Category Archives: labor

Effects of Cotton Gin and Indian Removal on Slavery

From Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War, by David Williams (New Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 18-19:

Aside from the moral issues involved, most Americans of that era [c. 1800] saw slavery as an economic dead end. The institution thrived only in the tobacco fields of the Chesapeake region and the rice country of coastal Carolina and Georgia. As the nation expanded, slavery would become proportionally less important to the nation’s economy and would eventually die a natural death. But the development of an efficient cotton engine, or “gin,” in the eighteenth century’s last decade changed all that. The cotton gin became the vehicle by which slavery was carried across the Deep South. Not surprisingly, attitudes toward slavery changed with the institution’s growing economic importance.

That change did not occur overnight. Antislavery sentiment in the South remained open and active through the early 1830s. As of 1827, 106 of the country’s 130 abolitionist societies were in the South. To discourage the use of slave labor, some of those societies paid above-market prices for cotton produced without slave labor. North Carolina Quakers and Methodists repeatedly petitioned their state legislature for emancipation. In 1821, a leading Georgia newspaper insisted: “There is not a single editor in these States who dares advocate slavery as a principle.” Far from advocating slavery, Alabama editor James G. Birney started an abolitionist newspaper. In 1827, the Alabama legislature passed a law prohibiting the importation of slaves from other states, and at every session throughout the decade, members proposed legislation favoring gradual emancipation. As late as 1831, a proposal to end slavery was introduced in the Virginia state assembly.

But the early nineteenth century was also the era of Indian removal. In 1827, Georgia forced out its few remaining Creeks. Nine years later, Alabama did the same. The 1830s saw the Choctaws and Chickasaws driven out of Mississippi. And Georgia annexed Cherokee land following the 1829 discovery of gold there. In an effort that carried the hopes of all Indian nations with it, the Cherokees fought to keep their land through the court system. The United States Supreme Court finally responded in 1832 with its Worcester v. Georgia decision: by treaty obligation, by prior act of Congress, and by the Constitution itself, the Indians held legal title to their land. But President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the ruling, and Congress declined to intervene. Georgia ignored the court order, and the Cherokees were driven westward on the Trail of Tears. A quarter of them died on that brutal forced march. In 1842, Florida’s Seminoles became the last of the southern nations to be violently relocated to land that they were promised would be theirs for “as long as grass grows or water runs.” At the time it was called Indian Territory. Today it is called Oklahoma.

Indian removal completed the transition in slaveholder attitudes begun a generation earlier. Slaveholders no longer viewed slavery as a temporary necessity but held it to be a positive good, divinely ordained, for the slaveholder, the slave, the nation, and the world. Though religion, racism, pride, and fear were all used to bolster slavery at home and justify it abroad, the driving force behind planters’ proslavery campaign was the same that caused their change of attitude in the first place—economic self-interest. Some planters, like Georgia’s Benjamin Harvey Hill, were candid enough to admit it: “In our early history the Southern statesmen were antislavery in feeling. So were Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Randolph, and many of that day who never studied the argument of the cotton gin, nor heard the eloquent productions of the great Mississippi Valley. Now our people not only see the justice of slavery, but its providence too.”31 It was cotton, along with tobacco, rice, and sugar, all cultivated by slave labor, that gave planters their economic power. And it was this power that gave planters the political strength with which to control the South’s lower classes and silence or exile slavery’s opponents.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, labor, migration, nationalism, North America, slavery, U.S.

Defeated Lakota, 1880s

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 374-375:

The army’s withdrawal only opened the door for another assault by the federal government, now in the form of assertive agents, missionaries, school teachers, and “civilization” programs. The agents no longer sought to reform the Lakota society; that policy had expired the moment Custer died. They now aimed to hollow out Lakota society and fill the void with white American values, norms, words, customs, and thoughts. Once tribalism was pulverized, so went the logic, Lakotas could be absorbed into the American society as individuals and nuclear families.

Some Lakotas accepted and actively embraced farming and schools, but most were horrified by the assimilationist zeal. After all, Lakotas had possessed an extensive reservation and dominated the vast northern plains only a year earlier; their fall from power had been shockingly fast and complete. The acreage under the plow increased across the reduced reservation, but so too did resentment and despair. Chiefs struggled to maintain their status in a strange world where government agents incited rivalries among them, mobilized the akíčhitas [= marshals, camp police] to control them, and withheld rations to weaken them. Former hunters and warriors were reduced to eking out a living by driving wagons, hauling freight, and cutting wood. Women’s traditional roles narrowed in the male-dominated reservation milieu and their standing as providers deteriorated as men took up farming and secured wage jobs. Children were removed from their families and taken to boarding schools where, separated from what was traditional and safe, they received an education geared to extinguish the Lakota culture.

