The sixteenth century was an age of exploration and adventure, when European countries began to build up land and trade empires across the globe. We tend to think only of the discovery of the New World, but there was a similar expansion to the East. The Elizabethans were aware of the wealth to be found there and the fur trade drew them to the towns of Novgorod and Archangel, the northern outposts of the rising Russian state. (More properly called Muscovy, since it was based on Moscow - see maps 1 & 2.)
At the time of the conquest of Siberia, Muscovy was ruled by Ivan IV 'The Terrible' (1530-1584). Tsar Ivan needed money, through the fur trade, with which to acquire Western European skills and technology, and so create his empire. His reign was a series of advances and rebuffs; against the Poles and Swedes to the West and the Turks to the South. On one border there were less formidable opponents and the greatest opportunity for profit; the East. Ivan and his armies were forced to direct their attentions against the organised states that opposed them, so the eastward expansion was largely left to private enterprise. The wealthy, boyar (noble) family of the Stroganovs proposed expeditions into Siberia, which were authorised by the Tsar. Ivan agreed to the setting up of fortress-trading posts, equipped with musketeers and cannon, so long as the Crown had rights over the hunting, fishing and mineral resources that were to be exploited.
The first charter to the Stroganovs dates to 1558, but the most interesting military developments did not take place until the 1580s. For the Russians were gradually advancing into lands that, though vast and thinly populated, were not empty. In them lived Tatars. descendants of the fierce Mongols who had swept across Asia over three centuries before, under their leader Genghis Khan, conquering all in their path. Indeed, these Tatars had ruled Muscovy as 'the Golden Horde' until the middle of the fifteenth century, when their state broke up into separate khanates, of the Crimea, Astrakhan, Kazan, Nogai and Siberia (see map 2). Of these, the Crimean Tatars were the best organised and most dangerous, capable of devastating raids into Russian territory, even to the walls of Moscow; raids which went on into the seventeenth century. Ivan led an expedition to conquer Kazan in 1552, and Astrakhan four years later, but there were still many warlike tribes threatening the Stroganov explorers. They were led by Kuchum, khan of the Siberian Tatars and an implacable opponent of Muscovite expansion. They were largely nomadic, travelling with their flocks and herds, which were their wealth. In consequence, their military strength lay in their cavalry, equipped with bow and lance. Faced with such formidable opponents, in 1579 the Stroganovs engaged a notable Cossack ataman (chief) to lead an expedition to break the power of Kuchum and establish Russian rule in Siberia.
His name was Yermak, and he has become as much a folk hero to the Russians as many of the famous names of the Wild West are in America today. Like many of them he was an outlaw, whose robber band had recently been broken up by the Tsar Ivan was glad to see the energies of such men directed outside the borders of his kingdom. Yermak was a larger-than-life character whose exploits quickly passed into legend, and because of this we have several valuable sources, one of them extensively illustrated, which tell us a great deal about Muscovite troop types, weapons and tactics in the late sixteenth century and which is not available elsewhere.
The Composition of Yermak's Forces
Yermak - coat of mail given to him by Tsar,
featuring Imperial cypher on plates.
In September 1581, Yermak gathered his men from the Stroganov strongholds and set out to campaign in Siberia. He had with him 540 cossacks of his Volga band under the command of five atamans. They were organized in units of one hundred, fifty and ten, each hundred having a sacred icon banner. (See fig. 19 A-F.) It is possible, although not certain, that Yermak added a further 300 Lithuanians, Germans, Tatars and Russians from troops already in Stroganov employ. The soldiers took with them some bare provisions of bread, flour, cereal, a little meat, and, most important, a gun and three pounds of gunpowder and lead for each man. They also had three small cannon.
The accompanying illustrations show the various troop types depicted in the Remezov picture chronicle. Although this was not produced until 1700 it does not show contemporary costume (i.e. the tricorn and long coat of our Marlburian period) of Peter the Great's reformed army, but what seems to be the clothes and equipment of the 1580s. Certainly, where comparison can be made with later sixteenth century troop types, the accuracy of the pictures is supported. See, for example figures 2, 3 and 6, representing subordinate atamans. One of them (3) wears a neo-classical helmet, with back-and-breast plates and armour for the upper arms, typical of Western Europe at the time. Others wear zischagge type helmets and armour of a more Eastern style (18). They are of the rank to be able to afford such equipment. Yermak is shown in his 'double-mailcoat' with a central plaque bearing the double-headed eagle, symbol of the Tsar (1).
