Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present

Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present

by Stephen M. Norris

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A fundamental dimension of the Russian historical experience has been the diversity of its people and cultures, religions and languages, landscapes and economies. For six centuries this diversity was contained within the sprawling territories of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and it persists today in the entwined states and societies of the former USSR.


A fundamental dimension of the Russian historical experience has been the diversity of its people and cultures, religions and languages, landscapes and economies. For six centuries this diversity was contained within the sprawling territories of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and it persists today in the entwined states and societies of the former USSR. Russia's People of Empire explores this enduring multicultural world through life stories of 31 individuals—famous and obscure, high born and low, men and women—that illuminate the cross-cultural exchanges at work from the late 1500s to post-Soviet Russia. Working on the scale of a single life, these microhistories shed new light on the multicultural character of the Russian Empire, which both shaped individuals' lives and in turn was shaped by them.

Editorial Reviews

Roberts Crews

"This is the first book, to my knowledge, to present such compelling, nuanced and sustained portraits of personalities stamped with the varied practices of Russian/Soviet imperial multiculturalism.... I anticipate that it will become a classic." —Roberts Crews, Stanford University


"This compilation of examples that spans 500 years of history and includes both the famous and the lesser known gives readers a more in-depth, personal understanding of how the inescapable existence of diversity in Russia and the Soviet Union related to everyday life... Highly recommended.
" —Choice

Slavic Review

"[T]his collection offers a fresh and lively approach to understanding how the various Russian empires have worked." —Slavic Review

From the Publisher
"This book will engage students with its lively narratives of figures from the past, serve teachers with varied examples reflecting the diversity of the empire, and challenge researchers to think about the difficulties of restoring the individual to broad narratives. The editors and the contributors are to be complimented for their accomplishment." —The Russian Review

"This compilation of examples that spans 500 years of history and includes both the famous and the lesser known gives readers a more in-depth, personal understanding of how the inescapable existence of diversity in Russia and the Soviet Union related to everyday life... Highly recommended.
" —Choice

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Russia's People of Empire

Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present

By Stephen M. Norris, Willard Sunderland

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00184-9


Ermak Timofeevich



Vasilii Surikov's masterpiece Ermak's Conquest of Siberia (1895) takes up an entire wall in St. Petersburg's Russian Museum. It is a typical battle scene, painted in the realist style that made Surikov famous, with the Russians arrayed in the foreground and the native Siberians facing them across a river. Approaching the painting from across the gallery, we need only a moment to realize who will carry the day. The Russians stand like a bristling wall, staring defiantly at the foe, their banners high, and smoke clouding from their muskets. The angle Surikov chose for the scene places us on the Russians' side. The natives, meanwhile, stare back at us from the opposite bank, close enough that we can see the fear in their eyes.

At first, it is hard to locate the hero of the painting, but then we find him, just to the left of the canvas's center: a determined warrior under the banners, outfitted with a steel helmet and a breastplate. He looks out at the natives, his arm outstretched toward the opposite bank, pointing to victory and reaching for the future. This is Ermak.

Or, rather, this is the Ermak of nineteenth-century nationalist myth, Ermak the iconic hero, the great Muscovite conquistador, the Russian Cortés. Almost nothing is known of the real Ermak. We don't know when or exactly where he was born, how he ended up in Siberia, how many men were in his expedition, or even when exactly he "conquered" the region. All we know for certain, it seems, is that he did conquer it—although even this, it turns out, is not quite true. Ermak and his men at most temporarily conquered only the far western part of the region that we now call Siberia. The great conqueror never saw most of the vast territory he supposedly grafted onto the Russian state. The famous battle with the forces of Khan Kuchum depicted in Surikov's painting occurred on the Irtysh River—most historians believe—in October 1582. Ermak died a few years later, in 1585. But the immense spaces of Siberia beyond the Irtysh were acquired by Muscovy, in fits and starts, over the course of the following century.

