There exists precious little written history surrounding the formation of the ethnic group popularly known as the Russian Cossacks, but most historians consider them to have been immigrants from the Slavic countries in the north into the Ukraine in the 1200s. Actual Cossack communities as we think of them today wouldn’t settle in until the 16th century, however. These Cossack communities were autonomous societies that acted separately from the ruling provinces; the Cossacks were even equipped with own governments and armies. A century later two distinct Cossack communities would be recognizable, but there were also several smaller groups not associated with either.
The Cossacks of Zaporizhia settled in the areas that make up part of the Ukraine today and were recognized as an official state by virtue of a 1659 treaty with Poland. The Don Cossack State was named because they chose to settle near the Don River and made up a border community that separated Grand Duchy of Moscow from the Ottoman Empire. These communities of Cossacks engaged in pillaging raids throughout the area, creating a period of instability and tension between the Russians and the Ottomans and several other Eastern European nations. Adding to the instability was that both Poland and Russia were more than willing to hire the Cossacks as mercenaries.
The greatest benefit to the creation of the Russian nation that the Cossacks provided, however, was in their role as a different kind of mercenary. The Cossacks were much more than just simple barbarians, however. They professed a strong adherence to the Orthodox Church, but were also vitally interested in pursuing great wealth. Their fearsome strength and knowledge of the land were vital in helping Russia expand into Siberia.
This expansion was launched under the direction of Grigory Stroganov (no relation to the beef dish of the same name) whose tremendous wealth enabled him to secure a land concession on the Kama River to the east of Moscow. This incredible grant was extended with certain very strict conditions attached: he would receive an exemption from taxes for twenty years in return for his promise to construct and manage salt works, to make the soil acceptable for agriculture, to equip a protectorate army, and to renounce any claims which he or anyone working for him should discover. Accepting these restrictions, Stroganov then went on to secure several addition grants to extend beyond the Ural mountains.
Stroganov’s first step was to hire his protectorate, which consisted of Cossacks, led by Yermak Timofeyev, despite the fact that Timofeyev was a well known pirate and thief. More important to Stroganov, however, was Yermak’s scouting ability. In 1581 he began to lead the expedition into the area east of the Urals by sailing as far it was possible to sail, and then dragging his boat across the crest, before sailing again in the direction of the Ob. When Yermak reached the city of Sibir, he engaged in a battle with the Tatar army and proceeded to take control of the city. Although considered a crime, Yermak was actually pardoned by the Tsar and continued to establish important trade connections with Siberian tribesmen and others in Central Asia.
Following Timofeyev’s death in 1584, he was replaced by a succession of Cossack explorers who proved capable of progressing through to Siberia at an incredibly rapid pace. By 1587 Tobolsk was founded on the Ob River and the push eastward and southward continued despite consistently being forced off-course by successive engagements with native tribes. In 1644 they finally reached the Amur River and a location conducive to agriculture.
Although working for the Russian government, the Cossacks and the Russians had completely different aims. The expansion eastward was for Russia a strategic political maneuver to aid them against potential invasions by Asiatic nomads. The Cossacks, by contrast, were simply in it for the money, expressing no loyalty or love for the nation but only for those who were actually paying for their services. The Cossacks were, essentially, little more than roving bands of lawless marauders and their treatment of the indigenous populations could be excessively cruel and violent. The farther away they moved from Europe, the more excessive their acts. No doubt they were prone to torture and murder, but so heinous was their reputation that they were feared just as much for being cannibals.
As a result of the Cossack-led expeditions, the Siberian Department was established in Moscow in 1637, along with various other administrative departments and a central office established in Tobolsk. The administration was as corrupt as the Cossacks were violent and the result was the fleeing of many natives into China. The only real job they had was to collect taxes and they used force to do it. It was nothing so much as a repeat of the manner in which Tatar rule two centuries earlier had helped to establish Russia. As long as the taxes were paid, the people were pretty much left to themselves. Those who converted to Christianity were granted privileges such as being able to mix with newcomers and take jobs in the government sector.
Russia’s expansion eastward had also been to develop new trade, of course, but that trade was slow in developing. The Russian government had expected that the area would result in enormous deposit of silver to be mined, but that turned out not to be the case. Because the weather conditions were so harsh, the only items deemed worthy of trade was heavy winter apparel. It was not until contact was established with the Chinese did the possibility of trade begin to expand. Silk, gold, and textiles from China were traded for furs and food. With the increase in trade with the Chinese came overtures toward developing stronger diplomatic relations, but this was complicated by the history of the Cossacks.