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(3)

Stephen Kotkin
(Princeton University)

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

Russian "Conquest" 1580-1760

In narratives of Siberia conquest, the earliest orthodoxy was set down by Gerhard Mueller in the early eighteenth century (and codified by Sergei Solov'ev in the nineteenth). It emphasized the military-political dimension, and the state's supposed leading role. *47 To this was added, in the early nineteenth-century, reinforced nationalist celebrations of the "Cossack" Yermak (who in fact had conquered nothing and then died). *48 Then, in the early twentieth century Sergei Bakhrushin used the local sources Mueller had consulted to demonstrate the role of merchants and traders, from the Stroganovs on down. *49 Finally, groups of Soviet historians (most prominently Viktor I. Shunkov) stressed the contribution of peasants. *50 Whether led by the autocracy, the "bourgeoisie," or the "people", the idea of a forward march of history was challenged only by nineteenth-century Siberian patriots, who directed attention to native peoples and to Moscow's exploitation of Siberia, but without displacing the larger narrative of conquest. *51

Perhaps the most persistent historiographic controversy swirled around whether the brigand Yermak acted on his own initiative, or was a hireling of the Stroganov family. Whatever the case, the key point is that Moscow had its attention turned elsewhere (toward what it considered as the far bigger prize of the Baltic). Thus, far-reaching powers were accorded to the Kama-based family of salt merchants known as the Stroganovs, whose private votchina (two-thirds the size of sixteenth-century England) acted in the name of the state -- a situation analogous to the British East India Company. The Stroganov-financed forays, which renewed earlier explorations of the Novgorodians, *52 were a matter of garnering personal profits and expanding state revenues, in the name of forestalling raids. *53 Opportunism, more than aggrandizement of the tsar's realm, may have served as the main motivation.

More successful raids followed Ermak's. "Russians," who included Livonians, Poles, Latvians, Mordvinians, and others, poked their way into unmapped lands where most of the indigenes lived in small agglomerations. *54 Some "tribes" were little more than elaborate extended families led by elders (the leaders of larger groupings were referred to by the Russians as princelings [kniazhtsy]). Prior to the Russian arrival, many tribes fought each other over hunting and fishing grounds or to settle vendettas, while a few extracted tribute (iasak) from others. The Russians' modus operandi was akin to that of a powerful tribe: seize or demand hostages (preferably elders), and command an oath of loyalty to the tsar plus tribute for the Russian state as well as "gifts" for themselves. The Russians also helped themselves to native women, and pressed the natives into labor service or slavery. If the natives refused, the Russians employed gunpowder -- in the name of God and tsar.

Similarities with the Mongols jump to mind. Everything the Russians did was predicated on their uncompromising certainty in their mandate to rule, and thus in compelling submission of anyone they came across. The harshest methods -- assassination, massacre -- were considered as legitimate, although eliciting voluntary compliance was preferred. Like the Mongols, the Russians appropriated everything they found. *55 And like the Golden Horde khans (or the Ching emperors, for that matter), Russian soldiers insisted on symbolic forms of obeisance, such as the removal of one's hat when the name of the tsar was mentioned. But once formal poddanstvo was settled, the Russians usually did not interfere in internal affairs, relying on natives to "rule" themselves. Indeed, encountering the absence of a strong native leader, the Russians usually promoted one who would never be able to overthrow them but could control his own people and insure tribute payments (while himself reaping rewards). Trade, from which native rulers prospered, encouraged their comprador status and the dependence of their tribes on Russian rule. The Russians also proved adept at pitting one tribe against another. *56 In short, the Russians, were (of necessity) flexible in practice while unequivocal in principle.

Like the Golden Horde in its dealings with Rus, the Russians did not seek to appoint one of their own (Riurikid or Romanov relative) to rule the tribes from whom they collected tribute. Thus Russian rule resembled the indirect style of the Horde rather than the direct style of the earlier greater Mongol ulus. But unlike the Horde, the Russians occupied the harsh lands they claimed to have conquered. To facilitate the collection of what the Russians (adopting the preexisting name) called iasak, they built a series of enlarged winter cabins (zimov'e) and forts. The latter, strategically located on a bluff that usually overlooked a river, were connected by defense lines. But the forts were vulnerable, especially in spring and summer, when the Russian population went out to fish and farm. And though the garrisoned troops farmed to feed themselves, for a very long time they remained dependent on an imported food supply. Indeed, if the appeal of furs can be said to have drawn the Russian east, once their presence had been established, the search for food became the force driving them all the way to America and Japan. *57 This made the Russian "conquest" precarious for a long time.

The Russians had better weapons than most of the peoples they encountered, but they were, like the Mongols, vastly outnumbered. The only way for the Russians to have held their positions or gained new ones was by co-optation. Just as the Golden Horde armies were full of Slavs, Circassians, Magyars, among others, so the "Russian" armies were made up of numerous indigenes commanded by Europeans. Moreover, though the Russians may have seemed reckless, for the most part they acted cautiously whenever they encountered serious resistance. Frequently, while dealing with one group, the Russians were raided or assaulted by another. Formal submission by the natives, in other words, had to be permanently enforced and was occasionally reversed. For quite some time, many native chiefs understood submission to the tsar as a military alliance rather than an act of subordination. Seventeenth-century Siberia has been called "a large military camp." *58 But Siberia more closely resembled a largely untouched expanse criss-crossed by an archipelago of poorly connected forts, from which Russian troops conducted raids.

