Beyond the Urals
Semyonov, Yuri. Siberia: Its Conquest and Development. Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1963. 414.
What would motivate men to venture into some of the harshest areas on Earth, often with a small amount of supplies and an overwhelming chance of not returning alive? Plenty, argues Yuri Semyonov, “plenty of freedom, plenty of natural resources, and little authority” (86). Yet, Siberia: Its Conquest and Development if far from a simple retelling of several adventure tales. What the author presents is a comprehensive history of Siberian exploration spanning roughly 500 years, complete with thorough analysis of the political, cultural and economic factors that were at play throughout.
Semyonov begins with a brief introduction of Russian history prior to Ermak’s journey, discussing key forces ultimately responsible for Siberia’s conquest. All the important expeditions from Ermak, to Deshnev, to Bering are discussed in great detail. Certainly the story of Ermak drowning in his heavy armor has not gone untold; throughout the book Semyonov gives both historical facts and traditional legends in order to create a more complete picture. Siberia covers a broad range of geographical locations, including Siberia, Alaska, and even touches on Hawaii and Japan. In effect, any area related to Siberian conquest is given attention. Yet, just as the title would have you believe, Siberia: Its Conquest and Development, at its heart is still a chronology of Siberian conquest up until the time of the writing, namely1954.
In Siberia, Semyonov discusses in depth several topics such as Bering’s several voyages. The author agrees that he failed on his first voyage, not bringing back any concrete proof of Siberia and America being separated by water. Neither has Bering himself found the coast of Alaska, that credit is given Fyodorov and Gvosdyov (149). Describing his second voyage, Semyonov shows how Bering gradually weakened in both health and spirit and in the chapter ominously titled Bering Dies on His Island, describes his final moments.
Another topic discussed is the Trans-Siberian Railway. The two major reasons for its construction outlined in Siberia are pressure from the industry and a need to defend Russia’s the Far East interests from British forces (322). Sergei Yulyevich Witte was the driving force behind this great project and the author attributes its success to his efforts and direction. At the same time Witte inadvertently ended up financing the Japanese military buildup through a loan made to China to pay...