SRC Winter Symposium Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Changes in the Slavic-Eurasian World ( English / Japanese )

Defining Territories and Empires:
from Mongol Ulus to Russian Siberia1200-1800(4)

Stephen Kotkin
(Princeton University)

Copyright (c) 1996 by the Slavic Research Center( English / Japanese ) All rights reserved.

From Tartary to Siberia

When the Dutchman Nicolaas K. Witsen, who served as a diplomat in Russia in 1664-54 and 1667, published his map of that great country's eastern regions, he called them "Tartary." *82 Even to the Russians -- for whom in the early eighteenth century it was still unclear how far their eastern regions extended (perhaps they connected to America) -- eastern natives were all thought to be "Tatars," and references were made to the land of Great Tartary. *83 Yet Russia's conquests in north Asia came to be known not as Tartary but as Siberia.

As a geographical term Siberia is mentioned in the fourteenth century among Arab writers, as both Sibir and Ibir. In Russian manuscripts the word Sibir can be found in 1407 and again in 1483. But there is no consensus on its origins or meaning. In the seventeenth century, Savva Esipov claimed that the term derived from a population point on the shores of the Irtysh River, a tributary known as the Sibirka. Later, others said it was a Tatar word. Still others, that it was Mongol term, meaning swamp. In fact, the Mongols used "Shibir" in the thirteenth century Secret History as the name of a people, not a place. *84 The linguist Pavel I. Shafarik, in the nineteenth century, wrote that the term came from the Gunsk tribe known as the "sabir" or Seber, known to the Byzantine chroniclers. *85 Other scholars have also argued that the word designated a people, the Sybyr, from the Irtysh basin. *86 In other words, the name of a people from the Irtysh, variously known as the Sypyr, Siopyr, Sabir, became a geographical designation, "Sibirskaia zemlia," for the area inhabited by descendants of the Sypyr. *87 Some part of this area was conquered by "Tatar" descendants of the Golden Horde, who in turn were conquered by the Russians. For the lands east of the Urals, rather than "Tartary" -- the name that became known in western Europe -- the Russians adopted and then propagated the name Siberia. At first it had a limited application, but subsequently spread with the Russians across north Asia to the Pacific Ocean.

Such naming, however "fortuitous," opens up many questions, for which comparisons with the New World may be illuminating. Russia's eastern drive took place about sixty years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and twenty years before the first French and English colonies in North America. In the New World, disease, particularly smallpox, proved to be the most formidable, albeit inadvertent weapon, in clearing the space for the creation of Neo-Europes. *88 Thanks in part to the Mongols, the Eurasian steppe nomads had never been as cutoff from other centers of civilization as the inhabitants of the New World. In Siberia smallpox played a role (usually in the more isolated far north), but Russian-spread germs did not cause a catastrophic "great dying" as in the Americas. Indeed, the peoples of Eurasia had assimilated many influences of older civilizations, Turkic, Mongol, and Chinese -- differentiating them from native Americans and Australian aborigines. *89 Entering these realms, the Russians recorded and used the various "indigenous" names, including Siberia. "Unlike the discoverers of New Spain, New England, and New France," one researcher has written, "the seventeenth-century Russian Cossacks did not endeavor to dissolve [their] new world into the old by renaming, destroying, or converting it." *90

Russian motivations remain a matter of dispute. For the formation and layering of Russia's imperial mentality, the fall of Kazan was a conceptual turning point. Here the conquest narrative appears in full force, as does the defeated foil (the "Tatars"), against which to glorify Orthodoxy's mission. With the push into Siberia we find a similar story of "conquest," beginning almost immediately with the "overthrow" of the Siberian khanate. But the Siberian case is more ambiguous, less assured, than that of Kazan. Rather than a single, dramatic oppositional culture or political entity that is overcome, we find the pursuit of private gain and Moscow's greedy acceptance of vast fur wealth (perhaps one-third of all state revenues *91 ). Among Muscovite ruling circles in the seventeenth century, there may have arisen ideas about a possible sea route from Mangazeia to India, and even of the conquest of China, as well as less preposterous yet still grand illusions about becoming middlemen in trade between Europe and Asia (like the Dutch, Portuguese, and English). *92 But Siberia was no India, and though the founding of Orenburg and the disappearance of Junagaria did finally open a path to Bukhara, Russia did not manage to move aggressively into Turkestan, let alone India, until the middle of the nineteenth century.