Russia's eastward lurch across the Urals began with the "overthrow" of something they called the Siberian khanate, which along with the Tobol khanate, seems to have been "formed" towards the end of the fifteenth century from remnants of the Golden Horde. Gobbling up its Tobol neighbor, the Siberian khanate claimed suzerainty over an area bounded by the Tobol, Tura, Irtysh, and Om' Rivers. It seems to have become very extensive by the mid-sixteenth century (its "power" extended west into the land of the Mansy, and north into the lands of the Khanty). Because it occupied forested areas, its inhabitants did not have large livestock herds. Hunters and fishers (with some primitive farming), they did not require large grazing territories and thus concerted military-political action. *59 According to an analysis of fur-tribute returns, the "khanate" had a population of around 5,000 at the time of contact with the Russians. Other sources indicate a figure of 30,000 (probably including their non-Tatar subjects). *60

The Siberian khan directly ruled only a small number of ulus. Most commoners were subordinated to their own princelings, who were technically vassals, and occasionally relatives, of the khan. Paying iasak to the khan that they collected from their own people, these princelings exercised independent authority in their ulus. Some vassals were more like allies of the khan and at the least sign of trouble, they deserted or betrayed him. When the Russians finally defeated Kuchum (a Chingisid) in the 1580s, his vassals hurried to offer their service to their new masters. Even more than not having to face these troops in battle, Moscow was glad to be able to employ them for iasak collection in the name of the Russian state. The native troops became known as "service Tatars." By the 1660s, their privileged positions were declining, and they rose up, perhaps dreaming of a return to their own "khanate," which they had helped destroy. *61

Once the Siberian khanate had been pushed aside and its troops co-opted, *62 Russians penetrated deeper by means of the remarkable river systems. There were two basic routes. *63 The first was northerly into the taiga, with its rich fur-bearing animals, a path that led to the establishment of Berezov (1593), Mangazeia (1601), and Turukhansk (1607). Direct expansion into the frigid, forested, sparsely populated northern lands marked a departure, for although the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Mongols had encouraged the revitalization of the fur trade in the thick forests of northern Asia, they themselves rarely ventured there. *64 No sooner had the Russians opened up this northern route, however, than they closed it down, apparently fearing that it would be used by foreign powers, especially the English, approaching from the Arctic Sea. Thus, Russia came to rule the far north indirectly. It was the more southerly route into the forested steppe and the steppe proper, with their denser populations, that the Russians sought most actively to follow.

Traveling on the Ob, they founded Surgut (1594), Narym (1598), and -- during the smuta -- Tomsk (1604), the latter established only with the active collaboration of Tatars. *65 By the mid-seventeenth century Tomsk had 1,045 inhabitants, a majority of whom were "service personnel" (meaning all manner of hobo and hooligan). Despite its favorable natural setting, however, Tomsk was slow to develop. *66 The territory of the wider Tomsk uezd continued to be the object of a fierce struggle between the administration of the city and the neighboring nomads for the right to exploit the local hunters and fishermen. *67 A path across to the Pacific was traversed, but the south and southeast were blocked. True, the Russians founded Kuznetsk (1618), but its paltry number of peasants were unable to farm more than a few kilometers from the fort. *68 And the next Russian effort to found a fort further south (on the Biia River) was unsuccessful. Tomsk and Kuznetsk, even more than other Siberian forts, remained "islands of Russian power in a wide alien sea." *69

Territorially, Kuznetsk uzed, which grew significantly over the seventeenth century, was one of the smallest in all Siberia in area, yet its total population was equal to the grandiose Tobolsk uzed, and greater than almost all the other uzeds of Siberia. The meager number of Russians and their Tatar collaborators in Tomsk and Kuznetsk had no choice but to "tolerate" iasak collection by other groups among the natives. The powerful indigenous nomads roamed in the areas north of Kuznetsk, cutting it off from other Russians forts and subjecting it (and Tomsk) to raids, while many tribes nominally subject to Russian iasak eluded collection parties by temporarily migrating south, beyond reach of Russian soldiers. *70 Though the Russians received instructions to map their "annexed territories" as early as 1626, across the entire south they were unable to define a state border. *71

