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The Wild East, Part 3: Hell Freezes Over
By Ben Thomas Posted in History on August 25, 2020 0 Comments
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Even in death, his enemies feared him so much they gave him a hero’s funeral. Meet Yermak Timofeyevich, the man who (almost) conquered Siberia.

The sun rose over a sea of pines and birches: green sentinels arrayed from snow-capped mountains down through tundra, taiga and grassland, where bull-elks bellowed to greet the light. Dawn’s chill was already dispersing, giving way to the dry heat of a long subarctic day.

It was August, 1584, in Siberia — though few of the Tatar fishermen who gathered along this riverbank knew the year, or the place, by those names.

Siberia in summer

They counted years in titles of ancestors and battles, and called their home Sibír, the Land That Sleeps — for by the end of this month, it would be a wonderland of ice and snow, and would remain so until next April.

It was a fisherman named Yanish who first spotted the body twisting in the current. He shouted to his fellows, who marveled likewise at the myriad arrows bristling from its armor.

By that armor, emblazoned with the double-eagle sigil of Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich, the fishermen recognized this as the body of a high-ranking Russian nobleman.

As they dredged the corpse from the eddying water, they cried out in renewed astonishment — for this was not just any Russian noble, but an enemy of song and legend.

Yermak Timofeyevich

From mouth to ear, word passed through the village: Yermak Timofeyevich is dead! The besieger of cities, the slaughterer of women, the commander of devils is no more. Even now the men are stripping him of his fine armor, and he will hang on a frame outside town by midday.

And hang in a frame he did, this man who had carried Moscow’s proxy wars across the tundra to the furthest reaches of the earth. His armor, a gift from Tsar Ivan himself, was melted down for scrap.

For six weeks Yermak’s body hung outside town — but it would not rot, and carrion birds refused to feed on it. All who gazed upon it suffered the most terrifying nightmares.

The untimely end of Yermak Timofeyevich

Unnerved by these omens, the townsmen buried the corpse of the Cossack as a hero, sacrificing thirty oxen in his name. Or so the legend goes.

Who was this man, who inspired such hatred and such fear in his enemies? How did he rise from anonymity to the ear of the Tsar himself? What brought the triumphant conqueror to such an untimely end?

Musical accompaniment:

Verifiable facts about Yermak Timofeyevich are notably hard to come by. He was once a pirate captain carrying a bounty on his head, some say. He commanded armies of imps straight out of hell, say others.

Tales of Yermak seem to come from some dark alternate universe where Davy Crockett was a powerful and wicked sorcerer, hell-bent on exterminating indigenous peoples rather than making peace with them.

In a way, that’s what all Siberia was in those days: an eerie mirror of the American West three centuries later. A land of wood forts, gold rushes, powerful Native coalitions, and men who rode the range on horseback.

Instead of cowboys, Russia had bogatyri: free-riding adventurers whose epic deeds live on in song.

“Bogatyri” by Viktor Vasnetsov

And instead of outlaw gangs like those of Jesse James and Billy the Kid, Russia had Cossacks: renegade killers who sold their services to the highest bidder.

In those days, Cossacks were despised and dreaded just as intensely as the Old West’s most wanted. Even their name itself is not respectably Russian, but Tatar — coming from a word meaning “daredevil, bold spirit, someone who has severed ties with his social class.”

“Reply of the Zaprozhian Cossacks” by Ilya Repin

While some Cossacks were military deserters, many others were tavern brawlers, hustlers, con artists and back-alley fighters. They rode for honest pay where they could get it, and the rest of the time they stole, raided, raped and pillaged at will: a horde of Hell’s Angels on horseback.

Much as the Lincoln County Regulators served as a mercenary army in the Lincoln County War — a protracted and bloody conflict between owners of rival New Mexico dry goods stores — Cossack armies often found themselves in the pay of frontier barons, fighting for or against a panoply of rival nobles and Tatar khans, depending on who offered the best deal this year.

Most powerful of Russia’s nobles were the Stroganov family, whose coins financed Moscow’s ferocious eastward expansion across Siberia.

The Grand Duchy of Moscow in the 1500s
The Grand Duchy of Moscow in the 1500s

The Grand Duchy of Moscow, ruled by Tsar Ivan (often known as “The Terrible”), was badly in need of Stroganov support. The royal treasury was hemorrhaging gold, drained by wars in Livonia (now part of Latvia) and across the eastern frontier.

