Siberia was opened up during the 16th century by the Stroganov merchant family and Cossack mercenaries by Timofeyevich Yermak. and gradually added during the 17th century. In 1558, the tsar authorized the powerful Strogonav family to establish trading posts in Siberia and Cossacks were hired as mercenaries to protect them. Sibir Tatars that harassed that outposts were attacked and subdued in 1582 by Cossacks led by Yermak Timofeevich.

In 1579, Yermak led an expedition to conquer Siberia for the tsar. After several years of fighting against the Tatars he was able to gain a tenuous hold in the region. As a reward Yermak was given a coat of armor. A year latet he died when he was pursued by the Tatars and fell in a river and drowned after his heavy armor pulled him to the bottom.

Siberia was conquered with the same spirit and sense of manifest destiny as the American West. Money made from furs and free land were primary incentives. The exploration of Siberia was done primarily on river boats, on horseback and with horse-drawn carriages, sledges and “tranatass” (a coach body, resting on poles, dragged by horses). Many Siberian, Far Eastern and Arctic tribes were devastated by small pox and other diseases introduced by Russian explorers.

Early History in Siberia

The earliest known Siberians were early stone age tribes that lived around Lake Baikal and the headwaters of the Ob and Yenisey rivers. Later stone age sites have been found all over Siberia. Many tribes were still in the stone age when they were discovered by Russians.

The oldest of the far northern people of Eurasia were Neolithic hunters of wild reindeer. Archeological evidence of their existence has been dated to the 5th millennium B.C.. Small scale reindeer herding is believed to have evolved around 2,000 years ago with large scale herding developing in the last 400 years.

When the Greeks dominated Europe, Siberia was inhabited largely tribes that originated in the Caucasus. After the 3rd century B.C. it was occupied by a secession of horsemen—Huns, Turkic tribes and Mongols.

Until the 16th century the population of Siberia, the Far East and the Arctic was the home of numerous indigenous groups that ranged in size for a few hundred members to several tens of thousands members. They traded with one another and sometimes gathered together and occasionally fought with one another, but for the most part they were independent and avoided conflict. A few regions were ruled under khanates.

Siberia Under the Russians

The consolidation of Siberia and the people that lived there as distinct groups with distinct territories took place after the arrival of the Russians. The Russians set up a system of tribute and in the process of defining which group gave them what they linked the different groups to specific territories.

The first Russians arrived in Siberia in the 11th century, when the first trade was recorded between Novgorod and the region, but the Russian didn't start coming in significant numbers until after Ivan the Terrible drove the Mongols from Kazan in 1552 and when the famous Cossack brigand Ermak conquered the Tatar Kuchin’s khanate of Siberia in 1580. This opened the way for Cossack fur trappers. They were followed by Cossack soldiers who built forts and claimed the territory for tsarist Russia. By 1600 most of Siberia was conquered. By 1700 Cossacks had reached Kamchatka.

The Russians claimed Siberia with same ease that the American conquered the American West. Determined Cossack led by native guides advanced remarkable quickly by setting groups off one another and taking local leaders hostage. They were just as skilled at negotiation as they were ruthless in their brutality.

Under the Russians, these groups were Christianized to varying degrees and incorporated into the fur trade, either trapping animals or raising them on farms. Those that raised reindeer were encouraged to join the market economy. In some cases traditional social organization was broken down and replaced by “administrative clans,” connected with distinct territories that served the purpose of providing tribute. Tribute was usually in the form of furs. In some cases they took over existing tribute system.

Cossack Forts into Siberia

Cossacks reached the Ob River in the 1580s, the Yenisey in 1600, the Lena in the 1620s and the Pacific in 1639. Like Indian fighters in the American West, the Cossack claimed Siberia with relative ease. The only serious resistance was put up by the Tatars and Buryats around Lake Baikal and the Chukchi in the northeast.

Military stockades went up in places like Tomsk (1604), Yakutsk (1632) and Irkutsk (1651) and these later became towns and cities. Early settlers included serfs promised freedom and land, soldiers and missionaries. Peter the Great sent geologists to search for mineral resources.

One explorer in Siberia was taken aback when local women threw some fleas into his hut but was later told that was how local women let it be known that they fancied him.