The Great Sioux Reservation became a battleground for competing visions of the Lakota future. In 1881 Spotted Tail was killed by Crow Dog, a captain of the Indian police, who could not accept the old chief’s defiant traditionalism, persisting popularity, and multiple wives. That same year Sitting Bull, no longer able to hold on to his starving followers, crossed the medicine line [Canadian border] again and formally surrendered at Fort Buford with Crow King. He gave his rifle to his six-year-old son who handed it over to an army officer. “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle,” the fifty-year-old chief said. “This boy has given it to you, and now wants to know how he is going to make a living,” he said, intimating the struggles his son and others of his generation would face in the alien world the wašíčus [whites] imposed on the Lakotas. Crow King asked a Chicago Tribune correspondent for two dollars to buy dolls for his girls.

Sitting Bull was taken to Fort Randall on the Missouri River where he was held as a prisoner of war for nearly two years. He then settled in the Standing Rock Agency where James McLaughlin, a ruthlessly effective assimilation crusader, was tearing the fabric of the Lakota society apart by recruiting “boss” farmers, policemen, and judges among the Lakotas to educate, monitor, and punish other Lakotas. The rift between the Indian police and traditional spiritual leaders became particularly corrosive.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, education, family, food, labor, language, migration, nationalism, U.S.

Custer’s Black Hills Expedition, 1874

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle p. 342:

In 1874 the times were bad, spectacularly so, and when news arrived that rich veins of gold had been found in the Black Hills, it galvanized the nation. Gold had helped lift the nation from the material and moral ruins of the Civil War; now it could lift it from a debilitating depression.

The news came from one of the many small expeditions that the U.S. Army had sent in to find a suitable site for a fort near the Black Hills to protect the tracklayers of the blocked Northern Pacific Railroad. The fort, Sherman thought, would allow the army to deliver a crippling blow to the seemingly invincible Lakotas whom the national media now conflated with rebellious blacks, Chinese immigrants, disaffected farmers, and labor activists as an acute threat to the fragile industrial order. Sheridan, who had orchestrated total war against Native civilians during Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Comanche campaigns in 1868–69, believed that Lakota hostility now amounted to “a general Indian war” and proposed to President Grant that military forts in the Black Hills would “make it a little hot for the [Lakota] villages and stock if these Indians attempted to raid on the settlements south.” Grant agreed, and Sheridan picked Custer, whose conduct during the Yellowstone Expedition had much enhanced his professional standing, to lead the Black Hills Expedition: one hundred covered wagons; more than nine hundred cavalry and infantry; sixty-one Arikara scouts; several guides, engineers, and “practical miners”; three Gatling machine guns; three journalists; a photographer; and a geologist, Newton H. Winchell from the University of Minnesota, all moving out of Fort Abraham Lincoln, skirting the Great Sioux Reservation and entering the hills from the north. In mid-August, after six weeks of travel, the convoy found traces of gold. Custer exaggerated the discovery, and the expedition delivered what he had geared it up for: it created a national event. Reporters dispatched excited press releases, newspapers picked up and magnified the story, and in the late fall of 1874 the Black Hills gold rush was a reality.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, labor, migration, military, U.S., war

Lakota Elites, c. 1850s

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 184-185:

In the early nineteenth century Lakota men were born into an increasingly competitive world with an uneven playing field. Boys were raised to be brave and ambitious in war, hunting, horsemanship, and courtship, and aspiring young men had to participate in several raiding expeditions to accumulate enough horses for a dowry. Many accomplished this in their late twenties after which they could settle down to family life, gradually give up raiding, and assume the role of an elder. As their families grew, they could marry off their daughters to other prominent men, receive handsome bride prices, and embed their families into expansive kinship networks that brought prestige, prosperity, and security. The most successful men—those who had become wiča, complete men—could sponsor extravagant feasts and giveaways in their sons’ name, paving their way within the fiercely competitive male sphere. Many celebrated Lakota leaders were born into this kind of privilege and were in turn able to bestow their sons with similar benefits. If competent, their sons could succeed them as hereditary chiefs and assume their names. They Fear Even His Horses the Younger and American Horse the Younger belonged to old and highly esteemed lineages, their names both a privilege and an obligation.