In many ways Siberia and the transcontinental Russian empire were more a creation of the eighteenth century than the late sixteenth or seventeenth. *93 Peter the Great changed Muscovy's name and proclaimed Russia an imperiia in the 1720s (following the victory over Sweden). In the 1730s Vasilii Tatishchev moved the Europe/Asia boundary from the Don River to the Urals. *94 Crucially, the efforts begun in the 1740s to link Siberian forts by means of post stations gave way by the 1760s to the Great Siberian Post Road (Trakt) from Moscow to Iakutsk (eventually). The precursor to the Transsiberian Railroad, the Post Road consumed innumerable lives and rubles as a swath was cut through the taiga and given a surface regular enough to accommodate wheeled-traffic. *95 But the flow of hardy peasant migrants who braved the frontier increased substantially. This was a demographic and human-geographic turning point. [See table]

Table: Siberian population (including the Russian Far East)

Year NativesRussians Foreigners Total
1622 173,000 23,000 196,000
1662 288,000 105,000 393,000
1709 200,000 229,127 429,227
1737 230,000 297,810 527,810
1763 260,000 420,000 680,000
1796-97 363,362 575,800 939,162
1815 434,000 1,100,500 1,534,500
1858 648,000 2,288,036 2,936,036
1897 870,536 4,889,633 5,760,169
1911 972,866 8,393,469 9,366,335

Source: Aziatskaia Rossiia, vol. 1 (St. Petersburg, 1914), p. 81.

The path was cleared for peasant settlers to appropriate and convert to agriculture the prized nomad grazing lands, whose milder climate and rich soils were ideal for farming.

The spread of agriculture was fundamental. Agriculture appears to have been introduced into northern Eurasia sometime around 2000 B.C.E. The Chinese, and later their Mongol overlords, provided a considerable boost, importing seeds, implements, and labor power (the lands of the Mongolian plateau seem to have served as a kind of labortaory for the crop cultures that were then transplanted farther north and west). *96 This cultivation took place in the southernmost regions of Siberia, namely the Amur basin, Minusinsk hollow (between the Kuznetsk Alatau and Tian-Shan Mountains), as well as in the lowlands of the Altai (the ancestral home of Turkic-Mongol peoples). But with the end of the Pax Mongolica and the turning inward of China, Siberian agriculture ceased to develop further and in many places disappeared (to be discovered only by archaeologists). *97 At the time of the Russian arrival, only the "Tatars" in far western Siberia were engaged in plough [pashennoe], as opposed to hoe [motyzhnnoe] cultivation. The Russians would completely transform north Asia into a predominantly agricultural region.

In the seventeenth century, however, Russian farming in Siberia was concentrated mostly in the Upper Tura-Tobol basin, just east of the Urals. True, each Russian fort further along the river system toward the Ob and then Enisei had small forest-cleared fields, but they were surrounded by bogs and beset by a horrendous climate (at Narym in 1639, for example, frosts wiped out the crops before they could be harvested, and the absence of seeds delayed the resumption of agriculture). Only with the defeat of southern nomads and the clearing of the Siberian Post Road did Russian agriculture expand beyond the inhospitable areas far north of where pre-Russian agriculture had been developed. *98 With the Post Road, Tobolsk ceased to be the primary site of Siberian farming, as the center of gravity shifted toward the Altai. Here, south of Tomsk, no less than in St. Petersburg, the foundations of Russia's imperial reach were laid.

Beyond agriculture there were minerals. Following the construction of forts at Semipalatinsk and Ust-Kamenogorsk (1716-1720) that helped make the left tributaries of the upper Ob accessible, copper ore was discovered. In 1726 the Urals-based Akinfii Demidov received the tsar's permission to open mines and a smelting factory in the south Siberian region named Kolyvan-Voskresensk. In 1747, Demidov's valuable property was outright confiscated by the dynasty, which was intent on pumping out the recently discovered region's gold and silver (in the hopes they would replace the formerly abundant fur as a source of revenue). The imperial mines needed an enormous labor force, which they found in the agricultural settlers who made their way to the rich Altai. Peasants of the entire region were attached (pripiisany) to the mines (and later factories) of Kolyvan. The peasants paid for the "right" to work the land with seasonal labor service for the mining administration. *99 By 1800, the Kolyvan had grown to be larger than England, Holland,and several other European countries. *100

