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Russian Expansion in Asia

The rale played by Russia in Siberia, must be distinguished from the part played by the other nations in southern Asia; for Siberia was in reality not foreign a possession, but constituted an integral unit with the Russian Empire in Europe. The plains of Siberia are a continuation of the South Russian steppes, and the nomad inhabitants of Siberia are closely akin to the Tartar peoples that dwell on the lower Volga and the Caspian. Finally, the vast stretches of Russian Asia, with their mere sprinkling of inhabitants, afforded such an opportunity for European colonization as the southern part of the continent can never present.

Siberia has a unique place in the history of European colonies. The starojily [hereditary Sibiriaks] have a history as long as that of the Russians in Novgorod and Moscow. In the first place, they consisted of individuals, small groups of adventurers, hunters, traders, trader-conquerors. To these people was added the unsettled element of Cossacks, who then belonged to the free military nation of the Dnieper. Some of the Dnieper Cossacks, bolder and more restless than their fellows, grew discontented in their islands and the steppe country of Little Russia and went farther east looking for new opportunities for robbery or conquest.

It has often been said that the chief of the Cossacks, Yermak Timofeevich, was the originator of Russia in Siberia, but Sibiriaks resented this. In their eyes Yermak remained what he was most of his life, a bandit and a robber, who did not clear his name by asking pardon from the Moscow Government, and presenting to the Tzar the part of Siberia he had explored. For a couple of centuries before Yermak's time the movement of people from Russia to Siberia was going on slowly but surely, like the progress of a river forcing for itself a new outlet. Whatever may have been the route of the Slavs into Europe, that branch of the Eastern Slavs now called Russian came to the Volga from the west, and here amalgamated with the local Finnish elements. Naturally this process of amalgamation spread towards the east, wherever the Finns, particularly those called Ugra, were settled along the Volga and the Ob and in the Urals.

Siberia was conquered in the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Among the measures adopted by the Tzars in the sixteenth century to protect their Eastern frontier from the attacks of the Siberian tribes was the grant of lands on the Kama to the Stroganoffs, a wealthy merchant family, who raised and armed their own soldiers, settled colonies, and began to discover the mines of the Ourals. The Stroganoffs became powerful and dreamed of conquering the Siberians. At the same time a very different class of men, who called themselves ' the good companions of the Don,' were actively plundering both the Tzar's envoys and the merchants' caravans. The Ataman of these 'companions' was Yermak, son of Timothee (Yermak Temofeivitch).

In October 1581 Yermak Temofeivitch, captured Isker, the capital of Siberia, and added the country to the Tzar's dominions. Yermak with 850 adventurers captured the capital of Siberia, made the Russian Tzar ruler over the domains of the descendants of Ghenghis Khan (or Tchinghis Khan, as he is called in Russia). Yermak was the Russian Pizarro. Both lived in the same century. Pizarro with 168 men conquered Peru. Yermak with 850 overran Siberia. Pizarro was assassinated in the scene of his triumphs by companions jealous of his renown.

Having conquered Siberia, Yermak thought it prudent to lay that vast territory at the feet of the Tzar, and sent some fifty of his followers with a mission to that effect. Ivan prepared them a splendid welcome, receiving them in royal state at the Kremlin. Amid joyous ringing of bells and blasts of trumpets, the embassy, followed by rich furs, golden vessels, and ancient armor, entered the reception hall. "Great Tzar," said Koltzo, the chief of the deputation, as he knelt with his companions before the throne, "Yermak the Ataman of the Cossacks, and all those whom you condemned to death, have endeavored to efface their sins by conquering for you a new kingdom. To your new possessions of Kazan and Astrachan, join now Siberia, oh mighty Tzar, and the Almighty aid you to keep it while the world lasts."

At the end of 1582 Ivan signed the decree accepting the gifts of Yermak, whom he created Prince of Siberia. The following year Yermak perished beneath the weight of a cuirass given him by the Tzar when trying to cross the river Irtysh. The Russians inaugurated their sovereignty by building a chain of forts at Tumen, Tobolsk, and other places. Some twenty-five years later they established their head-quarters at Tomsk. In 1619 they had reached the Yenisei, and twenty years later they had reached the sea on the eastern shores of Asia. In 1650 they had seized the province of Amur.

The conquests of Yermak and his successors played no important role in the history of colonisation, for the waves of colonists were rolling on independently. The Cossack fortresses in Siberia (ostrogs) were to enable the Cossacks to collect the taxes (yassai) from the natives with more success, but the colonists' villages were rising simultaneously and independently, because the colonists wanted to get furs, minerals, and grain from this rich land, and often because they wanted to be free and independent. The natives feared the Cossacks, and there were fights between them no less severe than those described by Longfellow and others who have chronicled the desperate resistance of the Red Man.

Before Peter's time traders and merchants had crossed the plains of Siberia. Like the French traders and explorers who at this time were gaining the Mississippi Valley for France, and the Hudson's Bay Company trappers who were securing British America for England, even in Peter's day the merchants of Russia carried her rule to the Pacific. A few years later, Bering's explorations brought Russians to Alaska.

In the east, Muscovy had obtained western Siberia in the sixteenth century. From this base, merchants, traders, and explorers continued to push east from the Ob' River to the Yenisey River and then from the Yenisey River to the Lena River. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Muscovites had reached the Amur River and the outskirts of the Chinese Empire. The territory of the Amur was discovered by the Russians about the middle of the XVII century. In 1643, the Yakutsk voyevoda despatched thither the elder Vasi'li Poyarkov with 130 Cossacks. Alter having crossed the Stanovoi ridge, he went down the Zeya and its tributaries to the Amur and. following its course to the mouth, returned across the sea and by the Lena to Yakutsk. This expedition left no traces of its visit on the Amur.

The honor of the occupation of the Amur in the XVII century is due to Yerofei Khabarov, who with his party reached the Amur in 164950, and began the conquest of this ceuntry by destroying the small Daurian towns, occurring on his way below Albazfn. The vanquished natives applied for help to the Chinese of Manchuria, and since that time began the constant strugle for the possession of the Amur.

After a period of conflict, Muscovy made peace with China in 1689. By the Treaty of Nerchinsk, Muscovy gave up claims to the Amur River Valley. The Nerchinsk treaty for a long time put a stop to the further colonisation of the Amur region by the Russians; after its conclusion, all the lands occupied by the Russians had to be evacuated, and the Amur during about two centuries was lost to Russia; the river Gorbitsa, tributary of the Shi'lka and Argun, constituted the frontier of Russia and China.

Siberia, especially since the time of Peter the Great, was used as a penal colony. The difference, however, between Siberia and any other penal colony, for example French Guiana, is enormous. For one thing. Siberia, when exiles first settled there, was sparsely but evenly populated by emigrants from Russia. Hence the exiles did not find themselves alone with none but aborigines. The result was that the exiles exercised a great influence over the local population through their contact with them. Of course had these exiles been only common thieves and bandits like those sent to other colonies, the effect would have been deplorable, more especially since the vastness of Siberia made any control difficult, and the great distance from the seat of government made control over the controllers still more difficult. The political exiles, though always in a great minority among the exiles themselves, and still more among the population as a whole, nevertheless originated the knowledge and moral and intellectual character in Siberia.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, Muscovy extended eastward through Eurasia to the Pacific Ocean. Russia continued to extend her possessions in Eastern Asia during the 19th century, but received a set back during the late Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, having to withdraw from Manchuria, to cede the Southern portion of Sakhalin to Japan and abandon Port Arthur and Ta-lien, as well as make other concessions in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth, September 5, 1905.

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Page last modified: 03-08-2012 19:23:21 ZULU