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A Band of Adventurers Defeats a Kingdom

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This chapter is from the book

Ermak’s Conquering Cossacks

On October 22, 1581, the warrior Ermak Timofeev, an ataman leading several hundred Cossacks, decided to make camp on the banks of the Irtysh River. The Cossacks were deep in the hostile territory on the far side of the Urals, surrounded by savage hordes on every side. Night had already fallen, so they lit a ring of fires to guard themselves against stealthy attack and to keep warm their wounded comrades. After making camp, Ermak gathered together the unwounded and those not keeping watch to discuss what they must do next. They had few options, and none looked good.

The chain of events that brought these Russian warriors to the Irtysh began a couple of decades before in 1558, when Tsar Ivan IV granted to Jacob and Gregory Stroganov a huge territory in the wild Upper Kama region just west of the Ural Mountains. The Stroganovs were the Russian counterparts of the Dutch and English merchant-adventurers and empire builders who founded trading companies in the East and West Indies. Earlier in the sixteenth century, the Stroganov family had developed large-scale industries on the northeastern frontier of Russia—salt extraction, fur trade, and fisheries—and therefore they had the necessary experience and capital to develop new territories. The Stroganov brothers immediately started attracting colonists and establishing settlements and military garrisons. The land was sparsely inhabited by indigenous tribes of various Finno-Ugric peoples who, although resentful of the invasion, were unable to offer effective resistance. A more serious threat came from the Tatars inhabiting the steppe and forest-steppe regions beyond the Urals. The Tatars was the generic name used by the Russians for Turko-Mongolic steppe nomads. These particular nomads were ruled by Kuchum, a descendant of Chinggis (more familiarly, but inaccurately, spelled Genghis) Khan, who styled himself as the khan of Sibir (whence the name Siberia). When Kuchum Khan realized that Russians were in the process of establishing a firm grip on the Upper Kama region, he sent some Tatars and their native allies under his nephew Mahmet-Kul to raid the new settlements. The Tatars massacred the Russians (and the native allies of the Russians), captured many of their women and children, and then retired with this booty across the mountains.

Map 1

Map 1 Russia and the Tatars in the sixteenth century

The Stroganovs’ response was that the best defense is offense. The first step was to obtain a formal permission from the tsar to extend their territory across the Urals. The tsar granted permission, but with a stipulation that the Stroganovs were strictly on their own—they could not count on the government for either funds or soldiers. Fortunately, they had an alternative source of recruits—the Cossacks. The Cossacks were rough-and-ready Russian frontiersmen inhabiting the lawless steppe regions between the borders of the Russian state and the territories controlled by the Crimean, Kazan, and Astrakhan Tatars. Their precise origins are obscure, but by the sixteenth century their ranks consisted mainly of runaway peasants, impoverished noble servitors, and other fugitives from central Russia, as well as their descendants. Cossack relations with the Russian state were uneven. Being Christian Orthodox in religion, the Cossacks usually warred against the tsar’s enemies, and often entered government service. However, the Cossacks valued freedom above all else, and were known to lead rebellions against the central government. Furthermore, opportunities for peaceful trade were quite limited on the steppe frontier, and many Cossack bands made their living by brigandage.

When the Stroganovs started casting about for recruits, they learned about one such band of outlaws based on the Volga, whose leaders included Ermak Timofeev and Ivan Koltso. Koltso ("the Ring") achieved international notoriety when he led a successful raid on the capital of the Nogay Horde. The Nogays were at the time allied with Russia, and when they complained to Ivan IV, he condemned Koltso to death in absentia. The Stroganovs sent a letter to the Cossacks, offering the company a chance to defend the eastern frontier of Christendom against the "heathens" and, at the same time, earn the tsar’s pardon. The Cossacks accepted.