If not quite aristocracy, such men nonetheless possessed decisive advantages over others. Sitting Bull was born into a long line of chiefs and raised by two powerful uncles—Four Horns, a prominent band leader, and Looks-For-Him-in-A-Tent, a renowned war leader—whose eminence reflected on him, propelling his rise among aspiring Hunkpapa men. Camp heralds publicized his exploits as a hunter and a warrior—he earned his first military honors at fourteen, chasing a fleeing Crow on horseback and bringing him down with a hatchet-blow to the head—a position of advantage that blended with his innate spiritual prowess, physical courage, and quiet charisma to elevate him above rivals. He had a powerful dream in a vision quest at a young age and became the leader of the prestigious Strong Hearts warrior society in his mid-twenties.

Curly Hair was the son of Crazy Horse, who was the headman of the leading Hunkpatila band of the Oglalas, which traced a proud lineage of elders and holy men. At the time of Curly Hair’s birth in 1840, his father’s band included over ten tipis of blood relatives and in-laws, all of whom looked to Crazy Horse for spiritual and political leadership. Curly Hair was a child of privilege who grew up having his first steps and words celebrated with public feasts and gifts to the poor. Through his Minneconjou mother Curly Hair found another set of supportive kin relations and a further source of esteem: his family was the key proponent of an Oglala-Minneconjou alliance that shaped Lakota politics for a generation. His family promoted solidarity in both oyátes through giveaways, accruing admiration and followers; High Backbone, an ambitious Minneconjou headman, adopted Curly Hair as his protégé, engaging him in two-way character-hardening play fights and equestrian feats. When Curly Hair became a man and assumed his father’s name, he was primed for success. Young women wanted him for a husband, fathers wanted their daughters to marry him, young men wanted to be his kȟolá, and warriors were willing to follow him into war.

Men like the young Crazy Horse inevitably overshadowed less privileged men who lacked their kin connections, family wealth, and fame. For them the path for social recognition was paved with toil, anxiety, and violence—relentless raiding that gradually, often after several years, yielded enough clout to court women and enough horses and robes to pay bride prices. Lakotas raided and fought several neighboring groups in the mid-nineteenth century, but they did not do so as a monolith. Elite men raided horses to augment their possessions, but, backed with wealthy relatives, they could also afford to focus on collecting coups—war honors earned through audacious exploits like touching the enemy with a hand or a coupstick in the midst of hot battle—which further solidified their credentials as leaders. For other men raiding was an economic necessity that could consume their lives into early middle age. Some of them succeeded in turning themselves into warrior-traders with several wives, but many died trying. Their raw, anguished ambition to become men of substance was a latent impetus behind the expansion that made Lakotas the masters of the northern plains. Red Cloud, who lacked the pedigree of some of his rivals, spent nearly twenty years raiding before he dared to make a formal bid for chieftainship.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, labor, migration, military, war

Arikaras as Lakota Vassals, 1800

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 123-124:

Lakotas had blended raiding and extortion with diplomacy and exchange into a flexible economy of violence that left the Arikaras weak and needy. Tabeau thought they saw in them “a certain kind of serf, who cultivates for them and who, as they say, takes, for them, the place of women.” The gendered language was carefully considered. Two generations earlier Oglalas had lived as farmers under Arikara tutelage, but now they were people of the hunt and ascending. While diminishing the Arikaras, they treaded carefully not to alienate them to a point of rebellion. Tabeau realized this and yet failed to avoid becoming a foil for Lakota stratagems. He complained bitterly how Lakotas, having returned from a trade fair on the Minnesota, “announce that merchandise is abundant and wonderful there, give in detail the price of each article and make the Ricaras understand that I treat them as slaves.” Lakotas were manipulating markets and perceptions to their advantage. While forcing Arikaras to pay inflated prices for their exports, they still managed to paint the St. Louis traders as the real exploiters and villains.

Outplayed by Lakotas, Tabeau struggled with the fallout. Hoping that Arikaras’ “customary mildness, long known, would induce the government and the traders to provide them constantly in the future,” he earmarked a good portion of his powder for them. It was too late. Arikaras denounced Tabeau as an outsider who had “seen them without breech-clout, without powder, and without knives” and yet had refused to share his wares. He faced constant insults and demands for largesse and, in the end, declared his bid to win over the Arikaras a failure. They were, he reported, “not a fit subject for a special trade expedition.”

