Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

The Origin and Growth of the Asiatic Empire


A close study of the history of Asiatic Russia reveals the fact that, until within a comparatively recent date, the Russian government had no fixed policy in or to-ward Asia. There was a national instinct which impelled Russia eastward. Twice had Europe been invaded by Asiatic hordes, and, owing to its position, Russia was doomed to bear the brunt of the onset. Russia's history points out a ceaseless desire to be a European nation, to share with Europe its progress and its burdens. It is within a few years that the heir to the throne first visited the extensive Asiatic dominions. No czar had ever put foot in them. Until the reign of Nicholas I (1825-1855), the Russian Empire spread eastward much as the United States expanded westward by individual effort.

The movement began in 1558, when Ivan the Terrible granted to Gregory Strogonof ninety-two miles of waste land on the banks of the Kama. The new owner explored the mineral resources of the Urals, crossed the mountains, and found himself in the kingdom of Sibir. Strogonof had become acquainted with one Yermak or Irmak, a Cossack and captain of a robber band known as the Good Companions of the Don. He had been condemned to death, if the government could lay hands on him, which, on account of the sparsity of the population, was exceedingly doubtful. Strogonof discussed with him a raid into Sibir, and the Cossack consented, provided his pardon could be secured. Strogonof went to Moscow and submitted his scheme to Ivan who gave his approval. Upon his return to the Urals, Strogonof found that he had 850 men, Russians, Cossacks, Tartars, and German and Polish prisoners of war, all hardy adventurers. They marched east terrifying the natives with their firelocks, and levying tribute, that is, taking whatever was worth the trouble. They defeated the khan, and took his capital, Sibir, on the Irtish. Yermak then visited Moscow, where he was the hero of the day. Had he not struck at the very heart of the mysterious continent whence so much trouble and disgrace had come upon Russia? And had he not exacted tribute from the very people who not very long ago held Russia under tribute.

Yermak was therefore praised and entertained and graciously told to go ahead. Ivan had neither men nor money to spare, but he was quite willing that these adventurers should despoil the Asiatics, instead of holding up Russian travelers and traders. Ivan gave him a suit of armor as a token of good will. After Yermak's return to Siberia, he was surprised by the natives and drowned by the weight of his armor as he was trying to escape by swimming the Irtish. (1584.) Other Cossacks had heard of his success and followed his example. In 1587, Tobolsk was founded on the Irtish, ten miles below Sibir.

There was little or no communication between Siberia and Moscow, owing to the distance separating them, and the successors of Ivan had ample trouble on their hands. It was, therefore, left to the Cossacks to make such explorations and conquests as they could. In 1619, Tomsk was founded. Farther and farther did the Cossacks advance among the isolated tribes. In 1632, a log fort was built where Yakoutsk now stands, and six years later they gazed upon the broad waters of the Pacific and planted the czar's flag on the shore of the Sea of Okhotsk.

It was a congenial occupation for the Cossack, to roam where he pleased and to take what suited his fancy, and he did not lack either the skill or the courage needed by the explorer. In 1639, a party of Cossacks under Max Perfirief, discovered the Upper Amoor, and heard tales of such vast wealth that they hastened to Yakoutsk and placed their discovery before Peter Petrovitch, the first Russian Governor.

Men and money were scarce, but the governor, after many efforts managed to collect 132 men whom he placed in command of Vassili Poyarkof, with instructions to do the best he could. The party started on the 15th of July, 1643, and followed the usual course with the natives with the result that he returned to Yakoutsk in June 1646, having lost most of his men in attacks by infuriated and outraged natives, but in possession of a fund of information, and some skins as tribute.

During the reign of Alexis Michaelovitch (1645-1676), explorations of the Amoor regions were pursued vigorously. A young officer of considerable wealth, named Khabarof, offered to conduct an expedition at his own expense. This was gladly accepted, and he left Yakoutsk in 1649. He reached the Amoor and formed a line of forts, and met a small party among whom was the khan, who asked what his object was. Khabarof replied that he had come to trade, but that the czar would probably take the khan under his powerful protection in return for a small annual tribute. The khan did not answer, and Khabarof after burning most of the forts and leaving some of his men in another, returned to Yakoutsk to report.

In June, 1651, he was on the way back to the Amoor, where he came in conflict with the Manchus. He, however, forced his way, and gained for the Russians the reputation that they were "devils, who would make grid-irons of the parents to roast the children on." At this time a report that the Amoor region contained untold wealth reached Moscow, where it produced an effect very similar to that felt in Spain after the return of Columbus.

