone. It’s incredibly historically informed (and a little racy too). That is one way to learn about the Decembrists and other tantalizing figures of Siberian history!
Librarian of Siberian Studies at IU, Wookjin Cheun
For students contemplating Siberian studies who speak Russian, I would list the following titles as notable works in Siberian studies.
- M. Iadrintsev’s Sibir’ kak koloniia [Siberia as a colony] (1882). The author was a Siberian native born in Omsk in 1842. He wrote extensively about the needs of Siberia, was considered a champion of Siberia’s own interests, and was once arrested on charges of conspiracy for secession of Siberia. This book, published in St. Petersburg in 1882, is probably the most important of his many works on Siberia. I believe it is now available online.
Sibirskaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia [The Siberian Soviet encyclopedia] (1929- 1932). The first encyclopedia of Siberia as a whole, this work is considered a serious scholarly work unlike what the word “encyclopedia” in its title might suggest. It stopped at Volume 3, with the letter N, and the 4th volume was published in 1992. There is one more volume to go until the completion of this “encyclopedia.”
Istoricheskaia entsiklopediia Sibiri [The historical encyclopedia of Siberia] (2009). This came out in 3 volumes in Novosibirsk and looks as if it aspired to be the post-Soviet successor to the above encyclopedia.
Lastly, V. I. Mezhov’s comprehensive bibliography of Siberia, Sibirskaia bibliografiia. Ukazatelʹ knig i statei o Sibiri na russkom iazykie i odniekh tol’ko knig na inostrannykh iazykakh za vesʹ period knigopechataniia. [The Siberian bibliography. An index to books and articles about Siberia in the Russian language and such only books in foreign languages throughout the whole duration of book printing …] (1891-1892. 4 vols.). The author of this comprehensive Siberian bibliography was probably one of the most famous bibliographers of 19th century Russia. Book scholars frequently say that this bibliography still preserves its scholarly relevance and value as a guide to information about Siberia. I can’t agree with them enough.
Professor György Kara
As some of the many possible writings about Siberia, I would recommend the American folklorist Jeremiah Curtan’s account of his Siberian travels, Wilhelm Radloff’s Aus Siberien (in the Lilly Library). It is also translated into Russian.
Also, Nicolaas Witsen’s Noord en Oost Tartaryen (in Dutch). The Lilly Library has its second edition from the end of the 18th century.