Cossack Battles into Indigenous Tribes Siberia

Cossack arrived in Yakut territory in the 1620s. There were skirmishes and hostilities in which the Yakut hero Tygyn distinguished himself. By 1642, the Yakut were paying fur tributes to the tsar. Permanent peace did not occur until after a long siege of a Yakut fort. By 1700 Yakutsk was a busy Russian-controlled commercial and trading center and launching point for incursions into the Far East. By this time the Yakut were cooperating with the Russians and some had converted Orthodox Christianity.

The Buryats, who lived near Mongolia, initially put up a strong resistance to the Russians but were subdued relatively quickly. They first faced colonization by Russian settlers in the seventeenth century. After initially resisting this intrusion, Buraitia became part of Russia in 1660 and paid tribute to the tsar. Most of the Buryats eventually adapted to life in farming settlements, which continues to be the predominant mode of existence.

Kamchatka in the Far East was originally occupied by Eskimo-like and Lapplike tribes like the Koryak, Chukchi, Itelmen and Kamchdales. The Russian credited with discovering it, in 1697, was a Cossack named Vladimir Atlasov. The first settlers were Cossack fur traders who built stockades and reduced the numbers of local people, mostly trough introducing disease. Kamchatka was largely ignored by the Russians. Some historians have suggested that the Russians would have sold to the United States in package deal with Alaska if the Americans had shown any interest in it.

Explorers on the Amur

Upon rumors that there was arable land near the Amur River, Russians began moving on land claimed by the Manchus and Chinese in the 1680s. The Manchus were threatened by Mongols and the Russians needed Chinese markets for their furs, The result was the Treat of Nechinsky, in which Russians promised to stay clear of the Amur Valley in return for occupying the vast amounts of land that now make up eastern Siberia and the Far East. After this Russians stepped up their activity in the Far East and Alaska.

Taking advantage of the weakening of China after the Opium Wars Russia began moving towards the Amur River in the mid 1850s. China once considered large chunks of Siberia and the Russian Far East as part of its territory. Russia and China have disagreed over the exact location of their common border since the 17th century. Russians began settling permanently in the Amur region in the mid-1850s. A treaty with the Chinese emperor gavet hem the north bank of the Amur River. At the time, the Chinese said the grant was temporary. Chinese and Koreans living in the area were used as cheap labor.

In 1850, a Russian naval officer and explorer named Ivanovich Nevelskoi planted a Russian flag at the mouth of the Amur River and claimed everything down to Korea—some 850 miles to the south. Nicholas I declared: “Where the Russian flag has been raised. it must be lowered.” Under the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 and the Treaty of Beijing in 1860, China ceded to Russia extensive trading rights and regions adjacent to the Amur and Ussuri rivers and allowed Russia to begin building a port and naval base at Vladivostok. Meanwhile, in 1867 the logic of the balance of power and the cost of developing and defending the Amur-Ussuri region dictated that Russia sell Alaska to the United States in order to acquire much-needed funds.

After the Boxer Rebellion began in 1899, Cossacks went for some ethnic cleansing raids on the Russian side of the Amur. Chinese men, women and children were herded to the river and told to swim to China. Most of those who tried to swim drowned, froze to death or were swept away by the current. Those that refused to swim were slaughtered. It is believed that 5,000 Chinese were killed around the Russian town of Blagoveshchensk from July 4 to 10, 1900.

Fur Trappers and Explorers in the Russian Far East

In 1639, Russian explorers reached the Pacific. The Cossack explorer Semyon Dezhnve was the first man to sail around the northeast corner of Asia from the Pacific to the Arctic Oceans, in 1648.

In the 1689 after a deal was worked out with China on the boundaries along the Amur River, Russians began moving east in greater numbers. Cossacks first came to Kamchatka in the 16th century. They collected imperial fur tributes from native groups and trapped their own animals. Hunters ranged the wilderness trapping fox, sable, squirrel, mink, lynx and wolverine.

After spending three years on a scientific journey in Kamchatka, an 18th century Russian wrote, "Only in their power of speech do [these natives] differ from animals. Nonetheless...they believe that the earth, sky, air, water, land, mountains and forest are inhabited by spirits whom they fear and honor more than their god...[and are] convinced that there is no way of life happier and more agreeable than their own."

Vitus Bering

The first explorer in the Bering Strait was Vitus Johassen Bering, a Danish navigator in the Russian Imperial Navy. He charted Siberia's east coast and the Kamchatka Peninsula. His 1741 expedition to the Aleutian Islands in 1741 opened the way for Russian colonization of Alaska. Peter Ulf Moller, a historian at Aarhus University in Denmark, wrote that he helped transform the Russian sense of identity making them aware “of the greatness of their identity.”

