The term ‘manifest destiny’ is most closely associated with the United States – the 19th Century belief that the country was destined to expand across the North American continent, from ‘sea to shining sea’. From 1800 to 1850, American settlers rapidly pushed their frontiers 2000 miles west, from the Mississippi to the Pacific, in an act of frenzied expansion that is today considered a formative period in the history of the country. However, far less familiar is the similar journey of the Russian Empire between the 16th and 18th Centuries, moving its border 5,000 miles eastward from the Urals to Alaska. Whilst the Russian conquest may be relatively unknown, it was crucial to the development of the Russian nation and so too the modern world.
Russia’s eastward expansion can be traced back to the Medieval period. From the 9th to the 13th Century, the areas of modern-day Ukraine, Belarus and European Russia (that is, Russia west of the Urals) were governed by the Kievan Rus’, a prosperous trading state centred on the city of Kiev. The Rurikid dynasty, who ruled the Kievan Rus’, were the first to unite the East Slavic tribes under one banner. It was the Rurikids who brought Christianity to the region through trade with the Byzantine Empire and built a country which spread from the White Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.
However, after flourishing for nearly 300 years, the state declined in the late 12th and early 13th Centuries, disintegrating into regional power bases. Its deathblow came in 1237 when the Mongol tribes of Ogedai Khan invaded and conquered the country, razing Kiev to the ground and murdering the royal family. For the next 200 years, the Russian principalities would become vassals of the Mongol’s Golden Horde, suffering under the so-called ‘Tatar yoke’.
The horror and brutality of the Mongol attack revealed the Achilles’ heel of the Kievan Rus’. To its east lay nothing but the vast expanse of the Eurasian steppe, through which invading powers could easily advance into its territory. Subsequent Slavic states would not forget the terror and misery wrought by the Mongols, and they committed to solving the problem of the eastern frontier.
In the 15th Century, the rising power of Moscow began to slowly drive out the Mongol tribes, establishing its own hegemony over the East Slavic states. Under Grand Prince Ivan III, the Novgorod Republic to the north was conquered, and the state centred around Moscow grew rapidly in size and power. By 1480, the Mongols were finally expelled from Russia after the Great Stand on the Ugra River. The East Slavic states fell solely under Moscow’s control, and for the first time since the Kievan Rus’, what is now Western Russia was ruled under one banner. To signify this change, Ivan III’s grandson, the infamous Ivan the Terrible, would adopt the title ‘Tsar’ of the new ‘Tsardom of Russia’.
Initially, the Tsardom of Russia chose the Ural Mountains as a new, naturally defensible eastern frontier. In 1552, under Ivan the Terrible, the Khanate of Kazan – a Turkic state situated at the confluence of the Volga and Kama rivers in what is now the centre of European Russia – was conquered by Russian armies. Soon after, the Khanate of Astrakhan, at the northern shore of the Caspian Sea, was similarly brought under Russian control.
These victories may have brought the Russian border to the Urals, but the vulnerability of the eastern frontier remained. The Urals had multiple traversable passes, and tapered off in height towards the Caspian Sea in the south. This limited its effectiveness as a defensive border, and so Russia’s eastwards expansion continued, driven both by a desire to protect against invaders and to secure access to the natural resources, particularly fur, lying beyond the Urals.
Corporations supported this expansionist policy, seeking their wealth in the frontiers of Siberia (the land between the Urals and Pacific Ocean). One particularly successful corporation was led by the influential Stroganov family, namesake of the famous sautéed beef dish. The Stroganovs had made their fortune in the salt industry during the 15th Century, but in the late 16th Century were granted special trading privileges by the Tsar relating to Russia’s burgeoning eastern frontier.
The Stroganovs hired a private army of Cossacks to defend their holdings, and in 1580, under the leadership of Yermak Timofeyavich, this Cossack band invaded the Khanate of Sibir (Siberia), an Islamic Turk state east of the Ural Mountains. The Khanate’s leader, Kuchum Khan, was defeated and his capital, Qashliq, captured. However, Kuchum Khan quickly regrouped, counterattacking in 1584. His bold action killed Yermak and sent the Cossacks into retreat. Nonetheless, his success was only temporary as Russian forces would return, defeating the Sibir horde at the Battle of Urmin and annexing the Khanate into the Tsardom of Russia. That a corporation assisted in the annexation of new territories demonstrates the extent of the financial interests behind Russia’s eastward expansions.
Arguably, Sibir, with its organized military force and (relatively) modern weapons, was the last great obstacle between Russia and the Pacific. After its defeat, the Russian advance was largely unimpeded. The cities of Tyumen and Tobolsk were constructed on the newly acquired territory, from where Russian explorers would lead forays into Siberia, setting up forts and outposts as they went. Cossacks from Tobolsk moved north, establishing Mangazeya in 1600. Various other cities, among them Surgut, Tom, Yeniseysk and Krasnoyarsk, were established in the following decades.
Throughout this era, the Russian colonists encountered very little resistance, not only due to their superior weaponry, but also their non-native diseases (e.g. smallpox) which decimated local populations. Inevitably, however, this unquestioned eastward march would bring the Russians into contact with another Empire – that of the Qing Dynasty China in the 17th Century. Conflict was soon abated by the Treaty of Nerchinsk, in which the Russians made territorial concessions in return for access to Chinese markets.
This minor setback had little effect on the rate of Russian colonisation. In 1698, a Cossack named Vladimir Atlasov explored and subsequently conquered the Kamchatka peninsula (directly north of Japan) for the Tsar, and in 1742 the explorer Vitus Bering reached Alaska. The sea otter pelts he brought home prompted a surge of immigration to the region in search of the valuable fur; however, once the sea otter population was nearly wiped out by over-hunting, the Russian colonists quickly lost interest in the region.
And so, by the mid-18th Century, Russia’s conquest of Siberia was complete. Although Alaska was eventually sold to the U.S. in 1867, Russia’s eastern influence arguably increased during the 19th Century. As the Qing Empire declined, much of Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and Liaoning fell under Russian control – all these territories were later lost after the humiliating defeat to Japan in 1905. Nevertheless, most of the vast, fossil-fuel rich region east of the Urals remains in Russian hands. What began as an attempt to strengthen Russia’s eastern borders after the humiliation of the Mongol invasion became an economic quest for fur and natural resources, ultimately explaining Russia’s vast, continent-straddling size.