In 1579, Ermak’s company arrived in the Stroganov territory, where they first served as the military garrison. In the summer of 1581, for example, they defeated a raiding foray by the 680 Voguls (a warlike Ugric tribe from across the Urals) and captured their leader. However, their main job was to take the war to the enemy. The contemporary Stroganov Chronicle relates how the subsequent events unfolded.

"On September 1, 1582, on the feast day of our Holy Father Simeon Stylite, Semen, Maxim, and Nikita Stroganov sent out the Volga atamans and Cossacks, Ermak Timofeev and his men, from their town, against the Siberian sultan [Kuchum Khan]. With these men, they sent 300 of their own troops mustered from the towns and Litva [these were some Lithuanian and German prisoners, who were promised freedom upon successful completion of the enterprise], Tatars and Russians, all bold and brave. They set forth as one, together with the Volga atamans and Cossacks. In all, the total was 840 bold and brave men. They sang prayers to the all-merciful God of the Holy Trinity and to the Virgin Mother and all the heavenly powers and saints." The Cossacks loaded boats with supplies and weapons, which included arquebuses and light cannon, and started rowing up the Chusovaya River toward the Ural Mountains. After traveling as far up the river as they could go, they portaged across the Urals (the mountains being gentle in this region), and then floated down the tributaries of the Irtysh.

"On September 9 of the year 1582, of the feast day of the Holy Father Ioachim and of Anna, the intrepid warriors reached the land of Siberia and attacked many Tatar and native settlements down the Tura River. They valiantly made their way to the Tavda River and captured Tatar prisoners at its mouth. One of them, named Tauzak, was a member of the court of the tsar [here meaning Kuchum Khan, not the Russian tsar]; he told them all about the Siberian tsars and princes and horsemen and about Tsar Kuchum. When they learned everything from Tauzak, they set him free to inform Sultan Kuchum about their arrival and their strength and bravery. ...

"The evil Tsar Kuchum sent his son [actually, nephew] Mahmet-Kul with a great multitude of warriors and ordered them to stand bravely against the invading Russians. Kuchum ordered them to fell trees and build an abatis on the Irtysh River at Chuvash, and to reinforce it with earth, and fortify it with defense weapons. This was to be a substantial fortification.

"Mahmet-Kul and his multitudinous warriors reached the place called Babasan. The Russian warriors, atamans, and Cossacks were considerably alarmed to see such a great assemblage of the heathens, but they put their trust in God and set forth from their forts and fell upon the heathens. The heathens attacked the invading forces mercilessly from horseback and wounded the Cossacks with their lances and sharp arrows. The Russian warriors fired back [with their arquebuses and light cannon] and killed a vast multitude of the heathen. There was a fierce struggle with the Tatar warriors, and both sides suffered a great number of casualties. The heathens, seeing so many of their warriors fall before the Russians, took flight. ...

"When the Cossacks reached the domain of Karacha, a second battle took place against this councillor of Tsar [Kuchum]. They captured his domain and plundered his honey and other property and loaded it into their boats. The heathens, on horseback and foot, pursued them to the Irtysh River. The atamans and Cossacks advanced bravely against the heathens massed on the riverbank, and both sides lost many men killed in this great battle. Then the heathens, seeing so many of their men killed by the Russian warriors, took final flight. In that battle, Ermak’s army lost only a few men, but almost everyone was wounded.

"When Tsar Kuchum saw his warriors overwhelmed, he retired with some survivors and camped on the top of a hill called Chuvash. His son Mahmet-Kul remained at the abatis with a large rearguard, while the Cossacks proceeded up the Irtysh River.