Alexis intended to send an expedition of 3,000 men to occupy and hold this treasure grove, but he was prudent enough to dispatch an officer to order Khabarof to Moscow, so that he might learn the facts. This officer, Simovief left Moscow in March, 1652, and met Khabarof in August of the following year. Leaving the command to his lieutenant Stepanof, Khabarof obeyed the czar's call. He arrived at Moscow and after the czar had heard his report, the expedition was given up, but Alexis wrote to Stepanof, upon whom he conferred some honors, and told him to continue the good work.

The interest manifested by the czar inaugurated an exploration fever, among the Russian authorities. Pashkof, the Governor of Yeniseisk started on the 18th of July, 1656, for the Amoor at the head of 400 Cossacks; in 1658, he built a fort which was the beginning of Nerchinsk. It was 1662 before he returned to Yeniseisk.

Unfortunately the Russians came into a clash with the Manchus, at that time in full vigor; they had made themselves masters of China, and their emperor, Kang-hi, was an exceptionably able and strong man. He did not want war, but on the other hand he did not intend to suffer an injustice.

When the government at Moscow became aware that further encroachment would entail a war with China an ambassador, Feodor Golovin, was dispatched to come to an understanding. He left Moscow on January 20, 1686, but took his time. Kang-hi had been notified, and ambassadors were sent from Peking to meet Golovin. The Russian met the Chinese at Nerchinsk on the 22d August, 1689, and on the 27th the terms of a treaty were agreed upon. Two days later the treaty was exchanged. Russia was compelled to withdraw from the Amoor. After this no changes in the boundary line occurred until after the year 1847.

In 1707, Kamtschatka was annexed to Russia, and two years later the first prisoners were sent to Siberia. They were prisoners of war and natives of conquered European provinces who objected to Muscovite rule. About 14,000 persons were sent the first year, but many died from the hardships suffered on the road.

Besides Siberia, Russia in Asia consists of: I. The Caucasus. It was Peter the Great who, in 1722, invaded Dagestan and seized the greater part of this territory. We have seen how the mountaineers defended their liberty under Schamyl and it was left to his son Alexander to annex it and make it part of the Russian Empire. Including Trans Caucasia, it covers an area of 180,843 square miles,—or about that of Colorado and Utah, and contains a population of 8,350,000.

II. The Kirghiz Steppe. This is a country of plains, unfit for agriculture and still inhabited by nomads who live in tents and wander with their flocks over the 755,793 square miles of territory. They are divided into three hordes or families, one of which surrendered to Anne Ivanovna in 1734. In 1869 the Kirghiz, together with the Cossacks of the Don, revolted, but in the autumn of 1870, order was restored. For administrative purposes, it is divided into:

III. Transcaspia, which, as the name indicates, includes the region east of the Caspian Sea. It contains an area of 383,618 square miles with a population estimated at 352,000. Like the Kirghiz Steppe, it is unfit for agriculture, although it contains several oases. It was formed into a province by Alexander III, in 1881.

IV. Turkestan contains 409,414 square miles with a population of 3,341,000. The valleys of the Oxus and Jaxartes are very fertile, but the rest of the extensive province is almost a desert. The Oxus or Amu Daria once formed the boundary of the empires of Cyrus and Alexander. It was conquered step by step, and after many struggles with the Turkomans and Kirghiz to whom it originally belonged.

V. The Khanates, so called because they once formed the territory of the Khans of Khiva and Bokhara. This province embraces 114,320 square miles with a population of 3,200,000. Both are recent acquisitions. It was the war with Khiva, in 1872, which first drew the attention of Europe to Russia's expansion in Central Asia. There had been some doubts as to the wisdom of permitting Russia to add more territory to her already enormous domain, but they had been allayed by a circular note to the powers, issued by Prince Gortchakof, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, on November 21, 1864. He declared that Russia had been brought into contact with a number of half-savage tribes who proved a constant menace to the security of the Empire, and that the only means of maintaining order on the frontier, was to bring them under submission. This, he said, had been done by the United States, and was nothing but a measure necessary for self-defense.

This reasoning was self-evident, but in 1873 the press of Great Britain asked when and where this necessity would cease. Count Schouvalof was sent to London and in several interviews with Lord Granville, he stated distinctly and plainly that Russia had no intention to annex any more territory in Central Asia. He declared solemnly with regard to Khiva that "not only was it far from the intention of the emperor to take possession of Khiva, but positive orders had been prepared to prevent it, and directions given that the conditions imposed should be such as would not in any way lead to the prolonged occupation of Khiva."

Notwithstanding this positive declaration, Khiva was annexed on the 10th of June, 1873. Four months afterwards, on the 10th of October, a treaty was signed by the Khan of Bokhara, giving to Russia free navigation on the Oxus, and other privileges. It has never been formally annexed, but is to all intents and purposes Russian territory.