BY DENIS J. B. SHAW
From the medieval period Russian peasants began to move north into a very different environment from the one they had experienced in the mixed forest. This region, dubbed by Dokuchaev and others the boreal forest (taiga), is clothed by the great belt of conifers which crosses the entire span of northern Eurasia from northern Scandinavia in the west across to the Pacific coast in the east and then, leaping the Bering Strait, continues across Alaska and northern Canada. According to Dulov, at the end of the seventeenth century this region accounted for nearly half of the territory of European Russia but in 1719 contained only about 12 per cent of the registered Russian population.10 As these figures suggest, this is a harsh land whose endless coniferous forests (spruce, pine, fir, birch with greater admixtures of larch and cedar as one moves eastwards into Siberia) are interspersed with vast expanses of swamp. The short summers, long winters and predominantly low temperatures (though climatic conditions vary in detail throughout the region) mean that the boreal forest is an area characterised by excess moisture conditions. Soils are generally low in fertility, leached of the most significant plant minerals bywater made acidic by a surface detritus of needles from the coniferous trees. The resulting podzols are frequently characterised by a topsoil of silica and little or no humus, and often have an iron hardpan some half a metre below the surface which further impedes drainage. In the far north of European Russia and across much of northern, central and eastern Siberia the swampy conditions are exacerbated by permafrost. Thus the poor, infertile soils, generally swampy conditions, short summers (ameliorated to some degree by long daylight hours) and low average temperatures mean that agriculture has always been restricted to the most favourable regions. In much of the zone these favoured regions tend to correspond to river valleys which were the most usual sites for settlement. Settlement tended to avoid the watersheds which were often swampy, remote and forested.
Again, the detailed geography varies considerably. In European Russia towards the south of the zone drainage conditions are better than elsewhere, soils are less podzolised in many places and agriculture becomes possible in river valleys and on some watersheds. Better soils include glacial clay loams, Permian marls and alluvial clays. Agricultural settlement proved possible along the valleys of the Sukhona and Vychegda, near Beloe Ozero, on the watershed between the Sukhona and the Volga, and in certain other favoured regions, albeit often in rather isolated pockets. In many places slash and burn was long practised. Natural meadowland on the alluvial soils of river valleys, and pastures elsewhere, probably enhanced the significance of livestock farming in this area, a feature which certainly became more apparent from the eighteenth century. As in the mixed forest zone the coniferous forests provided many resources for subsistence, even though their productivity was hindered by the harsh environment. For many peasants in the north non-agricultural activities loomed large. Thus on coasts, lakes and rivers, fishing proved a most important activity. Both freshwater bodies and the sea were rich in stocks of fish. Favoured species included salmon, sturgeon, pike, cod, herring, sole and other varieties. Peasants and others also sought for game and, where possible, fur-bearing animals in the forests. The latter included sable, marten, fox, hare, ermine, beaver, squirrel and others. Also hunted in the northern forests were elk, reindeer, roebuck and bear. For yet other northern peasants the salt industry provided an important means of subsistence towards the end of the period.
Only in the late sixteenth century did the Russians begin to penetrate Siberia to any extent and to the end of our period their activities were largely confined to the boreal forest zone (in Siberia’s case that zone covers most of the territory). Peasant economies and ways of life bore much similarity to those found in the boreal forests to the west. By the seventeenth century agriculture was being encouraged in some of the most favoured areas in the south-west of Siberia, accompanied by peasant settlement. This was in an attempt to overcome the severe problem of provisioning in this vast region. But both agriculture and Russian peasant settlement remained of minimal importance in Siberia to the end of the period.
Few were the Russian settlers who encountered the tundra lands of the far north before the end of the seventeenth century. The tundra, which is the region of swamp, moss, peat, lichen, scrub and perennial grassland to the north of the tree-line, stretches from the Kola Peninsula in the west across the far north of European Russia and northern Siberia to the far north-east of the Eurasian mainland. In certain parts of northern and north-eastern Siberia tundra conditions penetrate further south as a result of mountainous relief. The major Russian subsistence activities in these territories consisted of hunting and fishing. Fowl, reindeer, walruses, seals and whales were among the species sought in the European far north.
To the south of the mixed forest zone of European Russia the landscape gradually merges into the forest-steppe and ultimately into the steppe, regions which today are largely devoted to arable farming but which in the past were covered for the most part by natural grassland. In south-western Siberia, where the mixed forest zone does not exist, the boreal forest merges directly southwards into the forest-steppe. In the European area the forest-steppe forms a zone varying in width between 250 and 500 kilometres running roughly west-south- west to east-north-east from the western parts of present-day Ukraine and the northern and central parts of Moldova across central Ukraine and on towards the Urals. Beyond the Urals it continues across the southern part of west Siberia until interrupted by the western slopes of the Altai Mountains. The forest-steppe’s northern boundary in the European territory has been described above. The southern boundary runs from Chisinau in Moldova to Khar’kov in Ukraine and then to the south of Voronezh to Samara on the Volga and on to Ufa. According to one estimate, the forest-steppe occupied about 21 per cent of the territory of European Russia in the late seventeenth century and accounted for about 43 per cent of the territory’s registered population at the time of the first revision.