Confronting Catastrophe: The 1861–62 Lake Baikal Earthquakes and the Meanings of Nature in Imperial Russia

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:40 AM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
Nicholas Breyfogle, Ohio State University
1862 started badly for the people living around Lake Baikal.  Between December 30, 1861 and January 12, 1862, the region was hit by multiple, terrifying earthquakes.  A seismic hotspot, Baikal was no stranger to earthquakes—with thousands of minor tremors and hundreds of major upheavals documented in the last five hundred years—but none was as powerful as the shock waves of 1861-62.  Among widespread damage, the epicenter of one quake in the middle of Lake Baikal unleashed a tsunami of water and ice that rolled over the steppe before being hemmed in by the mountains.  More than 200 square kilometers of land fell underwater (and remain so to this day).  

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.