The Stroganovs, for their part, reaped a healthy profit from their status as Moscow’s financiers. Their patchwork mercenary armies poured eastward across the steppe, setting up gold mines and trading posts where opportunity presented — and extracting yasak, fur tribute, from indigenous peoples by any means necessary.

Many of those indigenous peoples lived much as indigenous peoples around the world have lived for the past 40,000 years, and continue to live to this day: hunting their meat on the hoof with flint-tipped arrows, dwelling in portable hidebound houses, sewing their clothes from tanned skins, and singing the songs their ancestors taught them.

But deep in the Siberian forest, one of Moscow’s indigenous rivals had grown rich off the fur trade and acquired a taste for the high life.

Küçüm Khan holding court in Qashliq

From his fortress-capital of Qashliq, Küçüm Khan ruled the mighty Khanate of Sibir: a loose coalition of Tatar tribal groups and Turkic horse-gangs, all swearing fealty to a man who claimed direct descent from great Genghis himself.

An energetic and calculating ruler, Küçüm had seized the throne by force — wresting it from the region’s previous potentates, brothers Yädegär and Bekbulat, who had kept their positions secure for a half-century by kowtowing in nominal vassalage to Moscow.

Küçüm swiftly put an end to that arrangement. Ruthlessly purging weak links from his administration — often by blood, as when he put a lieutenant’s two sons to death after a lost battle — the khan reformed Sibir’s tax code, consolidated the royal treasury, and was soon commissioning fabulous works of Persian architecture to adorn his capital.

Strolling through Qashliq in the mid-1500s, you would’ve encountered a bewildering banquet of cultures from all across the Asian steppe.

The city of Qashliq in the 1500s

After passing through the hide tents and timber lodges surrounding the city, you would’ve found yourself dodging horses and carts among the muddy streets of the marketplace — choked by cookfire smoke and hungering for the hot spiced soup, beef and mutton sizzling in every stall.

Gazing upward, you would’ve beheld mosaicked mosques in fine Persian style, built by architects thousands of miles from their homes in Tabriz and Isfahan. Atop the capitol hill stood the khan’s palace itself — a thunderclap of imposing gray stone, designed as much to repel invading armies as to impress visitors like you.

If you chanced to arrive at the hour of prayer, you would’ve heard the adhan echo from every minaret in the city: There is no God but God, sung in that same haunting Arabic portamento every Muslim from Cairo to Baghdad would recognize — except that here at the end of the world, it rang out over timber palisades, pine forests and glaciers.

Surely Qashliq was one of the most unusual cities in all world history. Yet within two decades of Küçüm Khan’s ascension to the throne, this vibrant citadel would be no more than a memory.

Cossacks invade Siberia

In 1580, Yermak Timofeyevich led an army of some 540 Cossacks — backed by a motley force of German and Lithuanian mercenaries — into the lands of the Voguls, indigenous subjects of Küçüm Khan.

Yermak’s army of battle-scarred professionals were not here merely to show force or project power. Their eyes glimmered with the promise of yasak, and they’d ridden a hell of a long way to collect it. The prospect of bloodshed was simply an added bonus — and an enticing one at that.

It’s not at all clear how the Stroganovs came to hire Yermak Timofeyevich — or even if they actually did. Nobody’s even quite sure who the man was.

Yermak Timofeyevich

The Cossack ataman (commander) was clearly keen on cultivating an aura of mystery. He spoke in the royal plural, referring to himself as “we,” and offered sparse contradictory details when questioned about his background.

He claimed to have fought as a Cossack — though he was vague about when and where. At some point before or after his Cossack days, he was said to have sailed the Caspian Sea as a pirate, preying on Russian and Persian ships without distinction.

Some tales even claimed Timofeyevich summoned imps straight out of Hell to swing battles in his favor.

Yermak Timofeyevich at the head of his army

This, then, was the man the Stroganovs had sent (or didn’t send; he may have been acting on his own initiative at this point) to lay siege to Küçüm Khan’s city at the end of the earth. In Yermak’s path lay a series of mirzas, regions defended by Turkic and Tatar rulers commanding their own armies.

For many of these local peoples, Küçüm Khan was an invader every bit as unwelcome as Timofeyevich. They resisted conversion to Islam, and to the urban way of life, much preferring their familiar shamanistic beliefs and practices, and their forests where one could wander freely, lost in silence among the towering pines.