That declaration began a long marginalization and vilification of the Arikaras, once one of the most renowned traders in the American interior. The vilification took time to take root, but once it did, it fixed the Arikaras in the American imagination as an irredeemable menace. It committed the United States to destroying them, inadvertently paving the way for a Lakota hegemony in the upper Missouri Valley.

Three thousand Arikaras had become virtual vassals of Lakotas, their economies and very lives remolded to accommodate the new masters of the Missouri. Tabeau wrote off the entire valley from the White to the Heart River—a 250-mile stretch of prime fur country—and shifted his sight to the Mandans farther north. “A post among the Mandanes,” he mused, “would be a gathering-place for more than twenty nations and would be the means in determining the Ricaras to take up a station nearby.” He envisioned a vast trade emporium extending upriver from the Mandans to embrace the Cheyennes, Crows, Shoshones, and many other people. The plan was as ambitious as it was improbable, for Lakotas would not allow it.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, labor, migration, military, nationalism, North America

U.S. Inland Boatbuilding Centers, 1820

From Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure, by Rinker Buck (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2022), Kindle pp. 34-35:

By 1820, the Mon Valley was a smoke pot of industry, with the haze from the foundries and sawmills mixing with the river fog to create a dark overcast on still days. Along the river, where major tributaries like the Youghiogheny and the Cheat enhanced the flow and made boat launching possible almost year-round, boatyards specializing in flats, keelboats, steam-powered hulls, and tall mast ships flourished. Wheeling, McKeesport, New Geneva, and of course Pittsburgh all developed as boatbuilding towns to support the new commerce and migration. The Mon Valley shipbuilding towns played the same role in developing western traffic as Bath, Maine, or Marblehead, Massachusetts, played in the whaling and spice trades. Provisioning the thousands of settlers’ arks and cargo flatboats now departing along the Mon and the Ohio every year became another engine of growth, and Pittsburgh alone would double in population, from 2,400 people in 1800 to almost 5,000 in 1810. Building flatboats and steamboats and supplying the new export economy from the strategic three-rivers junction helped turn Pittsburgh into a small metropolis of 50,000 by the Civil War.

We should be grateful today that Zadok Cramer was a dogged compiler of fact. In The Navigator, Cramer’s list of Pittsburgh’s business establishments took up four pages in agate type, indicating how quickly the town grew as a manufacturing center to supply the booming Ohio-Mississippi trade route. He reported that an 1810 inventory of local establishments in Pittsburgh included “8 boat, barge, and ship builders, 1 pump maker, 1 looking glass maker, 1 lock maker, 7 tanyards, 2 rope walks, 1 spinning wheel maker, [and] 17 blacksmiths.” An “English artist,” James Patterson, was forging a line of metalware that was sure to be popular with the departing flatboaters: “Fire shovels, tongs, drawing knives, hatchets, two feet squares, augers, chisels, adzes, claw hammers, door hinges, chains, hackels,… [and] plough irons.” No, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick did not “invent” the steel business in Pittsburgh. As early as 1812, iron and steel foundries around Pittsburgh were already producing four hundred tons of ingots, wire, and beam per year. The annual production of construction lumber and “scantling,” or boat timbers, reached over seven million board feet. “The stranger is stunned,” Cramer wrote, “by an incessant din of clattering hammers, and blowing of bellowses from morning till night.”

And still more wagons were coming. In 1814, the Pittsburgh Gazette carried an item about a farmer who lived four miles outside town along the main wagon road. Impressed by the volume of traffic heading west for the boatyards, he decided to record every passing wagon between January 1, 1813, and January 1, 1814. His count over that one-year span came to 4,055. At least another five thousand wagons crossed every year on the National and Wilderness Roads. By then the business of building flatboats was so scattered up and down the tributaries of the Ohio, the Mon, the Cumberland, and the Tennessee—and from farm to farm anywhere west of the Appalachians—that no one could possibly count the number of vessels built every year. A few of these hulls would enjoy brief second careers as store boats or floating docks near town landings. But most of them were quickly recycled into frontier log cabins, the sidewalks of Natchez, or the rafters for Creole cottages in New Orleans, one reason why so little evidence of flatboat construction was either preserved or documented for posterity. History, in this case, was literally destroying a record of itself every time a flatboat landed and was taken apart to build something else.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, industry, labor, migration, U.S.

