Remembering Ataman Yermak Timofeyevich And His Legacy

Approximately 430 years ago pass away Ataman Yermak Timofeyevich, the Don Cossack who was responsible for the conquest of Siberia. While little is known about his early life, Yermak's military talents and his conquest of Siberia left behind a legacy. During his younger years, Yermak constantly enjoyed engaging in piracy on the Sea of Azov or the Caspian Sea and to rob various envoys and Russian or Persian merchants. Eventually he learned tactics of war and excelled beyond the other hetmans in skill during the Livonian War.


Yermak first embarked on his journey through Siberia from a frontier fort in Perm on the Chusovaya River on September 1, 1582, though other sources claim that he may have started his campaign in 1579 or 1581.When navigating down rivers, the crew used high-sided boats that originated in Russia. Throughout their journey, they encountered violent opposition from Kuchum Khan’s native allies but the high sides of their boats acted as shields. When crossing the Urals, the Cossacks had to carry their possessions on their backs because they did not have horses. After two months, Yermak’s army had finally crossed the Urals. They followed the river Tura and found themselves at the outskirts of Kuchum Khan’s empire. Soon they reached the kingdom’s capital city of Qashliq. On October 23, 1582, Yermak’s army fought the Battle of Chuvash Cape, which initiated three days of fighting against Kuchum’s nephew, Mahmet-kul, and the Tatar army. Yermak’s infantry blocked the Tatar charge with mass musket fire, which wounded Mahmet-kul and prevented the Tatars from a scoring a single Cossack casualty. Yermak succeeded in capturing Qashliq and the battle came to mark the “conquest of Siberia.” The Stroganov Chronicle provides an account of Kuchum Khan’s reaction to the attack on Qashliq and Yermak’s success:

Khan Kuchyum, seeing his ruin and the loss of his kingdom and riches, said to all his men with bitter lamentation: ‘O murzas and princes, let us flee without delaying.' The Stroganovs sent men of the common people against me from their forts to avenge on me the evil I had inflicted; they sent the atamans and Cossacks, Yermak and his men. He came upon us, defeated us and did us such great harm.

yermak timofeyevich

While Yermak had succeeded in taking Qashliq, the battle had reduced his Cossack force to 500 men. Yermak also now faced a supply problem. While the army had found treasures such as fur, silk and gold in the Tatar city, no food or provisions had been left behind. The inhabitants had also fled the city, preventing their enlistment for aid. However, four days after Yermak claimed Qashliq the people returned, and Yermak soon befriended the Ostyak people. The Ostyaks would formally declare their allegiance to Yermak on October 30, complementing their pledge by delivering offerings of food to the city.

Yermak used the Ostyak tributes to feed his band of Cossacks throughout the winter. However, these supplies proved to be insufficient, and the Cossacks soon ventured into the wilderness to fish and hunt. The Cossacks’ task was not without trouble, as although Yermak had defeated the Tatars they continued to harass the Cossacks, preventing Yermak from establishing complete control over the region. The Tatars struck a decisive blow on December 20, when a Cossack party of twenty men were discovered and slain. Upon their failure to return, Yermak left the city to investigate, eventually finding that Mahmet-kul had recovered from their earlier battle and was responsible for the Cossacks’ murder. Yermak then entered into battle with Mahmet-kul and his forces, defeating him once again.

The defeat of Mahmet-kul provided a brief respite to the Cossacks. However, in April 1583, he returned to the region. In an unfortunate twist of fate, Mahmet-kul was quickly ambushed and captured by a small party of Cossacks, whose numbers ranged from as little as 10 to as many as 50. A few days after his capture, Mahmet-kul sent a messenger to Kuchum stating that he was alive and in good health. He also requested that the Khan cease attacks on the Cossacks and those bringing tribute to Yermak. Yermak, taking advantage of this lull in hostilities, set out down the Irtysh and Ob to complete his subjugation of the local tribal princes. He soon encountered the Ostyak prince Demian, who had fortified himself in a fortress on the banks of the Irtish with 2,000 loyal fighters. It is reported to have taken Yermak and his men considerable time to break through their defenses due to Demian’s possession of a gilded idol. Yermak’s forces eventually prevailed; however, upon entering the fort, no idol was found. After dispersing a group of priests and warriors by brandishing their firearms, Yermak determined to subdue the most influential Ostyak prince of the region, Samar, who had joined forces with eight other princes. Yermak, noting that Samar had failed to place guards around his encampment, launched a surprise attack, killing Samar and disbanding his forces. Yermak was then able to secure tribute from the eight other princes. After this conquest, he continued down the river, succeeding in capturing the key Ostyak town of Nazym. Yermak’s friend, Ataman Nikita Pan, and several Cossacks lost their lives in the battle. Yermak then directed his forces down the river Ob, conquering several small forts. After reaching a point at which the river broadened to a point of three or four versts, Yermak halted the expedition and returned his forces to Qashliq.
Upon returning to Qashliq, Yermak decided to inform the Stroganovs and the tsar of his conquests. While his reasons for this are unclear, experts believe that, in addition to wishing to clear his name of earlier misdeeds, Yermak also desperately needed supplies. To his end, he sent his trusted lieutenant Ivan Kolzo with fifty men, two letters (one each for the Stroganovs and Ivan the Terrible), and a large assortment of furs for the tsar. The exact amount sent to the tsar is disputed, as descriptions range from 2,500 to 5,000 to sixty sacks of furs. Kolzo’s arrival at the Stroganovs was well-timed, as Maksim Stroganov had just received a letter from Ivan denouncing Yermak and threatening him and his followers with death. Kolzo, bearing news of Kuchum’s defeat, Mahmet-kul’s capture, and the subjugation of Tatar lands, was thus well received by a relieved Maksim. Maksim provided Kolzo him with lodging, food, and money before sending him on his way.

