Siberia: A History of the People

Siberia: A History of the People

by Janet M. Hartley

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Larger in area than the United States and Europe combined, Siberia is a land of extremes, not merely in terms of climate and expanse, but in the many kinds of lives its population has led over the course of four centuries. Janet M. Hartley explores the history of this vast Russian wasteland—whose very name is a common euphemism for remote bleakness and exile—through the lives of the people who settled there, either willingly, desperately, or as prisoners condemned to exile or forced labor in mines or the gulag.
From the Cossack adventurers’ first incursions into “Sibir” in the late sixteenth century to the exiled criminals and political prisoners of the Soviet era to present-day impoverished Russians and entrepreneurs seeking opportunities in the oil-rich north, Hartley’s comprehensive history offers a vibrant, profoundly human account of Siberia’s development. One of the world’s most inhospitable regions is humanized through personal narratives and colorful case studies as ordinary—and extraordinary—everyday life in “the nothingness” is presented in rich and fascinating detail.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300206173
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/26/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Janet M. Hartley is professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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A History of the People

By Janet M. Hartley


Copyright © 2014 Janet M. Hartley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-20617-3


Cossacks and Conquest

On the 23rd of October all the Russian troops went out from the stronghold to battle, all proclaiming: 'God is with us.' And again they added: 'O God, help us Your servants.' They began to make an advance towards the barricade, and there was a great battle. These unconquerable heroes spread slaughter around them and displayed fierce-hearted daring, and were as though having the points of spears in their entrails, for they armed themselves strongly with their valour and were all breathing with rage and fury, clad in iron, holding copper shields, bearing spears and firing iron shot. Battle was joined from both sides. The pagans shot innumerable arrows, and against them the Cossacks fired from fire-breathing harquebuses, and there was dire slaughter. In hand to hand fighting they cut each other down. By the help of God the pagans gradually began to diminish and to weaken. The Cossacks drove them onwards, slaying them in their tracks. The fields were stained with blood then, and covered with the corpses of the dead, and swamps were formed by the blood which flowed then, as in ancient times from the city of Troy by the river Scamander, captured by Achilles. Thus they conquered the infidel, for the wrath of God came upon them for their lawlessness and idolatry, since they knew not God their creator.

This is one of several chronicle accounts of the triumphal march of Russian Cossacks into Siberia at the end of the sixteenth century, of the victory of modern guns against primitive bows and arrows, and of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. At least this is how it was depicted in a chronicle written some 50 years after the event by a scribe in the service of the archbishop of Tobolsk, In fact, some Muslim Tatars fought alongside the Cossacks; indigenous tribesmen continued to resist the Russian advance well into the seventeenth century and beyond; Cossacks were lured east of the Ural mountains by a lust for booty and adventure rather than by a desire to proselytise; and the leader of the Cossacks was killed within a few years and his original band had to retreat. Nevertheless, the chronicles did tell an extraordinary tale – how, in a few years at the end of the sixteenth century, the exploits of a small group of men led to them claiming 'Siberia' for the tsar and starting the remarkable process of exploration and colonisation of vast lands stretching to the Pacific Ocean. Myths have grown up about the Cossack leader and his men, from their personal heroism to the divine protection against the arrows which poured down on them, but the reality of what happened was extraordinary enough.

What caused this invasion and who were the main protagonists? 'Sibir' was an independent khanate centred on the river Irtysh east of the Ural mountains, and was a very small part of what is now considered Siberia. Its 'capital' was called Isker, or sometimes Sibir, and was situated at the juncture of the Irtysh and Tobol rivers, near where the town of Tobolsk was later founded. It was one of the few remnants of what had once been the powerful and enormous Mongol empire of Genghis Khan. By the late sixteenth century, the remaining khanates of this former empire had been severely weakened. Tsar Ivan IV had defeated the khanate of Kazan in 1552 and the khanate of Astrakhan in 1556, and had taken over their territories in southern Russia. The rulers of Sibir had agreed to pay a tribute of furs to Ivan in 1555, in itself a recognition of their weakness and subordinate status. The following year, the Muscovite ambassador returned from Sibir with 700 sables for the tsar, an immensely valuable gift.

In 1563, Sibir was ruled by a new khan – Kuchum – who had ruthlessly deposed and killed his predecessor. At first Kuchum continued to pay tribute to Ivan IV and in 1571 he sent 1,000 sables to the Russian tsar. He was determined, however, to assert his independence from Russia. First, he stopped sending tribute and then, two years later, the ambassador sent to Sibir by the tsar was killed on Kuchum's orders. The scene was set for conflict; yet, when it came a few years later, it was not a Russian army under Ivan IV which crossed the Urals to depose Kuchum, but a group of Cossacks in the service of the wealthy and influential Stroganov family.