"When the Russian forces came upon a small settlement which belonged to Atik-murza, they took it and set up their camp there, because night had already fallen and it was dark. The Cossacks saw an immense gathering of the heathen at their abatis and were in great consternation. They said to one another, ‘How can we stand against such a multitude?’ They pondered this, then formed a circle and took counsel together [this was the traditional way of reaching a decision in the Cossack democracy]. They debated. ‘Should we retreat, or stand together as one?’ Some brooded and were of the opinion, ‘It would be best for us to retreat.’ But others were firm and resolute and proclaimed, ‘Oh, brother comrades in arms, how can we retreat? Autumn has already set in. Ice is freezing in the rivers. We cannot take to flight and bring reproach and disgrace on ourselves. Rather let us place our trust in God, for victory does not come from having a great mass of warriors, but from the help of God on high. It is possible that God will help even the helpless. Brothers, have we ourselves not heard what evil this godless and cursed heathen of the Siberian land, Sultan Kuchum, has brought on our Russian land of Perm, how he has laid waste the towns of our Sovereign [the Russian tsar], and murdered and enslaved Orthodox Christians? Do we not know of the number of the Stroganovs’ forts he has destroyed? Almighty God will punish the cursed one for shedding Christian blood. Brothers, let us recall our oath, which we swore before God in the presence of honest men [the Stroganovs]. We gave our word and promised, kissing the cross, that if Almighty God helped us, we would not retreat, even though we might die to the last man. We cannot turn back. We cannot dishonor ourselves and break the oath we have sworn. If the Almighty Glorious God of the Trinity will help us, then even if we fall, our memory will not die in these lands, and our glory will be eternal!’

"Hearing this, the atamans and Cossacks were emboldened in spirit, and their courage was renewed. They all shouted an oath in one voice. ‘We are ready to die for the holy church of God. We will suffer for the true Orthodox faith. We will serve the devout Sovereign Tsar and Grand Prince Ivan Vasilevich of all Russia [Ivan IV]. We will stand firm against the heathens to the last drop of our blood, unto death itself. Brothers, we will not violate oaths, we will stand as one, steadfast!’ ...

"They set out from their camp to go to battle on October 23, the feast day of the Holy Apostle James, brother of our Lord. All together, in one voice, they gave tongue, shouting, ‘God be with us! Lord, help us, your humble servants!’

"They advanced on the abatis bravely and fearlessly, and there was a fierce battle with the heathens. The heathens fired countless arrows from the top of the abatis and from embrasures. They wounded many of Ermak’s brave men and killed others. And when they saw these brave men fall, the heathens rushed out in sorties through the abatis in three places, hoping to force the Cossacks into flight. During these they fought ferociously, in hand-to-hand combat.

"The Cossacks advanced against the heathens as one man and proved their bravery and ferocity before the dishonored and godless heathen. At length, the heathens’ strength weakened, and God gave the Cossacks victory over them. The Cossacks gained ground, overpowered the heathens, and killed a multitude. They forced them back from the abatis and placed their own battle standard on it. They wounded Mahmet-Kul, and his warriors carried him off in a small boat across the Irtysh River.

"Tsar Kuchum, who was encamped on the hill, saw the defeat of his Tatars and the wounding and flight of his son Mahmet-Kul. He ordered his mullahs to call out their wretched Muslim prayers. He called on his foul gods to aid him, but received not the slightest assistance. At the same time the Ostiak princes [the native allies of the Tatars] fell back with their men, however they could. ...

"The wretched tsar galloped off to his town of Sibir, taking a small part of his wealth, and then continued his flight, leaving the town of Sibir deserted. Brave Ermak and his men came to Sibir, later called Tobolsk, on October 26, the feast day of the Holy Martyr Demetrios of Salonika. They gave thanks to God for having given them victory over the godless and cursed heathens, and rejoiced mightily. They seized a great amount of gold and silver, cloth of gold, precious stones, sables, martens and valuable foxes, and divided these among themselves.

"This is splendid to relate, and truly it glorifies the Almighty God of the Trinity who had given the small but strong Russian warriors victory over the heathens, and defeat of the boastful Tsar Kuchum. Tsar Kuchum had assembled an army that outnumbered the Cossacks by 10 to 20 or even 30 to 1. The cursed one lamented the great number of his warriors who had fallen. Thus God brings down the haughty and favors the humble Christians."

