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Russian America, the portion of the Russian empire that appeared, flowered, and withered on the North American continent all within little more than a century, was in several respects a logical outgrowth of patterns established in the Russian homeland from its earliest days. For many centuries, the Russians had looked to the north in search of new lands to settle and new opportunities to exploit. Slavic raiders, entrepreneurs, and settlers had already expanded to the shores of the White Sea in the tenth century. By the fourteenth century, they were arctic sailors, marine mammal hunters and fishermen, and hunters of forest animals. In the following three centuries, these northern settlers spearheaded Russian expansion eastward, across Siberia to the Pacific Ocean, and to the North American continent. This Chapter briefly examines this complex process and how it played itself out from the earliest times to the seventeenth century.
As was the case with European overseas expansion, Russian expansion and colonization succeeded because of concerted effort by both private and governmental interests. The patterns of their interaction and the dynamics of the expansion process varied from one European nation to another as well as over time. In Russia this dynamic had very deep historical roots, extending back many centuries and following a long-established traditional pattern. S. V. Bakhrushin, the late historian of Siberia and the Russian north, aptly characterized this pattern:
Thus, the Russian advance beyond the Urals, in the early times, insofar as it may be characterized on the basis of rather meager sources, was two-pronged. In the forefront were the merchants and hunters engaged in procurement. Year by year they blazed the trail along which there gradually grew hunting settlements and wintering places. The large-scale entrepreneur followed in their footsteps, established himself in the newly opened lands and, from the township he founded in the border zone and which he used as a base of operations, continued the conquest of the territory. The state's intention to subject the new lands followed much later ... [it] acted very cautiously, preferring to exploit the results of private activity.
To understand this pattern, and how it changed over time, we must turn to the beginnings of the Russian state and focus particularly on the Russian north, that is, the shores of the Baltic, the White and the Barents Seas, and the lake areas and river basins of this region, extending to the Upper Volga, Kama, and Pechora Rivers. Russian settlement in the north is very ancient and subject to scholarly discussion. However, there is a general agreement on the following sequence.
In prehistoric times, certainly in the Neolithic period of the second millennium B.C. and probably earlier, this vast region was inhabited by peoples speaking Finno-Ugric languages. The population was heterogeneous, however, and it included Saami and some Finnic peoples. The settlements of all these peoples probably were interspersed, especially in the northern areas; in all likelihood they were the first inhabitants of this region. A small influx of ancient Palaeoasiatic peoples, possibly Yukagir, may have occurred. All were foragers, hunters, and fishermen. Also in the second millennium B.C. there appeared in the Baltic regions a culture based on cattle-keeping and incipient agriculture. The ethnicity of the bearers of this culture has not been determined.
In the first millennium B.C., Germanic peoples, probably the ancestors of the later Scandinavians, settled on the Baltic coasts, eventually expanding to southwestern Finland and into modern Scandinavia. Eastern Slavs, a more southern people, began to arrive here also about the first half of the first millennium A.D. They moved in small groups and settled among the local Baltic and Finnish populations. Historians believe that this "voting with the feet" was one of the results of the ever-increasing pressure of the expanding Turkic peoples in the steppe belt. The Slavs were of diverse tribal origins, each group tending to cluster together in the newly occupied territories. In subsequent centuries some expanded not only north but also to the east and northeast. The Nentsy and Entsy (or the Samoyed peoples in general) are believed to have penetrated this area only in the first millennium A.D. (not much earlier than, and possibly at the same time as, the early Slav settlers).
Meanwhile, the Scandinavians-seafarers, traders, and formidable military raiders-were penetrating the Baltic areas and, by the eighth century, expanding out of Norway along the northern shores of the Kola Peninsula. Sometime in the ninth or tenth century A.D., they moved into the White Sea region. (In fact, the Russian word murman from which derive both the name of Murmansk, the famous Russian northern seaport, and the Murman, or the Arctic Ocean coast of Russia to the Norwegian border, means precisely that-a Norman, presumably a Swede or sometimes a Dane.) The Norse movement into what today is the Russian north was motivated by the desire to control the trade routes from the Arctic Ocean and Baltic Sea shores to the Black and Caspian Seas, which followed the major waterways through the Slav territories.
From their bases on the Baltic, the Norsemen very rapidly gained dominance of the Oka-Volga trade route to the Caspian Sea, giving them access to Persia and the great caravan routes to the east, and eventually of the route along the Dniepr River to the Black Sea and hence to Byzantium and the Mediterranean. In 856, the Norseman Roric (in Russian sources called Riurik) took control of the Slav trading city of Novgorod and in 862 built a fortified stronghold at Ladoga.
