Russia did not acquire Siberia "in a fit of absentmindedness," as John Seeley once said of the British Empire, but their conquest of the East was nearly as unintentional. When Ivan IV (not yet terrible) inherited the throne of Muscovy, his realm covered slightly less than half of the European part of modern Russia and had dangerous borders in all directions except the ice-bound North. The Russians were cut off from Europe by Poland and Sweden who controlled all of the shores of the Baltic Sea. In the South and Southeast, the remnants of the Tatar Golden Horde, which had once conquered and devastated the Russian principalities, still controlled the rich black-earth lands of the Eurasian steppes. Besides depriving the Russians of the agricultural land they so desperately needed, the Tatar khanates cut them off from trade, regularly raided Russian villages for slaves, imposing an enormous cost for defense on Moscow, and cut them off from the fur trapping lands of the Ural Mountains, which might have paid that defense budget.
It's hard to overestimate the importance of the fur trade in the development of the Russian state. From the very beginning, fur--primarily sable fur--was the single most valuable trade commodity from Russia and the largest source of revenue for the princes. For centuries very little coned money circulated in the Russian lands and furs functioned as the primary currency. It was the quest for fur trapping country that had led the Russians to move out of their core homelands and conquer their way to the Arctic Ocean, but by Ivan's time, even those vast lands were being trapped out. The increase in wealth the wealth of Western Europe, brought on by the conquest of the Americas, and new fashions of the Renaissance made fur, made Western Europeans more eager than ever to buy furs and made it more important to the Russians to improve their access to Western markets and to new fur trapping lands. To solve Russia's strategic and economic dilemmas, Ivan chose the path that many leaders both before and after him have chosen in times of stress: he declared war on everybody.
The Khanate of Kazan was the first to fall before Ivan's ambition. Kazan dominated the middle Volga and was the main barrier between Muscovy and the fur trapping lands of the Urals. Besides that, Kazan was the closest foe to the city of Moscow and, therefore, the greatest threat to the Muscovite state. In the summer of 1552, Ivan led his army down the Volga and laid siege to Kazan. Six weeks later his troops sacked the city and massacred most of the population. Four years after that he moved down to the Volga and did the same to Astrakhan. Seeing the direction the wind was blowing, most of the smaller Tatar groups on the steppe made their peace with Ivan. These two conquests gave Russian merchants access to the Middle East by way of the Volga River and Caspian Sea, gave Russian farmers access to the fertile lands of the steppe, gave Russian trappers access to the Urals, and gave all Russians greater security. Ivan was not yet thirty years old.
At this point, the most obvious direction for Ivan to turn would have been directly south to challenge the Khanate of Crimea, the last significant remnant of the Golden Horde in Europe. From their base on the Crimean Peninsula, the Crim Tatars dominated a large swath of fertile steppe that included eastern Ukraine and cut Muscovy off from the Black Sea. They regularly raided the Russian lands for slaves, even penetrating as far as Moscow. However, while the Russians easily outnumbered the Crim Tatars, defeating them would be quite difficult. Not only would the Russians have to stretch their supply lines across hundreds of miles of almost uninhabited steppe, they would then have to force their way into the easily defeated Crimean peninsula. Faced with that prospect, Ivan chose to challenge Poland and Sweden for control of Livonia (essentially Estonia and Latvia), a principality that Poland and Sweden were in the process of dividing between themselves. The war was a disaster. Poland and Sweden had better armies, better weapons, and more wealth than Muscovy. Ivan's determination and increasing terribleness allowed him drag out his inevitable defeat for twenty-five years.
Long before his defeat, at the very beginning of his excellent adventure, Ivan made the decision that would lead to Russia becoming the largest country on earth. Soon after conquering Kazan, Ivan gave the Stroganov brothers, Grigori and Yakov, exclusive rights to exploit a territory the size of Belgium or Maryland situated between Kazan and the Urals. In the space of less than fifty years, the Stroganov family had combined superb business acumen with uncanny political instincts to become the richest family in Muscovy and favorites of the young tsar. Ivan gave them their fiefdom on the Kama and Chusovaya Rivers with the simple terms that they create prosperous new province for him by opening mines, starting businesses, trapping and that they bear the expense of guarding the new border. Things went so well for the first sixteen years that, in 1574, Ivan renewed the Stroganov privileges and gave them permission to look for additional opportunities beyond the Urals. This did not turn out the way he expected.
