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The Wild East, Part 1: A Mirror Frontier
By Ben Thomas Posted in History on March 26, 2020 0 Comments
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The Wild East - Part 1: A Mirror Frontier

They battled for centuries over thousands of miles of perilous wilderness. Meet the heroes and villains of the Eastern frontier.

The native warriors nervously eyed the colonial army on the far side of the river. Proud and fearless though they were, and intimately familiar with this forest and prairie, they recognized in these European invaders a new and utterly alien kind of threat.

Armed with the finest bronze shields, clad in the strongest armor of wood and fur and bone, the indigenous fighters couldn’t have helped but notice the bizarre uniforms of the colonial soldiers: long jackets dyed bright red and blue; steel helmets, black leather boots and trousers.

"Surprise Attack" (1871) by Vasily Vereshchagin
“Surprise Attack” (1871) by Vasily Vereshchagin

And while the local warriors brandished the handmade bows, arrows and spears that had served them well through thousands of years of hunting and tribal warfare, they recognized the matchlock muskets and pistols clutched by the Europeans – and the iron cannons arrayed between their ranks. They’d seen what those weapons could do to trees and stockades, and to the bodies of men.

Two worlds gazed at one another across that river – and by the end of this campaign, one of them would shatter the other.

For the Europeans brought far more than just powerful weapons. They arrived with the backing of a wealthy imperial state – one whose rulers believed they carried a divine mandate to conquer these plains, forests and mountains in the name of God and Civilization.

Russian cavalry with Kazakh nobility
Russian cavalry with Kazakh nobility

In reality, of course, the colonialists’ true motivations were more mundane. Driven by limitless hunger for territory, trade routes and gold, their armies tore open a frontier that would soon become dotted with wood forts and one-horse mining towns – a perilous landscape where farmers, ranchers, criminals and land barons made vast fortunes, or died trying.

But this frontier was nowhere in the American West – no, it lay half a world away, in the pine forests of Siberia.

For more than 300 years – from the 1530s all the way to the 1890s – the Tsardom of Russia fought its way eastward across the frigid Siberian forests, then southwest into the Kazakh steppe-land, and finally into the perilous heart of the Pamir Mountains: the “Roof of the World.”

Russia's expansion across Central Asia, 1533-1894
Russia’s expansion across Central Asia, 1533-1894

In many ways, Russia’s conquest of Central Asia serves as an eerie mirror image of Europe’s westward expansion across North America.

Musical accompaniment:

In the 1550s, while Spanish conquistadors were slaughtering and enslaving Native Americans in California and Florida, a 150,000-strong Russian army led by Tsar Ivan the Terrible laid siege to the citadel of Kazan – capital of the Khanate of Kazan, a highly literate Islamic state ruled by a feudal nobility of Turkic Tatars.

Ivan the Terrible's Siege of Kazan, 1552
Ivan the Terrible’s Siege of Kazan, 1552

Half a century later, in the 1610s – while French and Dutch traders were bankrolling trade wars among the Iroquois and other Woodland nations in the forests of New England – Russian Cossacks were constructing winter outposts (zimovie) and forts (ostrogs) along Siberia’s Ob River, where Turkic Khanates ruled by Genghis Khan’s descendants controlled the fur trade.

Kazan Tatars meeting at a trading fair
Kazan Tatars meeting at a trading fair

Throughout the 1710s, while England’s colonies were consolidating their hold on America’s Eastern Seaboard, Russian armies were pushing up the Irtysh River toward the Chinese border, contending with the Mongolian Dzungar Khanate, whose mighty armies drove them downriver, where they founded the city of Omsk.

Warriors of the Golden Horde - looking very similar to their descendants of later Khanates - subdue a Russian prisoner after a conquest
Warriors of the Golden Horde – looking very similar to their descendants of later Khanates – subdue a Russian prisoner after a conquest

In the 1840s, while American soldiers forcibly removed the Cherokee and other Plains Nations from their ancestral homelands, marching them to bleak reservations on the infamous Trail of Tears, Russian armies raised a line of forts along the Kazakh steppe, pinning the Uzbek nobles of the Khanate of Kokand in their capital city – the splendor of whose mosques, Islamic schools (madrasas) and palace would awe her conquerors.

