by: Lamin O. Ceesay
Monday 13th May, 2013 marked the beginning of yet another formal inauguration of the Haniel Spring School seminar series at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt. This inaugural lecture was one out of two preparatory seminars to be conducted at the Brandt School before a team of 10 students would join their Russian counterparts at Novosibirsk State University for a ten day seminar from 18th -26th May this year. The topic for this year´s seminar series is “The Effects of Centre-Local Relationships on Public Policy”. Novosibirsk State University, the host institution for this year´s programme, is said to be one of the best and famous research and teaching institutions in Russia. It is located in Akademgorodok 20 kilometers from the city of Novosibirsk, a cultural and industrial center of the region of Siberia.
This year´s inaugural/preparatory lecture on the topic: “Siberia-Perceptions in the Past and Present”, was conducted by Prof. Holt Meyer, an American professor lecturing at the University of Erfurt. The event was chaired by Ms. Silke Adamitza on behalf of Ms. Julia Tantoh, Programme Coordinator, Haniel Spring School, at the Brand School. In her brief introductory remarks, Ms. Adamitza welcomed students and formal presented Prof. Holt Meyer.
Prof. Holt Meyer´s Lecture on “Siberia-Perceptions in the Past and Present”
At the beginning of what I would describe as a marathon and a captivating lecture, Prof. Meyer informed students that he would prefer to reshape the caption of the lecture from “Siberia-Perceptions in the Past and Present” to “Conceptions, Practices and Reflections on Siberia Yesterday and Today” to fit well with his planned deliberations. That being said he informed participants about his carefully selected articles as points of departure/reference for the lecture which included: Mark Bassin (1991), Alexia Bloch (2005) and Art Leete (2005).
- a. Siberia in Russia in the Early and the Late 19th Century
I. Siberia in Russia in the Early 19th Century
Russian west of Urals´ conception of Siberia in the early 19th century, according to Prof. Meyer, was nothing less than just a mercantile Russian colony for the purpose of exploiting the rich natural resources to develop mainland Russia. The euphoria among the leadership and the citizens at the time was the quest for an easily obtainable and highly lucrative mercantile commodity-pelt and fur which were in abundance in the Siberian Taiga. The Professor also talked about the role played by the different leaders of Russia at the time, singling out the role played by Aleksandr I. Russians, he went on, branded the region of Siberia as “our Peru” or “Our Mexico”, a “Russian Brazil” or “our East India” simply because the region was a good source of income for them. The rich natural environment and Siberia´s Lena River to the Russians was comparable only to River Nile of Africa and that there was a popular perception among them that this river would foster the growth of Russian imperial aspirations. However, in spite of all these wonders and natural richness, Russians, the Professor noted, never viewed the people of Siberia as one of them rather they referred to them as their Asiatic colony.
- ii. Siberia in Russia in the Late 19th Century
By the late nineteenth century with the shift in preference for fur in the international market, change in fashion and style of dress and the decreased number of pelts in Taiga, the Professor confirmed, “Russian Peru lost much of its economic significance”. Russian East´s previous “generous vision of Siberia as a `gold mine`” and enthusiasm with time turned into cynicism and the eventual labeling of the region as a burden on the motherland USSR. The popular description of Siberia at the time by both Russian politicians and the educated elites was, according to Professor nothing but “a vast Asiatic wasteland of barren, snowy expanses and frozen tundra” replacing those glorious and inspiring views for decades.
However, writings of those “self-conscious political opposition” banished in Siberia suddenly changed this negative perception about Siberia. Disenchanted with serfdom and the autocratic status of Russia, Decembrists in exile began to actively searching for an “alternative social and political models” outside European Russia for the transformation of Russia, found this unique model in Siberia. They therefore embraced Siberia and started popularizing it through poetic writing and newspaper publications. “Decembrists” were young officers banished to Siberia after their revolt against the accession to power by the then Russian leader Nicholas I in 1825.
This new discovery once again Professor noted, swung the pendulum in favor of Siberia “from a barren realm of ice and darkness” to a “source of hope and inspiration” for the Decembrists. Decembrists were impressed by Siberia´s “untapped natural resources, the abundance and richness”, as well as moved by her qualities like the absence of institution of serfdom, and the free nature of Siberian society from both chattel labor and a powerful landed aristocracy. Consequently as noted by Professor Meyer, they likened the region to North America a democratic and egalitarian society as opposed to autocratic European Russia.
- b. The Practices of Russians in Siberia at the time the Soviet Union
Using the writings of Alexia Bloch (2005) and Art Leete (2005), Professor Meyer looked at how Russians pursued their imperialist ideas of assimilation of Siberians people using collectivized child rearing within the idea of “Kollektiv”. He also discussed briefly the different views about the virtues of “residential school” as a form of social safety net and as an instrument of state control. The idea generated divergent views among students as some viewed collective rearing/residential school as liberating women and providing them with “new set of opportunities and to excel in academic and professional settings”, while others disagreed and said it was oppressive as well as destroyed the traditional community structures and culture. Professor Meyer also discussed the role of religion and religious sacrifice like mass killings of animals as an instrument used by Siberians to thwart Soviet imperialist ideas of collective herding of reindeer.
- c. Reflections on Siberia at the End of the Soviet Era
On Siberia at the end of Soviet era, Professor Meyer posed a contentious question: “Is Siberia better-off now or before?” This generated a typical academic debate with divided opinions. Some students based on the narrative accounts of women in Alexia Bloch´s (2005) article maintained that people especially women were better-off under USSR era because resources were equally distributed each according to their needs. While some students maintained that people were worst-off in the USSR era as the period was characterized by oppression and lack of democracy, rule of law, and curtailed freedom of speech or expression. Some even raised doubts about the genuineness and sincerity of the narrative accounts of women in the article.
At the end of the lecture Ms. Silke Adamitza presented a gift to the Professor Meyer as a token of appreciation of his lecture.