America’s Flatboat Era

From Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure, by Rinker Buck (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2022), Kindle pp. 28-29:

Historic periods rarely begin at a single, defined moment, and the flatboat era’s antecedents dated back more than forty years. The reason, mostly, was war, and the American passion for cleansing desirable new lands of their indigenous peoples. During the French and Indian War and the Revolution, and then again during Mad Anthony Wayne’s Ohio campaign against the Shawnee and the Miami during the Northwest Indian War in the 1790s, agents dispatched by British and then American army quartermasters had sailed southwest on the Ohio and the Mississippi in flotillas of flat-bottomed barges or keelboats, to trade Monongahela flour and whiskey for imported gunpowder, muskets, and bayonets in New Orleans. The bustling munitions trade between the Americans and the Spanish authorities in Natchez and New Orleans during the Revolution set the tone for the next one hundred years, when wartime needs accelerated transportation improvements on the rivers. During the Revolution, Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana and Cuba, was openly pro-American and even led successful expeditions against British forts at Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola. His sponsorship of arms smuggling along the Mississippi is still regarded as a decisive contribution to the American cause, and after independence Gálvez was awarded honorary American citizenship.

The success of the arms supply routes along the Mississippi midwifed the new commercial era, opening the Ohio and Mississippi corridor to a fresh, ambitious cast of players. By the late 1790s, French trading firms, mostly backed by investors from Philadelphia, had taken over the old military routes and established a reliable network of shipping agents along the Monongahela, the Great Falls at Louisville, and at Natchez and New Orleans. During the same period, according to one historian’s estimate, more than nine hundred “settler” flatboats bearing pioneers for the Kentucky frontier cast off every year from western Pennsylvania. These rakish boats, measuring fifty or sixty feet long, were particularly colorful, loaded bow to stern with everything a family, or several families, needed to carve a homestead out of the Kentucky forests. A fenced area in the stern carried horses, cattle, pigs, and goats, and the settlers’ boats were often called “arks,” after the fabled vessel of Noah in the Book of Genesis. A log cabin for the family to sleep in was built mid-vessel, and planting seed and flintlock powder were stowed in watertight barrels on the deck. Pioneers with less money to spend simply threw up a crude canvas tent on the deck and roped their milk cow and horses to the sides. Children romped in play spaces between the tents. After 1788, when the federal government issued the first land warrants in the West for Revolutionary War veterans, more than five thousand veterans from Virginia alone, including Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, headed over the mountains with their families on these floating farms, plying the Indiana and Kentucky banks of the Ohio and its tributaries in search of likely homesites to clear.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, France, labor, migration, military, nationalism, North America, Spain, U.S.

America’s First Westward Mass Migration

From Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure, by Rinker Buck (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2022), Kindle pp. 4-5:

During the early decades of the 19th century, the massive flatboat traffic drifting down the Ohio and the Mississippi established the westward drive and political outlook that eventually allowed America to straddle the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This riverine movement began a half century before the more celebrated era of the “pioneers” crossing the western plains in covered wagons in the 1850s. The inland rivers—not the wagon ruts crossing from Missouri to Oregon—were America’s first western frontier. The rivers also carried a much larger migration. During the first five decades of the 19th century, more than three million migrants ventured down the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys to the swelling southwestern frontier. In the 1840s and 1850s, a comparative trickle—fewer than 500,000 travelers—crossed the plains west of the Missouri River by overland routes, primarily the Oregon and California trails. Still, the dusty journey via covered wagon remains the dominant image of America’s westward spread, a classic instance of popular myth prevailing over fact.

Compared to its trading rivals in Europe and the West Indies, America in the early 19th century was what we would call today a developing country, and the economic impact of the internal river trade was staggering. Economic historian Isaac Lippincott compiled statistics that showed that the commercial receipts for river cargo in New Orleans totaled $22 million in 1830, or about $660 million in today’s dollars. By 1840, the New Orleans river trade—swelled by the enormous growth in cotton exports—had increased to almost $50 million. By the Civil War, the cargo moving south through New Orleans was valued at $200 million, or $6 billion today. Lippincott estimates that, meanwhile, “inland river commerce” hubs like St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Natchez, Mississippi, were also trading cargo valued at $200 million or more by the Civil War. Like the Nile, the Thames, or the Seine before them, the western rivers in America became a floating supply chain that fueled national growth.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, labor, migration, North America, U.S.