Ermak, then, is a useful figure to consider as we think about the history of empires and how to study them. Empires are large territories made up of diverse peoples. They tend to be built by a combination of war, diplomacy, and outright purchase, among other means, and held together through a fluid balance of threats and rewards. The individuals who help to create them, however—especially as we go deeper into the past—are often obscure, and their acts of empire building are rarely as simple as they seem. In Ermak's case, it turns out that most of what we know about him is myth or legend of some sort. But in this respect, too, Ermak is useful; his case reminds us that myth itself is an integral element of empire building. Indeed, the mythical Ermak—or rather, Ermaks, since there are several mythical versions—easily tells us as much about the empire as the historical Ermak ever could.

Ermak and Siberia

Our sources on Ermak are limited. The materials of the Siberian expedition have not survived. As a result, with the exception of a few chancellery documents from the period, the only information we have comes from a handful of chronicles, or epic tales, that were composed by scholars and religious men during the century or so following his death. As tools for reconstructing his life, they are woefully incomplete—and inconsistent on top of that. All we have are a few plausible facts on which to hang his story and no way at all of looking into his thoughts.

It's fitting then that we barely know anything about his birth or where he grew up. All we can guess from the chronicles is that he appears to have been between forty and fifty at the time of the Siberian expeditions, which would mean that he was born in the 1530s or early 1540s. One text, supposedly drawing on a statement by Ermak himself, tells us Ermak was the son of a boat builder from the Urals and his true name was Vasilii Alenin. (His father's name was Timofei, hence the patronymic, Timofeevich. In this telling, the name Ermak is simply a nickname, in others it is suggested to have been a corruption of the name German or Ermolai.) The claim that Ermak hailed from the Urals has been disputed by a number of historians, however, and several other locales—from the Don River region in the south to the lands of the White Sea in the north—have been proposed as his place of birth. In fact, the only consistently repeated tidbit on his early life is the allusion to his time—perhaps as much as twenty years—spent on the Volga River, where he lived as an ataman, or leader, of a Cossack band.

This detail hints at the most reliable point we can make about Ermak's life—that he was a product of the frontier, a creation of the limits of Muscovite society. In his time, Cossacks were the ultimate "people of the edge"—mixed bands made up of nomads and peasant runaways who established robber enclaves on the great unclaimed grasslands south of Muscovy. (The term "Cossack" derives from a Turkic word for "freebooter" or "outlaw.") They were largely of Orthodox faith, and their broader culture, reflecting the mixings of the frontier, was a blend of Slavic and Turkic influences. Their most distinctive trait, however, was their independence. Living on the steppe beyond the formal reach of the Muscovite state (or other neighboring states, for that matter), they enjoyed a freedom of movement that peasants and townsmen within Muscovy typically did not. The tsar was simply too far away and too weak to tell them what to do.

In practical terms, this meant that Cossacks tended to make their living as either mercenaries or pirates. Exactly why Ermak chose this career path and when he made his way to the Volga region is hard to know. In the 1560s and 1570s, the sprawling lands around the river were being incorporated into the empire following Moscow's conquest of the khanates of Kazan' and Astrakhan' a decade or so earlier. The process of incorporation was uneven, however, and there were revolts and sporadic resistance on the part of peoples in the region as well as raids by nomads from the steppe. In this uncertain post-conquest moment, Ermak could easily have served as a mercenary Cossack commander and defended the Muscovite forts that were starting to appear on the river, or he could have emerged as a leader of one of the many outlaw bands that took advantage of the general lawlessness of the times to plunder boats and caravans. It is possible, of course, that he did a bit of both.

What we can say with more certainty is that the world surrounding him on the Volga at the time was a place of diverse peoples and faiths—Muslims, Orthodox, and animists; Slavic, Turkic, and Finnic groups; peasants, Cossacks, and nomads—whose communities intersected in complicated ways. Tension and violence were common, but so, too, was a certain amount of cross-cultural accommodation. Like the frontier Ermak would encounter later in Siberia, the Volga in this period was a "middle ground" characterized by intermittent and fluid relationships between groups, a place of mixed peoples and changing allegiances. Despite the rigid dichotomies suggested by the Church and later nationalist historians, it is difficult to find a consistent dividing line between "Russians" and Orthodox on the one hand, and "non-Russians" and "pagan" peoples and Muslims (busurmany) on the other. The state was present but only incompletely so.