This story of Ermak’s conquest of Siberia, as told by the contemporary chronicler, is interesting not only because of the events that it relates, but also in how it is told. The ideological spin that the chronicler puts on the story provides a glimpse into how the Russians viewed their conflict with the Tatars, and what were the motivations of the people who advanced the Russian frontier. But let us first focus on the basic outline of the events. A band of a few hundred intrepid European adventurers defeats hordes of natives, conquers a kingdom, and captures an enormous booty. The parallel between Ermak’s Cossacks and Cortés’ or Pizarro’s conquistadors in the New World is striking (although, to be sure, the amount of loot captured by Pizarro dwarves anything that Ermak could possibly have found in Sibir).

How did they do it? Jared Diamond recently explained the spectacular feats of Cortés and Pizarro by arguing that the Spaniards had guns, germs, and steel, whereas Native Americans, who had no communications with the continent of Eurasia before 1492, did not. This explanation makes sense for the Spanish conquest of America, but it does not help us to understand the Russian conquest of Siberia. We can immediately dismiss two thirds of Diamond’s triad, because both sides had been exposed to the same germs and steel for centuries. As for guns, the Russians employed them with great effect against the bow-and-arrow-wielding nomads. But why were the Russians able to equip themselves with guns, and the Tatars not? Neither of these peoples was the inventor of firearms. (If anything, the Tatars were in a much better position than the Russians to get gunpowder directly from its inventors, the Chinese.) A racist explanation, stressing the difference between the Europeans and non-Europeans, is unsatisfactory because other Turkic people—the Ottomans and the Mughals—eagerly adopted firearms and used them with great effect to build huge empires. The Crimean Tatars a thousand miles to the southwest of their Siberian cousins started using siege and handheld guns around 1530. In any case, the role of firearms in the decisive battle of Sibir was quite minimal. The primitive matchlock arquebuses of the Cossacks were slow to fire, lacked accuracy, and could not be used in damp weather. The main impact of the gunpowder revolution in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, after all, was the ability of artillery to knock down medieval fortifications. Handheld guns started becoming truly effective only after the seventeenth century, with the invention of the flintlock musket.

The mystery deepens when we consider what happened in eastern Europe three centuries before Ermak. In 1236, a great army of steppe invaders led by Batu, one of Chinggis Khan’s grandsons, gathered in the steppes west of the Irtysh, in the same area that three centuries later was to become the khanate of Sibir. Although we call them the Mongols, the ethnic Mongols comprised perhaps a tenth of the host’s number; the rest were a tribal mixture dominated by various Turkic peoples: Keraits, Tatars (whose name was expanded by the Russians to cover all kinds of Turko-Mongolic steppe people), Uigurs, Khwarizmians, Turkomans, and so on. The Mongol subjugation of eastern Europe began with the destruction of the realm of the Volga Bulgars. Starting in 1237, and for the next three years, the Mongols systematically conquered practically all of Russia. (Only Novgorod in the northwest escaped direct attack, but nevertheless had to submit to Batu and agree to pay tribute.) One of the most remarkable aspects of this conquest was that although each principality fought bravely against the invaders, the Russians were unable to unite against the Mongol threat. This inability to work together is most graphically illustrated by the tale of two brothers, Yurii and Roman, who ruled the Ryazan principality southeast of Moscow. When the Mongol army approached, Yurii shut himself up in the principality’s capital, Ryazan, while Roman, instead of coming to the aid of his brother, stayed in a smaller town, Kolomna, some 50 miles to the northwest of Ryazan. The Mongols first took Ryzan, killed Yurii, and slaughtered the entire population. Then they went to Kolomna, defeated and killed Roman before the fortress, and captured Kolomna itself.

