Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
Look at the picture, and you’ll see that Ermak was the conqueror of Siberia. Although much of his life is shrouded in mystery, and he became the subject of nationalist myths in the decades before 1917, we think that he crossed the Irtush River and defeated Khan Kuchum in October 1582. The path across Eurasia beckoned.
You will note that Ermak and his men had muskets, unlike their opponents. Does this sum up the expansion of Russia across Siberia? Did guns make the Russian empire?
The Russian empire was a contiguous territory. Soldiers, merchants and settlers set off west, south and east from the Muscovite heartland. In Siberia, they made fortunes out of furs, at the expense of indigenous populations and their supporting ecologies. To Siberia they sent exiles and convicts. From Siberia they extracted tribute. Alexander Etkind writes about Russia’s ‘internal colonization’ of itself, in which the coercive technologies of imperial expansion were applied to all peoples governed by the Russian imperial state, including Russians. This was an empire of indiscriminate exploitation. The dynamic of Etkind’s argument tends to the longue durée. Exploitation becomes the defining feature of Russian history beyond the empire: or the oppression of imperial and domestic life shade into each other, then and now.
But like the leaders of other durable empires, Russia’s rulers were required to ‘make difference work’. They had to use ethnic and religious diversity productively if their imperial project was to be stable and successful. And so they employed local soldiers: in one Siberian expedition of 1659, 150 Iukagirs served alongside 19 Russians. Their lack of administrative reach required them to make political compromises, collecting little or no tribute in some places, conscripting few or no army recruits in others. Meanwhile, local groups were often allowed to exercise their own customary laws and administer their own forms of justice. So in the small transactions of Siberian life, exploitation might come from faces more familiar than those of the imperial centre and its agents, be they Ermak’s troops, greedy fur traders, or aristocratic governors.
(Image: Vasily Surikov, Ermak’s Conquest of Siberia [1895; Russian Museum; Wikipedia Commons])