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The fascinating history of an unknown people
A vivid mixture of history and reporting, The Shaman’s Coat tells the story of some of the world’s least-known peoples—the indigenous tribes of Siberia. Russia’s equivalent to the Native Americans or Australian Aborigines, they divide into two dozen different and ancient nationalities—among them Buryat, Tuvans, Sakha, and Chukchi. Though they number more than one million and have begun to demand land rights and political autonomy ...
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The fascinating history of an unknown people
A vivid mixture of history and reporting, The Shaman’s Coat tells the story of some of the world’s least-known peoples—the indigenous tribes of Siberia. Russia’s equivalent to the Native Americans or Australian Aborigines, they divide into two dozen different and ancient nationalities—among them Buryat, Tuvans, Sakha, and Chukchi. Though they number more than one million and have begun to demand land rights and political autonomy since the fall of communism, most Westerners are not even aware that they exist.
Journalist and historian Anna Reid traveled the length and breadth of Siberia—one-twelfth of the world’s land surface, larger than the United States and Western Europe combined—to tell the story of its people. Drawing on sources ranging from folktales to KGB reports, and on interviews with shamans and Buddhist monks, reindeer herders and whale hunters, camp survivors and Party apparatchiks, The Shaman’s Coat travels through four hundred years of history, from the Cossacks’ campaigns against the last of the Tatar khans to native rights activists against oil development. The result is a moving group portrait of extraordinary and threatened peoples, and a unique and intrepid travel chronicle.
On an island in the middle of a river in the middle of a forest, soldiers lie sleeping around a smoky fire. They have stacked their pikes in pyramids, like corn-stooks, and made racks from forked branches for their muskets, to keep them off the wet ground. Their boats, high-masted and with prows carved in the shape of animals' heads, ride at anchor close to shore. Over the page, the scene springs into action. Mounted warriors armed with curved scimitars have forded the river and taken the camp by surprise. Half-asleep, the soldiers stand no chance. One is being beheaded, others stabbed or shot through with arrows. The soldiers' leader, bearded and twice the size of the other figures, stands at the water's edge, pulling an escape vessel to shore. A handwritten caption in Old Slavonic tells us that he fails:
Yermak, seeing the killing of his men and no help from anywhere to save his life, ran to his boat. But he could not climb into it for he was clad in the two royal coats of mail, and the boat had floated away from the bank so that, unable to reach it, he was drowned.
The manuscript tells the story of the first Russian invasion of Siberia. A storyboard-style sequence of hand-drawn sketches, one would expect it, if it wereFrench of English, to date from the Middle Ages. But it is Russian, and in autocratic Muscovy printing-presses were kept out of private hands and monks remained the chief recorders of history well into the 1700s. So although the invasion happened only just over 400 years ago, our sources on it are few, packed with church propaganda, and mostly of dubious authorship and date. Of the four extant chronicles on the subject, the earliest was written at least fifty years after the event, and they disagree so often that reading them, as a Russian writer puts it, is like listening to `the uproar of drunken Cossacks bursting into reminiscence, interrupting each other and cutting each other off'.
As far as we can tell, the ambush described above took place in August 1585, seventeen months after the death of mercurial, sadistic Tsar Ivan IV - `the Formidable' to Russians, `the Terrible' to English-speakers. Thanks to Ivan's wars, Muscovy already stretched from the White Sea to the Caspian. But it was poor, backward and so lacking in settled laws and institutions that it qualified more as a power than a state. Until a century previously it had paid tribute to Genghiz Khan's Mongol Horde, and as recently as 1571 the Ottoman-backed khan of one of the Horde's Muslim successor states, Devlet Giray of Crimea, had raided Moscow, carrying away thousands of Slav slaves. So although Russians already called their capital the Third Rome, and their princes Caesars, to the rest of the world these imperial claims seemed empty boasts. As for what lay beyond the Urals, they were as much in the dark as everyone else. The odd wanderer who did venture east brought back tales of tribesmen who froze to the ground in winter, spent the summers at sea lest their skins split, and had mouths on top of their heads, eating by placing food under their hats and shrugging their shoulders.
The man who changed all this was Yermak Timofeyevich, the bearded giant who drowned under the weight of his chain-mail while fleeing a midnight attack. The chroniclers' sole comment on his personality is predictably flattering: he is `most courageous, shrewd and humane; well-favoured and endowed with every kind of wisdom; with a flat face, black beard and curly hair; of medium stature, thickset and broad-shouldered'. Courageous he must have been; humane he was not. According to the only account of his origins, he came from a family of highwaymen and spent his youth at the head of a robber band that preyed on Volga shipping. When he turned up in the Urals in the late 1570s he was probably on the run from troops sent to put down river piracy. One chronicler certainly thought so, sketching Yermak's men being executed by Ivan's soldiers.
