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THE PAGES OF THE HISTORY, 13. The conquest of Siberia

The conquest of Siberia

The conquest of Siberia by the Russian state, and subsequently the Russian Empire, was a gradual process which went on from the 16th century to the 19 century.

Overseas students sometimes ask me, "Why did the Russians venture into Siberia? Was the territory around Moscow not enough for them?" I invariably reply, "Why did the Americans venture westwards, all the way to the Pacific Ocean? Were the 13 states which originally made up the USA not enough for them? Especially when you consider that there were far fewer Americans in their new country than there were Russians in Russia at the end of the sixteenth century. "

Perhaps the answer is something like this. In every nation there are people with passion and energy, who are simply unable to stay in one place. And if the state does not prevent them—or indeed actively supports them—then why not set out to discover new lands?

Russians had other reasons as well. It might seem strange, but chief among these were the difficult conditions in which the Russian peasants found themselves living—a feudal system of dependence on the landowners. The boldest peasants fled south to the Caucasus or eastwards to new lands where they might find—and retain—their independence.

It is likely that fur provided another incentive—sable, for example, or the fur of other animals. Fur commanded extremely high prices; furred animals had been practically wiped out in Europe by that time, but fur remained in great demand. Moreover, there were as yet no 'green' movements demonstrating against the use of fur products.

It also suited the Russian Tsars that thanks to these expeditions undertaken by bold, risk-taking Russians, the territory falling under the Tsars' jurisdiction grew, and moreover without the major bloody wars experienced in Europe.

The road to the Urals and Siberia opened up after the Russians defeated the khanate of Kazan. In the beginning, Russia took control of the Urals, where there were large deposits of iron and copper ore, salt, and coal. The Stroganovs—wealthy businessmen—and subsequently the Demidovs established a string of mines and factories in the Urals. However the Siberian Khan Kuchum regularly conducted raids on the mining villages. This prompted the Stroganovs to invite the Kazakh general Yermak Timofeyevich and his personal squad of 540 men to work for them.

This was in 1581. In the following year, Yermak’s squad, along with several hundred Russians, set off on their first Siberian campaign against Khan Kuchum. Khan Kuchum’s army numbered about 10,000, meaning that it was ten times bigger than that of the Russians. However, he did not—at least, not at first—have firearms, and as a result, the Russian units defeated Kuchum’s army in several battles, and captured the capital of the Siberian khanate.

The capital was called Sibir' (although other sources have it as Isker), and so the whole region east of the Urals came to be known as Siberia. In 1585 Kuchum’s army managed to trick Yermak and launch a sudden night attack on him. This took place on the banks of the Irtysh, a large river in Siberia.

Yermak was killed, but a small number of his men managed to escape, and the following year the Kazakhs arrived with a force twice as big as hitherto. Kuchum’s army was defeated, and many of his relatives were taken prisoner, although he himself managed to get away. Kuchum spent many years thereafter declining to put up any resistance to the Russians, until his death in 1601.

After this there were practically no large clashes between the Russians and the local populations. The locals probably considered it preferable to pay a modest levy to the Tsar in Moscow, rather than to the numerous local khans who were forever starting wars with one another and plundering the local population.

It should also be noted that Russia, just like America, was lucky in that the local populations were small, and even if they had wanted to, they could not have offered serious resistance to the Russians' progress through Siberia. There were a few skirmishes in Yakut and around Baikal, but on the whole, the conquest of Siberia proceeded peacefully.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the Russians had got as far as the Pacific Ocean, and in the eighteenth century they landed in Alaska. However, Russia’s difficult financial position after the Crimean war, and the impossibility of defending this remote territory, prompted the Russians to sell Alaska to the American government in the nineteenth century.

As the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries progressed, Russian towns sprang up in Siberia and in what we now know as the Far East—Tyumen', Omsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Chita, Khabarovsk, Yakutsk, Vladivostok and others. The populations of these towns are mixed. Russian and Ukrainian migrants make up the main component, but there are also the descendants of local peoples along with numerous peoples who formerly lived together in a single, united country—the Soviet Union.

However, it is still the case that while Siberia constitutes 70 percent of the territory of the Russian Federation, it has just 15 percent of the population. This means that the true conquest of Siberia is not yet finished. Siberia has not yet become a place to which many people aspire in the way that in the past California became a magnet for many Americans.