The Norsemen, a military and mercantile elite, as historian Vernadsky points out, "were comparatively few in number ... and were consequently easily and rapidly absorbed by the Slavs ... they mingled freely with the people whom they now ruled...." On the other hand, the Slavs who fell under Norse dominion in Novgorod (and also in Kiev) readily adapted to the trade-and-raid operations of their overlords. Their trading caravans, by horse or by ship, were formidable fighting units.
The goods sent along the trade routes from the north were products of the forest and the sea: honey and beeswax, fish and marine mammal oil and skins, walrus ivory (which Novgorodian craftsmen transformed into skillfully carved objects of art), and, above all, furs. Procurement of these trade goods played a role in the rapid expansion of the mixed Slav groups to the shores of the White and Barents Seas, though a northward trickle of individuals and small groups had begun much earlier, would continue through the centuries, and would increase in the wake of Mongol conquest in the middle of the thirteenth century.
True to the long-established pattern, "both before and after the Norse invasion the eastern Slavs mixed freely with peoples of Ural-Altaic family...." Each group often adopted the others' customs, and each learned from the other. It was from the Vikings that the northern Russians probably learned to utilize their waterways to the utmost-the rivers, the lakes, and the sea-and to master the fine art of shipbuilding that eventually carried them along the coasts of the Arctic Ocean eastward and to the shores of arctic America.
It was not long before Novgorod merchants were sending out armed bands to the White Sea and Arctic Ocean shores for barter and to impose and collect tribute. This tribute, paid in furs, besides bringing in much-desired trade goods, also served as a basis for the later legal claims of overlordship by the city called "The Lord Great Novgorod." Not far behind were bands of freebooters (ushkuiniki and vatagi) who raided aborigines and Slav settlers alike to obtain furs. Often, to legitimize their actions, these freebooters delivered part of their booty to the rulers of Novgorod as "collected tribute."
By the end of the thirteenth century, most of the coastal areas, the Pomor'ie, were settled. People of all classes came to these "new lands," as they were called, but the majority were independent peasants. By the sixteenth century the descendants of these settlers, who as usual mixed with local populations, had fully adapted to the northern coastal environment. They adopted fishing and marine mammal hunting, especially of walrus, as far away as Novaia Zemlia and the mouth of the Yenisei River; whaling, as far away as Spitsbergen; and bird hunting, for skins, meat, and down, as their main occupations. A distinct culture, lifestyle, and dialect emerged. The people who, in another 200 years, would provide the majority of Alaska pioneers came into being as a distinct ethnic entity, the Pomory, with their own identity and maritime traditions. The settlers actively participated in international trade, channeling their take not only through Novgorod but also through the new trading centers, which rapidly developed into cities, such as Arkhangel'sk, Kholmogory, Ustiug, and many others. A glance at a map of the trade network of the city of Ustiug in the seventeenth century (Figure 1) demonstrates the role these cities played in northern Russian commerce.
The Komi, a Finno-Ugric people called Zyriane in earlier Russian sources, were not displaced. The immigrants who settled among them and with whom they freely mixed learned many new skills from them, including how to construct new types of watercraft. The Komi population was concentrated in several areas, notably in the orbit of the city of Ustiug, with its center at Yarensk. The Komi also learned from the newcomers and soon became active in international trade. (Later, they were active participants in the Russian expansion into Siberia and even to Russian America. Several Komi participated in the voyage of Semeon Dezhnev through Bering Strait, and Stepan Glotov of Yarensk, a famous skipper active in the early years of the Aleutian trade, may have been a Komi.)
Trade was a major factor in the economic life of the region. From ancient times, no other trade item was as important as fur. Furs were the principal item of export and medium of exchange; they often constituted marriage settlements, war indemnity payments, and dispute settlements. In early times, squirrel fur dominated the market, followed by marten and sable, also lynx, fox, wolf, and bear. In later times sable became the dominant item in the fur trade.
The main suppliers of furs were the independent peasant settlers and their neighbors, the Komi. All combined in their household economy agriculture, cottage industries or crafts, fishing and hunting for subsistence and household needs, and fur trapping for the market. In later centuries this type of complex economic activity was carried to Siberia. The pattern persisted until the twentieth century, up to the introduction of compulsory economic change in postrevolutionary times. Thus, northern Russians had their own social order and their own labor traditions, and some of these were transplanted eventually to Russian America.
