America, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner had it, is a land defined by its frontiers, once inexorably westward- lending, led by Manifest Destiny. The cultural geographer Carl Ortwin Sauer gave Turner’s “frontier thesis” a twist that denizens of the New West will appreciate: “The westward movement in American history,” he wrote, “gave rise to the real estate boom, made land the first commodity of the country and produced the salesman promoter. It was the latter rather than any public official who planned and directed the settlement of new lands.”

Some readers may be surprised to learn that it was thus in Russia as well: that entrepreneurs and developers, individual and corporate, directed the growth of that nation to its eastern frontiers, finding in the endless taiga and forests of Siberia the material basis for a vast empire. W. Bruce Lincoln’s The Conquest of a Continent addresses the rich history of the Russian frontier in the broad sweep of 500 pages. While he necessarily glosses over much that is of deeper interest, he gives us the best outline of Siberian history now available to readers in English.

Russia had long known the east, from whence came a wave of fearsome invaders: Mongols and Tatars, the cavalries of Temujin and Tamur the Lame. They burned their way into European Russian memory from the very first; one of Russia’s earliest histories is by the Chronicler of Voskresensk, whose pages recount a countryside where “nothing could be seen but smoking ruins and bare earth and heaps of corpses.”

It took a Russian of like fury to send the Golden Horde packing, and the then-ruling Stroganov merchant class found their champion in one Ermak Timofeevich, a Cossack who had hitherto romped across Poland putting the torch to all that lay before him. Ermak was a crude man but a brilliant tactician, and in short order he defeated a mighty Tatar army on the banks of the Irtvsh River, which secured most of Siberia for Russia as early as 1582. Ermak later drowned in that same river, pulled to its unfathomable bottom by the weight of his armor during another fight with the Tatars; his successors fought mainly guerrilla wars against native armies for another century, but Ermak’s deeds made their work relatively simple.

Lincoln goes on to offer a lively précis of the history of Siberian exploration, recounting the crucial expeditions of Steller and Bering, of Fedorov and Krasheninnikov, whose work extended Russia’s eastward reach as far as Northern California. (Strangely, Lincoln overlooks the 19th-century mapping expeditions of Peter Kropotkin, the prince who became one of anarchism’s great theoreticians.) That record of exploration is spottier than Lincoln—or a homegrown Russian chauvinist, for that matter—might like to admit. Kamchatka’s coastline was mapped in the 1730’s, but the interior contours of Siberia were not thoroughly charted until the last decade, and even then parts are not well known today.

The comparative study of frontiers is still nascent (we need a scholar to analyze, for example, the histories of both New Spain and Roman Iberia, looking for structural similarities), but Bruce Lincoln does not shy from drawing parallels between the Russian and American frontier experiences. While noting that Russia’s eastward movement began a full century before America’s westward forays, he looks carefully at the way the California and Alaska gold rushes mirror those of Tomsk (1828) and Iakutsk (1840), all propelled by men who, as a Russian journalist put it, “were without the fear of Cod and without feelings of shame.” That recklessness, Lincoln notes, allowed the buffalo hunters of the Great Plains and seal hunters of the Siberian seaboard alike to drive species to the brink of extinction within two generations’ time.

Lincoln uncovers many little-known episodes in Siberian history. For one, he takes a fond look at the Russian-born intellectuals who founded a Siberian separatist movement to resist Nicholas II’s plans to build a trans-Russian railroad; those intellectuals knew that once Siberia was bound to Moscow by an iron rail, an iron fist would quickly follow. (They were right, of course, as they learned when Siberia was absorbed into first the Russian and then the Soviet Empire and finally transformed into a vast penal colony.) Lincoln’s study of censuses shows that from 1897 to 1911 more than three and a half million European Russians crossed the Urals into Siberia. He has mastered archival and oral-historical literature, and his book is rich with anecdotal notes—of, for instance, a Red Army machine-gunner’s terror at facing battle-hardened White Guards for the first time in the impenetrable forests of Transbaikalya.

Similarly, Bruce Lincoln is attentive to the fine details that make history—and that make history come alive. He gives us an exact list of a Mongol cavalryman’s effects (“a cuirass of thick leather . . . a fur or sheepskin coat, a fur hat with ear flaps, felt socks, heavy leather boots . . . dried meat, ten pounds of dried curds, a leather bottle filled with two liters of fermented mare’s milk, at least two quivers, each with a side pocket with a file for sharpening arrows, an awl, and a needle and thread”); he quotes tellingly from a minor 19th-century exile’s diary, noting his disgust at the village life of the native lakuts and at the lack of Russian companionship; he tells us that the shimmering fur of the Russian sable gave rise to the ancient story of the Golden Fleece, remarking that “this small animal that was scarcely larger than a house cat became the magnet that pulled the Russians across the entire Eurasian continent before 1650.” In such details, the Talmudists said. Cod resides. In whatever event, they make for consistently engaging reading.

Siberia remains a land of great promise, pockmarked, to be sure, by radioactive waste dumps and forgotten prisoners, by homegrown fascists like Valentin Rasputin and unrepentant communists like Vladimir Skurlatin. Bruce Lincoln closes with an appreciation of Siberia’s complexities and of its uneasy relationship with Russia. Like his earlier histories of the Red Army and of revolutionary Russia, The Conquest of a Continent is thoroughly satisfying. I wish only that the author had found room in his ample bibliography for V.K. Arsenevev’s stirring memoir Dersu the Hunter, the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s 1975 film Dersu Vzala. (Readers moved by Lincoln’s book will want to see both that movie and the Soviet television-produced epic Siberiade, only recently released.) Otherwise, The Conquest of a Continent is a model of scholarly thoroughness and a pleasure as well.


[The Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and the Russians, by W. Bruce Lincoln (New York: Random House) 500 pp., $30.00]