Category Archives: migration

The Karabakhi Soviet’s Domino Effect, 1988

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1889-1922:

When Nagorny Karabakh became the Soviet Union’s first dissident region in February 1988, it took almost everybody by surprise. Within the space of a week, the Karabakh Armenians had broken a series of Soviet taboos, staging public rallies, strikes, and effectively a public vote of no confidence in Moscow. Many Azerbaijanis have seen a high-level conspiracy in this. They argue that a remote province such as Karabakh could only have risen up and challenged the status quo on the critical issue of national borders after receiving strong positive signals from the top. This speaks to Azerbaijani fears about the power of the Armenian lobby—and Gorbachev did indeed have two Armenian advisers. Yet the fact that Gorbachev decisively rejected the Karabakhis’ demand suggests that there was no conspiracy—more a tangle of misunderstandings and mixed messages. The Karabakh Armenians and their Armenian lobbyists believed they had much more support than they actually had.

On February 20, 1988, after a series of petitions had been presented in Moscow, Armenian deputies in the local soviet voted to ask the central authorities to facilitate the transfer of the region to Soviet Armenia. Azerbaijani deputies abstained. The Politburo immediately rejected the request and said the soviet’s actions “contradict the interests of the working people in Soviet Azerbaijan and Armenia and damage interethnic relations.” The local soviet’s bold resolution had repercussions for the whole Soviet Union. Soviets, the basic building-blocks of the USSR’s system of government, had nominal power but were in practice supposed to be mere rubber-stamping bodies. Once the Karabakh soviet had challenged that consensus and dusted off Lenin’s concept of “all power to the soviets,” the system faced paralysis. It was the first shot in a “war of laws” between Soviet institutions—later Azerbaijan’s Supreme Soviet would reject the Karabakhi move, and Armenia’s Supreme Soviet would support it. The deadlock soon spread to Georgia and later to Russia in what came to be known as a “parade of sovereignties,” as autonomous entities across the Soviet Union tried to reinvest power in institutions that had been mere façades since the 1920s.

Gorbachev faced a dilemma in dealing with the Karabakh revolt. To have agreed to the soviet’s demand would have set a precedent he did not want to see. To have arrested the demonstrators would have been risky and against the spirit of glasnost he was trying otherwise to inculcate in the Soviet Union. In the event, he tried to smother the problem. The official media remained silent about it. A battalion of 160 Soviet Interior Ministry troops was sent to Karabakh, and a Politburo delegation traveled to the region to try and talk sense into the rebels. Appeals were made to the “brotherly solidarity” of the two peoples.

Gorbachev was far more liberal than any other Soviet leader before him, but his response revealed the limitations of the Soviet political system. Real political dialogue had effectively been banned in the Soviet Union for more than sixty years. “I had hundreds of conversations,” said a Moscow official who traveled between Armenia and Azerbaijan seeking compromise on the Karabakh issue in 1988. “I didn’t meet a single Armenian or a single Azerbaijani who held a compromise position on this question, from shepherds to academicians.” The expectation was that Moscow would rule decisively in favor of one side or the other. The party authorities in Baku never thought of inviting the Karabakh Armenians for talks on their demands—even if they had been allowed to—while the Karabakh Armenians traveled to Moscow, not Baku, to push their claims. Within months, dissatisfied with Moscow’s handling of the national issue, Armenians and Azerbaijanis were burning their party cards and openly defying the central authorities. Karabakh also exposed the weakness of the interconnected Soviet command economy. One of the first strikes in the Soviet Union in almost seventy years, at an electronic parts factory in the Karabakhi capital, Stepanakert, slowed or halted production in sixty-five radio and television factories across the Soviet Union. The overall effect was that as soon as the rigid, authoritarian Soviet system was challenged in a comprehensive way, it suddenly looked very brittle.

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Genocide as a Weapon of National Identity

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1031-1055:

After years of nondialogue, some Armenian and Turkish historians began to find common ground in meetings in the late 1990s. Taboos of silence were broken, but some of the Turkish citizens who led the process paid a high price. The Nobel Prize–winning novelist Orhan Pamuk received death threats when he asked aloud why the Armenian massacres were not discussed. The Istanbul Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who had built bridges between the two communities and had been attacked by extremists on both sides, was murdered. His funeral was another landmark, as thousands of outraged Turks turned out in solidarity with the dead man. This in turn led to a courageous online signature campaign in which Turks endorsed a statement beginning “My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915.” As of October 2009, more than thirty thousand Turks had signed.

