When an advanced civilisation meets a less advanced civilisation, bad things happen to the latter. That’s the established school of thought and especially pertinent in light of current efforts to attract the attention of other (possible) races in the cosmos; with Stephen Hawking‘s cautionary views on the subject widely known. If human history has anything to to say about the issue, then there is plenty to be alarmed about. Of course, “advanced” is inevitably shorthand for “technologically advanced” – whether that full statement is intended or not. We could argue that ancient Siberians, or indigenous Americans, who were able to exist without destroying the environment that kept them alive, were way more “advanced” in some respects than we could possibly imagine.
This issue of the Russian state invading, conquering and absorbing Siberia is complicated by the state of the vast region when the Tsarist move Eastwards began. In 1580 Siberia was still a Khanate, under control of the Mongol ruler Kuchum Khan. Kuchum was prone to launching raids into Russian territory and was also keen to spread the Islamic faith; two factors that raised the ire of the current Tsar – the first Russian ruler under that title: Ivan The Terrible. Of all the people to antagonise; Ivan was decidedly a bad choice. He was coming to the end of his reign, where his intolerances (some would say madnesses) had reached their peak.
He sent an expeditionary force led by 540 Cossacks, under control of their leader Yermak Timofeyevich, supported by an additional 300 slave conscripts into the “Khanate of Sibir”. The subsequent battles comprised a bloody but ultimately decisive campaign against Kuchum, who, has it would transpire; would be the last Mongol Khan to control Siberia.
How can we as outsiders understand what it must mean to be a Cossack today, or even more so: one fighting under a Russian Tsar 500 years ago?! There is undoubtedly a pride in their origins, tradition, way of life and indeed: proficiency and ruthlessness in battle. Due to their links with the Tsars, it should come as no surprise to learn that the Cossacks declared open war against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (immediately post-Revolution) and also formed the bulk of the pro-Tsarist White Army. Their fearsome reputation survived the 20th Century and remains intact today. For example, a friend quoted his Ukrainian ex-P.O.W. grandfather to me – who, after his experiences in WW2- told him, solemnly, “Even the SS were afraid of the Cossacks”. No small accolade.
So, in spite of taking on the last Khan on home territory, the modest size of the initial force and significant losses throughout several battles, Kuchum was forced into retreat after an assault on the Tatar fort at Mount Chyuvash in 1582. After regrouping his forces in the steppe, a night assault two years later would see the death of Yermak Timofeyevich and the retreat of his remaining forces.
The Russians, however would return to finish what the Cossacks had started. A campaign from 1584 to 1598 would see the last of the Khans in Russia, the defeat of their allies, the capture of Kuchum’s family and the self-imposed retreat and exile of Kuchum himself. The era of the Khans was finally over. Now with all Mongol authority firmly disposed of, the incoming Russian regime could examine exactly who and what they had so forcibly inherited, affirm authority in their own particular style and expand Eastwards.
Cossack Yermak survives today as a remarkable statue in Novosibirsk International Airport (Tolmachevo), incidentally. The mixed media artwork featuring the Cossack leader, a grisly wolf-creature, a Mongol mask and a falling Mongol warrior spirit is called “The Conquest of Siberia”. SIberian Wonders, describes the piece, enigmatically, as follows:
“Do not consider this monument as something special, sublime and lofty, but apparently it is the first wonder for people, who arrives in Novosibirsk.”