The Stroganovs had been a prominent noble family in Russia since the fourteenth century. They remained so up to the Revolutions, and the Stroganov palaces which survive in St Petersburg testify to their immense power and wealth. Their wealth came from their mines – mainly iron and copper – which they established in the Ural mountains and in the Russian north from the sixteenth century. Anika Stroganov (1497–1570) was the main force in developing business interests in the Urals. As well as iron and copper mines, he established saltworks and traded in furs. He was an enterprising and energetic merchant, but also a deeply devout man who took monastic vows before his death, built churches on his lands and began the family collection of religious manuscripts and icons. Under Stroganov patronage a whole school of icon painters developed, known for their delicate and meticulous brushwork. Anika Stroganov's trading links extended to the Arctic and even to Central Asia. After his death, his sons, Grigorii and Iakov, took over the business.

These activities were simply too important, and too valuable, for the Russian government not to be interested, or involved. All land in Russia belonged to the tsar, and the Stroganovs, like any other family, had to seek formal approval from him to extend their property and commercial interests. The tsar was also the greatest trader of all and traded on his own account in furs, precious metals and other valuable goods. Ivan IV was mercurial, if not unbalanced, and the leading nobles knew that their position was always precarious: good relations with the tsar had to be carefully cultivated.

In 1558, Ivan IV granted a charter for the Stroganovs to occupy the 'empty lands, the lakes, rivers and forests' on both sides of the river Kama, that is, east of the town of Perm in the Urals. The Ural mountains are not high but they still constitute a natural barrier rising up from the great north European plain, and they have become the accepted boundary between Europe and Asia. The family was allowed to cultivate and settle empty land with peasants, and to establish saltworks and mine for ores. The charter also recognised that such expansion would not take place peacefully and that the Stroganovs would have to control these territories by force, and authorised the construction of forts on the new lands. The family also sought state approval in 1572 to crush revolts in the Ural mountains by the Cheremis people (people of Finno-Ugric ethnic origin, who live along the Volga and Kama rivers and are now called Mari). Kuchum may have had a part in instigating those revolts. The following year his intentions were made clear when his nephew raided Stroganov lands. The Stroganov family had already demonstrated that they could and would use force to maintain and extend their position, and it was equally clear that further penetration into the lands of the Sibir khanate would be met with resistance.

In order to protect their lands and their trade, the Stroganovs had constantly to expand their area of control and so continued to petition for charters from the tsar to acquire territories further to the east. To this extent, the expansion of the Russian presence east of the Urals was an ongoing process rather than the result of a single, sudden decision. It was the need to get access to furs further north and east, as well as to extend their holdings of iron and silver mines, which drove the Stroganovs to continue with their conquests. In 1574, a further charter allowed the Stroganovs to build strongholds east of the Urals on the Tobol, Irtysh and Ob rivers.

The concept of frontiers was very fluid at the time, but an understanding of landownership was not, and these lands were part of the Sibir khanate. The lands allocated by the tsar to the Stroganovs comprised approximately the northern half of the Sibir khanate. The charter urged Iakov and Grigorii Stroganov to 'persuade' local tribesmen to pay tribute to the Russian tsar instead of to Kuchum, and even invited them to 'gather volunteers' from these tribes and to send them, together with Cossacks, 'against the Siberian Khan'. The interests of the tsar were thus tied to the Stroganovs' – tribute and obeisance from tribesmen for the former, trade and wealth for the latter, which would also benefit the tsar. It was equally clear that, even if they made no formal declaration of war, their activities would inevitably lead to conflict with indigenous tribesmen and with Kuchum.

The Stroganovs did not rush to claim these lands and risk a fight with Kuchum. The latter had proved himself ruthless in power by crushing local revolts, and it was clear that he would resist any attempt to take his lands or diminish his power, and that force would be needed to remove him. When the fight came, in the 1580s, it was conducted on the Russian side by a band of Cossacks under the leadership of Vasilii Timofeevich, who is better known by his nickname of Ermak.

Who was this man who led the Russian penetration of Siberia? Ermak's origins are obscure. There are no contemporary portraits or descriptions of him, although one of the later chronicles described him as 'flat-faced, black of beard and with curly hair, of medium stature and thickset and broad shouldered'. This has not prevented several later portraits or statues being made. He was referred to as an ataman, or leader, of Cossacks in documents, but this probably just signified that he was a leader of a band of Cossacks on the river Volga. We know he had once worked on the Stroganov fleet on the Kama and Volga rivers, and became a pirate. He may well have had a price on his head – pirates on the Volga who were captured were impaled and floated down the Volga on rafts to die in excruciating agony as a gruesome warning to others. Ermak was unlikely to have come from the south of Russia, although he was later claimed as a Don Cossack and there is a statue of him in Novocherkassk, in southern Russia, the capital of the Don Cossacks.

