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The Economic History of Siberia, until 1917

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Jung, Jin Hwan
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2008

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. Fur trade before Russian Control
II.1 The Fur Industry before the Russian Conquest of Siberia
II.2 Novgorod merchants engaging in fur trade
II.3 Golden Horde and Tatar Khanate of Sibir
III. The Economy since the Establishment of Russian Control
III.1 Transportation
III.1.1 Shipping
III.1.2 Horse Riding
III.1.3 The Great Siberian Road
III.1.4 The Trans-Siberian Railroad
III.2 Fur Trade
III.3 Interchange between China and Russia
III.3.1 Treaty of Nerchinsk
III.3.2 Treaty of Kyakhta
III.3.3 Kyakhta as the center of the trade
III.4 Agriculture Industry
III.5 Mining industry
IV. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            Discoveries in the late 1990s indicate that Siberia was inhabited as early as 300,000 years ago. (1) Southern Siberia came under Chinese influence around 1000 B.C and then Turkic-Mongol conquered Siberia during in the 3rd century B.C. From the 10th century to the middle of 15th century, the South-west was inhabited primarily by the Kipchak Tatars, from c.1240 belonging to the Khanate of the Golden Horde. After it, the Sibir Khanate controlled this area. In 1581 Cossacks sacked the Tatar Khanate of Sibir. It was the beginning of the Russian conquest. In 17th century, Russia annexed all of Western Siberia, and many trading cities were established in Siberia. Trans-Siberian railroad was constructed in 1891-1905. (2)
This paper will focus on the economic history of Siberia before the Russian Revolution (1918-1920), primarily centering on fur, mining and the effect of the railway.

II. Fur trade before Russian Conrol

II.1 The Fur Industry before the Russian Conquest of Siberia.
            Fur had long been Russia's most valuable export article. From the early settlement in ninth-century Kiev, they sought for fur-bearing animals and hunted them, because the quality of the fur in this area was the finest. Until the fifteenth century, fur was highly prized in Russia¡¯s domestic economy. Fur often served as a currency, and all princes and tsars wore a bejeweled diadem that was sable-fringed. (3) Because the temperature was low in Russia, the values of fur were equal to the value of life itself.
            Fur was also important in the international trade. There was a Great Sable Road, which led through Southern Siberia and the Far East all the way to Byzantium, for western countries also needed fur. (4) Consequently, hunters and trappers entered Siberia in order to gain fur, which is often called a "Fur Rush", as enthusiastic as the Gold Rush of Alaska. (5)

II.2 Novgorod Merchants Engaging in Fur Trade
            Siberia was already exploited by Russian traders from Novgorods to trade in fur with native tribes mainly from 11th century. They dealt with the people in this Western Siberia, but few of Novgorod merchants resided in this area. Merchants traded whale oil, walrus tusks, tar and potash; however, the main products were fur. (6) Novgorod maintained trade with the Middle East and Arab world throughout the Middle Ages. The Novgorod exported fur to the Arabs, and they imported spices, silk and jewels instead. (7) So Novgorod merchants mainly traded with Yugria or Ugri in western Siberia, whose people had fur of various kinds which they were ready to barter.
            Novgorod played a critical role in the medieval fur trade for several centuries; however, by the fifteenth century Moscow began to displace Novgorod and competed with Kazan for trade routes and supplies for fur. (8)

II.3 Golden Horde and Tatar Khanate of Sibir
            Golden Horde was divided into several khanates, and one of them is Tatar Khanate of Sibir. Both Golden Horde and Tatar Khanate of Sibir engaged in the fur trade. People of Tatar Khanate of Sibir, for example, relied heavily on hunting, particularly for fur which provided local revenue. (9) Also, they imposed the fur tax to native tribes of Siberia, and if they refused to deliver the fur, they punished them by torturing them or confiscating livestock or taking people as a hostage.

