O Dakota Land, sweet Dakota land.
As on the fiery soil I stand.
I look across the plains.
And wonder why it never rains,
Til Gabriel blows his trumpet sound
And says the rain’s just gone around.

We do not live, we only stay;
We are too poor to get away.

Still, immigrants came anyway, pulled in by Homestead Act land grants and the possibility of a better life. A hundred and forty years later, America is a rich country and the homesteading land is gone. Even if it weren’t, the possibility of a few acres of land in Wyoming, Nebraska, or the Dakotas in exchange for years of backbreaking work and the ever-present threat of starvation no longer sounds so appealing; the grandchildren of the pioneers want good-paying jobs, and the rural towns of the Great Plains aren’t where they’re finding them, so they drift to the cities or to the south or to the west. And so the wide open spaces of America’s frontier revert, slowly, to prarie grass and buffalo commons.

Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s Little House series has delighted generations of readers; Wilder, the daughter of homesteaders, a prairie girl and a schoolteacher of fifteen, was a heck of a storyteller, even if (as many suspect), the books were largely ghostwritten by her daughter, journalist and novelist Rose Wilder Lane. What the television show never quite communicated was that Ingalls Wilder’s story was largely one of privation; during the winter of 1880, shortly after the term "blizzard" was first applied to massive snowstorms, a breathtaking 132 inches of snow fell in the Dakotas (and Minnesota didn’t have it much better, although perhaps some of them took it as a point of pride). It was, without a doubt, damn cold in Laura Ingalls’ little town of Desmet during that long winter. Life on the prairie was rough. Easterners travelling to California didn’t call the plains states the Great American Desert for nothing. Food was scarce. With wood foreign to the Great Plains, the pioneers built sod houses (and other buildings), but the wind howled constantly, sometimes literally driving people insane. While some pioneers sang "Home on the Range", others sang "Dakota Land":

O Dakota Land, sweet Dakota land.
As on the fiery soil I stand.
I look across the plains.
And wonder why it never rains,
Til Gabriel blows his trumpet sound
And says the rain’s just gone around.

We do not live, we only stay;
We are too poor to get away.

Still, immigrants came anyway, pulled in by Homestead Act land grants and the possibility of a better life. A hundred and forty years later, America is a rich country and the homesteading land is gone. Even if it weren’t, the possibility of a few acres of land in Wyoming, Nebraska, or the Dakotas in exchange for years of backbreaking work and the ever-present threat of starvation no longer sounds so appealing; the grandchildren of the pioneers want good-paying jobs, and the rural towns of the Great Plains aren’t where they’re finding them, so they drift to the cities or to the south or to the west. And so the wide open spaces of America’s frontier revert, slowly, to prarie grass and buffalo commons. After the collapse of the Empire of the Golden Horde, the Islamic dynasty, descended from Mongols, that ruled the Eurasian steppes, the Russians simply filled the vacuum. After the Prince of Muscovy, Ivan the Terrible, earned his sobriquet by seizing and unifying the lands of the Rus, he began the path of Russian expansion by capturing the Tartar khanate of Kazan. And so the Russian empire was formed; Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game, a history of the diplomatic and military struggle between England and Russia for control of Central Asia, notes that after Ivan, the tsars resolutely conquered an average of fifty-five square miles a day, year in and year out, for almost four hundred years. Using a combination of bribes (both monetary and social), diplomacy, and overwhelming military force, the Russians rolled through the lands where the Golden Horde had once trod. Tuva alone (seized as a Russian protectorate in 1914 and formerly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1944) was the size of England. Tuva is mostly known in the west, when known at all, for its throat singing, which has attracted luminaries such as Paul Pena and Richard Feynman. There’s not much else there: three hundred thousand people, an airport, shamans, stamps, a beautiful but incredibly rugged language. Tuva’s capital, Kyzyl (the name fascinated Feynman for its lack of vowels), takes its name from the Kyzyl Kum, the "Red Sand". The Russians were not moving into a wealthy part of the world.

But to the north, in the most barren of the conquered territories, there was wealth under the ground. Siberia had iron and copper, oil, gold, diamonds. And so the tsarists and then the Soviets sought to lure workers to one of the most resolutely unliveable places in the world (link via Phil Gyford):

At a mere -37°C, Hill and Gaddy report, ‘standard steel structures rupture on a mass scale,’ though nothing was rupturing in Bilibino at -49°C. I suggested we take out our wet pants and wave them in the air to see how long they would take to freeze solid, which we did. This was gratifying. In less than a minute, they had frozen harder than a standard steel structure. The hotel was for a short time adorned with what looked like porcelain ornaments in the shape of upside-down pants.

Some Russians went for adventure or out of patriotism or for money or to fulfill Stalin’s Lysenkoist dreams of creating Soviet men capable of standing up to the lifestealing cold. Many more went because they had no choice. In Russian, they called "Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps" the GULAG, and the word became notorious. Under the gulag, rebellion was possible, but who can Russians in Siberia who are simply cold and poor, facing years of back-breaking work and the ever-present threat of starvation rebel against? One day, perhaps the wide open spaces of Russia’s frontier will revert to permafrost and reindeer herds. Until then, Russian roughnecks will dream of summer, multinational mining concerns will dream of motherloads, and André Tolmé will have a really challenging course waiting for him when he’s done golfing Mongolia.