Archive№ 2 September 2017

The iron gates

As early as the eleventh century, the Novgorodians, tempted by the fur trade, established a waterway to the Urals and Siberia, so founding the first Russian settlements in these regions. In the 1430s, the first industrial giant appeared in the Urals, after the Kalinikovs, Vologda merchants, discovered salt mines. So began the history of a small town called Sol-Kamskaya (today named Solikamsk, in the Perm region). After the successful military campaigns of Ivan the Terrible, the number of Russian settlers in the Urals began to quickly increase. The Stroganovs, a merchant family, were the most important people in the region. They held a deed from the tsar for the land along the Kama River, ‘to build salt factories and make salt’, and to create courtyards and establish agriculture.

Salt was the ‘white gold’ of that time, since there was no other method of storing food during the winter. But Ivan the Terrible hoped that Russia would gain not only this valuable resource, but more importantly, strengthen its position in these new lands for the long term.

For the Urals, the seventeenth century was a turning point. After the ecclesiastical reforms of the patriarch Nikon, the Old Believers, oppressed by the authorities, sought refuge in hard-to-reach areas. With its dense forests, rugged mountains and numerous rivers and lakes, the Urals concealed them well.

At the end of the seventeenth century, iron ore deposits were found in the Urals. The indefatigable Peter I undertook the development of mining, bringing the best armourers from the towns of Tula and Kashira to the Urals. As a result, in the eighteenth century alone around 170 factories were built in the region. This industrial development gradually resulted in the growth of urban centres such as Nevyansk, Nizhny Tagil, Barancha, Kushva, Zlatoust, Alapaevsk and others.

Pragmatic Cossacks

The Urals played another important role in the history of the country: the area became a springboard for further expansion to the east. And the first step along this path was also taken during the time of Ivan the Terrible. With the tsar’s help, the Stroganovs sent the Cossack leader Yermak on a crusade against the last fragment of the Golden Horde, the Siberian Khanate. And although Yermak died before the final victory, he managed to seize control of the town of Qashliq, the capital of Khan Kuchum, located on the right bank of the Irtysh River, 17 km from the modern city of Tobolsk. ‘All of Siberia was held by foreign hands, but Yermak, with only 600 men, conquered it all, in so doing opening up the trade route to China’, wrote Ivan Kirilov, the head of the Orenburg Commission and the author of the first Atlas of Russia.

Painting by the Russian artist Vasily Surikov, The Conquest of Siberia by Yermak Timofeevich.

These sparsely populated new territories advanced Russia further to the East. In search of new territories, Ivan Moskvitin reached the Sea of Okhotsk, and his fellow explorer Semyon Dezhnev was the first man to cross the Bering Strait. With similarly exploratory aims, Vladimir Atlasov, another Siberian Cossack, travelled beyond the Anadyr River.

The Cossacks founded towns on the newly acquired lands, which gradually grew into cities.


Transport links

The development of the Far East was very challenging, especially without transport links. To simplify the task, trading seaports were soon built in Okhotsk, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Vladivostok. However, for a long time there was no reliable land route connecting the new territories with the centre of the Russian empire. This fact, strangely enough, did not seem to worry the authorities at the time.

Everything changed after the defeat in the Crimean War. It suddenly became clear that the lands of a weakened country are of great interest to other countries. The establishment of the Trans-Siberian Railway was a fundamental change for the region. It brought many new sawmills to Siberia, led to improvements in gold mining, and launched coal mining on a massive scale.

The colonisation of sparsely populated areas was especially successful during the Stolypin Agrarian Reforms, when thousands poured into Siberia. Peasants came to the new territories for assigned plots of land (a forerunner of the current Far Eastern Hectare law), and for tax benefits. Eventually, the population of central Russia began to perceive Siberia and the Far East not as a place for exile, but as a region of extreme riches where, with hard work, success can be achieved.


How was it done abroad?

Russia is not the only country in the world that has encountered the issue of developing enormous regions. For example, similar issues have been resolved in the USA. There, in the 19th century, the so-called homestead system was called to populate the Wild West (although at the time, the area was more often called the Great Planes).

The issue was that before the start of the migration, special land surveyors had divided up land conquered or received voluntarily from Native Americans into equal squares. Following this, everyone who wished to could settle in any unused plot of land, paying a special fee to the treasury, usually $5.

At the same time, applications were given for ownership rights. Five years later, the applicants were checked to verify that they were living in line with requirements for qualification: as a rule, applicants had to be living on the plot of land, and running some kind of farming business on at least part of it.

If the applicants met all conditions, they received ownership rights.

Of course, not all homesteads could be sold. The most unattractive plots, as a rule, were offered either for an extreme discount, or were given away for free to neighbours.

However, as gold seams and other mineral resources were discovered, and an understanding grew of just how rich states such as Texas and Kansas were in the necessary resources for keeping cattle and growing crops, the number of vacant plots began to quickly decrease.

Virgin Lands Campaign harvest in Kazakhstan, 1973.

Later, the USSR repeatedly tried to replicate this kind of development of untouched territories. One of the more controversial examples was The Virgin Lands Campaign. Launched in the 1950s, it aimed to utilise vast land resources in Kazakhstan, the Volga region, the Urals, Siberia, and the Far East.

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