III. The Economy since the Establishment of Russian Control

III.1 Transportation

III.1.1 Shipping
            Shipping on river sections was one of the primary transportation in Siberia. Actually there were some disadvantages of rivers in Siberia; the chief disadvantage of shipping was that rivers were closed to navigation by ice for more than half the year, because of the low temperature. (10) Sometimes frozen rivers were used by sledges, mainly in Lena and Amur rivers. (11) Nevertheless, shipping formed the chief highways of Siberia, and their value is enhanced by the vastness of the plains, the dense forests around the rivers. (12) Many towns and industry flourished along the waterways, and there were no towns of any importance in Arctic Russia and Siberia which are not on navigable waterways. (13)
            The northern exits of the Ob, Yenisei, and other rivers had been used primarily for internal commerce. (14) In the southern part of rivers, the southern plains were the regions of most value for human settlement; therefore, the tributaries of the different systems closely approach one another, and most of water communication was held in short and easy portages. (15) Some amounts of crops were transported by waterways; however, waterways were not an efficient way to transmit smelted ores or coals. Thus, the metallurgy industry thrived after the construction of railroads.

III.1.2 Horse Riding
            Post houses were provided in posting houses. Along rivers and main roads, there were posting houses intermittently, usually about 12 to 20 miles apart from one another. Usually post houses served as the nucleus of a small population. (16) At each posting station 15 to 30 horses are kept, and along with post horses, such vehicles like a tarantass or provoloki (two-wheeled cars) were used. (17) Travelers from west to east sometimes sell those vehicles when they reached the eastern parts of Siberia, because those vehicles were scarcely produced in the eastern parts of Siberia so they could sell in a more expensive cost. Horses were not used as a primary transporting measure for crops or smelted ores.

III.1.3 The Great Siberian Road
            The Great Siberian Road connected European Russia to Siberia and China. The actual route started in Moscow and passed through many regions such as Murom, Kazan, Tobolsk, Tomsk, Irkutsk, Nerchinsk, and before terminating at Kyakhta, a trade post on the border with China.(18) The construction of it was decreed by the Czar two months after the conclusion of the Treaty of Nerchinsk; however, it was started to be built from 1730s. It served as route for trade between European Russia, Siberia and China; main products were furs and tea. (19)

III.1.4 The Trans-Siberian Railroad
            Trans-Siberian railroad was constructed in 1891-1905. The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway brought significant effects on most of the industries in Siberia, after which the eastern migratory movement reached major proportions.
            First, it cheapened the cost of transporting crops from Western Siberia to other regions for example, Europe. For instance, Altai Krai exported wheat to the railway via the Ob River. (20) Also, the Trans-Siberia Railroad traversed the rich Ishimsk, Barabinsk and Kulundinsk regions. Those regions were renowned for their fertility. The opening of Trans-Siberian Railway enabled considerable quantities of grain from these regions to be exported to the west, partly to the Baltic seaports. (21) It greatly increased the amount of crops exported in the Western Siberia regions.
            Also, it brought many people to Western Siberia which included enormous amount of unpopulated fertile lands. Although the Western Siberia was fertile, there was insufficient number of farmers who could actually grow crops in lands. Trans-Siberian Railroad successfully brought them to unpopulated fertile lands, which enabled the burgeoning of agricultural industries in Western Siberia.
            Mining industry was also influenced by the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Before the establishment of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the gold-mining was almost neglected except few places because the price of labor and machinery comparing to the profits from earning them. The Siberian railway cleared this disadvantages by cheapen the carriage of stores and machineries and increase the supply of labor. (22)

III.2 Fur Trade
            A fur trade flourished in the sixteenth century after the Russian conquest of Siberia. The Stroganov family established the trading stations beyond the Ural Mountains and sent agents to north western Siberia for purchasing fur. In exchange, they sold other European wares and iron products. By this way, they could procure a large amount of high-quality fur. (23) However, due to constant conflicts with the Khanate of Siberia, the Stroganovs supported Cossacks from the Don to sack the capital of the Khanate, Sibir. After defeating Sibir Khanate, a garrison and provisioning system was established in the North West Siberia, which stimulated private entrepreneurs and small armed bands to carry out the conquest of Siberia. (24)
            The fur trade held by private pioneers was linked to the yasak system of tribute collected from native tribes of Siberia, similar to the tax imposed by Mongols to native tribes. (25) Simply private entrepreneurs and small armed bands conquered these areas, and impose tribute, send fur back to forts and administrative centers in the western part of Ural Mountains.
            By the middle of 17th century, Siberian fur industry reached its peak; 10 percent or more of the total revenue of Russia was from this industry. (26) It also became the main article of the trade with Asia and Western Europe. The port of Arkhangelsk flourished with money because the majority of Siberian fur was exported to Western Europe through this port. (27) They had trade with China; the main product Russians exported was fur.
            In the early eighteenth century revenues started to decline. Excessive market demand from not only Russia but also in China and Western Europe fueled intensive hunting. Russians renovated traps, nets and hunting dogs in order to efficiently hunt animals. These caused the extermination of fur-bearing animals. Consequently, by the early eighteenth century revenues declined to less than half of their peak. (28)