In October 2009 the two countries’ governments, signing the historic Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations Between the Republic of Turkey and the Republic of Armenia, agreed to set up a commission “on the historical dimension to implement a dialogue with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations.” This agreement was condemned by many Armenians, especially in the diaspora, who said that a new investigation was tantamount to a betrayal of historical truth.

In the Caucasus, use of the word “genocide” has become a weapon of national identity. In the wake of the Armenians, other ethnic groups have adopted genocide days and called on the outside world to recognize their collective suffering. For Circassians, the key date is May 21, 1864, when they were deported en masse from the Russian Empire. Azerbaijanis have adopted March 31, referring to the day in 1918 when Armenians killed hundreds of Azeris in pogroms in Baku. For Pontic Greeks, Genocide Day is May 19, 1919. If all mass killings of recent times are to be honored, other national groups, such as Kurds, Meskhetian Turks, and Assyrians, also have good claims to make—but in their cases it seems that murderous policies were only too successful, as they lack the numbers and resources to mount campaigns on the issue. In an ideal world, it might be more dignified to call for a truce to the dueling of genocide claims and a mass honoring of the dead instead. In the very politicized world of the wider Caucasus region, that idea looks sadly unfeasible.

The repercussions of the mets eghern (“great catastrophe”), as Armenians call it, are far from over. As Israel has done, the Republic of Armenia formed itself as a country defined by mass death and exile, with a corresponding state ideology of “never again” that was later invoked in the war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s. The shadow is even longer outside the region. The Armenian diaspora in the Middle East, the United States, and France consists largely of the grandchildren of those who survived the Anatolian holocaust. Only gradually is a dialogue emerging about the issue between Armenians and Turks.

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Who Incites Neighbors to Kill Each Other?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2010-2032:

All the wars of the South Caucasus are case studies of the strange phenomenon whereby neighbors who have coexisted peacefully for years can end up fighting one another. Karabakh is a striking example. One village named Tug in the south of Karabakh had been home to people of both communities, with only a small stream dividing them. At first, the Armenians and Azerbaijanis of Tug said that the dispute would not affect them; then they retreated to their own half of the village, with some families being broken up; finally, in 1991, the Azerbaijanis were driven out by force.

The problem can be described as “mutual insecurity.” In tsarist times, pogroms had broken out when the regime weakened. In Soviet times, order was maintained by a central “policeman,” but when that law enforcer withdrew, the two national groups turned to their own armed men to protect them. Then in 1991 the Soviet armed forces collapsed into indiscipline, arming both sides and providing hundreds of “guns for hire.” This helped elevate a low-intensity conflict into an all-out war fought with tanks and artillery.

Another answer to the puzzle of neighbors fighting one another is that generally it was not they who actually started the conflict. Many Armenians and Azerbaijanis, like the people of Tug, did their best to resist the slide toward war. In the spring of 1991, the revolutionary California-born Armenian warrior Monte Melkonian was sent on a commission down Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan to prepare villages for impending conflict. He got frustrated as villagers asked him and other would-be defenders to leave, saying they did not want to fight their Azerbaijani neighbors.

Moreover, although ordinary Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side by side, the views of their intellectual elites were sharply different. Each harbored memories of the wars of the tsarist era and subscribed to nationalist ideas, which had been boosted by the officially tolerated nationalism of the late Soviet period. In 1988, some intellectuals often played a negative role by disseminating narratives of hate. The Armenian writer Zori Balayan wrote that the Azerbaijanis were “Turks” who had no history of their own. The Azerbaijani historian Ziya Buniatov wrote an inflammatory pamphlet suggesting that the Armenians themselves had been behind the killing of Armenians in Sumgait.

After the intellectuals came the men of violence. As the Soviet security apparatus withered, the initiative was handed to people who have been called “entrepreneurs of violence.” They were people who were often marginal figures in society but willing or able to fight. Violence became self-fueling. In the later war in Abkhazia, much of the most brutal fighting would be done by people from outside Abkhazia itself—North Caucasians on the Abkhaz side, incoming Georgian paramilitaries on the Georgian side. These guns-for-hire would exact a tithe for their fighting in looting and plunder.

