Ivan the Terrible/Part 4/Chapter 3

Chapter III. The Conquest of Siberia: ErmakEdit


THE word ' Siberia ' does not appear in any Russian document until towards the latter half of the fifteenth century, and it was only applied at that time to a portion of the present Government of Tobolsk, occupied, till the sixteenth century, by Tartar Khans. But long before that period the Russians had discovered the road to the highlands of the Ural, and, crossing that chain of mountains, had slowly made their way from the basin of the Pietchora to the basin of the Ob. Even in the eleventh century, the servant of a Novgorod nobleman, called Giouriata Rogovitch, had reached the mountains, and in 1364 an expedition sent out by that enterprising republic got as far as the river. In the following century the Nov- gorodians were keeping up regular political and commercial intercourse with the lougra, as the countries west of the Ural were called from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries ; and the name was extended, in the fifteenth, to the western slopes of the Ural Mountains. The lougritchy paid the republic a regular tribute in furs, and even in silver. The metal was probably taken out of some primitive workings, now known as the Finnish mines (Tchoudskiie Kopi), which have quite lately served as a guide to modern prospectors.

After the annexation of Novgorod, the Grand-Dukes of Moscow carried on the work, but impressed it with the military character inherent in their own traditions. In 1472, Perm was conquered ; in 1483, an army commanded by Prince Feodor Kourbski, ' the Black,' and by Ivan Ivanovitch Saltyk- Pravine, crossed the Ural, followed the course of the river Tavda, which falls into the Tobol, an affluent of the Irtych, and then that of the Irtych itself, reached Siberia, and pene- trated into the basin of the Ob. The Princes of the lougra and the Vogoula, and the Siberian Prince Latyk, all made their submission, went to Moscow, and agreed to pay tribute to the Grand-Duke, who added the name of Sovereign of the lougra to his other titles, but was obliged, in the year 1499, though as successfully as on the first occasion, to re-establish himself in possession by force of arms.

The advantages thus gained were by no means commensurate


with the object it was necessary to attain. After the capture of Kazan and Astrakan, numbers of other Princes offered to pay tribute, and among them ladiger, a Siberian Prince, who held a Tartar iourt in the middle of the present province of Tobolsk, and reigned over some 30,000 subjects. But few of the engagements taken were kept. In 1556 ladiger only sent in 700 out of the 30,000 marten-skins he had promised one for each inhabitant. He excused himself on the score of the violence and exactions he had been forced to endure on the part of his neighbours, against whom the Tsar had pro- mised him assistance and protection. But the Tartar Princes, who were perpetually fighting amongst themselves, were not easily put down, or even reached. When hard pressed they fled into the steppes, and ensured themselves impunity by accepting the sovereignty of Moscow, coupled with similar obligations, quite as unfaithfully fulfilled.

When Ivan's attention became quite absorbed by his Livonian enterprise everything went thoroughly astray, and the Tsar's last envoy, a sort of half ambassador, half tax- collector, was killed. No effectual and lasting result was attainable in such a country, save by a conquest on quite different lines, of the necessary elements for which the Muscovite Empire was by no means destitute.

Even nowadays, mobility is one of the most characteristic features of the race which has peopled the huge tracts of the European east and the Asiatic west, and I have already pointed out the reasons which account for this (p. 23). ' The fish seeks the deepest water, and man the place where he can live best.' This proverb reproduces, in most expressive fashion, a tendency which is the secret of the great work of colonization accom- plished by the subjects of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.

For this work the resources supplied by the basin of the Pietchora the base of perpetual military enterprises up till the sixteenth century were insufficient. Only an industrial population could have turned them to account, and the Musco- vite nomads were a race of husbandmen. It was on a private family that the honour devolved of imparting a more useful character and a more favourable direction to the national ex- pansion, by appealing to the powerful current of emigration which constituted its real strength, and directing that current towards the basin of the river Kama.