The one existing portrait of Bering shows as a chubby fellow with a double chin. Born in Denmark in 1681, Bering learned navigation on Danish and Dutch ships and was recruited by Peter the Great to joins his newly formed Russian Imperial Navy in 1704. Bering commanded ships in Russia’s wars against Sweden and the Turks.

Books: “Bering” By Prof. Orcutt Frost of Alaska Pacific University; “Under Vitus Bering’s Command”, a collection of essays edited by Peter Ulf Moller, a historian at Aarhus University in Denmark

Bering’s Explorations

Bering was hired by Peter the Great to determine whether Siberia and Alaska were part of the same landmass. Peter wrote: it "seems, in all probability (since we do not know where it ends), to be part of America." The plan was that once that question was figured out Peter would claim as much territory possible for Russia.

Rather than sail a ship through treacherous Arctic waters and taking the long route around Africa and Asia to the Russian Far East, Peter’s plan called for Bering to travel overland 3,000 miles across Siberia and the Russian Far East and build ships once they got the Pacific. Among the items they carried with them overland were eight cannons, navigational equipment and various building materials. On the Sea of Okhotsk they built a settlement with a cluster of huts, where they built the ships. Historians give Bering a great deal of credit for simply arranging the logistics to do this.

Bering was accompanied by Georg Wilhelm Steller, an arrogant young Bavarian who collected and classified a huge amount of plants and animals including the Steller's sea eagle, the Steller's jay, the Steller's sea lion and the Steller's sea cow (a huge four-ton manatee with beef-like meat that soon became extinct). Steller was so disruptive and disrespectful to other crew members that dozens died from drinking bad water because he told them not to drink it and they drank it anyway just to spite him.

Bering’s Voyages

From the Sea of Okhotsk, Bering sailed more than 1,600 kilometers up the Russian Pacific coast, and became the first person to chart the northeast coast of Asia and show there was no land bridge connecting Asia with North America. They also discovered that Siberia and the Far East extended much further east than previously thought and mapped their findings . Carol Urness of the University of Minnesota told U.S. News and World Report, “These maps changed the whole Western European conception of Russia.”

Two years after returning, Bering led a second voyage whose goal was sail to America. This time he commanded an army that included several thousand soldiers, boatmen, carpenters, naval officers, scientists and family members. The trek across Russian took four weeks. Another three years was spent building the ships.

Bering's voyage was shortened as result of shipwrecks, storms, illness and death. His ship only traveled as far east as Kayak island off the coast of Alaska. Their return journey was held up by contrary winds. Bering ended up stranded on a small island between Russia and North America for a winter with nothing to eat but whale blubber. He came down with scurvy and died of the disease along with 30 others in 1741. The rest of his crew was able to escape the following spring.

Russians in Alaska

Bering’s Russian naval expedition reached Alaska in 1741. Bering claimed Alaska for Russia. By 1745, Russian entrepreneurs were trading in Alaska. Reports of abundant fur-bearing animals from the survivors of Bering's expedition set off of a fur rush to Alaska and the Far East that was not unlike the gold rush in the American West. The fur trade exploded. The number of animals declined, after which the fur hunters left.

Russian merchant and Orthodox missionaries reached Alaska in the 18th century. By 1784, Russians established a trading community there. In 1791, Russians established their first settlement in Alaska, a fort about 10 mile west of Soldton in the Kenai Peninsula south of present-day Anchorage. By 1896, Russian ships were anchoring in San Francisco Bay.

The sea otter is what drew early Russian explorers to eastern Siberia, the Bering Sea and Alaska. In the 19th century otters pelts were as valuable as sable and mink. The first Russian explorers were Cossacks, known for their fierceness and brutality. Some of the fur traders that moved into Russian America (Alaska) were so cruel they caused the local Aleuts to rebel. The uprising was brutally put down. One Russian leader, who was curious how many men he could kill with one shot, lined up a dozen Eskimos in a row, chest to back, and shot them with one musket ball. He killed nine.

The Russians were the first people to really explore Alaska. Some Japanese, and maybe some Dutch or Portuguese explorers may have reached the Aleutian islands before the 18th century. The penetration into Alaska was gradual. Exploration was only possible during the summer months. During the long winter, In 1865, American Robert Kennicot was went to Alaska to survey a route for a Western Union telegraph cable across the Bering Strait to Asia.

