The Best Books About Siberia

By Sharon Hudgins

The Books I Picked & Why

East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia

By Benson Bobrick

East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia

Why this book?

For readers venturing into the history of Siberia for the first time, East of the Sun is an excellent introduction to this Asian side of Russia, stretching 5,000 miles between the Ural Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The book's narrative covers four centuries, from the conquest of Siberia by Russians in the late 16th century through the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 20th century—including early expeditions into the uncharted lands east of the Urals and the Russians' push toward the Pacific Ocean; native people in Siberia; Russian expansion into North America, from Alaska to California; Siberia as a place of prison and exile, but also a land of opportunity for millions of voluntary settlers; the impact of the Trans-Siberian Railroad; and the effects of modernization under the Soviets in the 20th century. If you're an armchair traveler interested in history, or planning a trip to Siberia yourself, this book is one of the best for gaining an overview of this fascinating part of Russia.


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To the Great Ocean: The Taming Of Siberia And The Building Of The Trans-Siberian Railway

By Harmon Tupper

To the Great Ocean: The Taming Of Siberia And The Building Of The Trans-Siberian Railway

Why this book?

A highly readable and well-illustrated history of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, from the earliest Russian railways to the construction of the Trans-Siberian route to the modern railway of the mid-20th century. Built between 1891 and 1916, it was the longest passenger line in the world and one of the greatest engineering feats of its time. But few people riding on Trans-Siberian trains today are aware of the immense obstacles the builders had to overcome, from tunneling through snow-covered mountains and draining dangerous swamps, to coping with deadly diseases and attacks by bandits and Siberian tigers.

In 1916, when the last railroad bridge was constructed over the Amur River in Russia's Far East, the trip by train from Moscow to Vladivostok took 14 to 16 days. Today it takes only 7 days to cover the 5,771 miles between Russia's capital and the Pacific Ocean—but it's still the railway journey of a lifetime. Although Tupper's book covers the Trans-Siberian's history only up to the mid-1960s, it remains the best introduction to that legendary line. Read it before you go!


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The Princess of Siberia: The Story of Maria Volkonsky and the Decembrist Exiles

By Christine Sutherland

The Princess of Siberia: The Story of Maria Volkonsky and the Decembrist Exiles

Why this book?

A fascinating account of the remarkable lives—and wives—of several Russian aristocrats who were sentenced to prison, hard labor, and exile in Siberia after participating in a failed attempt to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I in December of 1825. Eleven wives (two of them princesses) of those unfortunate noblemen voluntarily followed their husbands to Siberia, even though the women were forced to give up their own lands, titles, and children back in Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

The Princess of Siberia focuses on one family in particular, the Volkonskys, who settled in Irkutsk, the capital of eastern Siberia, after Prince Sergei Volkonsky's years of hard labor in the silver mines in Russia's Far East. His wife, Maria—a princess from a distinguished family in European Russia—stayed with him throughout his imprisonment and exile in Siberia. She later became known in Irkutsk as "The Princess of Siberia" because of her many charitable works and cultural contributions there. Today you can still visit the wooden house that belonged to the Volkonsky family in the mid-1800s, as well as the house of another notable Decembrist family, the Trubetskoys. Nearly 200 years after those Decembrists lived in Irkutsk, Russians still honor them by leaving little gifts on their graves in a local churchyard.


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The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia

By Piers Vitebsky

The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia

Why this book?

My favorite book about reindeer and their relationship with the nomadic native people who herd them over the tundra of northern Siberia. The author is not only a renowned anthropologist at Cambridge University, but also a gifted writer who brings his field research to life on the page. He writes beautifully about the history of reindeer in northern Asia, their lives from birth to death, their uses by the herders who care for them, the disastrous attempts by the Soviets to collectivize the herders' lives and livelihood, the spiritual significance of reindeer to many native Siberians even today, and why people have long believed that reindeer can fly. As one reviewer wrote, "Like the reindeer themselves, this book takes wings."


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Tent Life in Siberia

By George Kennan

Tent Life in Siberia

Why this book?

An intrepid traveler and talented journalist, George Kennan (1845-1924), is better known for his second book about Russia, published in 1891: Siberia and the Exile System, a two-volume study of Siberian penal colonies and exile conditions. But his first book, published 20 years earlier, is among my favorites about Russia. In his introduction to a 1968 reprint of Tent Life in Siberia, American author Larry McMurtry called it "one of the most appealing classics of nineteenth-century travel [writing]."

In 1865, 20-year-old Kennan, an accomplished telegrapher, was hired by Western Union to survey part of Siberia for the possible construction of a telegraph line across Russia, connecting Alaska to Europe. This memoir of his two years in Siberia is a rousing tale of his adventures among the native people and the Russian settlers he encountered there, as well as the many hardships that he and his partner endured, from eating frozen raw meat in their tent during blizzards with temperatures of 60 degrees below zero, to traversing hundreds of miles on foot over wild terrain with no roads. But he never wallows in self-pity, instead tackling those formidable obstacles with good humor and youthful enthusiasm. No wonder McMurtry described Kennan's book as "breezy, confident, irreverent, and wonderfully readable."


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