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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

The Russian Discovery of Siberia

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

Siberia entered the flow of Russian history relatively late, at the end of the sixteenth century. The official Russian incursion into Siberia dates to 1581, when the Cossack hetman Ermak Timofeevich led a detachment across the Ural Mountains and soon after defeated the forces of the Khanate of Sibir'. The paths of Novgorodian merchants and Slavic warriors may have reached Siberia even earlier, however, as Russian settlement inexorably crept toward the land beyond "the Kamen" (an archaic name for the Urals). Even prior to Ermak's expedition, reports had circulated about the enormous wealth of the Siberian land, creating a mystique that pulled the Russians eastward.

Tsar Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV, 1530-84) provided the great impetus in pushing the Russian border to the east. Pursuing the remnant khanates of the Golden Horde across Eurasia, Ivan sacked Kazan in 1551 and Astrakhan in 1557. The remaining large region still controlled by the heirs of Genghis Khan was in the western part of Siberia, where Khan Kuchum held the wide territory from the middle Urals to the Ob River. Ermak's troops defeated those of Khan Kuchum in a three-day battle on the Irtysh River in October 1582, an event that essentially opened the gates of Siberia to the Russians. In time, a network of fortified Russian towns and outposts penetrated ever deeper beyond the Urals. Commercial activity, spurred by traders and trappers as well as merchants such as the Stroganovs, soon established a permanent Russian presence in Siberia. The snowy and seemingly endless expanses of wilderness contained many fur-bearing species of great value in European markets. Indeed, the pelt of the sable became the symbol for the immense wealth of Siberia and continued to draw Russians to their eastern borderlands for centuries.

As Russian promyshlenniki (frontiersmen) followed in pursuit of fur, they inevitably moved east on the tributaries of the great Siberian rivers (which flow north to the Arctic Ocean) and crossed the Eurasian continent. Other Cossack explorers took a more northerly route, following the "Mangazeian waterway" along the Arctic coast from Arkhangel'sk on the White Sea to the mouths of the Ob, Irtysh, Enisei, and Lena Rivers. The Russians finally reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean in 1639, with the arrival of Ivan Moskvitin on the Sea of Okhotsk. Subsequent expeditions went on to Chukotka and Kamchatka. By 1648, Semen Dezhnev had reached the straits separating Asia and America that later were named after Bering. While it took almost another century for the Russians to cross the North Pacific, the expansion through Siberia began a process of discovery along their eastern frontier that culminated in the voyages to Alaska.

Mapping of Siberia

Following the first period of world discovery that was dominated by the Spanish and Portuguese exploration of Africa, the Americas, and the Indies, the English became interested in the possibility of trading with Russia via the Arctic Ocean and the White Sea. With the creation of the Muscovy Company in London in 1552 and the belief in a Northwest passage, fresh impetus was given to merchants and governments throughout western Europe to commission new and more accurate maps of the vast regions of Russia and Siberia. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries cartographers such as Herman Moll, Abraham Ortelius, and Guillaume Delisle attempted to incorporate the most recent information about the territory east of Moscow, which they called Tartary (or Tatary), and to determine some sort of border between Asia and North America.

Early Foreign Travelers

Much of what was known in Europe and America about Siberia in the 1700s was based on the writings of early travelers from France, Germany, Sweden, Britain and other countries who went overland from St. Petersburg to as far as China. Other early visitors to Russia came by sea. For example, as a crew member on Captain Cook's third voyage to the Pacific, the American John Ledyard landed on Kamchatka in 1778. His Journal of Captain Cook's Last Voyage was published in 1783.

Friedrich Christian Weber

Das veraenderte Russland, vol. 1. Friedrich Christian Weber, 1721. LC Rare Book Collections. Weber's history of Russia drew upon the accounts of such early 18th century foreign travelers as Le Brun, who crossed Russia on his way to Persia in 1701- 1703, and Lange, who traveled from St. Petersburg to Peking in 1715. First published in his native German in 1721, Weber's book was quickly translated into English and published in London. It became an important source of information about Russia in Britain and the American colonies.

A native of Hanover, Germany, Friedrich Christian Weber came to Russia in 1714 to represent English interests following the accession of the Hanoverian Elector George to the English throne. Weber remained at the court of Peter the Great until 1719, when he left Russia. Although his relatively brief diplomatic career in Russia was not remarkable, Weber created, in the notes that he took in this period, one of the most important historical records of the reforms of Peter the Great. His observations were published in three volumes under the title Das veraenderte Russland, issued over a two-decade period (1721, 1739, 1740). Because only the first volume (presented here) was based completely on his own personal observations, that volume is the most insightful and original of the three. It has been translated into French, English, and Russian.

