“The conquest of Siberia resembles, in more than one regard, that of Mexico and Peru.”
Continuing The Cossacks Conquer Siberia,
our selection from History of the Russian State by Nikolay M. Karamzin published in 1826. The selection is presented in six easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Cossacks Conquer Siberia.
In beginning the story of the exploits of Yermak we shall at first say that, like everything that is extraordinary, they have made a strong impression upon the imagination of the vulgar, and have given birth to many fables, which are confused in the traditions with the real facts. Under the title of “annals” they have led the historians themselves into error. It is thus, for instance, that some hundreds of warriors, led by Yermak, have been metamorphosed into an army, and, like the soldiers of Cortez or Pizarro, have been counted as thousands. The months became years. A somewhat difficult navigation appeared marvellous. Leaving at one side the fabulous assertions we shall, for the principal facts, base our statements upon official documents and on the most truthful contemporaneous account of a conquest which was, indeed, of a most surprising character.
In the first place, the Cossacks ascended, for four days, the course of the Tchusovaya, rapid and sown with rocks, as far as the chain of the Ural Mountains. The two following days, in the shadow of the masses of stone with which the interior of these mountains is covered, they reached, by means of the river Serebrennaia, the passage called the “Route of Siberia.” There they stopped, and, ignorant of what might next happen to them, they constructed for their safety a kind of redoubt to which they gave the name of “kokui”. They had so far found only deserts and a small number of inhabitants. Then they moved, towing their small crafts as far as the river of Iaravle. These places are, even to this day, marked by the monuments of Yermak; rocks, caverns, remains of fortifications, bear his name. It is asserted that the big boats abandoned by him between the Serebrennaia and the Barantcha are not, in our time, entirely decayed, and that lofty trees shade their ruins, half reduced to dust. By the Iaravle and the Taghil the Cossacks, reaching the Tura, which waters one of the provinces of the empire of Siberia, for the first time drew the sword of conquerors. At the place where the city of Turinsk now stands there then existed a little town, the domain of the prince Yepantcha. He commanded a large number of Tartars and Vogulitches, and received these audacious strangers with a hail of arrows, shot from the banks of the river, at the place where is seen the present village of Usseninovo; but, frightened by a discharge of artillery, he forthwith took flight. Yermak caused the town to be destroyed, of which the name alone remains, for the residents still give to Turinsk the name “Town of Yepantcha.” The camps and villages situated along the Tura were devastated.
The Cossack leaders having taken, at the mouth of the Tavda, an officer of Kutchum’s, named Tausak, he, desirous of saving his life, communicated to them important information regarding the country. As the price of his frankness, his liberty was given him, and he hastened to announce to his master that the predictions of the soothsayers of Siberia were being realized, for according to some accounts these pretended sorcerers had for a long time proclaimed the near and inevitable downfall of this state by an invasion of Christians. Tausak spoke of the Cossacks as wonderful men and invincible heroes, lancing fire and thunder which penetrate through the cuirasses. Nevertheless, Kutchum, although deprived of sight, had a strong soul. He made ready to defend his country and his faith with courage. He at once gathered all his subjects, made his nephew Mahmetkul enter the campaign at the head of a large force of cavalry, and he himself threw up fortifications on the bank of the Irtisch, at the foot of the Tchuvache mountain, thus closing to the Cossacks the road to Isker.
The conquest of Siberia resembles, in more than one regard, that of Mexico and Peru. Here, also, it was a handful of men who, by means of fire-arms, put to flight thousands of soldiers armed with arrows or javelins. For the Moguls, like the Tartars of the North, were ignorant of the use of gunpowder, and toward the end of the sixteenth century they still used the arms employed in the time of Genghis. Each one of Yermak’s warriors faced a crowd of the enemy. If his bullet only killed one of them, the frightful detonation of his gun put to flight twenty or thirty. In the first combat, held on the bank of the Tobol, at a place called Babassan, Yermak, under shelter of intrenchments, checked by some discharges of musketry the impetuosity of ten thousand men of Mahmetkul’s cavalry, who rushed forward to crush him. He at once attacks them himself, carries off a complete victory, and, opened, as far as the mouth of the Tobol, a route whose perils were not yet all dissipated. Indeed, from the height of the steep banks of the river called Dolojai-Yar the natives poured a shower of arrows on the boats of the Cossacks.
Another less important affair took place sixteen versts from Irtysh, in a country governed by a tribal chief named Karatcha, situated on the shore of a lake which up to to-day bears the name of this intimate counselor of the sovereign of Siberia. Yermak having made himself master of the enemy’s camp, found rich booty there, consisting of provisions of all kinds, as well as a large number of tuns of honey, intended for the consumption of the sovereign.
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