Kolzo, upon reaching Moscow, was granted an audience with Ivan despite having a Muscovite bounty on his head.To the detriment of Moscow’s interests, the Livonian War had just been ended and Ivan had begun receiving reports of local tribesman conducting raids in Perm, putting him in a foul mood. Upon reading the news born by Kolzo concerning the extension of his dominion, Ivan became overjoyed, immediately pardoning the Cossacks and proclaiming Yermak to be a hero of the first degree. The triumphant atmosphere extended across the city, as church bells were tolled throughout Moscow to glorify Yermak. Ivan then had many gifts prepared for Yermak, including his personal fur mantle, a goblet, two suits of armor emblazoned with bronze double-headed eagles, and money. Ivan also commanded that a band of streltsy be sent to reinforce Yermak. Reports differ on whether 300 or 500 men were sent. The Stroganovs were also ordered to support this group with an additional fifty men upon their arrival in Perm. Yermak was bestowed the title “Prince of Siberia” by Ivan, who also commanded that Mahmet-kul be sent to Moscow.

Yermka Crossing

Upon returning to Qashliq, Koltso informed Yermak of the tsar’s command that Mahmet-kul be delivered to him. Yermak, aware that doing so would eliminate Kuchum’s only motive for peace, nonetheless obeyed the tsar and arranged for his transport. Unsurprisingly, Kuchum’s forces began to increase the frequency of their raids. Yermak now found himself in a predicament, as a long winter had prevented gathering of supplies and tributes and the tsar’s reinforcements had not yet arrived. Under orders from the tsar, the Stroganovs had contributed fifty cavalry to the reinforcement party. However, the horses had slowed the party to a crawl across the Siberia landscape, and they did even not cross the Urals until the spring of 1584.

In September 1583, a call for help from a Tatar leader named Karacha was delivered to Yermak begging for assistance against the Nogai Tatars. Yermak, wary of Karacha but nonetheless disposed to help, deployed Kolzo with a force of 40 Cossacks. Karacha, however, was not to be trusted, as Kolzo and his men walked into an ambush and were all killed. Now without Kolzo, Yermak was left with a little more than 300 men. Sensing Yermak’s waning power, the tribes previously under his control revolted, and Qashliq soon came under siege by a collective army of Tatars, Voguls, and Ostyaks. Cleverly, they encircled the city with a line of wagons, both preventing passage to and from the city while protecting the attackers from the firearms. Yermak, despite having limited supplies, was able to endure the blockade for three months. However, the Cossacks could not last forever, and on the cloudy night of June 12, 1584, Yermak decided to act. Stealthily penetrating the line of wagons, Yermak’s men were able to surprise the gathered forces in their sleep, killing a large number. As Karacha’s forces had been caught completely unaware, Yermak was able to recover a substantial amount of provisions from the barricade. Karacha, having failed in his mission, was punished by Kuchum, who sentenced Karacha’s two sons to death. Karacha, fueled by the loss of his sons, regrouped the native tribes and returned to assault Yermak the next day. Karacha’s forces, however, were soundly defeated, as the Cossacks were able to kill one hundred men with only two dozen deaths of their own. Defeated and disgraced, Karacha fled south to the Steppes of the Ishim, where Kuchum waited. Freed from confinement, Yermak turned to the offensive, conquering many towns and forts to the east of Qashliq and extending the tsar’s dominion. Having already regained the loyalty of the revolting tribes, Yermak continued sailing up the Irtysh throughout the summer of 1584 to subdue tribes and demand tribute. Although he attempted to search for Karacha, Yermak was ultimately unsuccessful in this venture. Also, while Yermak had succeeded in regaining the loyalty of the tribes, his men were now almost completely out of gunpowder. To make matters worse, while his reinforcements arrived, they did so utterly exhausted and depleted by scurvy. Indeed, many of the men, including their commanding officer, had not survived the journey. Thus, in addition to facing the problem of escalating hostilities, their food shortage was magnified by the arrival of more men. Following an ambush in Early August, Yermak fell in battle. Yermak’s body was borne down the river, where seven days later it is said to have been found by a Tatar fisherman named Yanish. Easily recognizable by the eagle on his armor, Yermak’s corpse was stripped and hung on a frame made out of six poles, where for six weeks archers used his body for target practice. However, it is said that the carrion did not feed on him and his body produced no odor, and that the corpse caused fear and nightmares in the people. Heeding these omens, the Tatars buried him as a hero, killing thirty oxen in his name. His prized armor was eventually distributed among the Tatar chiefs.