The same story repeated itself over and over again. Fragmentation of Russia into dozens of tiny principalities and the inability of the Russians to unite against the external threat were one of the main reasons (perhaps the main one) why the Mongols were able to conquer Russia in the thirteenth century. This shortcoming was obvious to the Russians themselves, as made very clear in the Ode on the Downfall of the Russian Land, written shortly after the Mongol conquest.

The Mongols, by contrast, excelled at teamwork. Historians generally agree that the ability of the Mongols to crush all their opponents was not due to any technical advantage in weaponry, nor to their numbers. (They often fought against and destroyed numerically superior enemies.) The explanation for the Mongol success must be sought elsewhere.

The Mongol army was a well-oiled social mechanism, capable of discipline and internal cohesion to the degree unknown in Europe since the Roman times. The Mongol armies deployed, advanced, and maneuvered in eerie silence. There were not even shouts of command because movements of the blocks of cavalry were governed by the flag signals from the standard bearers. At the right moment, the whole army suddenly charged, yelling and shrieking like demons. Such tactics were extremely unnerving to their adversaries.

One of the favorite tricks used by the Mongols was the fake retreat, luring the unwary enemy into ambush and annihilation. Performing such maneuvers with a host of 100,000 called for precision timing and frictionless cooperation. Another tactic, described by the papal envoy Plano Carpini, was as follows. "They meet the first cavalry onset with a front consisting of prisoners and foreign auxiliaries, while the bulk of their forces take up their positions on the wings in order to encompass the enemy. They do this so effectively that he fancies them far more numerous than they are. If the adversary defends himself stoutly, they open their ranks and allow him to escape, whereupon they dash in pursuit and slay as many of the fugitives as they can." The world historian William McNeill noted that "the Mongols were capable of moving in widely dispersed columns over all sorts of terrain, while maintaining communication between the separate columns so as to assure concentration of all forces at the decisive time and place. Subotai, the general in charge of the invasion of Europe in 1241, thought nothing of coordinating columns operating in Poland with others pressing into Hungary, despite the Carpathian barrier between them. No comparable feats of coordination over such distances were achieved by European armies until the late nineteenth century."

The Mongol unity of purpose extended from the movements of large-scale military units all the way down to interpersonal relations. As the ambassador from the French court William of Rubruck reported, "In the whole world, there are no more obedient subjects than the Tatars, neither among lay people nor among the monks; they pay their lords more respect than any other people and would hardly dare lie to them. Rarely if ever do they revile each other, but if they should, the dispute never leads to blows. Wars, quarrels, the infliction of bodily harm, and manslaughter do not occur among them, and there are no large-scale thieves or robbers among them." It was this remarkable social cohesion that explains the spectacular successes of the Mongols against all other Eurasian armies from Korea to Hungary.

The characterization of the Mongols that stresses their ability to cooperate will probably sound strange to many readers. Cooperation is a "nice" word, and the Mongols of Chinggis Khan were most definitely not nice people. They slaughtered literally millions of men, women, and children, and enslaved millions of survivors. They turned dozens of wealthy and beautiful cities into ruins and piled pyramids of hundreds of thousands of skulls as grisly monuments to their achievements. They practiced cruel executions and unspeakable tortures on those unlucky to fall into their hands. And wasn’t the empire of Chinggis Khan a typical "oriental despotism"? So how is it possible to speak about the spirit of cooperation in such a society?

This is a very important question because, as discussed in subsequent chapters, cooperation, or more generally the capacity for collective action, is a key factor in the rise of empires. It must be noted immediately that the concept of oriental despotism, if it means the absolute power of one individual over the whole society, is a sociological nonsense. A single person, no matter how physically impressive, cannot rule against the wishes of all of his subjects. As soon as he falls asleep, one of the people he has oppressed will end his tyranny by sticking a knife in him. In real life, tyrants could rule only because they had the support of a certain group of people—the palace guard, the aristocracy, perhaps the top bureaucrats. Only groups can oppress other groups and whole societies, and to do that the "oppressor" group must be internally cohesive. In other words, oppression can only be accomplished from the basis of cooperation, paradoxical as it sounds.