At a very early date the Stroganov family had been given special privileges, with a view to populating the uninhabited tracts in the district of Oustoug, north of Viatka. The social


and judicial position of this family is still under discussion. Tradition connects its members with the patrician stock of the Dobrynine. But, historically speaking, it seems to have been included in the class of the merchants or husbandmen, between whom no distinction existed in the Muscovite law of the six- teenth century (Serguieievitch, 'Lessons on the History of Rus- sian Law,' St. Petersburg, 1883, p. 622; and Tyjnov, 'Siberian Collections,' 1887, p. 119). ' I Hi vivunt sua negotiatione,' says the unknown author of the Historia de Siberia (1681), when referring to the Stroganovs. They were neither boiars nor 'men who served.' Yet, on the huge domains which con- stituted their patrimony in the sixteenth century, they enjoyed very exceptional privileges. They had power to exercise justice of every kind, and themselves answered to nobody but the Tsar. They built towns and fortresses it is true they had to get the Sovereign's leave each time they had an army and a cannon foundry of their own, they made war on the Siberian Princes, and traded, untaxed, with the Asiatic races. They were merchants and husbandmen indeed, but of a special kind ; For though, in Alexis' Code, we see them assimilated to the gosti, or merchants of the first rank, it is a matter of assimila- tion, and not of confusion. In the chapter devoted to the fines due for certain offences, the same scale is applied to the gosti and to the Stroganovs, but these last are mentioned by name. It has therefore been claimed, and with some show of reason, that this family constituted a social class in itself.

In 1558, Gregory Anikiev Stroganov applied to Ivan for a concession of 106 square versts of land on both banks of the Kama, above Perm ; he proposed to build a fort to defend this tract against the Tartars, to break up the soil, lay down pasture lands, and establish salt-works. His request was granted, and the Tsar released the concession from all taxes for a period of twenty years, only reserving any silver, tin, or copper mines that might be discovered on the ground. This was the usual condition on which such favours were granted, and the Sovereigns of Moscow were habitually open-handed in this respect, save as regards the right of keeping up an armed force. In this matter their political system was opposed to any division of power. But on the Siberian frontier necessity became a law unto itself. Stroganov built his fort on the Piskorka River, and called it Kankor. In 1564 he solicited and obtained permission to build another, about 20 versts away, on the Orel, and this was Ker- gedan. In 1566, at the powerful family's own request, all its establishments were included in the Opritchnina, and in 1568, these were still further and considerably increased. But these wide tracts of land had to endure perpetual attack on the part of the Tcheremisses, Bachkirs, and other wild tribes of the


neighbourhood. Ivan, informed of this, advised the colonizers to arm a sufficient number of Cossacks and Ostiaks to enable them to put a stop to these aggressions. The Cossacks, in their pursuit of the aggressors, soon found their way across the Ural, and thus the legendary series of brilliant exploits began.

Just at that time a Tartar Khanate had risen up in Siberia, founded, it is believed, by the Taibougi family, which, having quarrelled with the reigning house, had separated from it, and was labouring to bring the neighbouring countries, held by Bachkirs and Ostiaks, under its own rule. The capital of this State was called Sibir, or Isker. Here a Khan of Kirghiz-Khai'siac origin, named Koutchoum, had reigned since 1556, when he had dethroned Ivan's former vassal, ladiger. Alarmed by the progress made by the Stroganovs, and anxious to preserve his own independence, Koutchoum despatched his son or nephew, the Tsarevitch Makhmetkoul, to attack the new Russian settlements. Hostilities continued till 1582, and Ivan was thus led to increase the concessions and powers granted to the brothers James and Gregory Stroganov. The banks of the Tobol and its affluents beyond the Ural were made over to them. Between 1574 and 1579, the inheritance of this immense power and the burdens con- nected with it passed, by the death of its holders, to a third brother, Simon Anikiev, and to his two nephews, Maxi- mus lakovlevitch and Nikita Grigorievitch, who, to save a perilous position, had recourse to a most dangerous expe- dient. The Cossack encampments (stanitzy) on the banks of the Don were the refuge and meeting-place, as I have already remarked, of a population of outlaws, drawn from every corner of the Russian Empire men who were half-robbers and half-soldiers, most of whom had slipped through the hangman's fingers, and in whom that recollection served to wipe out all fear of Tsar, or God, or devil. Proposals for enlistment sent to these places, and Coupled with liberal lar- gesse, attracted to the banks of the river Kama, with a whole troop of bold companions, the man who is taken, even now- adays, to have been the conqueror of Siberia, but who was only the hero (his special glory was the result of a mere acci- dent) of one out of a thousand episodes in which brute force, serving the steadier and surer progress of civilization, has insured the Muscovite domination in the Far East of Asia. Legend will indulge in such whims as these.