That the Volga, the Urals, and Siberia would share basic similarities as fluid frontier zones in the late sixteenth century is not surprising. The regions belonged to a common Eurasian cultural ecosystem; all three had previously been part of the Golden Horde, the westernmost extension of the old Mongol Empire; and each was tied to the other—and to peoples beyond—by longstanding patterns of contact. Russian interaction with the Urals and the western edges of Siberia goes back to the eleventh century, when traders from towns such as Novgorod ventured along northern rivers to points as far east as the lower Ob and Irtysh, where they negotiated with or forced the peoples they found there to pay what later Russians would call yasak, or tribute in the form of furs. Ermak's campaign marked a turning point inasmuch as his "conquest" unfolded in the south, which was more populous and politically organized than the northern part of Siberia, where Russian contact had begun. But the general eastward movement that brought him to Siberia in the first place was well underway by the time he appeared.

In fact, as soon as the Muscovites began their takeover of the Volga in the 1550s, the interlocking pathways of the region helped to pull them further east. With the Volga khanates no longer able to protect or pay them, Nogay and Bashkir nomads on the lower reaches of the river and the steppes of the southern Urals realigned their interests and declared their loyalty to Moscow. Meanwhile, Tsar Ivan IV—later, and better, known as Ivan the Terrible—moved swiftly to exploit his advantage beyond the Volga and throughout the Kama River basin and the Urals by doling out huge tracts of land and tax breaks to his servitors; first and foremost among these were the Stroganovs, an enterprising merchant family that would shortly emerge as the leading corporate entity of the region. Soon peasants, serfs as well as runaways, began to arrive on the Kama and in the Urals. Salt works opened. Mines were dug. And furs were collected, as they had been for centuries, the only difference now was that they piled up in the coffers of Moscow rather than in the Golden Horde or Kazan'.

In 1555, Khan Ediger, ruler of Sibir', also requested the protection of Tsar Ivan, dutifully pledging his share of yasak in return. Ediger's realm, which was also known simply as Sibir, was centered in what is now southwestern Siberia, near the confluence of the Irtysh and Tobol rivers. Like Kazan', Astrakhan', and Moscow (as well as the Crimean Khanate), it was a successor state to the Golden Horde, whose population was a hodge-podge of hunter-gatherer and nomadic tribes—Ostiaks (Khanty), Voguls (Mansi), and others—ruled over by a town-based Muslim Tatar elite. Conditions in the khanate were unstable; civil war was raging between Ediger and a rival named Kuchum. In fact, Ediger's readiness to ally with Moscow was motivated at least in part by the hope that the tsar would help him in his struggle. (Kuchum, meanwhile, had the backing of the khan of Bukhara.) In 1563, however, Ediger lost and Kuchum took the throne. At first Kuchum continued his predecessor's policy of rendering yasak to Moscow, but by the 1570s relations had deteriorated, and he stopped sending furs.

In the Russian chronicles, Khan Kuchum's decision to break with Moscow is described as the foulest sort of treachery. If we take a broader view, however, we can see it as a fairly predictable result of the tensions produced by the expansion of Muscovite power. Led in part by the dynamism of the Stroganovs, the Russian presence in the Urals was growing steadily in the 1560s and 1570s, bringing Muscovite outposts ever closer to Kuchum's domains. This was a problem because the two states were vying, in effect, for the same revenue base—the yasak-paying peoples between them. As a result, clashes were all but inevitable, and raids and abuses occurred on both sides. Kuchum, according to the Russian chronicles, plotted to make war on Moscow. Meanwhile, the Stroganovs recruited their own fighting men, which involved making appeals and offering payments to the most obvious pool of nearby military specialists—the Cossacks living near the Volga and Ural rivers. According to at least one chronicle, they specifically called for Ataman Ermak.