The social matrix of Western societies (weaved from such things as education, mass media, and even cocktail-party chitchat) conditions us to think that the only legitimate source of social power is "we the people." As a corollary, we tend to assume that nondemocratic societies are held together by force alone. A recent illustration of this pervasive cultural bias is the implicit assumption by the American planners of the Iraq invasion in 2003 that as soon as Saddam Hussein was overthrown by American troops, the Iraqi people would work together with the occupation authorities in building a democratic society.

There is no question that the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein used violence and intimidation to keep down dissident groups, and the many atrocities committed by Saddam’s henchmen are well documented. However, this was not the whole story. In addition to force, the regime relied on cooperation from certain other groups: the core support came from Saddam’s clan, with the wider power base provided by the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. In addition, a more diffuse group, originating from other ethnic segments of the Iraqi population (the Shiite Arabs and the Sunni Kurds and Turkmen), had come to think of themselves as "Iraqis" first and members of their ethnic group second. Although this group, let us loosely call them nationalists, did not actively support the Ba’athist regime, they acquiesced to its rule. Although perhaps not holding the legitimacy of Saddam’s government terribly high, many of them consider the legitimacy of the occupying powers to be even lower.

We now know empirically that Saddam’s regime was not based solely on force, because many members of the groups that supported him when he was in power are still willing to sacrifice their lives attacking his captors (even after Saddam himself has become powerless). An even greater number participates in demonstrations and other acts of nonviolent resistance, an activity that, although not as suicidal as direct attacks against the well-armed American troops, is by no means risk-free. Finally, the majority of Iraqis have just chosen to have as little to do with the American authorities as possible. During the first months of the occupation, various commentators attributed this aloofness to the residual fear that Saddam could yet return to power and punish those who cooperated with the Americans. However, the capture of Saddam in late 2003 did not change Iraqi attitudes in any significant way.

The case of Ba’athist Iraq, thus, serves as an excellent illustration of the idea that oppression and cooperation are not mutually exclusive—to oppress the dissidents, Saddam had to have cooperation within his social power base. To the Bush administration, Saddam was a murderous thug, a tin-pot dictator, a failed and incompetent Hitler wannabe. But he can also be seen as a stern and wily tribal leader, who bestowed rich rewards on his people, while meting out harsh punishment to their enemies. The brutality of his secret service, of his sons, and of his very own actions can be seen as strength. Certainly this is how a significant minority of Iraqis saw him. And they were prepared to cooperate with him.

How well did the Tatars cooperate on the Eurasian steppes of the sixteenth century? Remember that the Tatars of the Sibir khanate were direct descendants of the Turco-Mongolian horde that was led by Batu to conquer eastern Europe three centuries before. Kuchum Khan, for example, was a Chinggisid, tracing his ancestry to Batu’s brother Shayban. Yet these later day Tatars were a very different people from their ancestors. Although enjoying a great numeric superiority, they could not defeat Ermak’s Cossacks.

Even more importantly, in the sixteenth century various Tatar principalities were unable to unite in their struggle against resurgent Russia. When the Mongol Empire was divided among the four branches of the Chinggisids, Batu and his descendants received the westernmost part and made their capital in Sarai on the Lower Volga. The Golden Horde, as Batu’s realm became known to historians, maintained its unity for 200 years, except for a period of civil war during the late fourteenth century. In the middle of the fifteenth century, it fragmented into a number of independent principalities: the khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, Crimea, and Sibir, and the Nogay Horde. These successor states of the Golden Horde were none too stable, and continued to be wracked by civil wars into the sixteenth century. Noble factions in Kazan went through one coup after another. One of the contending princes, Shah Ali, went through the process of first gaining the throne and then losing it three times! The khanate of Sibir also went through a series of its civil wars. The last civil war, of 1563–9, in which Kuchum Khan defeated and killed the previous khan of Sibir, concluded only 12 years before the Russian invasion. What we see here, then, is a complete reversal of the situation that pertained three centuries before. Now it was the turn of the Tatars to experience social dissolution in the face of the Russian monolith.

