Yermak Timofeyevich

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(d. 1585), Cossack chieftain, leader of an expedition that laid the basis for Russia's annexation of Siberia.

Little is known about Yermak's early biography, and many of the details of his Siberian campaign are still disputed. Most sources indicate that he was a Volga Cossack who fled north in 1581 in order to escape punishment for piracy; Ruslan Skrynnikov, however, argues that Yermak was fighting in the Livonian War in 1581 and went to Siberia in 1582. Yermak and his Cossack band were hired by the Stroganovs, a family of wealthy Urals merchants, to protect their possessions against attacks by the Tatars and other indigenous peoples of Siberia. Thereafter Yermak and his band of a few hundred men set off along the Siberian rivers in lightweight boats; it is not clear whether the Stroganovs sent them to attack the Siberian khanate, or whether the decision to go on to the offensive was taken by the Cossacks. In October 1582 they defeated the Siberian khan, Kuchum, and occupied his capital, Kashlyk (Isker). The local peoples recognized Yermak's authority and rendered him tribute. In 1585, however, Khan Kuchum launched a surprise attack on the Cossack camp and killed most of the band. Yermak himself, according to legend, drowned in the River Irtysh, weighed down by a suit of armour that he had received as a gift from the tsar. Subsequent expeditions continued the Russian annexation of Siberia that Yermak had pioneered. After his death Yermak became a folk hero; his achievements were celebrated in oral tales and songs, and later depicted in popular prints (lubki ).

See also: ivan iv; siberia


Armstrong, Terence, ed. (1975). Yermak's Campaign in Siberia: A Selection of Documents, tr. Tatiana Minorsky and David Wileman. London: Hakluyt Society.

Perrie, Maureen. (1997). "Outlawry (Vorovstvo ) and Redemption through Service: Ermak and the Volga Cossacks." In Culture and Identity in Muscovy, 13591584, ed. A. M. Kleimola and G. D. Lenhoff. Moscow: ITZ-Garant.

Skrynnikov, R. G. (1986). "Ermak's Siberian Expedition." Russian History / Histoire Russe 13:139.

Maureen Perrie