Das veraenderte Russland is a compilation of very diverse facts about Russia during the reign of Peter I. In volume one, Weber discusses the significance of Peter's reforms up to 1720. Volume two covers the history of the last years of his reign, and volume three the period of 1725-30. Because of Weber's personal acquaintance with the leading figures of the Russian court, his writings provide an insider's view of the transformation of Russia. Das veraenderte Russland provides valuable information about the relationship between Peter and the Tsarevich Aleksei, Russian-English relations, the Russian way of life and institutions, and, perhaps most interesting, the views of the Russian people about Peter's reforms.

Lorenz Lange

Swedish born Lorenz Lange was among the many Western Europeans to enter Russian service during the reign of Peter the Great. He was sent as a special envoy to China in 1715 to promote Russian commercial interests. The overland journey took him through the settlements of Tobol'sk, Tomsk, Eniseisk, Irkutsk, the Trans-Baikal and on to Bejing, where he remained for two years. Based on Lange's excellent report, the Tsar sent him back to Bejing as consul in 1719 to supervise the Russian caravan traders there. His mission was cut short, however, when the Chinese court terminated the Russian trade concession because of a dispute about hegemony over the Mongols. Later appointed vice-governor in Irkutsk, Lange would meet members of other famous exploratory expeditions, e.g., Bering, Gmelin and Steller.

Lange's journal was published in German as part of Weber's Veraenderte Russland (see pages 72 -168). The English version presented here is from the translation of Weber's work that was published in London in 1723.

The journal sketches Lange's first trip to China in 1715 with occasional in-depth descriptions of the religious practices, dietary habits, dress, and mores of the native populations he encountered, along with random features of the terrain, local history, or sundry other aspects of the journey that struck his fancy. The following passage illustrates Lange's interesting narrative style.

"Between these two cities one finds the Mohammedan Tartars residing along the banks of the Irtysh. They live there comfortably according to their fashion. Their wealth is not measured in money, of which they have precious little, but in good horses, black cattle, and sheep, so that one rarely enters a Tartar's abode without finding at least three calves hitched to the back of the chimney. But, unfortunately for travelers, they don't want to sell them because of the superstitious belief that if they do so, the cows [the calves' mothers] would die from sorrow."

Abbe Chappe d'Auteroche

Voyage en Siberie, 3 vols., Abbe Chappe d'Auteroche, 1768. LC Rare Book Collections. King Louis XV sent the Catholic priest Chappe d'Auteroche to Russia in 1761 to gather information about Siberia. Chappe d'Auteroche got as far as Tomsk before returning to France. While in Siberia,he made astronomical observations, studied Siberia's flora and mineralogy, and left a detailed description of the ethnography of the Kalmyks.

Jean Chappe d'Auteroche was born in Mariac, Auvergne, France, in 1722. Although he entered the clergy, Chappe dedicated his life to the sciences, especially astronomy. In 1760, the Academy of Sciences, of which he was a member, selected him to travel to Tobol'sk to observe the transit of Venus across the sun, an event which occurred on June 5, 1761. Two years after his return to France, Chappe published his Voyage en Siberie. Certain passages unflattering to Russia drew an indignant published rebuttal, which was attributed to either Catherine II or Count Shuvalov. Chappe later was sent to California on another mission to observe Venus and there died in 1769 of an unknown disease. His Voyage en Californie was published posthumously in 1771.

Chappe's work was published in English in 1770 under the title A Journey into Siberia, Made by Order of the King of France [Louis XV] in 1761; containing an account of the manners and customs of the Russians, the present state of this Power; with a geographic description and the contours of the road from Paris to Tobol'sk. The book contains lengthy and detailed scientific descriptions of the climate, minerals, and flora and fauna encountered on the expedition, as well as passages on the history of Russia. The entertaining travelogue presents a highly personalized view of eighteenth-century Europe and Siberia. The observations of this erudite French scientist-priest make for fascinating reading, but one can understand why they motivated a Russian refutation. The chapter "Of the population, trade, navy, revenues, and land forces of Russia" is filled with commentary that the Russian reader would have found offensive, as the following passage from the English translation illustrates:

"A Russian army, however complete it may be at the beginning of a campaign, loses a number of men by sickness. This circumstance may appear extraordinary, because the Russian soldiers are generally stronger and more healthy than those of other nations: as they even lie upon straw or upon boards, without suffering any inconvenience. Besides, they do not desert when they are in the field, either from the difficulty of getting away, or from religious motives, or from their stupidity, which may perhaps induce them even to be fond of slavery, or from their not knowing where to go, as they are unacquainted with any language but their own, or from their imagining that happiness is no where to be found but in the snows of Russia."

In another passage, Chappe recommends that the Tsar leave northern Siberia "to the bears," and concentrate on developing southern Siberia.

Despite his curious observations and the offensive way in which he often phrased them, in the final analysis Chappe made a sensible geopolitical assessment of Russia, concluding that it will always be a major power, and deprecating those writers and diplomats who, in his view, tended either to under- or to overestimate Russian strength. In his own words:

"From these several observations, it has appeared to me that many persons have entertained too high an idea of Russia, while others have been led into a contrary extreme. This power will always be formidable to the northern states in its neighbourhood."