(written by Evgueny Bokhanovsky, translated into English and read by Richard, 2016)



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The conquest of Siberia

The conquest of Siberia by the Russian state, and subsequently the Russian Empire, was a gradual process which went on from the 16th century to the 19 century.

Overseas students sometimes ask me, "Why did the Russians venture into Siberia? Was the territory around Moscow not enough for them?" I invariably reply, "Why did the Americans venture westwards, all the way to the Pacific Ocean? Were the 13 states which originally made up the USA not enough for them? Especially when you consider that there were far fewer Americans in their new country than there were Russians in Russia at the end of the sixteenth century. "

Perhaps the answer is something like this. In every nation there are people with passion and energy, who are simply unable to stay in one place. And if the state does not prevent them—or indeed actively supports them—then why not set out to discover new lands?

Russians had other reasons as well. It might seem strange, but chief among these were the difficult conditions in which the Russian peasants found themselves living—a feudal system of dependence on the landowners. The boldest peasants fled south to the Caucasus or eastwards to new lands where they might find—and retain—their independence.

It is likely that fur provided another incentive—sable, for example, or the fur of other animals. Fur commanded extremely high prices; furred animals had been practically wiped out in Europe by that time, but fur remained in great demand. Moreover, there were as yet no 'green' movements demonstrating against the use of fur products.

It also suited the Russian Tsars that thanks to these expeditions undertaken by bold, risk-taking Russians, the territory falling under the Tsars' jurisdiction grew, and moreover without the major bloody wars experienced in Europe.

The road to the Urals and Siberia opened up after the Russians defeated the khanate of Kazan. In the beginning, Russia took control of the Urals, where there were large deposits of iron and copper ore, salt, and coal. The Stroganovs—wealthy businessmen—and subsequently the Demidovs established a string of mines and factories in the Urals. However the Siberian Khan Kuchum regularly conducted raids on the mining villages. This prompted the Stroganovs to invite the Kazakh general Yermak Timofeyevich and his personal squad of 540 men to work for them.

This was in 1581. In the following year, Yermak’s squad, along with several hundred Russians, set off on their first Siberian campaign against Khan Kuchum. Khan Kuchum’s army numbered about 10,000, meaning that it was ten times bigger than that of the Russians. However, he did not—at least, not at first—have firearms, and as a result, the Russian units defeated Kuchum’s army in several battles, and captured the capital of the Siberian khanate.

The capital was called Sibir' (although other sources have it as Isker), and so the whole region east of the Urals came to be known as Siberia. In 1585 Kuchum’s army managed to trick Yermak and launch a sudden night attack on him. This took place on the banks of the Irtysh, a large river in Siberia.

Yermak was killed, but a small number of his men managed to escape, and the following year the Kazakhs arrived with a force twice as big as hitherto. Kuchum’s army was defeated, and many of his relatives were taken prisoner, although he himself managed to get away. Kuchum spent many years thereafter declining to put up any resistance to the Russians, until his death in 1601.

After this there were practically no large clashes between the Russians and the local populations. The locals probably considered it preferable to pay a modest levy to the Tsar in Moscow, rather than to the numerous local khans who were forever starting wars with one another and plundering the local population.

It should also be noted that Russia, just like America, was lucky in that the local populations were small, and even if they had wanted to, they could not have offered serious resistance to the Russians' progress through Siberia. There were a few skirmishes in Yakut and around Baikal, but on the whole, the conquest of Siberia proceeded peacefully.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the Russians had got as far as the Pacific Ocean, and in the eighteenth century they landed in Alaska. However, Russia’s difficult financial position after the Crimean war, and the impossibility of defending this remote territory, prompted the Russians to sell Alaska to the American government in the nineteenth century.

As the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries progressed, Russian towns sprang up in Siberia and in what we now know as the Far East—Tyumen', Omsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Chita, Khabarovsk, Yakutsk, Vladivostok and others. The populations of these towns are mixed. Russian and Ukrainian migrants make up the main component, but there are also the descendants of local peoples along with numerous peoples who formerly lived together in a single, united country—the Soviet Union.

However, it is still the case that while Siberia constitutes 70 percent of the territory of the Russian Federation, it has just 15 percent of the population. This means that the true conquest of Siberia is not yet finished. Siberia has not yet become a place to which many people aspire in the way that in the past California became a magnet for many Americans.

(written by Evgueny Bokhanovsky, translated into English and read by Richard, 2016)


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