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South Caucasus Minorities Within Minorities

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 258-286:

The three main capital cities of the region have their own distinct histories. A century ago, neither Tbilisi (Tiflis), Baku, nor Yerevan had a majority population of Georgians, Azerbaijanis, or Armenians, respectively. Tbilisi can lay claim to being the capital of the Caucasus, but its Georgian character has been much more intermittent. For five hundred years it was an Arab town, while the older city of Mtskheta was the old Georgian capital. Then, in the medieval period, the city was taken over by the Armenian merchant class. They were the biggest community in the nineteenth century and finally left en masse only in the 1960s. Famous Tbilisi Armenians have included the world chess champion Tigran Petrosian and the filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. Baku became a cosmopolitan city with many different ethnic groups from the late nineteenth century. Russian became its lingua franca. Garry Kasparov, the Jewish Armenian world chess champion, who was born in Baku but is unable to return there because of his Armenian roots, describes his nationality as “Bakuvian” (Bakinets in Russian). Baku only turned into a strongly Azerbaijani city with the end of the Soviet Union, the Nagorny Karabakh war, and the mass emigration of other national groups.

By contrast, up until the First World War, Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, had a Persian flavor and a Muslim majority population. Its major landmark was a blue-tiled mosque, and there was no big church. Von Haxthausen wrote, “In Tiflis, Europe and Asia may be said to meet, and the town has a divided aspect; but Erivan is a purely Asiatic city: everything is Oriental, except a few newly-built Russian houses, and occasionally Russian uniforms in the streets.” More Armenians lived in Tiflis, Baku, Shusha, and Van. Yerevan became an Armenian city only after the mass flight of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and of Azerbaijanis from eastern Armenia in 1915–18.

Arguably, strong national identities only began to emerge in the three countries of the South Caucasus in the Soviet era. A consolidation of national identity created a demographic pull such that Armenians moved to Armenia and Azerbaijanis to Azerbaijan, and Tbilisi became a strongly Georgian city for perhaps the first time in its history. The biggest losers were the smaller minority peoples of the Transcaucasus, who feared assimilation, even though their rights were nominally protected by Soviet law.

Half a dozen smaller nationalities form sizeable communities in the South Caucasus. Kurds are spread throughout the region. So-called Yezidi Kurds are Armenia’s biggest minority, and there are large numbers of Muslim Kurds in Azerbaijan. The Abkhaz and the Ossetians (discussed in chapter 5) are both few in numbers. There are fewer than one hundred thousand Abkhaz in Abkhazia and even fewer Ossetians in South Ossetia—many more Ossetians live in Russian North Ossetia. Azerbaijan’s main two minority ethnic groups are the Lezgins in the north and the Talysh in the south. The two hundred thousand Lezgins (according to official figures) live in the north of Azerbaijan across the border from around four hundred thousand of their ethnic kin who live in the Russian republic of Dagestan. They are Sunnis, and they speak a language apparently indigenous to the Caucasus. The Talysh live in southern Azerbaijan near the Iranian border and speak a language related to Farsi. Officially, they number eighty thousand, but the Talysh themselves give much higher figures. Neither of these ethnic groups plays a political role in the country, although there are occasionally glimmers of discontent about their cultural rights.

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Kubary: From Naturalist to Land Grabber in the German Pacific

From Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871–1883, trans. & ed. by C.L. Sentinella (Madang, PNG: Kristen Pres, 1975), pp. 324-329:

The administration of the Kompanie on the Maclay Coast was put in the hands of a certain Herr Kubary, a Polish national of Hungarian origin with a British passport which he had acquired while on a brief visit to Sydney. He had spent many years in Micronesia as an ornithologist and naturalist collecting for German museums. He had been collecting very successfully in the Caroline Islands for the Museum fuer Voelkerkunde in Berlin when in September, 1885, his contract with the museum was suddenly terminated for the flimsiest of reasons, leaving him stranded on the island of Yap. It is difficult to believe that this sudden loss of his livelihood was accidental. It seems more probably that this was manipulated by the German foreign office. The dismissal notice had come with the visit to Yap of a German warship, the Albatross, which was in the Pacific for the specific purpose of planting the German flag on the various islands of the Carolines. Kubary was offered employment as interpreter and guide on the Albatross, and for this he was ideally suited as there was no one with a more intimate knowledge of this area of the Pacific. Stranded in Yap as he was, he had little choice but to accept.