All over the Empire, the Cossacks formed an integral por- tion of the Muscovite population. In the northern provinces, they were nomad labourers, agricultural or industrial. In the southern zone, the perpetual state of warfare generally converted them into soldiers. Commonly speaking, however, the generic title of Cossack was applied to vagabonds of every description, whether husbandmen or warriors peaceful labourers when the occasion served, robbers in convenient seasons. The word, of Tartar origin, originally meant a peasant who had no local or personal connections, but more particularly, a soldier recruited from this nomad class. These men, in whom the quality of submission was lacking, to all eternity, went whither their fancy led them some fled into the farthest steppes, and there formed military brotherhoods ; others stayed in their birthplace, and there organized armed bands, employed, for the most part, in robbery by violent means. For these last the official name was ' Cossack robbers ' (vorovskiie).

The constitution, geographical and ethnographical, of ancient Russia, her lack of strictly-defined limits, and pro- vinces possessing historical boundary-lines, resulted in the fact that this mobile element, nominally dependent on the State, but practically almost completely independent of it, became the vanguard of the great colonizing movement. Thus, under Vassili, the Riazan Cossacks had sought, and found, the road to the Don ; under his successor they were settled on both banks of that river, and were soon a bugbear to the Tartars of the Crimea and of Azov, and the Nogais. The northern Ukraine was the first to send them a contingent of intrepid comrades, recruited among the Sievrouki, whose courage was proverbial ; but the attractions of the settlement were soon felt on every side. Town Cossacks and country Cossacks, all of them, the moment they were guilty of any crime, hurried to the same city of refuge. It gave Ivan considerable trouble. The Tartars, who were perpetually harried, made complaints, and the Tsar was fain to plead his own powerlessness in the matter. He could not contrive to keep all the ' brigands ' in order. Now and then, in the interval between two incursions into Tartar territory, the said ' brigands ' would take to the Volga, turn themselves into- pirates, and, manning their swift tchaiki, fall on the Russian merchants. Then the Tsar's troops took action, and regular campaigns were made against them.

Yet it was with the Sovereign's permission that the Stroganovs enlisted a body of these miscreants, 640 men,


commanded by two principal chiefs. One of these, Ivan Koltso, had already been sentenced to death, and the other appears to have possessed a heavily-laden conscience and a tolerably black judicial history his name was Ermak Timofieievitch. i

Historians do not agree as to the origin of the name which has attained such extraordinary popularity. Some guess it to be a corruption of Ermolai or Hermann ; others take it to be a nickname, recalling the humble duties performed by the hero in connection with the preparation of the kacha in some stanitsa. Ermak, in the speech of the Volga country, means a handmill. Yet Monsieur Nikitski has found the name and its diminutive, Ermachko, in the lists of the inhabitants of Novgorod, where they seem to have been common.

On September i, 1581, a little body of these Cossacks, strengthened by a detachment of soldiers drawn by the Stro- ganovs from the garrisons of their different forts Russians and Lithuanians, Tartars and Germans which swelled its numbers to some 840 men, all under Ermak's command, started forth to cross the Ural, following the path of twenty previous expeditions in the same direction, and attack Koutchoum on his own ground. That very day, a band of savage warriors, gathered by the Tartar Prince of Pelym, raided the province of Perm, and the voievode of that province found himself overmatched. He applied to the Stroganovs for reinforcements, and they were obliged to decline on the score of the weak state in which the departure of Ermak and his men had left them. The voievode made a complaint to Moscow, and so little was the Tsar disposed to look on this new trans-Uralian campaign as anything decisive or even exceptional, that he taxed the Stroganovs with treason, and sent orders to Perm that Ermak and his followers were to be brought back without the smallest delay. This order could not be carried out. Ermak was far away already.


