It often happens that Syberia, the enormous region of the Asian territory of the Russian Federation, is represented/imagined as a place of nightmare, an ice prison that leaves no way out to those who are brave enough to cross its icy fields, stage of tragic historic events, a wasteland ruled by wild nature and, for this very reason, completely unsuitable for human life. How many times we’ve heard the name “Syberia” associated with negative expressions, which often refer to its local fauna, or to goliardic menaces of exile. This ostracism, this diffidence towards such a distant and, at least apparently, hostile place on one side appears totally understandable. It’s the representation which is born from an external evaluation of its climate conditions, its historical heritage as a place of the detention of the Russian Empire; but this is also due to the lack of information broadcasted by our media and by Russia itself.
The latter keeps being hermetic towards a West with which cannot have but a problematic relationship, for its being constantly split between two identities which rarely get to be conciliated: the western one, wanted by Peter The Great, and the eastern one incarnated by that same Syberia.
On the other side, it is necessary to reflect more deeply on the causes which led to such a representation. As we have already said, it is mostly a stereotype image, which in a way “froze” the idea of Syberia located in our collective imagination, causing that which from now on we will be referring to as an “identity distortion”. Allow me to make a small digression on this matter: it is quite a frequent phenomenon in an age such as Our, where information light-speed travels from one place to another, but nonetheless keeps being “filtered” by a third entity (that is the first person to receive it), which not necessarily has connections to what has been conveyed. The information is filtered twice: firstly through an individual who does not belong to the original context of that same information, and then by the language he uses, which during the transfer, regardless of the hypothetic value of the translation, still partially distorts its content. This process of re-elaboration affects the individual who receives that same information too, since his experience and perception of that specific concept/image are modelled by the reception of other information which is processed through the same filtration system, making this socio-cultural mechanism perfectly self-sufficient and performing. The human being, by its own nature, needs to feel safe, to have some control over the world which surrounds him and to give it meaning. If someone, for example, has always heard an awful thing about Syberia, and the information he receives in this regard confirms what he already thought about it, he will be much more inclined to accept it, because matches with the idea he already had, and that provides a comforting confirmation.
Matteo Annecchiarico, White mosque, 2019.
That of the cultural identities “filtration” is a largely discussed topic in the field of cultural, translation and social studies, disciplines which devoted themselves to the study and safekeeping of diversities, which later become more and more intertwined, since the importance of this concept acquired in the study and comprehension of the contemporary world: a reality in which post-colonial heritage and new migration flows are making cultures even more hybrid than they were before, in contrast to the sclerotized idea of “pure” nation, which often uses this distortion to create for its own need an image of the cultural Other, in order to establish false hierarchical divisions which are ideal for maintaining its hegemony. This matter becomes more complicated when one realizes (or we are forced to realize) that exist “major” cultures, which are capable of performing such operations, and “minor” cultures, referring respectively to nations who have a stronger economic influence and (often) an imperialist past, and to smaller realities, which are subjected.
Matteo Annecchiarico, Moskovskij trakt – dormitory of the State University of Tomsk (TGU), 2019.
Even Syberia, despite its enormous dimension, can be considered a “small” reality, which for many years has been subjected to the dominion of different cultures. This land through history has been inhabited by populations coming from the East, such as the Mongols and the other Turkish ethnic groups, of which hegemony came to an end after the definitive defeat of the so-called “Golden Horde” in 1500, marking the end of the Mongol domination over the Russian lands and the beginning for the latter of a period of increasing unity. The disappearing of the “eastern menace” allowed Russia to expand itself towards the East, starting it in 1553 with the first expedition led by the “ataman” Ermak Timofeevič, who’s is later going to make these lands a gift for the Car Ivan the IV, inaugurating a colonization process which will last until the XIX° century. The various nomad and semi-nomad populations of Syberia (like the Yakuts, the čiučki and the samoedy) will be gradually subjugated and joined by Russian settlers, creating as a result of the first mixed marriages a heterogeneous social reality, but still subjected to the Russian empire’s sphere of influence. Ironically, this reality will be enriched even by the utilisation of Syberia as a place of detention for the exile of political dissidents and through the foundation of the GULAG camps during the Soviet period, making it a place of aggregation for people who hated Russia. The latter will nurture a cultural context full of revolutionary ideas, which will trigger in many Siberian populations the acknowledgement of their national uniqueness (Yakutia, for example, an enormous region situated in the north-eastern part of Syberia, was for a long time a penal colony first for polish prisoners, and then for the Decabrists, which led to the birth of a Yakut nationalist movement¹).
Matteo Annecchiarico, Church of the Holy Prince Aleksandr Nevskij, 2019.
That which has been discussed so far it’s undoubtedly a complex historic-cultural framework, but for this same reason full of precious information: thanks to its hybrid character Syberia is capable of enriching our knowledge of the concept of cultural identity, giving us the chance to study the encounter and the relations between different cultures. It is much more than a wasteland where Bears have taken the place of man as the dominant species!
This cultural hybridization finds one of its manifestations in the artistic production which was originated in these lands, including its architecture (this is a magazine about architecture, after all). The Siberian urban scenery is very heterogeneous too: standing next to the shiny domes of orthodox churches and mosques can be found ominous concrete buildings, a legacy of the soviet age, while dilapidated wood shacks hide in their shadows, together with other wood construction, but this much more elaborated and culturally relevant, for they are the result of the already mentioned cultural hybridisation. I would like to focus your attention on these buildings and, more precisely, those of the city of Tomsk.