The growth of settlements and of agriculture rapidly deforested many regions and consequently reduced furbearer species. To maintain the Novgorodian fur trade, new and more distant hunting grounds had to be brought into the city's orbit. From the tenth century on, this was accomplished by claims over an ever-widening span of territories, and not only by Novgorodian peasants and other Slav settlers, but also by Novgorodian high nobles and heads of trading houses who claimed overlordship of northern areas where they had established themselves as vassals of Novgorod. Among other northern centers founded directly by the Novgorodian great merchants and nobles (the boiars) was Vaga. The Stroganovs, the famous merchants and founders of the salt industry at Sol'vychegodsk on the Vychegda River, and in later ages staunch supporters of Moscow's expansion, established themselves originally in Novgorod but then moved to the north like many other Novgorodians of their class. Eventually, Lord Great Novgorod laid direct claim to overlordship over the expanding Russian north, including the burgeoning maritime trading centers such as Kholmogory on the northern Dvina River and Ustiug. The town of Ustiug, however, staunchly defended its independence. The men of Ustiug fought many wars against the Novgorodians, defeating them in an early contest in 1032. In the end, hard-pressed, they chose to throw in their lot with Rostov-Suzdal, another Russian principality intent on exploiting the lucrative fur trade. The Rostov-Suzdal principality was now formally advancing its own claims to overlordship of the northern territories, and its rivalry with Novgorod for primacy in the north was long-standing, beginning possibly as early as the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries.
In the thirteenth century, Moscow began to interest itself in the area and its fur trade. In the fourteenth century, Moscow brought Suzdal and Rostov into its domain and thus established itself as the overlord of a portion of the northern territories. The allegiances of local territorial units and their relations with the overlords often shifted, until the fifteenth century, when Moscow defeated the Lord Great Novgorod and emerged as the dominant power in the Russian land.
Perhaps the shift in allegiance of several northern settlement areas from Novgorod to Rostov-Suzdal, and thus ultimately to Moscow, in some measure contributed to Novgorod's eventual defeat and the establishment of Moscow's firm control over the Russian north. By then Russians were active, and probably had small enclaves, in northwestern Siberia, in the territory of the Iugra (a term believed to be of Komi origin). These were the Finno-Ugric-speaking tribes of the Ob' River basin and its major tributary, the Taz. Particularly affected were the Khanty and the Mansi. Both Novgorod and the Russian principalities warred with a number of the Ugric tribes, with varied success. Often, the tribesmen, under the skilled and centralized military leadership of their princes, as the Russian chronicles call them, defeated the Novgorodians, the men of Ustiug, Komi, and other invaders. Among the latter were the Samoyed tribes, Nentsy and Entsy, whom the Khanty and Mansi raided in turn. When making peace or establishing trade relations, all tried to secure hostages-amanaty. This ancient practice, too, was carried to Alaska in the eighteenth century.
The earliest record of such hostile contact dates to the eleventh century. The first Muscovite military expeditions date to 1465 when Ivan III, of Moscow, ordered the Ustiug host under Vasilii Skriaba to invade the Iugra territory. Its incorporation into the Moscow-led Russian state was later dated from this event. The Ustiug chronicler also mentions a joint Russian-Ustiug military expedition in 1483 in which they "conquered Near Siberia from Pelema to the Ob' River, returning with much booty without loss of a single man." Soon thereafter, in 1499-1500, Prince Kurbskii led a large army composed of the men of Pomor'ie to the mouth of the Pechora and beyond the Urals where they founded Berezovo (Berezov).
When victorious, Novgorod and others exacted tribute (dan') from the defeated, as was the custom of the times. The take, however, was small, the collection uneven and insufficient to satisfy the demands of the expanding market, which was predominantly European but also Asiatic. Raiders-freebooters who often entered the pay of great merchants-staged lightning raids into the Ob'-Ugrian territories and beyond, even to the Yenisei River, in order to obtain furs by indiscriminate plunder. Men of Ustiug frequently staged veritable invasions, claiming victory even when they lost, and obtaining furs as war indemnities. But trade with the indigenous inhabitants also flourished, especially in the long intervals between hostilities. Moscow had gained the upper hand over the Russian north and Novgorod in the fifteenth century and by the late sixteenth century had systematized collection of tribute in the form of furs. The institution of the iasak came to the north. Iasak, a term derived from the Turkic languages, designated the tribute imposed by conquerors upon the conquered. Russians paid iasak to the Mongols after the Mongol conquest in the thirteenth century. The Mongols also exacted iasak from most of the Siberian tribes. Those tribes, when gaining dominance over their neighbors, in turn followed the same practice. Delivery of the iasak, collected in pelts, signified submission to the higher authority. It was a well-understood institution throughout Siberia. Especially in the early period of Muscovite expansion in Siberia, iasak was also a source of state revenue, a form of taxation, to be collected annually.
In older Russian historiography, as well as in modern Western interpretations, this method of obtaining state revenues and the role of the state as fur merchant are overstressed, while the role of the peasant/serviceman/fur trapper and trader (also heavily taxed) is grossly underestimated. The role of the iasak collector was often performed by the settler/fur trapper turned serviceman. This was a peculiar factor which colored the state/private entrepreneur cooperation and which, in the eighteenth century, loomed large as proof of the role of the state in the process of expansion to Alaska.
Excerpted from Russians in Alaska, 1732-1867 by LYDIA T. BLACK Copyright © 2004 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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