Captives of the Empire

Siberian Regionalism and the Siberian Separatist Affair


  • Anthony Johnson


Nineteenth Century, Russia


When the Russian government under Tsar Alexander II (r.
1855-1881) initiated the Great Reforms, Siberians studying
at St. Petersburg University realized the necessity for
regional urban, judicial, and land reforms. Forming a so-called Siberian
Circle, they discussed how to elevate Siberia’s socio-political position
within the Russian Empire. Because the Russian government gave little
consideration to the region’s needs, the men who would emerge as the
chief theorists of Siberian regionalism—Grigorii Nikolaevich Potanin
and Nikolai Mikhailovich Iadrintsev—sought to reconceptualize the
relationship between European Russia and Siberia, bringing Siberia out
of the shadows of the European portions of the empire and helping the
region assume a position of importance. Regionalists believed that as
long as the tsarist regime treated Siberia as a colony of European Russia,
Siberia would remain economically, socially, politically, and culturally
underdeveloped. Following the closure of the university in St.
Petersburg in late 1861, regionalists sought to popularize their vision for
Siberia, running afoul of the Russian government in the process, for it
interpreted their local patriotic initiatives as carrying the potential for
Siberian separatism. Subsequently, when local gendarmes intercepted
regionalist proclamations, the tsarist regime initiated hearings in Omsk
to determine whether regionalism represented a threat to the unity of the
empire. The story of Siberian regionalism in the early 1860s reveals
both how rapidly the Russian government had soured on the idea of
reform and how quickly the liberal attitude towards the tsarist regime as
the prime mover for change transformed into the vision of tsarism as an
impediment to reform.



How to Cite

Johnson, A. (2022). Captives of the Empire: Siberian Regionalism and the Siberian Separatist Affair. Journal of the North Carolina Association of Historians, 29, 14. Retrieved from