Other cossacks are more lightly armed (7-9). Figure 17 is possibly a German in back-and-breast and what appear to be tassets. (Although they may represent a strap leather or quilted protection as none of the other figures are shown wearing them.) He wears a soft (felt?) cap, though he could have a helmet like figure 13. The pikemen are supported in the battle scenes by men wielding two-handed swords or bardische axes (4 and 18), sometimes wearing armour. Flanking them, or to the front or rear, stand arquebusiers (5, 10, 14 and 16). In one picture appears a line of figure 9, who may well be musketeers with 'swinefeathers' (a combined pike and musket rest) or possibly the spear shown and a wooden defence. Occasionally, 'wing' or 'teardrop' shields are carried (2 and 6).
The battle standards are shown in figure 19. A is the archangel Michael, B St. Paul, D St. George, and E Christ. C and F show the Orthodox cross, F with a stylised hill and instruments of the Passion. Colours are unknown, but if they were anything like the icons, which they closely resemble, they would be richly embroidered on bright backgrounds in 'realistic' colouring.
The Russians' enemies are shown in figures 20-25. They are scarcely differentiated between tribes, all wearing kaftans, long or short, soft boots and a variety of hats. The headgear may just indicate different groups, so that the tall, fur-edged cap is worn by the Chuvash (23 and 24), the conical hats by Tatars (22 and 25) and the other type by Voguls. All types also appear as bareheaded. They are shown fighting on horseback with lance, bow (and sling!) or with these weapons plus pike and two-handed swords on foot. Indeed, a surprisingly large number of battle scenes show the Tatars and their allies as wholly dismounted, although many still depict the traditional cavalry charge. Their formations do not show the same sort of order as the Cossacks, and crucially they lack handguns. On one occasion only the Tatar host has cannon, manned by the more settled Chuvash tribesmen.
(For Cossack battle formation see diagrams A-F. The Tatar ranks are generally shown as an indifferentiated mob, although some illustrations do show a central block of men with hand-to-hand weaponry and missilemen to the flanks.)
The History of the Expedition
When Yermak and his men set out across the Urals in September, 1581, they travelled by river. This was the only practicable method, and the Cossacks were experienced sailors on the river Volga and the Caspian Sea. They soon abandoned their larger vessels and dragged smaller, handier craft over the portage route to the river Tagil (see map 3). We do not know the size of these boats, called strugs, so crucial to the Cossacks success, but it is likely that they were similar to those brought to Siberia by Prince Bolkhovskoy in 1584. These were large enough to carry 20 men and their supplies. As shown in the picture-chronicle the strugs have 5-10 oars on each side, with a large sail and an animal figurehead. Some are shown carrying a cannon in the bows, although these are probably the light field-pieces being put to good use.
The Cossacks sailed down the Tagil and turned along the Tura, where they had three days hard fighting while negotiating a large bend in the river, being constantly showered by archery fire from the shore. Having driven off these attacks, they continued on to a settlement which they captured after defeating the local khan, Chingiz. Yermak decided that it was best to winter here before attempting a further advance into enemy territory.
1582 was the year of greatest activity, in which Yermak led the Cossacks to victory in four battles and innumerable skirmishes and founded the city of Sibir.
The Russians spent an uncomfortable winter. Despite being well-provisioned with dried fish and cereals, they suffered from scurvy and dysentry. As Spring approached, a fur-tribute collector sent from Kuchum to the old khan was brought before Yermak and treated to a display of the invisible powers of Russian musketry (see below).
Early in May, the Cossacks moved to the mouth of the Tura where they were once again attacked by local tribes. Sailing on down the Tobol, the Cossacks won another victory over Kuchum's men at Berezoviv. The Tatars did not give up and slung iron chains across a narrow part of the Tobol at Karauliny, in order to pin down the Russians for an ambush. After three days fighting at the end of June, Yermak's men drove off the Tatars, broke through the chains, and sailed on.