After the islands had been formally annexed by Germany, Kubary and his family, consisting of a half-caste wife and two children, were landed at Matupit [Rabaul] in New Britain, where he was put in charge of a plantation. After a time, he was transferred to take charge of the Neu Guinea Kompanie possessions in Astrolabe Bay [now in Madang Province] and he established himself in Bongu. Later he was transferred a few miles up the coast to Bogatim when the administration headquarters was transferred from Finschhafen. The latter had been abandoned, more or less in panic, as a result of the fearful mortality from tropical diseases among the Kompanie officials there.

Herr Kubary, who boasted that he was “the Lord God of Astrolabe Bay,” proceeded ruthlessly with the acquisition of land in pursuance of the policy of the Neu Guinea Kompanie for the expansion of plantations. The Kompanie was quite unscrupulous in its methods of acquiring land. The officials superficially inspected large areas which appeared suitable, sometimes merely climbing a tree and inspecting with binoculars, and then displaying a quantity of European goods — axes, knives, beads, cloth, etc. — they offered to purchase the land. The natives, not understanding what was really involved, appeared to agree, and a document was drawn up only vaguely defining the area and magnanimously excluding the village and an undefined piece of land for native cultivation. Each adult male member of the village or villages was required to touch the pen before his name was appended to the document. By such methods the Kompanie became the “legal” owners of vast areas of land, although it was many years before any actual survey was made. In a similar way Kubary acquired large areas around Bogadjim for a few axes and some tobacco. The level fertile land behind Gorendu and Gumbu was soon taken from the natives right up to the Gabenau River, leaving the natives of those villages without land for cultivation. Bongu was somewhat more fortunate in that the land was not so level but had a series of rather steep ridges running down in the direction of the sea and was therefore not so acceptable for Kompanie plantations. The Gorendu and Gumbu people, face with lack of garden land, had to turn to Bongu land and ultimately were compelled to be aggregated with Bongu village, where their descendants live to the present day, still retaining their Gorendu and Gumbu identity.

The concept of individual ownership and free disposal of land was quite an alien one to the natives, and, in any case, they themselves did not own this land. They had been granted the right to use it for cultivation purposes and to dig for clay for pottery-making for which they were famous.

Kubary was discharged from the Kompanie in 1895 and went back to Ponape in the Caroline Islands. It seems to be in the nature of poetic justice that the right to his own plantation on Ponape was disputed, and while on a visit to the Spanish authorities in Manila to appeal for his rights, the plantation was completely devastated in a native uprising against the Spaniards.

In Astrolabe Bay, Kubary left a legacy that was the cause of unending trouble for the German authorities. The natives had been warned by Maclay that white men might come who would not be like him and were not to be trusted, but he also warned that to resist them by force would be hopeless and would only invite disaster. Now, faced with white men whose behaviour at best was unpredictable and often baleful, the only alternative seemed to be to offer as little cooperation as possible without displaying any open hostility.

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From Soviet Soldier to Muslim Convert

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4326-4349:

Aleksei Olenin, who was serving in a transport battalion, was kidnapped as he was relieving himself by the Salang Pass. He was beaten up, tried to escape, tried to hang himself, and was finally incorporated into a mujahedin detachment led by a greybeard called Sufi Puainda Mokhmad. After two months in the mountains, Olenin converted to Islam: ‘No one made me do it. I simply realised that since I was still alive I must have been preserved by some power … I would have adopted any faith that was available: after all, up to then I had been a Young Pioneer, a Komsomol, and was preparing to join the Party.’ He was given the Muslim name Rakhmatula.

In the course of the next six years four other Russian soldiers were brought into the detachment. One of them was Yuri Stepanov, who was renamed Mukhibullo. He too had been captured on the Salang Pass when his zastava was attacked.

Then the news came through that the 40th Army was leaving Afghanistan. The members of the detachment returned to their farms, and Olenin went with them: ‘In those days we grew wheat. The poppies only came with the Taliban.’ Sufi Puainda, who still regarded the Russians as his property, decided that they should all take wives. The Afghan fathers were reluctant to surrender their daughters, because the Russians could not afford the bride price, and because they feared that the girls would be dishonoured when the Russians eventually abandoned them and went home. But one poor man was willing to give Olenin his daughter Nargez. By now Olenin thought that his chances of returning home were in any case at an end.

