The Conquest of a Continent

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Siberia is an immense, awe-inspiring land. At five and one-third million square miles, it dwarfs most countries. It stretches eastward from the Ural Mountains (the dividing line between Europe and Asia) to within one hundred miles of North America. Its largest lake, Baikal, is more than a mile deep and contains one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water. One-fourth of the world’s timber grows in its forests.

Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Russian explorers began their advance across this chill northern tier of Asia. They found few people (one for every twenty-five square miles) but millions of sables, martens, and foxes, whose pelts helped finance the fledgling Russian empire. Driven by greed as well as curiosity and a sense of adventure, the Russians reached the Pacific in sixty-five years. Along the way, they decimated the fur-bearing species of Siberia and beggared its human population with demands of tribute.

It was a pattern that was to be repeated endlessly. Lincoln’s fascinating history is replete with stories of almost superhuman courage under appalling conditions, but every instance of selflessness is balanced by accounts of mindless brutality.

Siberia’s frigid remoteness recommended it early as a place of imprisonment and exile, yet only under the Soviets did the region realize its full potential as a vast prison camp. Under the Soviets, too, agricultural and industrial development led to “one of history’s greatest ecological catastrophes.” Shortsighted farming policies and unchecked chemicals and nuclear pollution have poisoned Siberia and its citizens, perhaps beyond recovery. Lincoln’s somber conclusion is that a devastated Siberia may be Communism’s longest lasting legacy.