A month later there was another long drawn-out encounter, this time with forces led by Mametkul, Kuchum's heir, at Basabany, where the Tatar cavalry were eventually routed (with the aid of St. Nicholas). Constant harassment by archery fire from the river bank forced the Cossacks to row along the far side and so escape unscathed, although the chronicle also attributes this to the miraculous intervention of a holy banner! Arriving at the confluence of the Tobol and the Irtysh, the Cossacks stormed the stronghold of Khan Karacha, who was later to prove a dangerous enemy.
They were now within striking distance of Kuchum's capital, but despite constant victories the heavy fighting and strenuous travelling had taken their toll on Russian morale. Near the town and mountain of the Chuvash, the Cossacks heard that there was a solid wicker and earth barrier across the river, barring further progress, and that the town was well-defended by trenches. Kuchum had begun these works after the Tatar defeat at the Karauliny chains, and his plan nearly succeeded.
By the 1st October the Russians, installed in a nearby Tatar stronghold that they had seized, began to talk of retreating, as final victory seemed impossible. Eventually, after several weeks of skirmishing, the Cossacks were persuaded to one last effort, and on the 23rd October marched out to attack the assembled tribes. In addition to their good position on the mountain slopes, the Tatars were supported by the fire of two cannon brought by their allies, the Chuvash. The Cossacks were able to silence these with their own artillery, so that the Tatars hurled them into the river Irtysh. The chronicle speaks, once more, of three days fighting; but this allows the author to describe the Tatar allies (the Ostyaks and Voguls) slipping away day-by-day, so it may be an exaggeration. At any event, after repeated assaults, the Tatar forces were scattered and Kuchum led the remains of his host to join the Kazakh Horde on the steppe, also abandoning his towns in the region. Yermak and his men were able to occupy the khan's capital (which they renamed Sibir) unmolested and seize all the booty and provisions they found there.
Once the Russians were established in this stronghold, deputations began to come in from neighbouring tribes offering submission and fur-tribute. Yermak was able to send a messenger to the Tsar, telling him of the success, and sending an immense tribute in furs. In return, Ivan forgave the Cossack his earlier brigandry and gave him a charter authorising his activities, together with rich gifts, including two coats of mail for his personal protection. The Tsar also began arranging a relief expedition to Siberia. For, although well-established, the Cossacks still suffered from the guerilla warfare waged by the Tatars. On one occasion, 20 men in a foraging party were massacred, only one escaping to tell the tale. In response, Yermak undertook punitive raids against the nomads, now organised by Mametkul. At the end of February 1583, one such raiding party had the good fortune to capture him on the Vagay river, and bring an end to the danger from that quarter for the moment.
The rest of the year, 1583, was taken up in two expeditions to extend the area of Muscovite authority and force the tribes into submission and tribute-paying. The first thrust was down the Irtysh to the north. One source states this was led by Yermak with 300 men, but another, more detailed, speaks of Bogdan Bryazga, a commander-of-fifty, leading his force against the tribes on the Ob. Bogdan won a victory over a reputed 2.000 Voguls and Ostyaks on the Demyanka, before proceeding northwards to the Ob. In a narrow gorge the tribesmen had prepared the (by now) standard ambush of a barrage across the river, together with boat-hooks and ropes and grappling irons with which to drag the Cossack boats onto the rapids. The Russian musketry was too effective, however, and they broke through to capture the strongholds at the confluence of the Irtysh and the Ob. After accepting submissions and gathering tribute, the Cossacks returned to Sibir by late June. The second expedition was along the Tavda. Yermak captured settlements up the river to Tabary, defeating the tribes in battle and taking tribute.
If 1583 had been a success, with Yermak extending his authority over a wide area, the following year was a severe check to his ambitions. In March, the Tatar khan Karacha, whose fortress Yermak had captured two years before, arrived and blockaded Sibir with wagons and camps. The siege lasted two months, until the Cossacks launched a surprise night-attack on Karacha's camp, killing two of his sons and forcing the khan to flee. As daylight broke, the rest of the besieging forces gathered to attack the Russians. Faced with large numbers of cavalry, Yermak secured his flanks with woods and broken ground and stationed his men in an area with thick undergrowth. With these natural defences, the Cossacks were able to throw back repeated assaults until midday, when the Tatar forces melted away in rout.