It bears recalling that, following the taking of Kazan and Astrakhan in the 1550s, the Russians had encountered stiff resistance in their eager efforts to penetrate further southeast below the Urals. It was not until the establishment of the Orenburg fort and defense line in the 1730s, after nearly a century of warfare and precarious open-steppe settlement, that the southeastern steppe frontier was "secured" (and then, only with the help of large contingents of "native" forces). *72 Much the same can be said about the course of events following the (less momentous) vanquishing of the Siberian "khanate" in the 1580s. In their drive across the Urals towards the Irtysh, Ob, and Enisei, the Russians moved quickly through the north and then part of the way south, but they were then "stalled" in the south for more than a century. Only the forced departure of the Kirgiz in 1703 to Jungaria -- present-day Altai and northern Sinkiang -- opened the way for Russians. *73 Taking advantage of the Kirgiz disappearance as well as Jungarian struggles with China, the Russians finally built a series of forts on the Irtysh (Omsk, Semipalatinsk, Ust-Kamenogorsk), and belatedly founded Bikatunsk (later Biisk) in 1709, followed by Chausk (later Kolyvan) in 1713 and Barnaul in 1739. Yet Jungaria continued to claim the territories in which Russians built their forts, and the southern border, although extended, remained ambiguously defined.

Most general accounts maintain that the Russians faced no rivals until they reached the fringes of the Chinese empire, but the Russians were confronted by the formidable nomad-warriors of the steppe. In the Kirgiz lands (Kirgizskaia zemlia), a sort of loose assemblage of tribal principalities, the Russians pressed the nomads to pay iasak. *74 The Kirgiz answered that they did not pay, only their vassals did. Russian officials wrote to Moscow begging for more troops. Meanwhile, the Kalmyks (also called Oirats), *75 who were more populous than the Kirgiz and roamed from Astrakhan to China, presented an even more formidable challenge, riding into battle with a mobility reminiscent of the thirteenth-century Mongols. *76 As the extent of Kirgiz and then Kalmyk military capabilities became clearer, Moscow instructed the Tomsk voevoda to be cautious and prohibited Kalmyk and Kirgiz leaders from traveling to the Russian capital as emissaries, lest they learn the route and then return to pillage. It was also stipulated that the nomads not be let into Siberian forts, lest they inspect the fortifications. *77 Stubbornly refusing to retreat from its insistence on nothing less than the Kalmyks' complete submission, Moscow perforce fell back on a complicated diplomacy of playing off the Kirgiz, Kalmyks, Kazakhs, and Chinese. *78 Muscovy's garrisons in Siberia remained small, poorly equipped, and targets for the more numerous Kalmyks.

Russia was not strong enough to enforce its will over the "khanate" of Jungaria (1630s-1750s), which had up to 200,000 households (about 50,000 had migrated to the Volga). *79 But fortunately for the Russians, the Kalmyks/Oirats were pressured from the east (China) and the west (Turkic peoples), fighting the Kirgiz, Kazakhs, Altyn (Golden) Khan, and others. Despite desperately wanting Russian military help against China, the Jungarian khan refused to declare himself a subject of Russia. In the 1750s, after a century of constant warfare, the Manchu Ching took advantage of the latest in a long line of Jungarian succession crises. Intrigues among the Jungarians over the throne led to an opportunity for Chinese intervention, which resulted in the near total destruction of the Oirat people. The Ching sent a huge army, perhaps 200,000 men, slaughtered the population, divided the territory into provinces, and left. Altogether, the Ching reduced the Oirats from perhaps 600,000 people to 30-40,000, the latter being those who managed to flee into Russian territory. Kazakhs competed with the Russians to carry off surviving Oirat livestock. *80

Jungarian refugees, and former peoples subject to them, sought refuge on territories the Russians considered their own, and Russia made little effort to interdict and turn them back. Yet the Russian commander in Siberia had advised the tsarist government against the reception of Jungarian refugees, since with the pursuit of the Chinese Russia faced the spread of Chinese power throughout Turkestan, Kazakhstan, and the rest of Central Asia. The Ching, however, halted their march! Their expansion beyond eastern Turkestan was not precluded by Russian might, but by Ching fears of a possible uprising in their Mongolian (Khalka) rear. With the Ching army gone and the Oirats virtually exterminated, the Russians moved finally advanced south, consolidating their hold on southern Siberia up to the mountains (on the other side of which lay the Mongolian plateau). In the southern regions of west Siberia, the Chinese, far from providing the principal resistance to Russian advance (as in the Amur), removed the menacing nomads.

The Chinese accomplished what the Russians could not (smash Jungaria), without doing what the Russians feared (replacing Jungaria with an even stronger power). But having sought to overcome their centuries-long torment at the hands of nomads, the Chinese now had to confront a power less densely populated and less fierce in battle, yet more organized politically. *81 For the Chinese, the Russians were, in a way, more manageable than the nomads, however, since they too possessed notions of fixed borders (as the Russians demonstrated in the 1850s treaties establishing the Russian annexation of the Amur). Notwithstanding Muraviev's exploit, expansion and warfare were not inherent to the Russian way of life, but a matter of political ambition. The Russians and Chinese could understand each other. Their actions, proceeding from opposite ends of the continent, formed a kind of collaboration. Beginning with the Chinese eviction of the Mongol Yuan dynasty and the Russian victories of the Golden Horde and its remnants (the Kazan and Siberian khanates), China and Russia together battered and finally subdued the nomads of Eurasia in the geopolitical space carved out by Chingis Khan.