Russian Expansion under the Czars

After the decline of Mongol control, Moscow emerged as a political center rather than Kiev. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow was the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church. This ended up establishing a cultural boundary between Russia and Europe that would continue through political divides. Ivan the Great came to the Muscovy throne in the 1400s and began to establish a sense of a Russian nation and to expand its borders. In other words, Ivan began the process of creating the modern region of Russia and central Asia through a process of expansion and consolidation.

Russian expansion into Siberia greatly expanded in the late sixteenth century and the seventeenth century. This expansion was prompted by the lure of various furs from animals native to Siberia. These furs provided income for the government and individuals through export to western Europe, but increasing Russian colonization of Siberia led to a decline among the native population. The desire for greater numbers of furs also caused the fur-bearing animal population to nearly disappear, with significant ecological consequences for Siberia.

In Russia, the emergence of the powerful Muscovite Rus led to the spread of eastern Slavs across the Eurasian plains. Grand Duke Ivan III (1462-1505) pushed Russian expansion south and west, Tsar Ivan IV (1530-1584) supported Russian expansion to the east, and Tsar Alexis (1645-1676) established Russian outposts on the Pacific Ocean littoral. This expansion was accompanied by the gradual migration of Russian traders to the vast expanse of Siberia. More important was the Russian government’s efforts to encourage southward movement of the Russian population (most of whom were serfs owned by noble landlords), which displaced local nomadic tribes.

Beginning in the 1530s, the Russian tsars embarked on a massive program of expansion into eastern Europe and across Asia. By the late seventeenth century the Russian empire stretched from Finland and Ukraine in the west to the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk in the east and from the Arctic Ocean in the north to China in the south. The reasons for this expansion are manifold: population pressures, enticements for Russian settlers to migrate, the exploration for and exploitation of natural resources, geopolitical strategy, and military glory. The regions that Russia incorporated were not empty wastelands but rather the homelands of numerous indigenous peoples with their own cultures and ways of life. When and where Russians and indigenous peoples met, changes to traditional indigenous life were bound to occur. Often, these changes were marked by the decline of indigenous populations in the interests of Russian imperial power.

The decline of indigenous populations took various forms. As historian Andreas Kappeler notes in The Russian Empire: A Multi-Ethnic History, Russia’s imperial expansion was flexible in its approach. The Russian tsars used a range of strategies, which included conventional diplomacy, the creation of protectorates that the tsars later annexed completely, purchasing smaller territories, and the overt use of military suppression, among other tactics. The nature of indigenous population decline often corresponded to the particular form of expansion used by Russia in a specific case. For example, many Yakuts were assimilated, forced to flee Russian territory, or simply killed as Russian forces conquered their territory. Other populations, such as certain Finnish- and Turkic-speaking peoples, were simply absorbed into Russia’s dominant culture. As Russian settlers gradually expropriated their lands, Russian Orthodox missionaries converted them to Christianity, and Russian traders forced them to learn Russian to survive economically.

Frequently, the decline of indigenous populations in the expanding Russian empire was simply due to competition for scarce resources. Much of central Asia was already partly depopulated as a result of Mongol conquests from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries and the impact of the Black Death from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. Indigenous peoples throughout much of Siberia and other parts of what would become the Russian empire subsisted on hunting, fishing, and herding, as agriculture was limited due to the frequently harsh weather conditions. To survive on the relatively scarce natural resources, indigenous populations tended to be nomadic. However, as Russian settlers moved into an area, they appropriated as much land as they could to eke out an existence, competing for other resources, such as furs, with the indigenous population and severely limiting the area available for indigenous nomadic subsistence. The more numerous Russians, backed by the military might of the Russian state, invariably won this competition, forcing the indigenous inhabitants to flee, assimilate, or face starvation. As a result, the Russian empire became increasingly “Russian” in both culture and ethnicity despite its incorporation of more and more previously diverse lands. Though many ethnic minorities did not completely die out in the face of Russian imperial expansion, their numbers dwindled, and their survival was increasingly dependent on the will of the Russian state.

The expansion was first into the north, which increased coastal access, and then to the Urals and into Siberia. This territory was sparsely populated, and Russians began a process of settlement, expanding their territory through relocation. By the beginning of the seventeenth century Russian villages extended hundreds of miles east of the Urals, and state-sponsored trade in furs had become quite important. The rivers of this region were key to integrating this area, since they enabled Russian settlers to travel long distances. The orientation of Russia shifted over time. While the religious institutions and political structures of Russia differed from those of Europe and much of Russia’s expansion was to the east, Russia sometimes shifted its cultural emphasis toward Europe. Peter the Great built St. Petersburg on territory taken from Sweden, and moving the capital of Russia to St. Petersburg was an intentional effort to associate with the West. The city’s noble families spoke French by the nineteenth century. Thus, the boundary between Europe and Russia has not been static, since Russia has expanded and acquired European territory, and the starkness of the difference between western Europe and Russia has sometimes seemed dramatic and at other times less so.

As serfdom weakened in Europe, in part because of the Black Plague, Russia’s reliance on serfs increased, as did aristocratic power over them. Serf labor was central to the production of grains and cereals, which eventually were major exports for the region. In addition to increasing agricultural production, Peter also cultivated the exploitation of mineral resources. During his reign, Russian minerals were surveyed and mined, a new economic development that shifted the Russian economic center toward the Ural Mountains.

During the period of European imperial expansion, Russia expanded to the south and the east and eventually reached the Bering Sea north of China. Much of the territory, such as the Khanates of Bukhara and Khiva, both east of the Caspian Sea, was established as dependent territories or vassal states, thus assuming a subordinate position to the Russian state, which was not trying to fully integrate the diverse populations. In addition, this model of expansion left in place existing political and social frameworks that allowed minority cultural identities to reproduce themselves while local elites maintained some degree of power. Russian expansion differed from European expansion in that it was directed toward contiguous territory rather than more distant regions. Theirs was a land-based imperialism as opposed to the sea-based ventures of the west European states.

Russia and the region that it dominates and shapes continues to have global influence, in part because of its size and history but also because of its stores of minerals and fossil fuels.


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