Growth of Trans-Siberian Travel

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2435ff:

The glamorous luxury cars which Parisian society strolled through at the [World Exhibition of 1900] were never used in Trans-Siberian reality. Far simpler models commuted between Moscow and Vladivostok when the line was completed in 1904. The first symbolic cut of the spade had been performed 13 years earlier on the pacific coast by a young boy named Nicholas, who did not realise that he was digging his own grave – three decades later Tsar Nicholas II rolled to Yekaterinburg in a Trans-Siberian carriage, towards his execution.

Before the line was put into operation, Siberia was linked with the Russian west only by a rough, unpaved dirt road which was barely accessible for the major part of the year – in the winter snow hampered the journey; in the spring, mud; in the summer, dust. The relationship between the two parts of the country was loose, geographically and mentally. Even in the travel notes of Chekhov, who crossed the Eurasian landmass in a horse-drawn wagon shortly before the construction of the railway line, the inhabitants of Siberia spoke of Russia as if it were another, distant country. The endless trip over the Siberian tract must have made it feel like such.

Despite all the hardships, however, the road was hopelessly congested, even during Chekhov’s time. Year after year, since serfdom had been abolished in 1861, a stream of land-seeking farmers flowed into the vast expanses of Siberia. On horse-drawn carts people transported their entire belongings eastward, for 1,000s of kilometres. It happened that at their final destination they bumped into former neighbours, who had fled from serfdom years before to seek their fortunes in Siberia. For centuries the sparsely populated areas east of the Ural Mountains had attracted people who wanted to evade the state’s reach. Runaway serfs hid in Siberia, wanted criminals, escaped convicts, deflowered girls, dishonoured men, illegitimate children. The Old Believers were the most famous, but not the only community of sectarians who awaited the apocalypse deep in the wilderness. They shared their exile with all those outlaws, exiles and madmen who the state itself transported east so they would not cause any more damage in the Russian heartland.

Just a little earlier, there had not even been a road to Siberia. When the first bands of Cossacks crossed the Urals in the 16th century, they dragged dismantled rowing boats over the mountains. Siberia was conquered by water. The Cossacks used the branched river system that traverses the entire land mass between Moscow and the Pacific. From the Volga they worked their way forward to the Kama, from the Irtysh to the Ob, from the Yenisey to the Angara, from the Lena to the Amur. Piece by piece they wrested the country from the Tatar tribes who had dominated it since the collapse of the Mongol empire. The Tatars called their realm Sibir: ‘sleeping country’. The Cossacks, who adopted the Turkish word, woke Siberia with violence. When they reached the Pacific in 1639, not even 60 years after the beginning of the campaign, they had moved Russia’s border more than 5,000 kilometres to the east. Each year they had annexed an area the size of Great Britain to the already huge tsarist empire.

Siberia’s proportions are somewhat terrifying.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, labor, migration, nationalism, religion, Russia, slavery, travel

Who Gets Free Train Rides in Moscow

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1585ff:

While I waited for the elektrichka back to the city centre, I read the announcements on the platform. My eyes were caught by a lit glass box with a notice inside: ‘Categories of citizens entitled to free and discounted transport on suburban trains.’ I read the list, read it again, read it a third time. What was hanging there under a flickering neon light was a compressed history of the Soviet Union.

– Heroes of the Soviet Union (free)
– Heroes of Socialist Labour (free)
– Participants of the Great Patriotic War (free)
– Family members of deceased participants of the Great Patriotic War (free)
– Former underage inmates of concentration camps, ghettos and other places of forced detention, with or without disability status (free)
– Persons awarded decorations and medals of the USSR for self-sacrificing work behind the frontlines between 22 June 1941 and 9 May 1945 (50% discount)
– Persons awarded the distinction ‘Residents of besieged Leningrad’ (free)
– Persons exposed to radiation as a consequence of the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (free)
– Rehabilitated victims of political repression (100% discount)

For a long time I thought about the riddle that seemed to link the first category with the last: Soviet heroes rode the elektrichka free of charge, Soviet victims with a 100 per cent discount. I could not make sense of this nonsensical difference.

Leave a comment

Filed under labor, military, nationalism, travel, USSR, war