Women of the Conquered Territories


Muscovy’s expansion brought tens of thousands of non‑Slavic, non‑Orthodox people under tsarist rule. Ivan IV annexed Kazan (1552) and Astrakhan (1556), thereby pushing the kingdom’s boundaries south almost to the Black Sea. He also gave his blessings to expeditions into Siberia. In the reign of Alexis (1645–76), a substantial portion of today’s Ukraine came under Muscovite rule; and by 1700, the tsars had laid claim to all of Siberia. These annexations accelerated the transformation of Muscovy from a small kingdom at the edge of the East Slavic lands into a huge, multi‑ethnic empire. They also complicate the task of studying the history of women in Russia because, from the 1600s onward, the Muscovite government claimed as its subjects dozens of ethnic groups. To describe the histories of all these conquered peoples is neither possible nor desirable in a work of the present sort, but some value may be found in an attempt to open up here, and to discuss again in later chapters, the significant interactions between the imperial homeland and the women brought under its rule.

The first major distinction that emerges from an examination of the relationship between Moscow and its new, non‑Muscovite subjects is this: conquest had little impact on the gender ideas of people with close historical and cultural connections to the Muscovites, such as those who lived in Ukraine. This is not to say that conquest was an inconsequential event for the women there. The seventeenth‑century wars in that region between the Poles, Cossacks, Muscovites, and Tatars killed thousands and devastated the economy. Women suffered as women usually do in war: some were butchered, others were assaulted, robbed, and raped, some were successfully defended by their menfolk, most struggled to protect themselves and their children, and a few performed extraordinary acts for which they were celebrated. In 1654, a woman named Zavisna, the wife of a Cossack commander, refused to surrender her town to besieging Poles after her husband had been killed. Instead she did away with many of the attackers by hurling a torch into the munitions dump. The explosion also killed most of the town’s defenders, Zavisna included.

In mid‑century, the Cossacks of central Ukraine established an autonomous government and abolished serfdom. Thereafter, the Cossack elite began to claim increased prerogatives, which brought elite women greater status and more comfortable lives and peasants a renewal of serfdom. This process of social differentiation continued into the 1700s, but had little effect on the gender ideas or practices that governed women’s lives in Ukraine. Siberia was another story: what happened there was very similar to the concurrent European conquest of the Americas.

Muscovite and Cossack trappers, traders, and soldiers ventured into Siberia in the sixteenth century seeking furs, Muscovy’s most lucrative export. They entered a vast territory inhabited by perhaps as many as 220,000 indigenous people.32 The hundreds of Siberian tribes are often classified, as are native people in North America, according to their languages: the Finno‑Ugric peoples of the west; the Turkic and Mongol peoples of the south and east; and the far‑northeastern groups, including the Chukchi and Eskimos, who are related to native Alaskans. In the more northerly latitudes, Siberians lived by herding, hunting, and gathering. Many were nomads who followed the reindeer in their seasonal migrations. Those living in the south cultivated crops and bred horses, sheep, and goats. Nomadism was common there as well. Closely tied by history and culture to the Mongols, the southern Siberians, of whom the Yakuts and Buryats were the largest groups, were formidable warriors.

There were strong similarities in the beliefs and social organization of the many Siberian groups when the Muscovites came. Although Islam and Buddhism had made inroads in the south, the majority of Siberian natives had preserved their age‑old animistic religions; they worshipped the forces of nature and the spirits that lived in the trees, rivers, and sky. Particularly revered was the Siberian brown bear, cousin to the North American grizzly. Shamans helped the Siberians communicate with the spirit world and tended them when they were sick. The Buryats and Yakuts, who had learned about powerful rulers from the Mongols, had strong clan structures and social divisions. Most of the other indigenous peoples lived in small communities and delegated leadership, when necessary (during a communal hunt, for instance), to respected elders. They did not need complex class structures or highly developed conceptions of property to wrest a living from the frozen land.