Russia regarded Alaska as worthless and sold it to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million. The purchase at the time was considered a waste of money. It was called "Seward's Folley" and Alaska became know as "Seward's ice-box" Residents in Alaska were given the choice of moving to Russia and becoming Russian citizens or staying in the United States and automatically becoming American citizens.

Russian Settlers Arrive in Siberia

After Cossack forts were established in Siberia, settlements were built along the rivers. Settlers attracted by promises of riches in fur, ivory and fish made their way to the region in boats and on horseback. Fur was called “soft gold,” and was said to be so plentiful that local people put ermines on the bottom of their skis. Local people were reorganized into administrative areas and were required to pay tributes to the tsarist government in the form of furs. Among the settlers were fortune hunters, escaped serfs, hunters, trappers, members of persecuted religious groups and missionaries. The government offered tax and transport incentives to people willing to establish villages in Siberia.

The relationship between the settlers and the local people was often exploitive. In many cases the Slavic settlers stole the best land, the best fishing spots and traded trinkets for valuable furs. Local populations were decimated by diseases introduced by the sellers. Things got so bad that government passed laws in 1822 restricting contacts between settler and local people.

The floodgate for settlers opened when the Trans-Siberian Railroad was opened. This was followed by the industrialization of areas near the railroad and mass transportation of political prisoners to Siberia. There was extensive industrial development, particularly of mines. There were major migrations in the Stalin era (1906-1911) and during and after World War II. Among those that arrived were ese are the Siberian Germans, the Dungans from China and Koreans.

History of Irkutsk

Irkutsk is the largest city in central Siberia. Founded by Cossacks in 1661 to subdue the rebellious Buryats, Irkutsk was used as a base for exploration into Siberia and became a major trading center in tsarist times when it mainly funneled Siberian furs, ivory from mammoth tusks and silk, porcelain and tea from China to the aristocracy in the east.

Many fur traders and merchants who got rich from the trade and built lavish homes. Much of the city was burned o the ground in a great fire in 1879 that lasted for three days. The city was reborn when gold was discovered in the Kena River basin in the 1880s. Many of the fancy stone and brick houses in the city date back to this period.

When the Trans-Siberian Railroad opened up it became a major way station for trains bringing gold from western Siberia and tea and silk from China. With the high number of merchants it is not surprising that Irkutsk became a key White stronghold during the Russian Civil War. The Reds ultimately prevailed and dammed the Angara River and industrialized the city.

Expansion into the Russian Far East

After Alaska was sold to the United States, Russia lost interest in eastern Siberia. The Kamchatka peninsula was the home of many American whalers and the Russian city of Petropavlovsk Kamchatskiy even had an American mayor from 1870 to 1880.∞

Under Alexander II (ruled 1855-81) and Alexander III (ruled 1881-94) Russia acquired land along the Pacific and Amur River from China and built Vladivostok. Many of the first people to arrive in the region were fur trappers and traders.

Much of the area around Sakhalin Island, eastern Siberia and the Amur River on the border of Siberia and Manchuria was explored by Berthold Laufer, a German Jew. In the 1890s, as part of an expedition financed by Morris Jessup, president of New York's American Museum of Natural History, Laufer traveled by horse, dogsled and reindeer sled throughout the region and had several brushes with death (once falling through cracked ice).

Trans-Siberian Railroad

Russia’s taming of Siberia, the Far East and Central Asia was arguably finally realized with the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, one of the world's most well known railways and also one its grandest engineering achievement. Known to Russians at the "Trans-Sib," it is not a single train like the “Orient Express” but rather a set of railroad tracks. Because Russia has no trans-continental road system and it is nearly impossible to drive across the country, the Trans-Siberian Railroad is for all intents and purposes the only way, other than flying to get from Moscow to Siberia, the Far East and the Pacific. [Source: Fen Montaigne, National Geographic, June 1998]

The Trans-Siberian Railroad is not only the longest railroad in the world—passing through 9,289 kilometers of taiga, steppe and deserts—it also the busiest. Trains pass each other on the parallel tracks at a rate of once very five minutes, transporting millions of passengers as well as coal, gold, lumber, machinery and trucks. Freight trains are often stacked with timber and loaded down with coal cars and oil carriers. The rail line also links numerous cities and towns, including two "secret cities" not on Soviet maps that produced plutonium and military electronics.[Source: Fen Montaigne, National Geographic, June 1998]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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