"Triumph" by Vasiliy Vereshchagin, depicting the ruined Sher-i-Dor Madrasa in Samarkand
“Triumph” by Vasiliy Vereshchagin, depicting the ruined Sher-i-Dor Madrasa in Samarkand

By the 1860s, while America’s Southern plantation owners and Northern loyalists laid waste to their homeland in a brutal Civil War, Russian forces were laying siege to the ancient strongholds of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara – where khans descended from Genghis himself made ferocious final stands as cannons shattered the exquisite stonework of their cities.

"Samarkand" by Richard-Karl Karlovitch Zommer
“Samarkand” by Richard-Karl Karlovitch Zommer

And in the 1880s, while Apache warriors made their final stands against U.S. garrisons in the arid mountains of Arizona, Russian troops were pushing into the last redoubts of the Pamir Mountains north of Afghanistan, battling guerrilla fighters who kept their forts under near-constant attack for nearly three decades.

"Entry of Russian Troops Into Samarkand, June 8, 1968" by Nikolay Karazin
“Entry of Russian Troops Into Samarkand, June 8, 1968” by Nikolay Karazin

Like their American counterparts on the far side of the globe, Russian colonialists had more than just military force in their favor.

Along with gunpowder and steel, they brought new diseases like smallpox, which laid waste to as much as 80 percent of the populations of Siberian peoples like the Tungus, Yakut and Yukaghir.

The opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1836

In later centuries, they also brought new technologies like telegraphs and steam-powered railways, which connected their remote outposts with speed the indigenous populations could never have anticipated.

Far more fatefully, the Russians brought their own concept of Manifest Destiny to Central Asia.

By the 1740s, Russian armies carried an imperial mandate to “totally extirpate” steppe peoples like the Chukchis and Koraks, “with the help of Almighty God and to the good fortune of Her Imperial Highness.”

And like American frontier settlers, Russian hunters and trappers inflicted catastrophic devastation on plains and forest ecosystems, slaughtering untold millions of wild animals for pelts and meat.

Russian trappers negotiating a fur trade with Siberian people
Russian trappers negotiating a fur trade with Siberian people

What’s more, just as the American West would give birth to the archetypes of “Cowboy” and “Indian,” Asia’s frontier created its own immortal characters in Russian lore.

In the Russian imagination, the Central Asian steppe was the realm of the bogatyr – the cowboy-knight, riding the range on his trusty steed, armed with spear, sword or musket (depending on the period).

While American yarn-spinners regaled their audiences with fireside tales of Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan, Russian bards recited the heroic sagas of semi-mythical bogatyri such as Dobrynya Nikitich and Ilya Muromets.

"Bogatyri" - three of the most famous bogatyrs, Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets and Alyosha Popovich, in an 1898 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov
“Bogatyri” – three of the most famous bogatyrs, Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets and Alyosha Popovich, in an 1898 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov

And just as Native Americans were alternately feared, despised, and venerated as “noble savages” by European colonialists, Central Asia’s indigenous peoples were viewed as ruthless primitives deserving of extermination – even as they were held in awe for their supernatural shamanic powers.

The tale of the Russian frontier is far from simple – and it will take several months to tell, even in highly abridged form.

Cossacks riding horseback on the Kazakh Steppe
Cossacks riding horseback on the Kazakh Steppe

It is the story of proud imperial families and wealthy merchant guilds; of noble khans and brilliant nomadic generals; of exquisite ancient palaces and beleaguered wooden forts; of gunfights, sieges and slaughters; of criminals who rose to fame and fortune, and of humble families of settlers just doing their best to eke out a living in this harsh and unforgiving land.

In short, it’s the saga of the American frontier in reflection: a world already rich with thousands of years of civilization and culture – which a hungry empire coveted as land ripe for the taking.

You’re about to witness a side of Russia that few outsiders have ever experienced.

Let’s take a journey to the Wild East.

A Cossack battling a nomadic warrior on horseback
A Cossack battling a nomadic warrior on horseback

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