Several attempts over the centuries by Russian principalities to extend their power across the northern end of the Urals had come to bad ends leaving the rulers of Muscovy reluctant to engage in new adventures there. Despite their exaggerated sense of the power of the trans-Ural peoples, small numbers of merchants had crept along the Arctic coast and established tentative trade relations around the mouth of the Ob River. It was through these merchants that Ivan and the Stroganovs knew about the fur wealth of the East.
Directly cross the Urals from the Stroganov holdings lay the Khanate of Siber, yet another fragment of the Golden Horde. Isker (also called Qashliq), the capital of Siber, was essentially a trading post at the northern end of the Central Asian trade network. While core of the khanate was in the valleys of the Tobol, Ishim, and Irtysh Rivers (southern tributaries of the Ob River), tribes all across western Siberia paid the khans tribute. Siber was also the northernmost outpost of Islam, though attempts by the Tatar ruling elite to convert the indigenous population had been unsuccessful. For most of its existence the khanate had been torn by the ongoing struggle between two dynasties. The Russian conquest of Kazan in 1552 led the Taibugid khan, Yadigar, to come to an agreement with Ivan and pay a tribute in furs, though he underpaid Ivan's demanded amount by a factor of thirty. This insult to their sovereignty led the rival claimant, Kuchum of the Shaybanids, to overthrow and kill Yadigar. Kuchum stopped the tribute payments in 1563. This was the situation into which the Stroganovs sent their agents.
When Ivan conquered the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the fifties, he opened a new world to settlement by Russian peasant farmers. As the flow of immigrants on the river grew to a flood, the usual human predators showed up to prey on them. As the new authority in the neighborhood, it fell to Ivan to deal with the bandits. In 1580 he sent an expedition to sweep both sides of the river and execute any pirates they came across. On of the most notorious of the river bandits was a Cossack named Vasily Timofeyevich. His followers and enemies alike called him Yermak, "the millstone." I assume that makes more sense in Russian that it does in English. As Ivan's enforcers moved down the Volga, Yermak's band made a strategic retreat up the Kama, into the territories controlled by the Stroganovs (the family concern was now run by a new generation, Maksim and Nikita, the sons of Grigori and Yakov). True to the family reputation as business savants, the new generation saw an opportunity in the arrival of the fugitive Cossacks. They hired Yermak and his men for the planned expedition across the Urals.
On September 1, 1581, Yermak departed for Siber at the head of a force of 540 Cossacks, 300 Swedish POWs, two priests, and a runaway monk who had signed on as the cook. The first step of the expedition was hauling their boats up tributary of the Kama to its portage across the Urals. They camped for the winter on the Asian side of the pass. In the spring, they hauled and sailed their boats down the Tura River and into Kuchum's realm. After some skimishes on the river, Yermak's little army arrived at Isker. Kuchum gathered his forces a few miles from town and fought a pitched battle with Yermak's band. The outcome was never really in question; Yermak had guns and Kuchum did not. Suffering disastrous losses, Kuckum abandoned his capital and took to the woods to fight again another day.
In Isker, the cossacks found more than enough booty to make each one a wealthy man, but, more importantly, they found food. It was now more than a year since they had departed from the Stroganov lands, their supplies were almost gone, and they faced the necessity of staying the winter in Isker. As soon as it was possible to travel in the Spring, Yermak bundled all of the furs they found in Isker and ordered his second in command, Ivan Koltso, to take them to Moscow to announce their victory, and appeal to the Tsar for reinforcements, supplies, and amnesty for him and his Cossacks (as bandits, they all had prices on their heads).
