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Colonial Expansion


In 1300 Moscow was the capital of a very small, undistinguished principality whose destiny was almost certainly beyond anyone's imaginings at the time: by 1991, it would control more than one-sixth of the earth's landed surface. This expansion was achieved by many means, ranging from marital alliances and purchase to military conquest and signed treaties.

Moscow was already in control of a multiracial, multiethnic region in 1300. The primordial inhabitants were Finnic. Much later Balts moved in, and then around 1100 Slavs migrated to the region, some from the south (from Kievan Rus), perhaps the majority from the west, the area of Bohemia. In 1328 the Russian Orthodox Church established its headquarters in Moscow, giving stability to the Moscow principality at crucial junctures and helping legitimize its annexation of other, primarily Eastern Slavic, principalities. Much of the Muscovite expansion was nearly bloodless, as elites in other principalities chose to join the elite in Moscow over liquidation or marginalization in small principalities. After 1450 Moscow's rivals became more formidable, especially the Republic of Novgorod in the northwest, with its vast lands in the Russian North (annexed as the result of military campaigns in 1471 and 1478); the eastern entrepot of the Hansa League, at the time perhaps the major fur supplier to much of Eurasia; and Lithuania, the largest state in Europe in the mid-fifteenth century. Moscow unleashed its army against Lithuania and by 1514 had annexed much of its territory (sometimes known as "West Russia").

In the mid-sixteenth century Muscovy pursued colonial expansion full force. In 1552 the Tatar Khanate of Kazan was annexed, and in 1556, after a dash down the Volga, the Tatar Khanate of Astrakhan was conquered. Although Muscovy controlled numerous regions from 1300 onward, the annexations of the 1550s converted Muscovy into a truly multinational empire. Both moves were made for security concerns, only marginally (at best) for economic reasons.

The conquests of Kazan and Astrakhan made it possible for the Russians to move farther east, first into the Urals, then into Siberia. There the Muscovite expansion began to take on hues resembling Western European colonial expansion into the New World and Asia. A pivotal figure was Ermak Timofeyev syn (i.e., son of the commoner Timofei; had Ermak's father been of noble origin, then his patronymic would have been Timofeevich), a cossack ataman who at the end of the 1570s or the beginning of the 1580s (the precise date is unknown) campaigned into Siberia and initiated the destruction of the Tatar Siberian Khanate. Once the Siberian Khanate was annexed, the path was open through Siberia to the Pacific. The Russians garrisoned strategic points and began to collect tribute (primarily in furs, especially sables) from the Siberian natives. Colonial expansion in many parts of the world was not profitable, because administrative costs ate up whatever gains from trade there may have been. In Siberia, however, the opposite has been true for more than four centuries. The conquest, pacification, and continuing administrative costs were low there, while the remittances to Moscow and St. Petersburg in the form of furs, gold and other precious metals, diamonds, timber, and, more recently, oil and gas were all profitable. If one includes the Urals, developed between the reign of Peter the Great and 1800, the trans-Volga push was very profitable for Russia.

The colonists who settled Eurasia between the Urals and the Pacific were certainly among the most motley ever assembled. Leading the pack were cossacks and other adventurers. They were followed by fur traders and perhaps trappers. Government officials and garrison troops were next. They were followed by peasants fleeing serfdom, then by exiles from the center. Even as late as the last years of the Soviet Union, permanent residents of Siberia volunteered aloud their disgust over the fact that Moscow used their land as a dumping ground for criminal and political exiles. In the eighteenth century landlords claimed huge tracts in Siberia and moved all of their peasants from Old Russia to the new lands. Probably the last wave were Soviet professionals who responded to quadruple wages to settle in mineral-rich but climatically unfriendly regions of Siberia.

