Cossacks Seize Sibir Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Prompted by the untapped riches of Siberian furs and the desire to secure Russia’s eastern frontiers against raids by nomadic tribesmen, Russian forces under the Cossack leader Yermak invaded and conquered the Khanate of Sibir.

Summary of Event

The Cossacks Cossacks have long been associated with romantic images of proud and independent horsemen living on the open steppe, the vast grasslands on the southern and eastern frontiers of Russia. Many had fled the constraints of serfdom to pursue an uncertain life on the fringes of society, learning customs and skills from the very Tatar tribesmen who were their sworn enemies. Even the word “Cossack” comes from a Tatar term meaning “independent fighter.” As the Russian czars expanded their domain and created a strong, centralized government, the Cossacks represented a force of lawlessness that had to be brought to heel. At the same time, however, their ferocious bravery and skill as mounted fighters made them a potentially valuable resource. Sibir;Cossack conquest of Russia;conquest of Sibir Timofeyevich, Yermak Kuchum Ivan the Terrible Godunov, Boris Ivan the Terrible Yermak Timofeyevich Kuchum Godunov, Boris Fyodorovich

This ambiguity colored the attitude of Czar Ivan the Terrible toward Yermak Timofeyevich, a Cossack leader, or ataman, who alternated between banditry and mercenary service. Yermak was hired by the Stroganovs, a family of wealthy merchants, to protect them from raiding tribes from the east, beyond the Ural Mountains. Although Czar Ivan had forbidden his leading families to succor “bandits,” as he frequently described the Cossacks, he granted permission for Yermak to lead an expedition to make war on the khan of the Siberian Tatars Tatars and to take his lands for the Russian crown.

In 1581, the expedition set out with 540 experienced warriors armed with primitive firearms, as well as swords and bows. They were led by five subordinate atamans of fierce reputation: Ivan Koltso, Bogdan Bryazga, Matvei Meshcheryak, Nikitin Pan, and Yakov Mikhailov. They went by water up the Kama and Chusovaya Rivers through the Ural Mountains, portaging several times before they finally abandoned their boats and trekked overland to the river Tagil. There they camped for some time and built new boats.

Shortly after their departure from their encampment, they were ambushed by the Voguls, a tribe tributary to the khan. After repelling the attack, the Cossacks pursued the Voguls back to their settlement of Chingi-tura, near modern Tyumen. They seized the settlement, captured the khan’s tax collector, and sent him back to his master with gifts and promises of their peaceful intent. However, the khan distrusted their embassy and set up a second ambush for them at the river Tobol. Tobol River, Battle of the (1582)

After losing a fair portion of his force, Yermak decided it would be prudent to return to European Russia to resupply before winter. However, his scouts soon returned with news that there was no easy way home. Yermak was now committed to storming the Tatar capital, Sibir (a name ultimately extended to the entirety of Russia’s Asian conquests and anglicized as Siberia). The Cossacks were in desperate straits, but the khan commanded a divided force, in which a Tatar elite led levies of warriors from the various tributary peoples. The tribal levies soon broke and ran, having no desire to die for the khan. After a long and pitched battle, the Tatars themselves finally fled, enabling the Cossacks to seize Sibir and shelter for the winter. In doing so, they also took over the Tatars’ tribute payments.

Yermak sent messengers back to Moscow to report his success, but by this time Czar Ivan’s mood had changed. He was fully ready to slay the Cossacks as bandits, and only their rich bundles of furs saved their lives. Taking the furs, Ivan agreed to send reinforcements to consolidate Yermak’s hold on the area.

In Sibir, the Cossacks spent a long and painful winter struggling with constant pressure from the Tatars, who ambushed their foraging missions. Only the capture of the Tatar prince Mahmet-kul, whom they held as a hostage against further raids, brought them any security. During that brief period of relative peace, the Cossacks also defeated a tribe known as the Ostyaks by stealing the idol they worshiped.

When Czar Ivan’s reinforcements arrived in the spring, they proved ill-prepared and more of a burden than an asset. Many of them died of disease, and the Cossacks suffered major setbacks, including the loss of several of their leaders. Yermak himself was shot through the eye during a battle, then drowned when his heavy armor pulled him to the bottom of the river he was trying to cross to escape. However, it was later said that his ghost continued to haunt and fight the Tatars long afterward.

Although deprived of their charismatic leader, the Cossacks continued the fight, and better-prepared reinforcements enabled them to establish a large measure of control over western Siberia. Khan Kuchum was not entirely displaced, however. He continued to resist the czar’s rule in the region, primarily by organizing guerrilla attacks against the Russian forces. Finally, in 1598, he was captured by the Russians, along with most of his family and household retainers. Czar Boris Godunov, himself of Tatar descent, offered Kuchum clemency if he would submit to Russian rule. Kuchum refused, however, and went into exile with the Nogai Horde. The Nogais killed him soon thereafter.

The lucrative fur trade Trade;furs drove further exploration into Siberia, and the possibility of attaining the status of a free Cossack by living successfully in that wild land drew many dissatisfied people. Within fifty years, the Cossacks had reached the Pacific Ocean and even visited Japan. The activities of these hardy explorers were often marked by rapacious brutality alongside noble acts of self-sacrifice, further cementing their ambiguous images. The Cossacks’ expeditions eastward led them to become organized into well-defined hosts with privileges that distinguished them from the ordinary peasantry. At the same time, however, much of the original freedom of the Cossacks eroded, and this was difficult for some of the more wild spirits among them to accept.


The Cossack expeditions into Siberia were critical in transforming Russia from a relatively modest nation in the deciduous forests of Eastern Europe into the world’s largest country in terms of land mass. The conquest of Siberia gave Russia an enormous frontier region to which the dissatisfied could go to seek their fortunes. In addition, Russian leaders found Siberia a useful place of exile for criminals and political malcontents, a practice that would reach its ultimate expression in the GULAG system of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, himself a survivor of several periods of Siberian exile as a revolutionary.

The expeditions also began a transformation of the Cossacks from lawless bandits to the staunchest defenders of the autocracy. Their legendary skills as mounted warriors were an integral part of their way of life, and in return for the special privileges that enabled that lifestyle, they were required to render military service to the czars. The freedom-loving Cossacks were never brought completely under control, however, and they were responsible for two major, bloody rebellions against the Russian aristocracy, one led by Stepan Timofeyevich Razin (1667-1671), and one led by Emelyan Pugachev (1773-1775). In both cases, the Cossack leaders stirred up the Russian peasantry and led brutal attacks on government officials and members of the nobility. In response to the second rebellion, Empress Catherine the Great withdrew many Cossack privileges, including the right to choose their own leader.

The last great expression of Cossack military horsemanship may be seen in Semyon Budyonny’s Mounted Army of the 1918-1920 Russian Civil War, as portrayed in Isaak Babel’s novel Red Cavalry. The Cossacks, however, had no place in Soviet society, and their culture was systematically destroyed in Stalin’s drive to collectivization, although post-Soviet Russia has seen some efforts at a Cossack revival.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Payne, Robert, and Nikita Romanoff. Ivan the Terrible. Lanham, Md.: Cooper Square Press, 2002. Biography of the czar who sent Yermak to conquer Siberia; gives an idea of the politics behind the decision.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seaton, Albert. The Horsemen of the Steppes: The Story of the Cossacks. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1985. Study of the origins of the Cossacks from the collision of Tatar and Russian, including the Cossack expeditions into Siberia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ure, John. The Cossacks: An Illustrated History. New York: Penguin, 2002. Accessible history of the Cossacks, their explorations and their rebellions.

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

July 21, 1582: Battle of the Tobol River

Categories: History