Russian settlement of the Urals dated back to 1517, when wealthy boyars, the Stroganovs, were granted a royal charter to mine them for iron and salt. By the 1580s they had semi-independent jurisdiction over a string of forts stretching east to the river Tobol. Whether the Siberian expedition was their idea or Yermak's is unclear. A charter of 1574 specifically instructed them to build and garrison new forts, which suggests that they may have invited Yermak to help them. On the other hand, one chronicle has Yermak squeezing them for supplies with menaces: `O man, you do not know that even now you are dead; we shall take you and shoot you to bits. Give us ... for 5,000 men in all, three pounds of gunpowder and lead, and a gun for each man ...' Another chronicle does not mention the Stroganovs at all. Nor do we know what Yermak's own aims were. According to the monks he set off to conquer pagan lands for the greater glory of God and Muscovy. Likelier, he was simply out for plunder.
Waiting for Yermak on the other side of the Urals was a far more respectable figure: Khan Kuchum of Sibir. A descendant of Genghiz, Kuchum ruled another of the Muslim princedoms left behind by the retreating Horde. Two of them - Kazan on the Volga and Astrakhan on the Caspian - had fallen to Ivan in the 1550s. But the Girays' Crimea and Kuchum's Sibir stood firm, the first blocking Russian settlement of the grasslands north of the Black Sea, the second the river passages east into what would later be called Siberia. Though hardly the hub of the Muslim world- an Ottoman historian described Kuchum as an insignificant backwoodsman, and his subjects as `strange, of astonishing appearance, speaking an incomprehensible language, without religion or rite, almost like animals' - Sibir was wealthy and not without sophistication. Its 20,000 or so inhabitants, a Mongol-Turkic mix loosely known, like those of Crimea, Kazan and Astrakhan, as Tatars, wrote in Koranic Arabic, traded with Bokhara and Samarkand, and took tributes of fish and furs from local Khant and Ket. According to the chroniclers, Kuchum owned treasure, cattle, mullahs and warriors `as numerous ... as the mountains and forests, as countless as the sands'. His hundred wives, `and youths as well as maidens' lived in camps conveniently disposed around his fortified capital of Isker, on sandy bluffs above the river Irtysh. Having come out top of a dynastic feud to take the throne, he soon felt strong enough to provoke Muscovy. In 1571, taking advantage of Devlet Giray's raid on Moscow, he discontinued nominal tribute payments, and two years later allowed his nephew Mamektul to attack Russian settlements in the Ural foothills and assassinate an envoy. It may have been in response to this that the Stroganovs mounted Yermak's campaign.
Kuchum first heard of Yermak's arrival in Sibir in the winter of 1581 or 1582, from a Tatar whom he had captured in the Urals and released again with gifts and friendly messages. Yermak headed somewhere between 540 and an improbable 8,000 men, including priests, scribes, trumpeters and a purser-monk who `did not wear black robes but kept to the rules, and cooked porridge, and knew about the stores'. They travelled in flat-bottomed boats that could be sailed, rowed, towed or carried overland, and were subject to harsh discipline. Defaulters were whipped, lechers chained, and deserters tied up in sandbags and drowned. They were also, as they took care to demonstrate, supernaturally armed. `When they shoot from their bows,' the amazed Tatar told Kuchum, `there is a flash of fire and great smoke issues, and a loud report like thunder in the sky. One does not see arrows coming out of them ... Our scale-armour, armour of plates and rings, cuirasses and chain-mail do not hold them; they pierce all of them right through.'
On hearing the news, Kuchum and his courtiers became `distressed and very sad', for they realised that Yermak's friendly greetings were a smokescreen, and that he would `soon come and plunder them'. They were right. The following spring, the Russians sailed downriver out of the mountains and into Sibir. In May they forced a passage along the river Tavda; in August they captured a Tatar stronghold at the Tavda's confluence with the Tobol, and in October they reached Isker. The battle for the town lasted three days and cost them 107 lives. Their first attack failed, but during the second Mamektul was wounded and his Khant vassals deserted. Watching the carnage from the top of a hill, Kuchum called down fire and famine on Yermak's head, lamented that a plebeian should have put him to shame, and `ordered his mullahs to shout their prayers ... because their gods were asleep'. At nightfall he fled with his court, so that when the Russians entered Isker the following morning they found it eerily silent.
