Trade Routes

views updated


Three-fourths of Russia is more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) away from seas and oceans; Russia is the world's most continental country. Even though Russia's coastline is the second longest (after Canada), the presence of sea ice hampers traffic in and out of the country's few ports during much of the winter. Murmansk, for example, Russia's only warm-water port, is plagued by shorefast ice for two months out of the year. These and other factors hampered the development of a Russian navy until the eighteenth century, when Peter the Great built St. Petersburg, his famed "Window on the West." Accordingly, Russian historic trade routes have been negotiated largely within its vast interior.


Commerce in the Black Sea Basin may be traced to intercourse between the Scythians and Greeks circa 250 b.c.e. Scythian nomads extracted grain, fish, and slaves from their sedentary subjects and traded them in the Greek ports for wine, cloth, metalware, and luxury items. Before the Hun invasion (375 c.e.), Persian Alans and Germanic Goths established a commercial confederation between the Baltic and Black Seas.

International trade in Eastern Europe after 850 c.e. literally created Kievan Rus. Using the inter-locking system of rivers and portages on the Russian plain, Varangian (Viking) traders and soldiers sought the markets of the lower Volga and Don rivers, where they traded fur, slaves, and wood items for silver coins and spices from Central Asia, Arabia, and Byzantium. Originally traversing the Saracen Route between the Gulf of Finland, Lakes Ladoga and Onega, down the Volga River to the Caspian Sea and beyond, the Vikings eventually preferred trade with Byzantium, which was in its heyday. After the founding of Kievan Rus in 879, the Dnieper (Dnipro) trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks carried flax, hemp, hides, slaves, honey, wax, grain, and furs from the north in exchange for silks, naval equipment, wine, jewelry, glassware, and art items (particularly icons after the introduction of Orthodox Christianity in 988).

The collapse of the Khazar Empire (600900 c.e.) opened the steppes to menacing Kypchak Turks, who eventually cut off Kievan Rus from the all-important salt deposits (virtually the only food preservative) of the Crimea; thus, the major trade routes shifted from a north-south orientation to east-west paths. Beginning in the eleventh century, salt was hauled from Halych in Galicia-Volhynia to Kiev. Later, the importance of the salt of Galicia-Volhynia to not only the Kievan Rus, but also the Teutonic Knights of the Baltic coast, brought a reemphasis of the north-south Baltic-Black Sea trade west of the Crimea. Galicia-Volhynia's power and influence, based on the salt trade, lasted well into the second century of Mongol-Tatar domination of the rest of Russia (12371387).

The Mongol Yoke (12371556) isolated the Russians from the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the High Gothic period, among other major changes in the West. Because they survived on tribute paid by their Russian subjects and the customs duties paid by those involved in international trade, the Mongols permitted merchants the use of the north-south trade routes, this time between the Baltic, Novgorod, and Muscovy (in the north) and the Arabic Middle East and the Black Sea (in the south). They even encouraged the revival of the Crimean ports, which were then under the leadership of Italian merchants from Venice, Pisa, and Genoa; cities with Greek names then became Italian.


Ivan the Terrible's defeat of the Astrakhan Tatars in 1556 largely sealed the fate of the former Golden [or Kypchak] Horde. The Volga trade route was now in Muscovy possession all the way to Central Asia, from which the tsar could import horses, which would serve in his Swedish campaigns. Ivan also sought trade with Great Britain: in the second half of the sixteenth century, he established commerce between the White Sea port of Arkhangelsk (logs and lumber) and Hull in eastern England (finished products).

An unlikely servant of Tsar Ivan was a cossack named Yermak, who raided the Volga riverboats laden with horses from Central Asia. Yermak and his minions would later defeat the Siberian Tatars and claim Western Siberia in the name of the tsar in the 1580s. This event opened Siberia and the Russian Far East to Russian expansion and trade.

First using the river and portage method, cossacks and merchants traversed Siberia from west to east, reaching the Pacific coast within a century. Along the way, they traded trinkets to the natives for valuable furs. The Russian quest for fur led them to Alaska, down the North American Pacific coast to San Francisco (Fort Ross), and even to Hawaii. Later, coach transportation was used on the bone-jarring Great Siberian Tract. Between 1891 and 1916, Russian laborers built the Trans-Siberian Railway, which is still the only transcontinental thoroughfare in the country. Between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, a trade route flourished between Russia and China at the border crossing of Kyakhta. Chinese tea, silks, furs, and luxuries were imported in exchange for Russian raw materials.


For much of the period that it existed, the Soviet Union was an island that strove for self-sufficiency while remaining insulated from the rest of the world. Like that of imperial Russia, Soviet foreign trade was limited in total value, in quantity of commodities exchanged, and in number of trading partners. Between 1917 and 1991, Soviet trade with other socialist countries never fell below 67 percent. By the late 1980s, trade with the developed world was approximately 22 percent, with the balance going to developing countries.

Throughout the Soviet period, military strategists sought to expand the Soviet navy, which by extension included the merchant marine. An especially important goal was the development of a northern sea route through the use of heavy reinforcedultimately atomicicebreakers. By the 1980s, such icebreakers had successfully negotiated the Soviet Union's vulnerable Arctic coast between Murmansk and the Bering Strait.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Russia's foreign trade was more open than ever before, but, as in the distant past, its own exports continued to be raw materials or crudely processed finished goods, while its imports consisted of quality finished products. Major trading partners include China, Germany, the United States, and Japan.

See also: exploration; foreign trade; geography; trade statutes of 1653 and 1667


Brigham, Lawson W. (1991). The Soviet Maritime Arctic. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

Gibson, James R. (1969). Feeding the Russian Fur Trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Magocsi, Paul Robert. (1985). Ukraine: A Historical Atlas. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Victor L. Mote