A family of the Siberian Chum people

As Yermak and his army slashed and burned their way across the Sleeping Land, even the most fiercely independent clans were forced to choose a side. Most chose Küçüm, who at least promised them their lives.

Küçüm’s strategists chose to meet the Cossack army on the banks of the nearby Irtysh River, at Chuvash Cape, where fallen trees could help screen their troops: a coalition of bone-armored Siberian infantry, Turkic steppe-horsemen, Tatar spearmen, and bands of Yakut and Yukaghir hunters summoned out of their icy forests by the khan’s command.

Russian Cossacks Battling Siberian Peoples
Russian Cossacks battling Siberian peoples

We may never know for certain how that battle at Chuvash Cape unfolded. Historical accounts differ wildly on almost every major point.

While some authorities claim the Cossack forces had no cannons and “not a single horse,” and that Küçüm and his men were mounted, others say the battle was decided by cavalry charges — or on rafts in the river.

Certain sources write that Küçüm’s forces were armed with “bows, arrows, and spears” against the “matchlock muskets, sabers, pikes, and several small cannons” of the Cossacks, and fled in terror at their first sight of musket-fire. Others, meanwhile, insist the Tatars had cannons and muskets of their own, and were crack shots from horseback, like Comanches.

Cossacks riding into battle

A few accounts even portray the Siberian warriors as pseudo-Vikings — shirtless berserkers led by shamans who transformed into hawks and bears, wild-eyed and howling on psychotropic mushrooms, hacking their way through Yermak’s forces and painting the tundra red with Cossack blood.

Whatever actually transpired at the Irtysh that day, Yermak’s army somehow emerged victorious despite being outnumbered three-to-one.

Cossacks ride into a Siberian village

The surviving Cossacks trampled over thousands of Tatar corpses, and entered the capital of Qashliq with scarcely a mutter of resistance. Küçüm Khan, for his part, fled into the wilderness — as did most of the surviving Siberian fighters, no doubt.

The Stroganov Chronicle, an account of the conflict dating from around 1620, has Küçüm wailing a poetic lament as he watches the enemy flood through his city:

“The Stroganovs sent men of the common people against me from their forts to avenge on me the evil I had inflicted; they sent the atamans and the Cossacks, Yermak and his men. He came upon us, defeated us, and did us such great harm.”

Küçüm Khan surveys the aftermath of the battle

Yermak Timofeyevich did not yet realize he had made an enemy for life. Even as he and his men gleefully sacked the city, Küçüm was already plotting vengeance. He would not stop until Yermak suffered as he did — and in the end, he would torment the conqueror all the way to his grave.

But on this day, Yermak’s attention was focused westward, on the Duchy of Moscow — more specifically, on Tsar Ivan, who had just issued a bounty on his head.

Here’s where it becomes a bit unclear what Yermak’s relationship to Moscow actually was. Had he marched on Qashliq under secret orders from the Stroganovs, who wanted to maintain plausible deniability? Or was his invasion of Küçüm’s lands an attempt to prove his worth in order to “go legit?”

The second scenario would help explain why Yermak followed up on his victory by sending his trusted lieutenant Ivan Kolzo to Moscow, loaded with furs and begging for an audience with Tsar Ivan, primarily to request the revocation of Yermak’s wanted-outlaw status.

Tsar Ivan receives Ivan Kolzo in Moscow

The tsar was in need of some good news that summer. The Livonian War was not going well for Moscow, and Küçüm Khan had grown into an annoying thorn in the duchy’s side. Kolzo arrived at an opportune moment, bearing news not only of the khan’s defeat, but also of a bountiful source of yasak for the royal treasury.

Yermak’s Stroganov friends apparently greased the wheels, because Kolzo managed to get his audience — and Tsar Ivan liked what he heard. Recognizing which direction the steppe winds were blowing, the tsar immediately dispatched a unit of streltsy gunners to Yermak — along with a royal fur mantle and two suits of armor adorned with the double-headed eagle of Moscow.

Overnight, the Cossacks were transformed from outlaw bandits to state-sanctioned enforcers of the tsar’s frontier decrees.

Cossacks on the steppe

Church bells tolled throughout Moscow as Tsar Ivan declared Yermak Timofeyevich a national hero, and named him Prince of Siberia.

It was a stroke of genius on the tsar’s part: in a single move, he’d brought thousands of outlaws to heel, gained military control over his far-eastern frontier, reopened a long-lost income stream, and acquired a mobile army with decades of experience in guerilla steppe warfare.