The gender notions of the Siberians were also more egalitarian than those of their conquerors. As did many of the native peoples of the Americas, they granted leadership within families and clans to senior men and gave older women more authority than younger ones. Men did most of the hunting and fishing; women collected and processed plants for food and medicine. Siberian women also worked with men in butchering and drying the catch. Men, women, and children watched over domesticated animals; among the Tungus of central Siberia this included training reindeer to be ridden and milked. Women made clothes out of animal skins or fibers, and tended babies. Parents arranged their children’s marriages, exchanging both bride price, paid by the groom’s family, and dowry. Strict rules prohibiting marriage between members of the same clan were common, as was the practice of men having as many wives as they could support.

There were significant variations from group to group. Elderly women of the Chukchi, Itelmens, and Koraks of the Pacific coast conducted religious rituals in concert with senior men. Similarly, Tungus women of the Lake Baikal region served in the honored position of shaman and acted as heads of their households when their husbands were away. On the other hand, people who had more complex class structures and greater contact with other patriarchal cultures, such as the Buryats and Yakuts, made stricter distinctions between women’s roles within and outside the family, and granted men more authority.

The Muscovite invasion of Siberia was a catastrophe for the native peoples. They fought back, but Muscovy prevailed for the same reasons the Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English prevailed in the Americas: the invaders enjoyed military superiority; they were merciless; and they brought with them diseases–especially smallpox, tuberculosis, measles, and influenza–against which the native peoples had no immunity. Once they had conquered a group, the Muscovites and the Cossacks exacted tribute in the form of furs, particularly the much‑prized sable, black fox, and marten. When the animals were trapped out, which occurred in the more accessible areas by the end of the 1600s, the invaders switched to requiring monetary payments.

From time to time the tsarist government denounced the exploitation of Siberian tribes, but it could do little to stop it. Officials working thousands of miles from the capital cast in their lot with the exploiters, selling trade goods at exorbitant prices, hiking taxes, spreading disease, hunting fur‑bearing animals to extinction, chopping down forests, and polluting waterways. When Muscovites began settling permanently in Siberia, the displacement of the native peoples began.

The gruesome parallels between the conquest of the Americas and that of Siberia extend to the consequences for women. James Forsyth has written, “Wherever the Muscovite invaders went, it was women and girls that they seized first of all in their assaults upon the native inhabitants.”33 Initially some Siberians permitted the newcomers to have sex with native women, because this was an accepted gesture of hospitality. But soon they found that the conquerors considered themselves entitled to such favors. Muscovites and Cossacks also grabbed women and children as spoils of war, holding them hostage to compel tribes to submit, enslaving them, or even trading them for furs. When the invaders built settlements, they forced captive women to do the work of wives. This began a process of native women leaving their communities to settle among the Europeans and give birth to children with ties to both cultures. These women may have played the role of cultural intermediaries, helping to ease tensions between the conquerors and conquered. Because many Cossacks and Russians soon moved on, native wives could also find themselves abandoned or passed to other men. All these practices, from rape to intermarriage, occurred in the western hemisphere as well.34

Native men who resisted were often killed; those who survived suffered a continuing assault on their masculinity. First their standing as warriors was diminished by their inability to fight off the conquerors. Then they were forced to trap furs for the Muscovites, which left them less time to provide for their families. Some of the native men became dependent on the conquerors for food because their traditional lands had been despoiled or claimed by Muscovite settlers. The result was a profound demoralization that expressed itself in alcoholism and apathy.

The conquerors could not devastate all of Siberia, for the land was vast and the people were resourceful. Along the southern frontier, the tribes of the Lake Baikal region were able to limit the damage because they were more numerous, organized, and prosperous than the smaller peoples of the north. They were also effective soldiers, and their long‑standing contacts with Central Asia and China may have strengthened their immunity to the diseases the Muscovites brought. Some of the more ferocious peoples, such as the Chukchis of the Pacific coast, managed to keep the Muscovites at bay for more than a century. Others, such as the nomadic Tungus, headed off into remote terrain that was harder for the conquerors to penetrate. By 1700, although Muscovite rule was established in Siberia and immigrants from Muscovy made up at least half the population, there were still great tracts where native peoples pursued their traditional ways of life relatively undisturbed.


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