Battle of the Tobol River

Russian mercenary captain Yermak Timofeyevich and his Cossacks, armed with firearms, faced Tatar khan Kuchum, whose forces had only bows. Yermak’s defeat of Kuchum was the key battle in the Russian annexation of Siberia, because it allowed the Cossacks to seize the Tatars’ capital before winter.

Summary of Event

In the fifteenth century, the Uzbek (Tatar Tatars ) khans established themselves in the region between the headwaters of the Tobol River and the Tura River in western Siberia, forming the khanate of Sibir. These Turkic Mongols had split from the larger khanate of Kazan, which was the rump of the once-mighty Golden Horde. Tobol River, Battle of the (1582)
Timofeyevich, Yermak
Ivan the Terrible
Yadigar (khan of Sibir)
Yermak Timofeyevich
Bolkhovsky, S. D.
Mansurov, Ivan

In the mid-sixteenth century, Ivan the Terrible instituted his campaign of centralization and expansion of the Russian Empire. With the conquest of Kazan (1552) and Astrakhan (1556), Ivan brought the Russians well south and east of the Urals and to the doorstep of the Sibir khanate. In 1555, Yadigar, the khan of Sibir Sibir , submitted to Ivan as vassal and ally, arranging an annual tribute to Moscow. In 1563, the Shaybanid Uzbek warlord Kuchum fought and defeated Yadigar. Kuchum took the title of khan for himself and, like Yadigar, recognized Ivan’s sovereignty. In 1571, however, he renounced and suspended his people’s payment of tribute to Moscow. Kuchum had the Russian embassy who was sent to retrieve the tribute in 1572 murdered, clearly dissolving the vassalage relationship.

Through the 1570’, Russians and Tatars skirmished along the borderlands, while Russian blockhouses popped up in Tatar territory as points for trade and defense. In 1574, Ivan charged the Stroganov family with the defense of the vague and ill-defined eastern Ural border region. They were to utilize their own resources and reap whatever benefits they could—especially from the lucrative trade in furs. Ivan specifically charged them with building defensive strongholds in Kuchum’s territory, along the Tobol, Ob, and Irtysh Rivers. Around 1579, the Stroganovs hired the Cossack ataman (military leader) Yermak Timofeyevich. His army of Cossacks Cossacks , Lithuanians, and Muscovite adventurers protected Russian interests and prevented further westward expansion by the Tatars into the Urals region, especially the disputed protectorate of Ostiak.

For his part, Kuchum had replaced the initially hostile Voghul and Ostiak tribal leaders with allies. Muscovite encroachment in search of silver, iron, and rich pastures led to brutal violence on both sides as Kuchum sought to protect his vassals. When one of these Voghul leaders, Begbely Agtakov, raided Stroganov holdings in the Kama River region, the Stroganovs struck back at the heart of the khanate.

Yermak’s campaign is described in several chronicles, but at times these descriptions conflict, especially on important points of chronology. In addition, Yermak’s fame as a popular hero spawned later embellishments on the story, some of which are clearly fictional, some of which are quite plausible. Of the various accounts extant, the Esipov Chronicle (1636) seems to provide the most trustworthy version of events.

According to that chronicle, on September 1, 1581, Yermak and 840 men—including 300 Livonian prisoners of war—gathered on the banks of the Kama River near Kankor. Well armed with guns, ammunition, and food, they set out on a journey to Sibir to confront Kuchum. They wintered in the Ural foothills and followed the Tura River into Siberia the following spring. Kuchum had ample warning of their approach and organized a formidable defense of Tatar warriors and a peasant levy of Votiaks and Voghuls under the command of his nephew Mahmet-kul. In May, 1582, a small Tatar force fought Yermak near the mouth of the Tobol River, but Russian harquebusiers easily defeated the bow-wielding horsemen.

Further along the river, at Babasany, Mahmet-kul set a trap for Yermak. On July 21, Tatar skirmishers drew the Russians on, but Yermak sensed the trap, and he sent a small flotilla of unmanned decoy boats into its teeth. Meanwhile, his men circled behind their enemies and struck mercilessly from their rear. With the river now suddenly at their backs instead of before them, Kuchum’s men had no place to which to fall back. Moreover, the peasant fighters they had levied had neither the desire nor the necessary experience to weather Yermak’s attack, and their Tatar commanders could not keep them in line. Kuchum’s army was scattered.

