The Conquest of Siberia

During the past couple of days I did a bit of an update to my Russian history papers; maybe I did it because the Crimea crisis has Russia in the news this month.  So I expanded the paragraphs about how Russia occupied and settled Siberia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Now it is a whole new section to the Medieval Russia page.


The Conquest of Siberia

The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were hard times for the Russian people, but after the Time of Troubles ended, the nation itself prospered. The most spectacular gain made during this period was Siberia; when the Cossacks conquered the Mongol Khanate of Sibir in 1581, they removed the last barrier keeping Russians out of this region. The tribes they met in Siberia were too primitive and too few in numbers to resist, so Russia practiced what gamers call the “4Xs,” expanding, exploring, exploiting, and exterminating in the “wild wild East,” much like how the United States tamed the “wild wild West” in the nineteenth century.

Siberia’s ethnic groups in the seventeenth century.

Today Siberia is known as a place for exiles and those who really want to “get away from it all,” but to subdue this land armed Cossacks led the way. East of the Urals the main landmarks/obstacles are very large, northward-flowing rivers like the Ob, Yenisei, and Lena. Every time the Cossacks encountered one of these rivers, they sent a detachment to its mouth, so expansion was northward as well as eastward. It took them forty years to subdue the land between the Urals and the Yenisei. In doing so they advanced 1,250 miles, or 28 percent of the way to the Pacific; they covered the remaining 3,100 miles much quicker, in just thirty years.

Siberia is famous for being huge, cold, and mostly covered with forests, meaning it has more furry animals than anyplace else. The Russians were already familiar with fur trapping and trading, having done it in the forests of European Russia for as long as they could remember, so a Russian seeking his fortune in Siberia naturally turned to furs. Bears, wolves, foxes, tigers, squirrels–you name them, Siberia has them. Even extinct mammoths were fair game; in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as much as half of the world’s ivory came from mammoth tusks picked up in Siberia.

The first thing the Cossacks did when they entered a new area was put the natives to work collecting furs for them. If a tribe did not deliver the specified number of pelts for that year, severe punishment followed. They could justify their behavior because no other civilized nation was active in Siberia, stating that “The inhabitants of those lands do not belong to anybody …[therefore] …they should belong to the Russian sovereign.” Unfortunately the quotas for pelts were always set high–usually higher that what the natives could obtain. Nowadays the typical hunter is enough of a conservationist that he will practice hunting at a sustainable level, making sure there is enough game left over for next year; that is why we have game laws. The Cossacks were too greedy to think ahead like that, and thus were more like poachers than hunters. Consequently they would make a big haul during their first year in a new area, and then the yields would fall off, no matter how cooperative the natives were or how bad the Cossacks terrorized them. To stay in the fur trade, the Cossacks would have to move on; it was the lure of getting rich quick in a virgin wilderness that kept them going, and helps explain why they moved faster as time went on.

In 1630 the Russians founded Ilimsk on the Ilim River, a tributary of the Angara, which in turn is a tributary of the Yenisei. This village became the departure point for the final phase of Russian expansion. One year later a cossack named Peter Beketov followed a trail from there, the Ilmin portage, east to the Lena River. At the Lena he built an ostrog (fort) in 1632; this became Yakutsk, one of the most important cities in eastern Siberia today. Another Cossack, Ivan Moskvitin, led a scouting party that departed Yakutsk in 1639 and reached the Sea of Okhotsk, making him the first Russian to gaze on the Pacific. He returned to Yakutsk two years later, with a report about the tribes living on the coast and the mouth of a great river not too far to the south–the Amur.

Vasili Poyarkov led the expedition that followed up on this (1643-47). First getting lost in the east Siberian forest, they eventually found the Amur and followed it to the sea. They alienated the tribes along the Amur, the same way the Cossacks did elsewhere, by demanding furs from the natives and inflicting murderous reprisals when they failed to comply. This time, however, the tribes could call on another tribe that was strong enough to fight back–the Manchus. The Amur was the northern frontier of Manchuria, the Manchu homeland and their emperor’s favorite hunting ground; the natives on the Amur were vassals of theirs, so pleas from them could not be ignored. In the mid-1640s the Manchus were busy conquering China, but the next time a Cossack expedition came to the Amur, that of Erofei Pavlovich Khabarov (1649-50), there was a force of 800 to 1,000 Manchu soldiers waiting for them. Although the Russians won the first battle, the Manchus are considered the real winners in this confrontation. The Manchu presence restricted Russian movement; the Manchus soon had the resources of all China to draw upon, and their supply lines were far shorter than those of the Russians. After 1650 the Cossack forts set up along the Amur were attacked by the Manchus and Chinese, until both empires sent diplomats to negotiate a solution. The result was the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, which moved the Sino-Russian border several hundred miles north of the Amur, giving the Manchus control over all lands drained by that river, not to mention a very large buffer zone. It definitely was not a border of Russia’s choosing.

The most remarkable Cossack expedition of all has to be that of Semyon Dezhnev. Between 1644 and 1649 Dezhnev followed the Kolyma River to the Arctic, sailed along Siberia’s north coast until he got to the Chukchi peninsula, and rounded it to enter the Bering Sea, going as far as the Anadyr River. By doing this, Dezhnev proved there is no land bridge connecting Asia to North America. Unfortunately, this epic journey made no difference to Russia or the world community. Dezhnev’s report was filed away in the archives of Yakutsk and forgotten, so Peter the Great ended up hiring a Danish navigator, Vitus Bering, to rediscover the Bering Sea 80 years later. In addition, being semi-literate at best, Dezhnev wasn’t much of a navigator; he doesn’t seem to have known how far east he went. In the seventeenth century, most people with an interest in geography believed a waterway existed between Asia and North America; Spain called it the Strait of Anián, and others called it the Northwest Passage. However, until Bering repeated Dezhnev’s achievement, maps were published showing the end of Asia near the same longitude as the island of Sakhalin, meaning people believed you could get to the Arctic by sailing north of Japan.

Speaking of Sakhalin and Japan, another European nation, the Netherlands, was exploring the waters around them at this time. After opening up trade with the nations of the Far East, the Dutch East India Company sent a few explorers to look for the rich “Gold and Silver Islands” that supposedly existed northeast of Japan (they didn’t, in case you’re wondering). The most important of these expeditions involved two ships, the Breskens and the Castricum, which entered the north Pacific in 1643. Separated by a storm, the Breskens was blown to Yamada, Japan; because of Japan’s isolationist policy, the crew was detained, interrogated and sent to Deshima, the Dutch trading post which was the only place in the country where foreigners were permitted. The Castricum continued to the Kurile Islands, sailed between two of them (Iturup and Urup), and mapped the northeast coast of Hokkaido and the east coast of Sakhalin. However, the Castricum’s captain, Maarten Gerritsz Vries, drew some faulty conclusions about the local geography. First, he thought Hokkaido was joined to Sakhalin and both were joined to the mainland, making them a large peninsula like Korea or Kamchatka. That may have been true during the ice age, but it certainly isn’t now. Second, he imagined North America had another long peninsula, and Urup was the tip of it. In truth Alaska has a long peninsula like that, but it ends 2,200 miles northeast of where Vries put it.

Siberia 1689

Russian expansion into Siberia, 1598-1689. Source: An Atlas of Russian History, by Allen F. Chew.

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