It was perfectly clear to both sides that, lacking guns, the Tatars were no match for the Russians in the open field, nor could they hope to hold prepared positions in the face of a storm of small-arms and cannon fire, so they resorted to subterfuge. In September, Karacha managed to trick Yermak into letting the ataman Koltsov take 40 men on an expedition, to rescue tribesmen under Muscovite protection, against the alleged incursions by the Kazakh Horde. In fact they were ambushed by Karacha's Tatars and slaughtered to a man, the event being the signal for widespread uprisings against, and the murder of, Russians in Siberia.
So the situation was tense when the relief party of 300 men, led by the voyvodas Bolkovskoy and Glukhov arrived from Moscow in November. They had set out eighteen months earlier, but had been forced to spend the winter of 1583/4 to the West of the Urals. If anything, their arrival made Yermak's position worse. Hemmed in on all sides, and with inadequate provisions for his own men, this addition to the garrison was most unwelcome. There was a severe famine in Sibir, during which Bolkhovskoy and many soldiers died. The Russians were only saved by the arrival of the Spring, when loyal tribesmen began to bring in fresh supplies.
It is difficult to say how confident Yermak felt by 1585. Was he heartened by the reinforcements to continue his conquests, or was his next and final move a desperate fling? As the chronicle relates it, in August he led 50 men on an expedition against Kuchum's nomads, who had been interfering with trade, down the Vagay river to Atabash. Returning to the mouth of the river, he made camp behind the channel he had earlier ordered to be dug across the portage route there. Feeling themselves secure, the Cossacks set no guards. While they were sleeping, a Tatar scout crept into the camp, and, returning to Kuchum, told him that he had his great enemy at his mercy. But the khan feared the Cossack firepower and was unwilling to order an attack, until the scout went again and brought back three muskets and ammunition pouches. The onset of heavy rain, which would make firearms useless, persuaded Kuchum that an assault was possible, and the Tatars killed the sleeping Cossacks where they lay, only one man escaping with news of the disaster. In attempting his own escape, Yermak reportedly jumped for a boat, but missed his grip, and, weighed down by his two mail coats, fell into the river and was drowned. The chronicle reports that his body was later discovered and performed miraculous acts.
There is obviously a great deal that is legendary about Yermak's exploits in Siberia, as the last anecdote shows, but it is possible to retrieve much valuable historical and military material from the sources. Yermak's death certainly made an impact on the Cossacks, who despaired without their great leader and began to withdraw from their conquests; but in 1586, a new expedition of 100 men under voyvoda Mansurov arrived to restore the equilibrium. Further forces went to Siberia up to the end of the century, to consolidate Muscovite authority over the new-won territories and to build towns and churches. Kuchum remained a thorn in the Russians' side until voyvoda Malsalskoy finally destroyed his power with a force of 700 cavalry and 300 Tatars in 1598. In flight, Kuchum was betrayed and eventually murdered by other Tatars amongst whom he had sought refuge.
The Reasons for the Russians' Success
It may seem remarkable that such a small force achieved so much in such a vast territory. The reasons lie in the superiority of Russian organization and technology over their tribal opponents.
As regards organization; the ability of the Muscovite Tsar to keep on sending expeditions wore the Tatars down. The regular arrival of well-equipped and provisioned forces, capable of rapid movement along the river system, posed a fatal threat to the scattered nomads. By the acquisition or construction of fortified towns as strongholds, the Russians had secure bases, in which they could shelter during the harsh winters, and venture out in order to make new conquests in the Spring. Numbers were important too. Yermak's 500-800 men may not seem much of a force with which to conquer thousands of square miles of land, but in comparison to Tatar resources of manpower, these were formidable numbers.
Historical accounts of 'barbarian' people usually greatly exaggerate the fighting men in their armies. This is as true of the original Mongols, who supposedly fielded hundreds of thousands of men, as of their Tatar descendants. In fact, such nomadic groups do not produce populations to compare with settled agriculturalists. It is just that when they are devastating countries, defenceless before their speed and rapacity, there seems to be a lot of them. An estimate of Kuchum's horde, based on fur-tribute returns, suggests that it consisted of no more than 5,000 people, and a Russian envoy's informed guess estimated the total number of the khan's subjects, in the entire Siberian region, as 30,000. This would have provided a fighting force of approximately 1,000 and 6,000 men respectively, as an absolute maximum, and no doubt such complete levies were rarely, probably never, achieved.