Among the loot Kuchum left behind was a fortune in furs, 5,200 of which Yermak despatched to Moscow. Coinciding with Muscovy's defeat in the long wars for the Baltics against Poland and Sweden, their unexpected arrival delighted Ivan, who had earlier chided the Stroganovs for making `mischief between the Siberian sultan and us', and for hiring `robbers to serve in your forts without our permission'. He ordered thanksgiving services, distributions of alms and the despatch of reinforcements to Isker, bearing rewards of cloth and money for Yermak's followers. Yermak received a pardon for his earlier piracy, a fur coat `from the Tsar's own shoulder', a goblet and two chain-mail tunics, embossed in bronze with double-headed eagles.
While Ivan celebrated, Yermak and his men were running into trouble. Constant skirmishing so reduced their numbers that they could no longer safely venture outside Isker, and two winters running, food ran so short that they `were forced to eat human flesh, and many died of hunger'. The arrival of Ivan's reinforcements in November 1584 made the situation worse, since there was no food for them either. Yermak's drowning, weighed down by Ivan's chain-mail, was the last straw. Of the ambushed party, a single man made it back to Isker with news of the disaster, causing the town's 150 or so remaining Russians to abandon it and head for home.
But the tsars now knew that Sibir was both rich and weak. New expeditions followed, the Tatars fell out among themselves, and within a few years the khanate had again fallen into Russian hands. Kuchum's successor Seydak was defeated by means of a squalid trick. Out hawking near Isker, he accepted an invitation to enter the fort and parley, whereupon his followers were served drugged wine and massacred. `Henceforth,' wrote a chronicler, `there was great fear among all the infidels of the Siberian land, and all the Tatars, both near and far, did not dare to go to war against the sovereign's cities.' Though not quite as tidy as that, the fall of Sibir was indeed one of history's great turning-points, for with the khanate gone no polity existed capable of permanently halting men with muskets anywhere between the Mongol steppe and the Arctic Ocean, or the Urals and the North Pacific.
* * *
Having abandoned Isker, Kuchum retreated south with a dwindling band of followers. In 1597, after the Russians had sent two expeditions against him, he proposed a truce. `Since the coming of Yermak, I have tried to resist you. I did not give Sibir to you; you have seized it for yourselves. Now let us try for peace; perhaps it would be better.' He begged also for the release of Tatar merchants who had been bringing medicine for his failing eyes. The contemptuous reply came from his own turncoat son Abdul-Khair, who advised him, since he was `in great need and poverty, wandering the steppe like a Cossack with just a few men', to surrender in exchange for Russian favours. The following year a third punitive expedition found Kuchum camped on the river Ob. In a battle lasting from dawn to noon 150 of the khan's men were killed, and most of his family, including eighteen wives and daughters and another five sons, captured. Kuchum escaped, still pathetically defiant: `I did not go to the Sovereign when I was well and had a sword, so why should I go now when I am deaf and blind, and without any subsistence? They took away my son Asmanak; if I lost all my children but still had Asmanak I could live, but without him I shall go to the Nogais.' No more was heard from the khan of Sibir, for shortly afterwards the Nogais, a Tatar people to the south, murdered him for fear of Russian reprisals.
Kuchum's stand was unusual. On conquering Kazan and Astrakhan, Ivan had successfully bought the allegiance of the bulk of their defeated nobility. Ivan's successor Fyodor did the same in Sibir. Kuchum's relatives were given lands and titles, and their retinues gifts of money, food and cloth. Some 300 lesser princes moved to the Russians' new fort of Tobolsk, took baptism and entered salaried government service. Over time such families were assimilated into the mainstream Russian nobility, as proven by the long list of famous Russian surnames with Turkic or Mongol roots. By the 1820s, a traveller to Tobolsk was able to write that Russian exiles' children were `as little to be distinguished from their neighbours, as the posterity of Tatar princes'. The bon mot with which Savoy's ambassador to Petersburg, Joseph de Maistre, is said to have regaled Napoleon - `Grattez le Russe et vous trouverez le Tartare' - was genetically as well as metaphorically true.
Ordinary Tatars were not so forgetful. According to one of the later chronicles, written about 1700, they dreamed of recapturing Sibir, taking comfort from the legend that a hairy white wolf as big as an ox would one day emerge, roaring, from the Irtysh, frightening the Russians away. An eighteenth-century German traveller wrote that `even the meanest people' prided themselves on their genealogies, and would `warm their imaginations with raptures on the ancient splendour of the Tatarian empire, and often break out in wishes and ardent longings for the re-establishment of their former power'. In the mid-1800s, Siberian Tatars still preferred to call the town of Tyumen `Chingistora', after Genghiz, and ethnographers collected ballads that inverted history by making Yermak Kuchum's sly servant-boy.
Excerpted from THE SHAMAN'S COAT by ANNA REID Copyright © 2002 by Anna Reid
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|List of Illustrations|
|1||Siberians and Sibiryaki||11|
|6||The Ainu, Nivkh and Uilta||140|