At the same time that the Golden Horde was fragmenting, the Russian lands were slowly but inexorably "gathered," as the Russian chronicles put it, under the leadership of Moscow. The process was largely completed in 1485 with the annexation by Moscow of the last independent Russian principality of Tver. The tendency toward disintegration, characteristic of the pre-Mongol conquest Russia, was completely reversed. When a piece of territory was added to the principality of Moscow, there it would stay. This centralizing, integrative trend persisted even after the principality expanded beyond the core Russian lands with the conquest of Kazan and Astrakhan khanates (1552–56). The tenacity of territorial acquisition can be illustrated with the course of events that followed the battle of Sibir.

After wintering in Sibir, Ermak sent his lieutenant, Ivan Koltso, "the Ring," with the report of their great victory back across the Urals. The news that another kingdom was added to the Russian Empire was met with great popular jubilation. Koltso received a pardon for his crimes and rich gifts from the hands of the tsar himself, and left to Sibir accompanied by a company of government troops. Although the conquest of Sibir started as a private action, neither Ermak nor the Stroganovs considered establishing an independent princedom in Siberia for themselves. Whether their offering of Siberia to the tsar was born of loyalty or calculation, the subsequent course of events showed the wisdom of this course of action.

Although he lost the battle of Sibir, Kuchum Khan did not give up the struggle. The Tatars, however, were plagued by dissent. Several Tatar nobles and their following deserted Kuchum and went over to the son of the previous khan (whom Kuchum had killed in the civil war). Lacking strong forces to dislodge the Cossacks, Kuchum shifted to guerilla tactics. His nephew Mahmet-Kul succeeded in inflicting some casualties on the Russians, but was eventually captured and sent to Moscow. During the second winter, however, the Cossacks ran out of supplies and began suffering from scurvy and starvation. Then disaster struck in the summer of 1584: At night, the Tatars attacked the camp where Ermak and his comrades slept. Most of the Cossacks were killed, and Ermak himself drowned while attempting to swim to the boats in the river. News of Ermak’s death was the final straw for the defenders of Sibir. Their numbers had been whittled down by constant Tatar attacks, and it was clear that they could not survive a third winter. The Russians were forced to retreat across the Urals to the Stroganov lands, and Kuchum reoccupied Sibir.

Unfortunately for the Tatars, their ultimate defeat was only postponed. Two years later, the Russians entered Siberia again. They proceeded in a systematic fashion, first building the fortified town of Tyumen (1586); then Tobolsk (1587), near the site of recaptured Sibir; Tara (1594); and, finally, Surgut, on the Ob River (also in 1594). Kuchum fought on for years, but was defeated in a final battle on the Ob in 1598. He took refuge with the Nogay, where he was assassinated in 1600.

The overarching question of this book is why do large empires rise and fall? Therefore, it is only proper to start with the struggle between the people who built the two largest territorial empires ever seen in world history. When we stand back and take a long view at the course of this struggle, we are struck by the complete reversal in the fortunes of these two nations. In the thirteenth century, Russia, fragmented into a multitude of bickering principalities, had no chance against the Mongol steamroller. In the sixteenth century, it was the turn of the Russian monolith to roll over the squabbling Tatar khanates. Why did the Tatars lose their social cohesion? How did the Russians acquire it?

Social cohesion, of course, is not the only factor we will need to explain the rise and fall of empires. History is too complex for single-factor explanations. It is clear, however, that social cohesion, or lack of it, played a large role in the stunning reversal of fortune in the centuries-long Russian-Tatar struggle. What made Russia evolve from a collection of bickering principalities to a highly centralized state?

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