Like Orenburg, at one end of the open steppe, Barnaul, at another, became an axis of Russian imperial power. *101 In the 1850s, Petr Petrovich Semenov-Tian-Shanskii, the chairman of the Russian Geographical Society for forty years (1873-1914), who had studied in Berlin 1850s (von Humboldt and Karl Ritter) and traveled to Switzerland, undertook expeditions to the Jungarian Alatau and Tian-Shan mountains. They were virtually terra incongnita for Europeans (plenty of information was available in Chinese sources). Semenov portrayed Omsk as a military city (Sparta) and Barnaul as its opposite -- highly cultured, with a flourishing population of cultivated mining engineers. He conceded, of course, that nineteenth-century Siberia was a long way from Ancient Athens. But he neglected to mention that the mining and (separate) forest administration personnel of the Altai wore military uniforms and had military ranks. *102 It was a military regime, a form of politics and economy that was clumsy, heavy-handed, self-defeating, but not altogether unable to achieve its goals. In short, it was Russia. But what was "Russia"?

Just as in the New World (or in the European colonies of Asia), most Russian officials in Siberia relied on native women, whom they bedded, as translators and go-betweens, and with whom they had children. Beyond the Siberian elite, there appears to have been a significant, if hard to quantify, incidence of intermarriage and concubinage, producing mestizo children. "Women were needed in large numbers," wrote one nineteenth century commentator. "And Russian women were in extremely short supply." During armed conflicts as well as the normal course of business, Russians in Siberia took native women and girls into custody as prisoners of war or hostages. (Moscow's written prohibitions against maintaining female slaves testified to the practice, and did nothing to curtail it.) Many women were taken for profitable sale. Females of all ages appeared on the markets in the major Siberian urban centers, including Tomsk. *103 It is likely that native women not only bore mestizo children, but raised many of the children of European parents. *104

To be sure, the Russians did not assimilate into the native settings to the degree that the Mongols had during their earlier sweep across Eurasia in the other direction. Most Russians remained speakers of the Russian language and Orthodox Christians. And unlike the Mongols, the Russians sought to convert the natives from shamanism to Orthodoxy. But missionary zeal in Siberia did not approach the level in the Americas. Relatively few Siberian natives converted, and even those who did often did not break with their shamanistic practices. For their part, the Russians did not always push the matter, since converts acquired the right to stop paying iasak. (Anyway, in the Altai, the site of the most extensive Orthodox mission, there were tens of thousands of Russian Old Believers who rejected Orthodoxy and had emigrated or been deported to Siberia.) In short, there was Russification of the natives, but it was less than total, and at the same time, there was a degree of "Eurasianization" of the Russians -- the hierarchy and domination notwithstanding. In southern Siberia -- Kuznetsk, Biisk, and Barnaul uzeds -- the mixing appears to have been extensive, judging by the "strange" Russian spoken by the "Russians" there. *105

Nikolai Iadrintsev famously asserted that European-native intermarriage, combined with unique environmental conditions, had resulted in the advent of a Siberian "ethnic type," distinguished by its physical features, dialect, hardiness, and attitude or spirit -- an argument not dissimilar to portrayals of the settlers on the American frontier. *106 But Iadrintsev advanced his claims just as the railroad was about to bring millions of Slavic settlers from European Russia who would overwhelm the natives and the Eurasianist populace. By the time "Eurasianism" as a rallying cry was invented in the second decade of the twentieth century, it served as little more than a justification for Russian imperialism. *107 All the same, despite the devastation that the Russians effected, their empire in Siberia, in contrast to the Americas, was not predicated on extermination. Siberian natives were brutalized and pushed off the land, but many managed to survive, and they retained a sense of their non-Russianness. Some Siberian peoples even flourished. The Russians, for their part, incorporated manifold indigenes into armies and administration. Quite simply, the Russians could not have gotten by without the native manpower, or the women. Their "conquest" of Siberia was not, and could not be, a sudden and near-total displacement. In sum, whereas the New World populations mostly disappeared, Russian conquest left an ethnic and linguistic mosaic -- different from the one they encountered, but a mosaic all the same. Siberia was not, in that sense, America.

Closing Remarks

Not long after the Kolyvan area had been opened to mining and Russian settlement, Gerhard Mueller paid a visit. Mueller's mid-eighteenth-century travels to put Siberian administrative archives in order and write a history signified the onset of a more vigorous posture in north Asia by Russia. In the strategic Kolyvan region, Mueller noted the presence of numerous Mongol/Tatar burial sites. *108 Had the Russians in effect replaced the Mongols? Looking over the period 1200-1800 from the vantage point of the center of Eurasia, such questions themselves begin to acquire a history.