Whether this is, in fact, why Ermak appeared in the Stroganovs' domains in the Urals in the late 1570s is impossible to prove. But we have confirmation from all the chronicles that he was there by 1579 and that he was involved in organizing a military attack on Kuchum. The attack was probably conceived at first as a raid and may have been Ermak's own initiative. We have no proof, for example, that Tsar Ivan ordered the "conquest" of Siberia—in fact, it seems more likely that he learned about it after the fact. There is even some doubt that the Stroganovs would have supported such an idea, given the more pressing need to have the Cossacks provide protection for their holdings closer by. Might Ermak have initially intended to make a limited strike, but his plans grew more ambitious as the expedition got under way?

All we know for certain is that the force—about five hundred Cossacks, although the number varies in the different accounts—obtained supplies from the Stroganovs and headed into Kuchum's territory in the summer and fall of 1581 or 1582, traveling by boat and making portages between the rivers as necessary to move eastward. In addition to his Cossacks, the troops under Ermak's command included foreign mercenaries (probably a few Poles or Germans), as well as non-Russian warriors and "guides ... and interpreters who knew the infidel language." In this sense, Ermak's men may be characterized more accurately as a frontier fighting force rather than a Russian army, as they are often described. (A similar mixture of peoples made up the fighters on Kuchum's side.) Myth has turned the "conquest" into a story of Russians versus natives—in particular, Kuchum's Tatar warriors—but realities on the ground were more complicated than this.

Given the inconsistent dates of the sources, it is difficult to say how long it took Ermak to advance into the khanate—perhaps a year, perhaps as little as a few months. The chronicles all agree, however, that the first part of the campaign culminated in a "great battle" with the "Kuchumites"—the one depicted in Surikov's painting—near the Siberian capital of Kashlyk on the Irtysh River, located some ten miles from the modern city of Tobol'sk. There, according to the Remezov Chronicle, as Kuchum looked down from river's hilly bank, "the Cossacks poured forth ... crying with one voice, 'God is with us!' ... And all together they went, and there was a great battle.... Kuchum shot arrows from the rise, while the Cossacks fired [guns] back upon the pagans.... And so they fought for three days without rest." Shortly after the battle, the Cossacks then entered Kashlyk where Ermak formalized his "conquest" in the traditional Eurasian manner by accepting yasak and "gifts" from the defeated Siberians. He also sent messengers to Tsar Ivan in Moscow to relay the news.

This was the high point of the campaign, the famous and later much mythologized "taking of Siberia" (sibirskoe vziatie). Not long thereafter, however, things began to go wrong. Although the tsar sent reinforcements that allowed Ermak to renew his campaign and widen his collection of tribute, the expedition in the end proved to be too small and too far away. Kuchum and his allies, who had fled the defeat at Kashlyk, now changed their tactics. Rather than seeking set battles with the Muscovites, they began instead to hound them by fighting a guerrilla war of ambushes and attacks on their supplies. In late 1583, one of Ermak's most notable fellow atamans, Ivan Kol'tso, was killed in a surprise attack. The military governor dispatched to support Ermak died of hunger in the winter of 1584–85, along with many of the men in his force and ordinary Cossacks. Then, finally, in the summer of 1585, Ermak himself met his end by drowning in the Irtysh River as he tried to escape another Tatar ambush. Legend has it that he was, ironically, weighted down by the chain mail he had received from the tsar as a gift after his earlier victory over Kuchum.


Excerpted from Russia's People of Empire by Stephen M. Norris, Willard Sunderland. Copyright © 2012 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Stephen M. Norris is Associate Professor of History at Miami University of Ohio. He is author of A War of Images: Russian Popular Prints, Wartime Culture, and National Identity and editor (with Helena Goscilo) of Preserving Petersburg: History, Memory, Nostalgia (IUP, 2008) and (with Zara Torlone) of Insiders and Outsiders in Russian Cinema (IUP, 2008).

Willard Sunderland is Associate Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati and author of Taming the Wild Field: Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe.

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