To explain why bodies as small as 50 men, under Bogdan or Yermak, could virtually travel as they pleased, and why enemy tribes had to resort only to ambush and harassing tactics from the river bank, we must examine the superior Russian technology. Like the Conquistadores in the New World, gunpowder gave them an unassailable advantage. Many of the tribes they faced, especially the Ostyaks and Samoyeds of northern Siberia, were hardly out of the Stone Age. Even the Tatars had only bows and arrows, though metal tipped. Only the settled Chuvash had the surplus wealth and social structure which enabled them to employ cannon, probably acquired from the Turks.
"The Russian troops are so powerful: when they shott from their bows, then there is a flash of fire and a great smoke issues and there is a loud report like thunder in the sky. One does not see arrows coming out of them. They inflict wounds and injure fatally, and it is impossible to shield oneself from them by any trappings of war. Our scale armour, armour of plates and rings, cuirasse and chain-mail do not hold them; they pierce all of them right through."
Not only were the Asiatic horsehowmen unused to gunpowder weapons, they were also remarkably unwilling to adopt their use. A story told by Busbeq, the Habsburg envoy to the Turkish court, twenty years before Yermak's expedition, provides us with useful insight to their reasons. He was present at the interview of a frontier commander whose raiding force had suffered a disastrous defeat in Hungary, at the hands of Western soldiers, despite outnumbering them by 2,500 to 500. When criticized for this humiliating repulse, the man replied: "Did I not tell you that our men were overcome by the might of the muskets. It was the fire that routed us, not the valour of our enemies."
Hearing this, the Turkish Pasha, Rustem, decides to equip his own men with firearms for an expedition to Persia. Busbeq continues:
'This incident showed me that the Turk is afraid of small muskets, such as are used by horsemen. I am told that the same is also true of the Persian: and for this reason someone advised Rustem, when he was setting forth with the Sultan against the Persians, to arm with muskets a squadron of 200 cavalry selected from among his retainers, in order to inspire the enemy with great terror and cause great slaughter. He followed this advice, formed the squadron, armed them with muskets, and had them trained in their use. But they had scarcely completed half the journey before the muskets began to be impaired. Every day some part would be broken or lost, and there were few who could repair them. Thus the majority of the muskets became quite useless, and the men wished they had never brought the weapons. Also, they offended the sense of cleanliness on which the Turks set so much store - they were going about with their hands all begrimed with soot, their uniforms all dirty and their clumsy powder-boxes and pouches hanging down, so that they became the laughing stock of their comrades, who jeeringly called them apothocaries (chemists). So since with this equipment they displeased both themselves and others, they came to Rustem and displayed their broken and useless muskets, and asked what profit they were likely to gain from them when they faced the enemy; they had him relieve them of them and restore to them their accustomed weapons. Rustem, after carefully considering the matter, saw no good reason for refusing their request and so, with his kind permission, they resumed their bows and arrows."
This anecdote shows the real disadvantage the Tatars fought under. Like the Turkish horsemen, their traditional weapon, the bow, was inextricably part of their lifestyle, and they could not give it up without sacrificing their self-esteem. So deep-rooted was this prejudice, that when Napoleon's troops encountered Bashkirs in Russian armies, over two centuries later, they were still using bows.
This can be contrasted with the obvious pride the Russians felt in the weapons that made them invincible in Siberia, carefully distinguishing each type at the battle of Basabany:
"The Russian troops began to fire from their muskets, their rapid-firing small cannons, their small-shot guns, their fortress guns, their Spanish guns and arquebuses, and with these killed countless numbers of pagans."
The truth was, that in the circumstances of the sixteenth century, very small numbers of troops armed with gunpowder weapons could take on, and defeat, any number of opponents lacking them. This gave men like Yermak the confidence to tackle seemingly impossible tasks of conquest, and succeed!