He was wrong. Before the marriage could take place, the Russian government had successfully negotiated for the return of prisoners. General Dostum (1954–), the Uzbek commander in the north of the country, was anxious to strengthen his relations with the Russians and arranged for Olenin and Stepanov to travel home. He first brought their mothers to meet them in his stronghold of Mazar-i Sharif. Olenin’s mother fainted when she saw him. The prisoners then left via Pakistan, where they were received by Benazir Bhutto (1953–2007): one story was that she had provided the money for their ransom. Olenin arrived back in Otradnoe in May 1994, to find a country transformed beyond his recognition by the collapse of the Soviet Union. His mother paraded the local girls before him in the hope that he would marry one of them and settle down. But his conscience weighed on him and after six months he went back to Afghanistan to find and marry Nargez. He intended to take her back to Russia. But the arrival of the Taliban in power meant that he was once again trapped in Afghanistan. His small business profited, his wife bore him a daughter, and it was not until 2004 that he finally returned again to Otradnoe, this time with his family. He remained a Muslim and the women of the village noticed that he worked harder and drank less than the other men in the village. Musulmanin (The Muslim), a film made in 1995, explores just such a theme: the contrast between the orderly piety of a Russian Muslim convert from Afghanistan and the disorderly and dysfunctional life of the family and village he left behind him.

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Spain and Russia as Frontier Empires

From Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury, 2013), Kindle Loc. 418-486:

Spain and Russia were medieval Europe’s marcher kingdoms. Spain held the North African Moors at bay in the west, while in the east Russia battled the Mongols and their successors, the Muslim Tatars. Both Spain and Russia, as a result of the demands of centuries of military effort, remained more autocratic, more religious and more deeply feudal than their less-threatened continental neighbours. But both Madrid and Muscovy were richly rewarded for their struggles against the infidel in the form of vast unexplored lands full of worldly riches. Divine providence gave Spain the New World – or so Spain’s Most Catholic monarchs believed. Likewise Russia’s most Orthodox Tsars were convinced that their divine reward was Siberia, whose boundless natural resources funded the emergence of Muscovy as a European power, and forms the foundation of Russia’s oil wealth today.

The grand princes of Muscovy had had dreams of empire since 1472, when Ivan III married Zoë Paleologina, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XII. Zoë brought not only her double-headed eagle coat of arms to Muscovy but also the idea that Moscow could be the successor to her fallen Byzantine homeland – a third Rome. Russia’s expansion to the west was blocked by the powerful kingdom of Poland-Lithuania and the Baltic trading cities of the Hanseatic League. But to the east the power of the Mongol-Tatars was weakening.

It was Zoë’s grandson Ivan the Terrible who decisively turned the balance of power on Christendom’s eastern flank when he took the Tatar capital of Kazan in 1553. Ivan crowned himself caesar – in Russian, tsar – in recognition of his conquest. In 1556 he pushed his armies south along the Volga and annihilated the southern Tatars in their stronghold at Astrakhan. At a stroke Ivan had made the Volga, the great southern artery of European Russia, into a Muscovite river, opening trade to the Caspian and beyond to Persia.

The capture of Kazan had also given Muscovy easy access to the Kama River, the Urals and the riches of Siberia itself. At the same time Europeans in search of furs and a north-east passage to China began arriving at the Arctic village of Kholmogory – later known as Arkhangelsk – at the mouth of the Northern Dvina River. The first was Richard Chancellor, head of the English Muscovy Company, London’s first chartered company of merchant adventurers, who visited in 1553.

Meanwhile Spain’s conquests in distant America were transforming the economy of Europe with a huge influx of gold. Northern Europe was also undergoing a boom in trade and manufacture centered on wool-cloth. With this new prosperity came a burgeoning demand for luxury goods from the East, particularly for the sixteenth century’s two greatest luxuries – spices and furs. Portuguese and English seafarers were driven to prodigies of navigation and discovery by the search for high-value spices – particularly peppercorns, nutmeg and allspice – to flavour the foods of the wealthy. In the same way Russian adventurers drove ever deeper into Siberia in search of the fox, sable and marten with which the rising merchant classes of Europe trimmed their clothes.

Fur, in a cold and poorly heated world, was not only a symbol of wealth but also a bringer of comfort and, in the case of Russia, literally a lifesaver. Fine furs were staggeringly valuable. In 1623 one Siberian official reported the theft of ‘two black fox pelts, one worth 30 rubles the other 80’. The thief could have bought himself fifty Siberian acres, a cabin, five good horses, ten cows and twenty sheep on the proceeds, and still have had some of his ill-gotten money left over. No wonder painters of the new bourgeoisie, from Jan van Eyck in the Netherlands to Sebastiano del Piombo in Rome, painted their subjects’ sable collars in such loving detail. They were often worth more than the artist could hope to make in years.