Things were not going well back in Europe. Ivan was old, in ill health, and possibly insane. His war in West had finally ended in defeat. The state was almost bankrupt. In a fit of rage, he had killed his son and heir. And, to make things worse, since the Stroganovs had stripped the border defenses to outfit Yermak, Siberian tribes were crossing the Urals to raid eastern Muscovy. Ivan had expected the Stroganovs to build a few forts across the Urals and prospect for silver and, instead, they had started a war with Siberian Tatars. He dispatched an angry letter to the Stroganovs accusing them of "disobedience amounting to treason."
Just as the Stroganov cousins were making peace with their God and waiting for the executioner to come knocking at their door, Koltso arrived at the Kremlin with an enormous load of furs and the message that Yermak had detroyed the Khanate of Siber and annexed its lands in the name of Ivan. Ivan forgave the Stroganovs, pardoned the Cossacks, sent Yermak a coat of gold washed chainmail, and ordered 300 streltsy (musketeers) to secure his new province.
Unfortunately, it was too late in the year for the musketeers to travel; Yermak and his men had to spend a second winter in Isker. By spring most of their gunpowder and shot was gone. Ambushes by Kuchum's Tatars and their native allies had reduced the Cossack band to a handful. They blockaded themselves in Isker and braced for a third winter. Koltso and the musketeers arrived in November, but they had lost or used all of the supplies on the journey across the Urals. They straggled into Isker expecting Yermak to feed them. Because he had spent the summer fighting Kuchum and had been expecting the reinforcements to bring supplies, Yermak hadn't even put up enough food for his own men. As the winter progressed the soldiers began to die of scurvy and starvation. The living were forced to eat the dead to survive.
But, survive they did and they were able to gather enough food over the summer to restore their strength and fighting ability. In August, they heard rumors of a Turkish caravan on its way to Isker from Bukhara. They headed up the Irtysh River to meet it, in the hope of collecting more plunder and supplies. It was a trap. While Yermak and his men camped on an island in the river, a group of Mansi natives surrounded the camp and killed most of the Cossacks. Yermak and a small group tried to break free and swim to freedom, but the tsar's chain mail dragged Yermak to the bottom. Leaderless and facing a fourth winter, the last ninety men packed up and tried to escape back to Russia. In the Ural passes, they met a new army on its way to relieve them.
Ivan the Terrible died soon after he sent the first group of reinforcements. His reputation has swung to wild extremes over the years, much like his sanity did when he was alive. "Grozny" the Russian word that is usually translated a "terrible" can also be translated to mean "awesome" or "mighty." Stalin saw Ivan as an early Russian national hero and gave the pioneering filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein permission to make a biographical trilogy of his life. Stalin liked the first installment, but thought the second one, where madness begins to overtake the terrible tsar, looked a little too familiar. It wasn't released and production of the final installment was halted.
Yermak's legend grew over the years until he acquired all of the attributes of a saint. He became a golden haired giant, a chaste and kindly crusader whose only thought was to spread the one true faith. Epic poems were written about him. The truth became so fogged that, until recently, historians didn't even know what year his conquest took place in.
Kucum was never able to reassemble his realm and was assassinated by rivals after resisting the Russian advance for sixteen years.
Boris Gudonov, regent for the new tsar, decided Siberia was worth the trouble to keep and sent the second force of troops that met the survivors of Yermak's expedition. Then he sent a third force, and then a fourth, and a fifth... The Russians built a fort near the ruins of Isker and called it Tobolsk. Tobolsk grew into a town and the town became the capital of Siberia. Rough men followed the rivers eastward across the continent harvesting furs through trade, trapping, or extortion. The state and the church followed attempting to bring order and accounting to the process of collection. In a little over fifty years they had expanded the Muscovite state four thousand miles to the shores of the Pacific.
The generation of men who conquered Siberia were mostly illiterate and, even if they could write, they had little time for natural history, anthropology, or anything else not related to surviving, extracting wealth, and making it back alive. By the middle of the next century, a different type of person began to arrive in Siberia. Along with a more settled population came educated administrators, diplomats, and higher church authorities who had time to more closely look at the land and its treasures. At some point, they became interested in the giant bones and ivory that the natives called "mammoth."