A Russian, a Mongol, a Tatar -- these are all, as we have seen, political categories, designations backed up with armies, tax or tribute extraction, and narratives, which were as much a structure of empire as bureaucratic mechanisms. Not only are all categories political, but they are utterly interdependent, defined in relation (usually opposition) to each other. In other words, categories are neither imaginary ideas that shape reality nor a mere reflection of realities, but themselves a reality. Indeed, to contrast the Mongol and Russian empires is itself a political act, a way of telling a story, ostensibly to explain or glorify Russia, for that is who came out on top and history is most often written backward, by the victors.

Writing forward rather than backward and stopping at 1800, however, it emerges that the "Russians," in the process of becoming the Russians, half-knowingly pushed -- simultaneously arrogant and circumspect -- into lands where the Mongols had once imprinted the idea of an integrated empire founded on kinship. But unlike the Mongols from whom they borrowed so much and against whom they learned to define themselves, the Russians sought to introduce a new weapon: the idea of territory, of defining borders, mapping. Moving east beginning with Kazan, Russia did not simply subordinate but "annexed" (in defending the Kazan annexation, the Russians created a story of land-holding precedents). The Russians, in other words, planted the flag (just as the Europeans did in the Americas). In far-off southern Siberia, however, Russian efforts to define borders and demarcate their territory long met little success. Not until the eighteenth century did the Russians break through in the south, and even then the process of defining boundaries was anything but clear cut. Here, the Russians were compelled to suffer multiple sovereignty in practice.

Russian power in valuable parts of Eurasia long remained indistinguishable from that of other regional tribute collectors. Yet with time differences made themselves felt, particularly owing to the "hordes" of peasant migrants -- hindered more than assisted by state power -- who helped to consolidate Russia's territorial claims. *109 Another key difference was Russian political organization. Russia's neighbor to the west, the great sixteenth-century Spanish monarchy -- the most powerful in Europe -- has been called not a single, centralized entity, but a kind of "federation" of members bound to a single sovereign but each with their own laws and institutions, even different aspirations in international policy. *110 Such a description fits the Golden Horde far more than it does post-Horde Muscovy/Russia, for despite the efforts of Chingis Khan, the Mongols could not sustain the kind of autocracy that the Russians built up -- after the Golden Horde had disintegrated -- and managed to implant in far off Siberia. Russia's ability to cast the spell, symbolism, and political will of an integrated if chaotic realm over northern Eurasia enabled the imperial metropole, and its local officials, to take advantage of the transformation of the space effected by peasants.

Peasants had their own dreams, which overlapped, but only partially, with the autocracy's imperial mission. Many of the peasants who ended up performing involuntary labor services for the Kolyvan factories and mines had fled from European Russia, either for religious reasons, like the Old Believers, or to escape serfdom. Confronted by obligatory labor service, some fled again, into the Altai Mountains, looking for the fabulously rich and completely free country of legend, Belovod'a. *111 But most made the best of their lot without the freedom, and with the riches largely appropriated by the state and its officers. As for the "native peoples" of Siberia, for whom there is no collective name (such as American Indians), many of them also harbored fanatsies of escape, or of the return of their former "golden khan." *112

Peasant agriculture provided the indispensable scaffolding for the Russian imperial mission. Later, in the middle of the twentieth century, agriculture would be replaced by industry as the dominant form of existence in Siberia, and the region's center of gravity would shift yet again, from the Kolyvan to the coal-rich Kuznetsk basin. *113 The imperial mission, which greatly inspired the push for Siberian industrialization, emerged considerably enhanced by the shift (for a time). Disaggregating the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, we can see that Russia's imperial trajectory was achieved far more haltingly and ambiguously than allowed by the contemporary or retrospective narratives. In particular, the conquest of Siberia added immensely to the size of Russia, and in Russia the size of empire was equated with political power, but there was also ambivalence, a fear of too much space and an inability to master it, a sense of drain, a curse as much as an opportunity. *114

SRC Winter Symposium Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Changes in the Slavic-Eurasian World ( English / Japanese )

Copyright (c) 1996 by the Slavic Research Center( English / Japanese ) All rights reserved.