Anyone interested in the study of this country, past or present, must contend with the overwhelming weight that Moscow and St. Petersburg exert on our perception of it. For purposes ranging from investment opportunities to the dry reaches of academic history, it takes considerable effort to get beyond the two capitals. They often claim our attention to the exclusion of all else in this vast state, of which Siberia is by far the largest part. Perhaps the very space of Siberia inspires a certain dread, a rush to retreat to ""civilization,"" to the secure and seemingly familiar fortresses of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Certainly, no geographical entity has accumulated more stereotypes - most of them negative - than Siberia. Common usage in many languages has detached the term from its specific geographical meaning to signify a brutish place of punishment. Even for knowledgeable specialists, this linkage pervades our perception.
In the popular imagination, most of Russia is north, cold and imponderable. Yet within this vast territory, there is a region to the northeast of Moscow, between Yaroslavl and Arkhangelsk, that has a cultural coherence created by those who settled in its forests and moved along its rivers and lakes during the middle ages. Even this limited area, sometimes considered a stronghold of ""pure"" Russianness, contains ethnic and cultural variety derived from a complex interaction of history and geography. Inhabited by Finnish tribes before the arrival of the first Slavic explorers and traders, it served as a place of retreat and spiritual solace for the avatars of Muscovite monasticism during the 14th and 15th centuries. At the same time the wealth of its forests and lakes, as well as its position astride trading routes north to the White Sea and west to the Baltic, led to the creation of towns that would become repositories of Russian traditions in the arts and crafts.