Matteo Annecchiarico, Siberian window, 2019.
The Siberian wood architecture finds its roots in traditional farmer’s houses with a four trunk structure, but it’s further developed during the XIX century thanks to the influence of classicism’s style, based on the simplicity and the geometry of the forms. Architects start to find inspiration from the elegancy of ancient constructions, by imitating with wood the monumentality of stone buildings. That’s why these constructions have columns, which remind Ancient Greek. The next step of Siberian wood architecture’s evolution took place at the beginning of the XX century and is connected to the patriotic needs of the bourgeois class born in this land, which felt the urge to claim a national identity of their own. The main proponents of that which will be later called the “Siberian regionalist movement” were people like Grigorij Potanin, Nikolaj Jadrincev and Andrej Adrianov, intellectuals with aimed to make Syberia economically and politically independent from Russia. The spread of ideas of this movement led the local intelligencja to study the history, the traditions and the artistic production of the native populations.
Maria Filosa, Siberian wooden house 1, 2020.
In one of his articles, appeared on the pages of the Tomsk town magazine “Sibirskaja žizn’”, entitled “The Siberian style in applied art”², the painter Michail Ščeglov criticized the local architectural style, stating that it’s didn’t express very well what should have been the Siberian aesthetic. Ščeglov also states that Siberian architecture, which was according to him supposed to be a manifestation of the deepest North, could have co-existed well with the Russian one, thanks to the existing similarities between its natural landscape and those of northern Russia.
The search for a Siberian aesthetic that could be the harmonic product of two souls, the oriental one and the Russian one, had different and interesting outcomes, especially for what concerns the decorative aspect of these buildings, which demonstrate meticulous attention to details and chromatic symbolism. The windows of these windows are decorated with elegant looped figures, arabesques of baroque provenience that remind both the structure of the conifer’s leaves structure, a symbol of the winter landscape, and both to water, an element rich of a folkloric value, which is possessed by the sun-shaped wood rosette, a decorative element which can be found very often on the facades of these houses. The colour of the latter tends to be blue or green, in order to celebrate the Siberian landscape and, at the same time, to create a perfect synthesis between the human world and natural world, thanks to a process of mimesis through which the building themselves appear like an extension of Siberian nature. Frequently one can find represented animals inspired by local fauna or folklore, such as the firebird. Even the geometric figures are very frequent, mixed with each other; some decorations refer to typical patterns and adornments of Asian clothing. Even the choice of the construction material, wood, is part of this cultural strategy that aims to strengthen tradition through innovation, without twisting its original essence. Siberian architects prefer to use wood for its being the traditional construction material of the region, but also for economic and environmental reasons.
Maria Filosa, Siberian wooden house 2, 2020.
I’d end here my considerations about the architectures of this region since I don’t have the necessary knowledge to perform a throughout analysis of this topic. What I was eager to prove, besides the fact that this has been quite a fast and superficial overview, is the richness of the picture I tried to show to all of you, a cultural space full of charm, a cultural and artistic context of great interest and originality for what concerns many fields of human knowledge, among which that of architecture too.
This beauty however is being clouded by the distortion of its identity, finding itself hidden behind the ice of the twisted representation, the other’s fear, the static concept of identity. But identity, basing this assumption on what has been so far discussed, is a fluid identity that changes through external inputs. Identity is born while establishing a relationship with the Other; it is sufficient to think about the first phases of an individual’s process of growing and the key role that parents and the environment have. The history of cultures and art is strictly connected to the intercultural exchange, to mutual inspiration bringer of new images, ideas, inputs. Syberia, for its being a crossroads of different cultures and populations, represents this very idea of shifting identity, a space where opposite realities can meet and, through organic synthesis, fused with each other to create something new, without twisting the original material: the spirit of both realities is preserved and, if anything, enriched by the other eye. An example of pacific co-existence between West and East, two incompatible macro-cultural worlds that can make us think about some of the main issues of our present, such as identity (whatever it is), integration, solidarity and the fight with xenophobia. Long live the impure ones!
Translated into English by Matteo Annechiarico.
Cover: Matteo Annechiarico, Siberian landscape, 2019.
¹ Lia Zola, Il commercio degli spiriti: forme di sciamanesimo contemporaneo nella Repubblica di Sacha (Jacuzia), Aracne, Roma, 2008, p. 25.
² Michail Ščeglov, Sibirskij stil v prekladnom izkusstve, in: “Sibirskaja žizn’”, 1912, n°4, 5 gennaio.
– Griziotti-Kretschmann J., La colonizzazione della Siberia: cenni storici e legislativi in: Giornale degli economisti e rivista di statistica, N°6, 1913.
– Nergaard S., Tradurre le culture. Rappresentazione dell’altro e costruzione del sé, in C. Demaria e S. Nergaard, Studi culturali. Temi e prospettive a confronto, McGraw-Hill, Roma, 2008.
– Semionov J. N., Storia della Siberia: la lunga conquista, Odoya, Bologna, 2010.
– Zalesov V., Sibirskij stil’ v architekture Tomska, in: “Sibirskaja starina”, 1999, n°16.
– Zola L., Il commercio degli spiriti: forme di sciamanesimo contemporaneo di Sacha (Jacuzia), Aracne, Roma, 2008.
– Lezione online sull’architettura in legno della città di Tomsk: Coursera.