Last weekend, we looked at the rise of the Russian state. This weekend, we will learn about the early expansion of Russia and its colonial efforts, up until about the time of Peter the Great. Before we proceed, however, it would be useful to explain what “colonialism” actually is. “Colonialism” is more than just a particular state extending its power over another – imperialism does that as well. The terms are related, but colonialism is particular form of imperialism. The key difference between “colonialism” and “imperialism” in general is the method of control: Imperialism tends to control another state or people group directly – it may grant the subject country significant autonomy, but it still holds direct control. Colonialism operates similar to this, but it does it chiefly through colonies – groups of settlers from the parent state who settle in a new region.

When discussing the history of Russia and its conquests, defining Russia as a colonial power is controversial and complicated. Russia used colonial methods, but melded these with more traditional style imperial conquests. Also, typically colonial empires expanded across oceans and along coasts, whereas Russia expanded almost entirely across land (and expand it did – every year from 1551 to 1700, the Tsardom gained roughly 35,000 square kilometers). But, they settled areas with populations tied to the home state, and so, even though did not actually call these settlements colonies, they functioned in a similar enough manner that they can be defined as colonies. With that taken care of, let us now explore the history of Russia’s early colonial efforts.

Ivan IV, more famously known as Ivan the Terrible, consolidated the Grand Duchy of Moscow into the Tsardom of Russia. Under his rule, Moscow became the center of a powerful Slavic state, distinct from Western Europe. Russian Orthodoxy helped create and maintain a unique identity for the empire. It was, and now, post-Soviet Union, is again, part of the backbone of Russian imperial identity. Russian policy thus was to not only to spread “civilization”, but spread Christianity. Conversion to the faith was considered crucial to turning natives into Russians – critical to making them speak Russian and follow Russian law. It is through this lens that we must view the colonial efforts of Russia.


Ivan IV the Terrible (1547-1584), from the 1897 portrait Tsar Ivan the Terrible by Viktor Vasnetsov. Cropped Image. From Wikimedia Commons, current version uploaded by User:Alonso de Mendoza

As early as a century before the transformation of the Grand Duchy of Moscow into the Tsardom of Russia, Moscow became embroiled in warfare with the Khanate of Kazan. Located along the Volga in an area now known as Tatarstan, it was a Turkic Muslim state that emerged out of the dissolution of the Golden Horde. In 1552, Ivan the Terrible sent out armies across the Urals to deal with Kazan once and for all. The khanate fell within a few months. Following the capture of Kazan, the Astrakhan Khanate, another Turkic Muslim state along the Volga, this one on the coast of the Caspian Sea, submitted to Russia as a vassal in 1554. However, by 1556, Astrakhan rebelled, and it too was absorbed into the Tsardom.

With the conquest of Kazan, the Russian Tsardom had a path opened into Siberia. The predominant power in that region was the Khanate of Sibir. Like the Khanate of Kazan (and the Grand Duchy of Moscow), the Sibir was a successor to the Golden Horde when that empire fragmented. It was a multi-ethnic state, with Islam as its official religion. At first, when Kazan fell in the 1550s, Sibir maintained friendly relations with Russia. They set up trade routes and in 1555 became vassals to the empire. However, in 1563, Kuchum Khan took power and challenged Russian control. Despite his raids into Russian-held lands, the Tsardom did not respond until 1580. That year, an army of Cossacks accompanied by Lithuanian and German slaves invaded Sibir territories.

Over the next several years, fighting was fierce and brutal. After an initial conquest, the Russian invasion army was repulsed and mostly destroyed. However, the power of the Khanate was broken. In 1586, Russia began a system of fort building, a method that they were already using to make conquests south of Moscow. A fort would be established, armies moved in, and trade routes set up. In this fashion, Russia managed to capture and colonize the shattered Khanate of Sibir piece by piece.

Mostly, the conquerors of Siberia were Cossacks. As a region or state was overpowered militarily, the land was granted to various nobles, usually Cossacks, and serfs would be brought in to work the land. Native peoples suffered harshly under Russian occupation, just as the Native Americans did under the United States or the Irish under Britain. Diseases such as smallpox devastated their populations, and the Russians cracked down brutally against resistance and rebellion. If a society rejected a trade offer proposed by the Cossacks, mass slaughter, torture, rape, and enslavement were the result. The policy of genocide was successful at establishing power, however, and by 1639 the Russian Tsardom reached the Pacific coast. By the mid-1600s, they also reached the borders of the Qing dynasty in China, and after a long conflict made peace with the Chinese in 1689.

While Russia was very successful in its eastern expansions through a colonial system, its westward campaigns were not nearly as successful. In the 1550s, instead of consolidating his gains in the east, Ivan the Terrible launched campaigns against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden, and Denmark, all of whom controlled territory along the Baltic Sea. These wars exhausted the empire, and no new territory was gained. Russia then fell into a period of instability known as the Time of Troubles. In the ensuing decades, Russia lost many territories it had gained, and was often at the mercy of or even under the control of neighboring European powers. It also was subject to continual raids from the Nogai Horde from the east and the Crimean Tatars to the south.

However, Russia eventually managed to emerge from this troubled time in the mid 1600s. And they were ready to challenge once again the power of Poland-Lithuania and Sweden. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had, since the late 1300s, controlled most of what is today Ukraine. In the 1660s, the Zaporozhian Cossacks rebelled against Poland-Lithuania, and Russia was able to use the ensuing wars and instability over the next few decades to gain control over most of the region. Poland-Lithuania also had to deal with a devastating war with Sweden (known as “The Deluge”), which allowed Russia to retake territory that it had lost under Ivan the Terrible’s ill-fated campaigns. Though Russia might have been able to destroy the shattered Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth entirely, it instead entered a war with Sweden, the Great Northern War, which by the end saw Sweden and Russia controlling the same territory that they started with. Though these western wars transpired without much success, Russia continued to solidify and expand eastward and southward, colonizing their conquests with landlords and their accompanying serfs.