Nothing is certain about who initiated the campaign or its purpose. Was it a determined attempt by the Stroganovs to overthrow Kuchum, or was it a useful way of ridding themselves of troublesome Cossacks who had arrived in their lands? The intentions of the Cossacks were also unclear. Did they see themselves as an invading force and, if so, on whose behalf? Or were they motivated by the desire for booty (furs and other goods), or simply a lust for adventure? What evidence we have comes from a number of chronicles, all of which were written after the event (probably at the earliest in the 1620s, although that too is a matter of dispute among historians). The chronicles give different degrees of prominence to the Stroganov family; the dates of key events are also a matter of dispute – the campaign started in 1581 or 1582; it is thought that Ermak died in 1585, but it could have been 1584.

What is known with a reasonable degree of certainty is that Ermak was in Stroganov service, and that the Stroganovs had already demonstrated their energy and ruthlessness in taking territory by force. Ermak was just the sort of swashbuckling daredevil ne'er-do-well who might well be used by the Stroganovs for a dangerous expedition. It is also clear that Tsar Ivan IV was not directly involved in the military campaign at this early stage. The role of the Russian state in the first formal penetration of Siberia was restricted to permitting the Stroganov family to expand its territories. Granting that permission was, however, to have enormous implications.

It is not certain how many men accompanied Ermak or who they were, and the chronicles differ on this. The normally accepted figures are that the group comprised some 530 men in the first instance, followed by 300 reinforcements. But some estimates drawn from the chronicles are lower (650 in total) and some considerably higher (several thousand). Later stories about Ermak portray him as leading an entirely Cossack force, but it seems that it also included some of Stroganov's men as well as non-Russians such as Tatars and foreign prisoners of war. In addition, it is said that the band was accompanied by three priests and a runaway monk, who was also a cook.

The image of Cossacks in the West tends to be a mixture of romance and repulsion – superb horsemen, wild men, free spirits, ungovernable, fearless, cruel – just the sort of men, in fact, who could conquer and squander lands that were both inhospitable and of great potential wealth. There is some truth in this image of undisciplined but brave warriors, and Ermak certainly fits that description. Cossacks retained a separate legal identity within the Russian state but were not a separate ethnic group (although in the Soviet period they would be classed as such). They were originally mostly fugitive peasants from Russia and Ukraine (which is why it is awkward to speak simply of 'Russians' colonising Siberia) who had formed semi-autonomous military communities on the southern frontiers of the country in the sixteenth century. In the process of settling on the southern frontiers, they had experience of moving into and settling new lands, primarily following the river routes. The main role of Cossacks was to defend the southern and western borders of Russia from marauding Tatars and Poles. In every way, then, they were well suited to the adventure in Siberia.

Although the dates of the campaign are uncertain, we know roughly what happened. Ermak and his men crossed the Urals and spent the first winter camped on the eastern side. When the weather became warmer, and the ice on the rivers melted, they progressed down the rivers on rafts. After a number of victories in skirmishes with tribesmen, they established a base at the town of Tiumen and then advanced down the Tura and Tobol rivers, fighting all the way. The Cossacks seemed to intimidate and dishearten the tribesmen with the power of their weapons and their seeming immunity to arrows. On one occasion they deceived Kuchum's men by floating dummies of soldiers Cossack clothes stuffed with twigs – down the river, and then attacked and defeated their opponents from behind. The party then fought a Tatar force loyal to Kuchum, a battle which lasted five days before the Tatars retreated. The encounter was ferocious: 'They fought mercilessly hand to hand, slashing one another, so that horses were up to their bellies in blood and corpses of the unbelievers.' The Cossacks then rested and, according to the chronicles, fasted to ensure that their piety would continue to give them divine protection.

Kuchum had meanwhile gathered forces of several thousand Tatars and native tribesmen to resist Ermak. He was, however, weakened by divisions and rivalries within the different tribal groups, some of which were as willing to pay tribute to the Russian tsar as they were to the Siberian khan. These groups included Ostiaks and Voguls (people of Finno-Ugric origin, and now known by the names of Khanty and Mansi) and Chuvash people (people of Turkic origin), who lived in the Volga region and what is now western Siberia.


Excerpted from Siberia by Janet M. Hartley. Copyright © 2014 Janet M. Hartley. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations and Maps, viii,
Editorial Note, x,
Time Line: Rulers and Leaders, xi,
Introduction, xii,
1 Cossacks and Conquest, 1,
2 Land, Indigenous Peoples and Communications, 17,
3 Traders and Tribute-Takers, 28,
4 Early Settlers: The Free and the Unfree, 42,
5 Life in a Siberian Village, 55,
6 Life in a Siberian Town, 70,
7 Life in a Remote Siberian Garrison, 88,
8 Governing and the Governed, 100,
9 Exiles and Convicts, 115,
10 Religion and Popular Beliefs, 131,
11 Explorers and Imperialists, 147,
12 Railways and Change, 163,
13 Wars and Revolutions, 183,
14 Collectivisation and the Camps, 201,
15 The New Soviet Citizen, 218,
16 The New Siberia, 238,
Notes, 252,
Bibliography, 267,
Index, 280,

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