In late October, Yermak confronted Kuchum himself at a palisade hastily erected by Kuchum’s men at Chyuvashevo, at the confluence of the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers. Yermak’s victory there left open the way to the Tatar capital, Sibir (also known as Isker or Kashlyk), which Kuchum abandoned and Yermak seized on October 26. The city provided badly needed supplies of food, but the Russians required more men, ammunition, and weaponry, including artillery.

Yermak sent word both of his victories and of his needs to Moscow with Ivan Koltso. In May, 1583, Ivan the Terrible complied, adding numerous fur coats and two sets of beautifully wrought and decorated armor for Yermak. Meanwhile, according to the Esipov Chronicle,

Yermak with his company displayed his valour through all the Siberian land, stepping out freely and fearing no man, for the fear of God was on all those living there, like a two-edged sword going before the face of the Russian army, mowing down and destroying and spreading terror. He took many strongholds and encampments on the River Irtysh, and on the great Ob they captured the stronghold of Nazim with its prince and with all its wealth.


Reinforcements of Russian guardsmen, or streltsy, did arrive in November, 1584, under the leadership of S. D. Bolkhovsky, but they brought little food with them, and the whole lot suffered terribly in the following famine-struck winter. Despite heavy losses, Yermak remained in Siberia the following spring and summer. Kuchum, seeking once again to trap the Russians, let it be known that a rich caravan was moving through the area from Bukhara. Yermak moved to intercept it but was ambushed on August 6 along the Irtysh—some say Vagai—River and lost his life. One story has it that his force was spending the night on a river island, and the watch sought shelter in a summer rainstorm. The Tatars took advantage and attacked the camp. Yermak donned his new armor and drowned in the swollen river.

The loss of their leader prompted the Russian expedition to retreat to the Urals, and soon Kuchum was back in control of Sibir. Russians quickly returned under Ivan Mansurov, however, and Tiumen, the first Russian settlement in Siberia, appeared in 1586. The following year, Tobol’k was built to serve as a center for Russian administration in the region. Kuchum continued to oppose the growing flood of Russians eastward, but was finally forced into exile in 1598 with the Nogai Horde, which saw to his execution shortly afterward.

In the short run, Yermak’s campaign in Siberia was a failure: The Russians, despite their superiority in arms, fell prey to Tatar tactics and tenacity and abandoned the lands through which they had traveled. Their leader was dead, his story left as grist for the word mills of dozens of poets and story-tellers. In the longer run, however, the Russians were not to be denied their eastward expansion, and the expedition may be seen as an initial probing of the region. It uncovered many of the Tatars’ weaknesses and undermined Kuchum’s hold on the region: He was left to fight both Russians and predatory Tatars.

Further Reading

  • Armstrong, Terence E., ed. Yermak’s Campaign in Siberia: A Selection of Documents. Translated by Tatiana Minorsky and David Wileman. London: Hakluyt Society, 1975. All of the major primary documentation from chronicles and Russian imperial letters for the campaign is included.
  • Bobrick, Benson. East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia. New York: Poseidon Press, 1992. Very useful account of the campaign and subsequent history of the region under Russian control.
  • Bobrick, Benson. Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987. Sets the campaign and its results within the framework of Ivan’s policies and plans for Russia.
  • Forsyth, James. A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony, 1581-1990. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Comprehensive work on Siberian history that focuses on ethnicity as a factor in the initial conquest and its aftermath.
  • Vernadsky, George. Russia at the Dawn of the Modern Age. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959. Classic text on the situation surrounding the Siberian campaign.

1480-1502: Destruction of the Golden Horde

After 1480: Ivan the Great Organizes the “Third Rome”

1499-c. 1600: Russo-Polish Wars

Jan. 16, 1547: Coronation of Ivan the Terrible

1556-1605: Reign of Akbar

1581-1597: Cossacks Seize Sibir