Moscow's push south of the Oka into the steppe was at least initially a defensive measure. The Crimean Tatars sacked Moscow in 1571 and its suburbs in 1591, and they regularly "harvested" tens of thousands of Slavs into captivity for sale into the world slave trade out of Kefe across the Black Sea. To put a stop to these continuous depredations, the Muscovites paid annual tributes to the Crimeans that were never sufficient, mounted patrols along the southern frontier, and began the process of walling it off from the steppe to keep the nomads from penetrating Eastern Slavdom. A series of fortified lines were built in the steppe, until the Crimean Khanate was surrounded and then finally annexed in 1783. What began as a security measure turned into a great economic boon for Russia. Most of the area annexed was chernozem soil, prairie soil a yard thick that proved to be the richest soil in Europe. The western part of this area had been Ukraine, which was annexed in 1654. The eastern part of the steppe was uninhabited because of continuous Tatar depredations. Once it was secure, it was settled primarily by Russian farmers hoping to improve on their yields from the pitiful podzol soils north of the Oka. This colonization gave the Russians access to the sixty-thousand-square-kilometer Donbass, one of late Russia's and the USSR's major fuel and metallurgical regions. The homeland of the Great Russians, the Volga-Oka mesopotamia, is almost totally lacking in useful minerals and suitable soil and weather for productive agricultureall of which were supplied by the colonization of Ukraine and Siberia.

One of Russia's good fortunes was that generally it was able to pick its colonization-annexation targets one at a time. Peter the Great in 1703 annexed the Neva delta, which became the site of the future capital, St. Petersburg, and gave Russia direct access to Baltic and Atlantic seaports of tremendous value during the next three centuries. The next target to the west was Poland, which was divided into three partitions (among Russia, Austria, and Prussia). The first partition, in 1772, involved primarily lands that once had been East Slavic, but the second (1793) and third (1795) engorged West Slavic territories, including the capital of Poland itself, Warsaw. This strategic move netted Russia more intimate access to the rest of Europe, but otherwise gave the Russians nothing but trouble: the enduring hatred of the Poles, rebellions by Poles against Russian hegemony, and dissent by Russians who opposed the annexation of Poland.

After the Napoleonic Wars, the Russian Empire moved against the Caucasus. This move led to the horror of the Caucasian War, which dragged on from 1817 to 1864. Control over the Caucasus had been contested for centuries among the Persians, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, and the Russians. There, Christianity and Islam met head to head. The Islamic Chechens were among the first peoples attacked in 1817, an event that reverberates to this day. The Armenian and Georgian Christians looked to the Russians to save them from Islamic conquest. The Russians ultimately won, but at tremendous cost and for little real gain.

In 1864 Russia turned its attention to Central Asia. Between then and 1895 it defeated and annexed to the Russian Empire the weak khanates of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva. Central Asia was inhabited by primarily Turkic nomads. Silk was the main product manufactured there that the Russians wanted, as well as access via commercial transportation to Balkh, Afghanistan, and India further south. In Soviet times Uzbekistan was foolishly converted into the cotton basket of the USSR at the cost of drying up the Syr Daria and Amu Daria rivers and the Aral Sea, leaching the soil, and converting the region into a toxic dust bowl.

Russia was successful in its colonial empire building efforts because of the weakness and disorganization of its opponents. Areas such as Poland, the Caucasus, and Central Asia benefited Russia little, whereas St. Petersburg, Siberia, and left-bank Ukraine were profit centers for Russia and for the USSR.

See also: demography; empire, ussr as; military, imperial era


Davies, Brian. (1983). "The Role of the Town Governors in the Defense and Military Colonization of Muscovy's Southern Frontier: The Case of Kozlov, 16351638." 2 vols. Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago.

Davies, Norman. (1982). God's Playground: A History of Poland. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hellie, Richard. (2002). "Migration in Early Modern Russia, 1480s1780s." In Coerced and Free Migration: Global Perspectives, ed. David Eltis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Khodarkovsky, Michael. (2002). Russia's Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 15501800. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Richard Hellie

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