Siberia Becomes Russian

In the first several decades after Yermak's conquest of the Khanate of Sibir (1582), Moscow extended its political influence over a vast area of Western Siberia. Russians soon began arriving east of the Urals in significant numbers. At first this process was largely government motivated and controlled. Moscow sent in voyevodas (military governors), mostly the children of noble families (deti boyarskie) who didn't have gainful positions in European Russia. The voyevodas supervized the building of forts (ostrogi) and trading places (posady). At first these were manned mostly by paid cossack musketeers (streltsy) and other government employees (sluzhilye liudi), a few of whom brought their families. The purpose of these settlements was to extend the fur gathering network to include more and more taiga tribes. Winter camps (zimovya) would be set up in the forest as a place where furs could be brought by natives. As the fur-gathering natives became more dependent on such Russian trade goods as iron implements, grain and vodka (the production of which the Russians had recently learned from the Kazan Tatars); and as smallpox and other European diseases took their toll on native populations, the taiga tribes quickly fell under more firm Muscovite control, and the exchange became even more one sided. They tribes nearest the Russian outposts became yasak (fur tribute) payers. Sometimes were hired by Russians to help subdue hostile tribes who had not yet accepted the trade and tribute system.

Originally, the collection of fur tribute as well as profits from trade were controlled from Moscow. It was unlawful to exterminate or abuse the pacified "unbaptized" tribes, as they were useful fur producers. The voyevodas were instructed to collect a certain amount of furs and send most of it back to Moscow, where even a few sable or ermine pelts were worth a small fortune on the European market. Soon, however, greedy voyevodas began to extort more furs from the natives than was the proper government quota; the extra was kept and smuggled into Europe to be traded at a handsome profit. Voyevodas fought over the right to take extra tribute from the natives. They also accepted bribes from ambitious cossacks and other service men who also wanted a share in the illegal fur collection. Natives who rebelled against this arbitrary treatment were treated harshly; sometimes members from the family of a tribal chief were taken to the Russian fort as hostages (amanat) to insure that the furs demanded would be brought in every season. These hostages were often subjected to all sorts of abuses, as were the native women in general. Many cossacks took native women from their villages back to the fort as common law wives. This economic exploitation of the hunters and sexual exploitation of the women caused many native tribes to beceme destitute.

A major breakdown in Russian central authority occurred at the beginning of the 17th century and further contributed to the lawlessness and destructive depletion of both the fur bearing animals and the native peoples.

In 1598 the last ruler of the Riurik line who had ruled Russia since the coming of the vikings in the 9th century died and left no child. For two decades Russia was rocked by civil war, foreign invasions, peasant rebellions, famines and particularly severe epidemics of smallpox and bubonic plague. This period, known as the Time of Troubles, ended in 1613 with the installment of a new line of Tsars, the Romanovs (who ruled the Russian Empire until 1917).

During the Time of Troubles and the early years of Romanov rule, the movement of Russian peasants and cossacks into southwestern Siberia became an uncontrollable stream. Peasants fleeing enserfment, famine and war found rich soil and a reasonably wet and warm (in summer) climate for farming in the forest steppe zone of southwestern Siberian. Much of this territory became populated by Russian farmers during the next several decades, and today the original Turkic and Samoyedic speaking inhabitants have all but vanished. Along with these first Russian farmers (called starozhily, or old settlers by later immigrants to Siberia), came free cossacks who were not in the government's employ but simply wanted to trade for or extort as many furs as possible.

So two, actually three, frontiers developed in the process of Russian expansion into Siberia. The first was the free, out of control cossacks who explored ever farther into Siberia in search of furs. The second, slower advancing frontier was formed by the government servitors and paid cossacks who established forts and trading posts, with voyevodas regulating the yasak-paying natives. These came behind the first wave of cossacks--sometimes directly, sometimes with a lag of many decades. The third frontier, that of the farmers and settlers, was slower moving still, and never penetrated very far north; the protection of government troops and the availability of land suitable for farming (particularly in southwestern Siberia), brought peasants, priests, and others settlers who wanted a better life than European Russian could provide. This third frontier often cleared the forest or ploughed up the steppleland, resulting in the wholesale eviction or disolution of the native tribes (just as happened in most of present-day United States). At first, this third frontier advanced only through southwestern Siberia.

As the new Romanov government began to re-establish control after 1613, renewed attempts were made to regulate the settlement of Siberia and insure the proper collection of furs for the state treasury. To protect the fur supply, peasants were forbidden to cut down forests in large areas; damage to a fur-producing area could bring severe punishment. Also, laws were enacted to prevent the cossacks and voyevodas from extorting extra furs and smuggling them to European Russia in defiance of the state monopoly. A few particularly notorious violators were punished and even executed, but Siberia was too large, its population too lawless, and Moscow too far away for effective government control of all of the abuses.

Certain government policies, in fact, directly added to these problems. Early on, Moscow began sending prisoners of war to build the forts and establish settlements; soon convicts and exiles were being dumped into the seemingly boundless taiga. Later in the 17th century, religious dissenters called Old Believers came in droves; these were fleeing from government authority and settled in remote areas, displacing the natives and sending little back to Moscow by way of taxes or furs. By 1620, within a few decades of Yermak, Russian Siberia had already taken on many of the features for which it has become famous, or infamous, throughout the world.

Although the Russians, especially the cossacks, seemed to advance with little permanent hindrance across Siberia in the decades after Yermak, formidable human obstacles still stood in their way. In the north, the nomadic Tundra Nenets proved difficult to control, and many forts were burned and cossack yasak-gangs met their deaths in this inhospitable environment. And in the steppes of Southern Siberia, many of the tribes already paid fur tribute to either the Kirgiz Turks (the ancestors of the modern Kazakhs) or to the powerful Oirats (the Western Mongols some of whom were soon to emigrate to Europe to become the Kalmyks). These states, although not located in Siberia proper, extended their influence across the steppes and into the southern taiga, making it difficult for the Russians to assimilate this area for many decades. Settlers were in constant danger of attack from the nomads, and forts could easily be besieged and destroyed. For this reason, the conquest of Siberia after 1582 proceeded through the central and northern taiga, skirting the southern steppes. Even though the natural conditions in the south were more hospitable to the Russian invaders, the human obstacles in this direction were the more formidable. Therefore, the southern steppes were not subdued until long after the first cossacks reached Asia's Pacific shores. Russia only conquered Central Asia during the 1800's.