Makhmetkoul, who had been sent to meet the invaders, came upon them on the banks of the Tobol, and was terrified he had never seen firearms before by the ' bow that smokes and thunders.' He was completely routed. Arrived at the Irtych, Ermak defeated Koutchoum himself, and, in October, took possession of the capital, from which the Khan had fled. In the spring his Cossacks captured Makhmetkoul, and they spent the summer in occupying and subduing the little towns and Tartar ouloussy on the Irtych and the Ob. This done, Ermak bethought him of sending news of his doings to



the Stroganovs, and even to the Tsar, actually venturing to send Koltso, the sentenced man for whom the executioner was still waiting on the scaffold, to the Sovereign.

He was not mistaken in thinking Ivan would be disarmed. Koltso was not even questioned as to his past, and, with the Tsar's congratulations, Ermak received a considerable sum of money, to which, so the legend assures us, Ivan added splendid gifts two richly-adorned cuirasses, a silver goblet, and a pelisse taken off his own shoulders. At the same time the Tsar despatched two of his voievodes, Prince Simon Bolk- hovski and Ivan Gloukhov, to take possession, in his name, of the territories wrested from Koutchoum. This was the usual course of events. The Cossacks were sent on in front : when they were beaten they were disowned and called ' brigands '; when they won, the fruits of their victories were forthwith absorbed.

Ivan the Terrible did not live to hear of the fate which overtook his envoys, nor the tragic close of the enterprise in which Ermak had just won immortal renown. In the month of August, 1584, the valiant leader lost his life, on the banks of the Irtych, in a night surprise, the details of which have never been known. According to the legend, he tried to swim the river, and was dragged down by the weight of his, cuirass, the Tsar's fatal gift. The Tartars recognised his corpse by the armour, which bore a gilded eagle, set his body on a scaffold, and used it for a target for the space of six weeks. Meanwhile, the huge clouds of birds of prey that hovered over the brave man's corpse did not dare to settle on it ; terrifying visions appeared around it, and so alarmed did the Tartars become that they resolved to give the hero magnificent burial, and killed and ate thirty oxen in the course of the ceremony. But fresh wonders occurred, even over the ashes of the heroic warrior, and at last the Moslem priests resorted to the expedient of burying the remains, and so thoroughly hiding the place of sepulture that it has never been discovered.

The only fact known to history is that Bolkbovski had already been carried off by sickness, and that after Ermak' s death the second envoy was fain to beat a retreat in the direc- tion of the Pietchora. As to its immediate results, therefore, this expedition was very much on a par with its predecessors. And yet a new thing had happened. The popular imagina- tion had been stirred by a more resounding name, it may be, or a bolder gesture and out of the long series of efforts, repeated year by year, out of the crowd of unknown heroes in whose steps Ermak had followed, the popular legend had chosen its own. The bandit of those far-off days, whose


glories the bylines have sung, whose monument stands at Tobolsk, whom the very Church venerates almost as a saint, was to be lifted up, in posthumous apotheosis, as high as Cortez or Christopher Columbus.

Legend is a power, for it commands, in a certain measure, those moral forces which play so decisive a part in the destinies of every race. It was inevitable that Ermak, magnified after this fashion, should have imitators and avengers. Dying, as he did, when his task was but half accomplished, he might well have said, ' Non omnis morior /' He had been no more than an instrument, and behind him, ready to begin again, to send forth more warriors, and push forward the never- ending progress of their peaceful toil under cover of the ' bows that smoked and thundered,' stood the real conquerors of Siberia the Stroganovs, and their industrious army of colonists.

When the news of the catastrophe on the banks of the Irtych which had momentarily checked the Cossacks' onward march reached Moscow, Ivan was no more. Before I relate the story of the Sovereign's end as tragic, though in a different way, as Ermak's I will endeavour to evoke, in its splendour, its singularity, its horror, the picture of the strange sur- roundings, both of the Court and the home circle, in which he lived.