All that remained was to seal the pact with one final gift. Tsar Ivan asked Timofeyevich to send a captured Tatar leader, Mahmet-kul, to Moscow.

This proved to be a fateful choice, however, because Mahmet-kul was currently serving a crucial role as Yermak’s hostage, keeping Küçüm’s forces at bay while the Cossacks consolidated their gains in Qashliq.

As if the loss of Yermak’s key hostage wasn’t problem enough, the tsar’s prized streltsy troops proved underwhelming, to say the least. They straggled into Qashliq decimated by scurvy and frostbite, unfit to fight, yet demanding food, drink and beds.

Yermak was losing leverage in Qashliq, and Küçüm Khan knew it. The moment had come for Siberia to strike back.

Küçüm Khan and his Tatar army strike back in the dead of night

In August 1584, Küçüm launched a daring nighttime raid against the Cossacks, descending on horseback under cover of darkness.

This time, victory belonged to the khan. But the retreating Cossack forces burned Qashliq behind them, leaving the Siberian capital’s grand mosques and palaces in smoking ruins.

Yermak Timofeyevich, meanwhile, plunged into the Irtysh river in an attempt to escape — but, according to legend, was dragged to a watery grave by the ornately forged armor he’d been gifted by the tsar.

For Tsar Ivan, Yermak’s death proved to be no more than a minor inconvenience. Muscovite soldiers would be tramping through Siberia in their thousands by 1586, constructing a timber fortress equipped with heavy artillery not far from the khan’s ruined capital.

From their frontier fort, Moscow’s armies brought their war to Siberia’s doorstep — mercilessly exterminating Küçüm’s remaining forces until they finally captured the khan himself.

The final defeat of Küçüm Khan by Muscovite forces

Even then, however, Küçüm refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Muscovite rule. He rejected an offer from the tsar to come “comfort himself” in Moscow, choosing instead to shelter with distant relatives in the city of Bukhara, in what’s now Uzbekistan.

Küçüm’s family, on the other hand, took the tsar up on his offer, and found themselves treated with surprising gentility in Moscow.

Far from living as prisoners, they were educated in European literature and Orthodox Christianity, to which they soon converted. They styled themselves the “Princes Sibirsky,” and the most favored among them would serve as puppet rulers throughout Asia as late as the 17th century.

And meanwhile, the Russian conquest of the steppe continued — not only in military form, but in more insidious ways, too.

Cossacks offer a sword-point deal to indigenous Siberian people

As on the American frontier, Cossack leaders — known as “red beards” — offered literal sword-point peace deals to each indigenous group they encountered. Those who refused to submit and pay the fur tribute died at the ends of Muscovite blades.

On the Kamchatka Peninsula alone, Cossacks wiped out more than half the indigenous population in a mere 50 years. The Yakuts lost more than 70 percent of their population in a similar timeframe. When they became unable to pay the exorbitant fur tithe, their Cossack governor hung them from meat hooks as a lesson to others.

Although these atrocities strike us as far beyond the pale of civilized conduct, the truth is that these acts of butchery actually claimed far fewer indigenous lives than many of Moscow’s more nefarious tactics.

Indigenous people suffer from smallpox

Arriving on the scene in 1630, smallpox spread like wildfire across Siberia. Highly contagious and frequently deadly, the dread disease added insult to injury by disfiguring survivors with distinctive raised scars, and leaving many of its victims blind.

And as European colonialists hunted the buffalo herds of the American West to near-extinction, Moscow’s merciless fur tithes fueled unsustainable hunting and trapping practices. The great reindeer herds, which had ranged across the tundra since the last Ice Age, were slaughtered in such numbers that their populations are still recovering today.

Nenet men hold a reindeer race

Perhaps the most insidious weapon in the arsenal of the Russian conquest of Siberia, however, is the one demonstrated by the fate of Küçüm Khan’s own children. Not overtly brutalized or terrorized, they were, instead, rewarded for adopting Muscovite manners and beliefs.

Like many Native American groups, these once-proud rulers of the steppe lived out their days in gilded cages — scrutinized as curiosities, educated in the “civilized” culture of their conquerors, and ultimately absorbed into the harmless pages of illustrated bedtime stories.

It is said that, to this very day, in certain places on the Siberian tundra, one can crack the ice and find nothing but layer upon layer of human bones beneath.

How many cities, songs, peoples and ways of life remain lost and forgotten beneath that ice?

Perhaps not even the trees remember.


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