How Siberia became Russian, and not Chinese?

Unlike China, Russia in the 17th century had a singular focus on pelt trade.

Siberia was conquered by Russian-Turkic cossack gangs for a singular, purely economic reason: furs.

For Russia, the fur exports in the 17th century played about the same role as petroleum now. By the start of the 18th century, they gave requisite cash flow for Peter the Great’s wars against Swedes and Crimean Tatars that resulted in the rise of the Russian Empire.

For the Chinese, furs had no particular value compared to other colonial wares. There was little else that could motivate them to spend precious resources on controlling these vast, barren expanses to the north. This is why they preferred to let locals harvest the territories for pelts without imposing military control or a dedicated arrangements for taxation

Besides, the Chinese didn’t possess the military technology for penetrating these territories. Cossacks, on the contrary, were made for the task. They operated as small, autonomous, highly mobile troops with firearms. They knew how to quickly construct ad hoc river vessels for traveling longer distances on the water (thank you, Varangians!). They combined this with traversing the wilderness between watercourses on foot—the task seemingly impossible for the massive, cavalry-based Manchu troops.

When Cossacks imposed control over Siberia and the northern part of the Far East, they took over much of the deliveries to China. For them, this was a high-volume and mostly low-margin business that included large deliveries of squirrels and hares. Mink, sable, bever, sea otters were typically dispatched to Muskovy, where they fetched a better price. Later, when permanent logistics were established along the Pacific coasts of northern Asia and Alaska, they added sea otters to this lineup.

Cossacks collect fur taxes from Siberian tribe.
Picture: a XIX-century watercolor by an anonymous artist visualizing Cossacks who collect fur taxes from a Siberian tribe.

Siberia: bound to remain part of Russia

Asian parts of Russia have neither the geography, nor economy, nor population numbers to break lose from Russia

Siberia and the Far East were colonized by Russia at the same time as North America by the English and other Europeans. This makes many ask the question: is it possible that Siberia may break lose from Russia in the end, just like the United States won their independence from Britain?

The answer is: very unlikely. There are several reasons that tie the territories east of Urals to Russia proper.


Siberia is ethnically dominated by Russians. Due to the Stalin-era migrations, purges and wars, the native population is substantially diluted by people from other parts of the Soviet Union.

As to the ethnic Russians there, the sense of local identity is not strong enough to form a shared sense of distinctive community as opposed to the European Russians.


Siberia has a distinct colonial character to its economy. It specializes on raw materials extracted at remote places. These spots of economic activity have harsh climate, few roads, little diversification. Most, or all of food, equipment and consumer goods are delivered there from the European part of Russia.


Siberia is sandwiched between the Russian heartland to the west and the Far East on the way to China and the Pacific Rim. No useful coastline and ports apart from some decrepit shallow-water pears up in the Arctic.

The calculus of their independence is unlikely to add up in economic terms the end. Whatever it saves of its riches by taking it from Moscow, it would have to spend on getting the wares out to the world market.

National psyche

Russia’s history over an entire millennium was predicated on a constant territorial expansion. This makes shrinking like the ones that happened in 1917 and 1991 a national tragedy to all Russians irrespective of ideology. “Separatism” is a dirty word, and anything that smacks of it, may bring you fines or a prison term for “extremism” under Russia’s law.

Any government in Moscow is going to fight against separation of eastern territories with all the nation got at disposal. Not least because the bulk of our profitable petroleum exports comes from Siberia and the Far East.


Sparse population + enormous territory + lopsided economy + disgruntled Russia as a neighbor would make an independent Siberia’s national defense nearly impossible. Independent Siberia would have to depend on Russia for its national security, and why would Russia want to provide it?

Below is a map that shows rate of ethnic Russians among the population around the country. Red means more the 80%, rose more than 50%. This ethnic distribution makes it problematic to separate even for ethnicities with the history of violent resistance to Russian colonization: Chukchas in north-east, Yakut in the center, and Turks along the southern rim.