Siberian fur transformed Muscovy from a minor principality on the fringes of Europe into a great power. In 1595 Tsar Boris Godunov had so much of it that he sent Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II fur in lieu of military assistance against the Turks. Boris’s tribute was a dazzling show of Russia’s new wealth. The 337,235 squirrel skins and 40,360 sables, as well as marten, beaver and wolf skins Boris sent took up twenty rooms of Prague Castle. At the beginning of the seventeenth century ‘soft gold’ accounted for up to a third of Muscovy’s revenues. Without the Siberian fur rush, the wealth it brought and the vertiginous territorial expansion that it drove, the Russia of Peter the Great would have been unimaginable.

Like the Spanish captains of the New World or the seafarers of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the conquistadors of Siberia were essentially pirates licensed by the Russian crown. The Stroganovs, a trading dynasty from the Hanseatic city-state of Novgorod, which had been incorporated into Muscovy in 1478, financed the first fur-trapping expeditions into the uplands of the Urals and pioneered the use of licensed privateers. In April 1558 Ivan the Terrible gave Anikei Stroganov rights over five million acres of Urals forest, effectively making him viceroy of the unexplored territory responsible for its development and security. Beyond the Urals, however, lay the Tatar khanate of Sibir, an obstacle both to obtaining furs and to the expansion of the Tsar’s dominion.

In 1577 the Stroganovs recruited a young buccaneer named Yermak Timofeyevich. Yermak was a scion of a family of notorious river pirates who had plied the middle Volga but had found themselves out of business with the fall of Kazan and the establishment of Muscovite control over the great river. With his band of professional – and temporarily jobless – marauders Yermak headed eastwards, pushed deep into Tatar territory and in 1580 took Sibir. To placate the Tsar for taking such a step without royal permission, Yermak sent a vast haul of 2,500 sables to Moscow. Ivan was suitably impressed. In return for his gift, he made Yermak Muscovy’s viceroy in Siberia – just as Yermak’s former employer Stroganov had become lord of the Urals. Yermak also received a handsome suit of armour from the Tsar, which was to prove his undoing five years later as he attempted to swim away from a Tatar ambush but was drowned by his heavy breastplate.

Yermak was a Cossack, one of a growing community of men who had fled serfdom in Poland, Livonia and Muscovy and sought freedom in the no-man’s-land of the mid-Volga and the south-east steppes of European Russia. Cossacks were a social caste, not a racial or national group. Their freedom was a precarious one because of the regular Tatar slaving expeditions which filled the markets of Constantinople with hundreds of thousands of new Slavic captives every year. Moscow itself had been raided and burned by Khan Devlet Giray of Crimea as recently as 1571, and the Crimean Khanate would not be finally subdued until the reign of Catherine the Great in 1783. Ivan the Terrible, borrowing the Stroganovs’ methods, was the first tsar to harness these outlaws to the service of the state. In the absence of any natural boundaries to his fledging empire, Ivan offered the Cossacks freedom from serfdom and a licence to exploit native peoples in exchange for their service as guardians of Russia’s eastern and southern borderlands.

The Tsar organized the Cossacks into ‘hosts’, a military and administrative term for a tribe of armed colonists who could be instantly turned into a military force. The names of the successive hosts is a chronicle of Russia’s growing empire – Don, Kuban, Terek, Asktakhan, Ural, Orenburg, Siberian, Turkestan, Transbaikal, Amur, Ussuri. The Cossack sotni, or hundreds, elected leaders known as atamany, and when the host was not in state service it was free to explore – and maraud – on its own account.

These Cossacks were tough men. ‘I believe such men for hard living are not under the Sunne, for no cold will hurt them,’ wrote Richard Chancellor of the men he saw on the northern Dvina in 1553. ‘Yea and though they lye in the field two monthes at such times as it shal freeze more than a yard thicke the common soldier hath neither tent nor anything else over his head.’ Of the three drivers of Russia’s eastward expansion – the quest for security against the Tatars, a consciousness of its imperial destiny as the inheritor of Byzantium and the adventurous avarice of Cossacks – it was the last which was by far the most potent.

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