Confronting Catastrophe: The 1861–62 Lake Baikal Earthquakes and the Meanings of Nature in Imperial Russia
This paper will examine the history of this major earthquake as a window onto the role of natural disasters in the social and cultural lives of the Imperial Russian population and as a way to understand the environmental sensibilities and approaches of the people around Lake Baikal (Siberia’s “Sacred Sea,” the oldest, deepest, and largest lake (in volume of water) on the planet). In particular, the essay will examine the competing efforts and competing discourses used to explain and understand the earthquakes. Representatives of different religious faiths (Orthodox, Buddhist, and Shamanist, in particular) each attempted to explain the events within the context of their religious worldviews. At the same time, members of the scientific community in Russia sent out multiple teams in an effort to find some “rational, scientific” explanation for the events. The paper also explores the question of how natural disasters alter how people think about the natural world, and in this case particularly about Lake Baikal. Earthquakes tended to reinforce the view of nature—and Lake Baikal in particular—as dangerous, capricious, and life-taking.