III.3 Interchange between China and Russia
            In the mid-17th century, Russians started to found forts and small cities for trade. In 1637, they founded the fort of Yakutsk, and two years later they reached the Sea of Okhotsk. (29) In 1649-50 Yerofey Khabarov occupied the banks of the Amur and it cause the conflict with China regarding on the boundary issues. (30) By the Treaty of Nerchinsk, this conflict was resolved.

III.3.1 Treaty of Nerchinsk
            Before the treaty of Nerchinsk, an interaction between Russia and China existed. At that period a small quantity of Chinese merchandise was procured, by the merchants of Tomsk and other adjacent towns. (31) However, it was irregular commerce, carried by intervals.
            But after the Treaty of Nerchinsk, regular commerce was established. It not only determined the south-eastern boundaries of Russia, but also laid the foundations of an important and regular commerce between the two nations. By the fifth article, reciprocal liberty of trade was granted to all the subjects of the two empires, who were provided with passports from their respective courts. (32)

III.3.2 Treaty of Kyakhta
            After the treaty of Nerchinsk, the trade between Chinese and Russians flourished; however, conflicts between Chinese and Russians aroused and repeated complaints were transmitted to the Chinese Emperor of the drunkenness and misconduct of China. Due to these conflicts, Chinese ruler, Camhi, ordered the total expulsion of the Russians from the Chinese and Mongol territories. (33) Trades between the two nations immediately ceased. Consequently, Russia sent Vladislavitch Ragusinski and established the treaty of Kyakhta, which resolves the conflicts and deals with the legal and commercial relations of the two nations on the frontier; punishments for specific crimes were delineated, and an Article on the exchange of fugitives was included. (34)
            It also included some of the articles related to commerce. A caravan was allowed to go to Pekin every three years, and the privilege before enjoyed by individual merchants was taken away, and private merchants were prohibited to sell their products beyond the boundaries between China and Russia. (35) Only two places were permitted for merchants as free trade areas. One called Kyakhta and the other Zuruchaitu: at these places a free trade was reciprocally given to the merchants of the two empires. (36) Consequently, Kyakhta and Zuruchaitu became the center of the trade between two empires.

III.3.3 Kyakhta as a Center of Trade
            Kyakhta became the most significant center of the trade between China and Russia. Russia exported fur, clothes, raw silk and cotton, and import tea and porcelain which were more superior in quality than tea and porcelain exported to Europe. (37) It is estimated that in 1776, values of the goods that were bartered in Kyakhta were about 4,000,000 rubles. (38)

III.4 Agriculture Industry
            In 16th and 17th century Siberian agriculture industry was stimulated by the needs of military and administrative stationed in Siberia. (39) Agriculture industry was rapidly developed since the construction of Trans-Siberian Railroad, which allowed increased exports to Central Russia and European countries. (40) Before the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Agriculture has been stimulated along the line of the great Siberian road, because it formerly served as veins of commerce in Siberia and people wanted to engage in either farming or commerce along the roads. (41) After the construction of the railroad, more people flooded into Siberia and significant portions of people engaged in agriculture industry than before. Even the Russian government encouraged people to settle in Siberia; Nicholas II and the Prime Minister Stolypin carried out the Siberia settlement campaign in 1906-1911. (42) By the decree of the Czar, agriculturalists were granted the right to transfer without restrictions to the Siberia and obtain cheap or free land.(43)
            In Western Siberia, numerous crops such as cereals, hay, potato, flax and tobacco were raised. Western Siberia exported products to European Russia. Cereals supplied the deficiencies of European Russia in bad seasons. (44) However, the export of Siberian cereals was not great in proportion to the output of the country, and in comparison with that of European Russia it was very small. (45) Also, even though the construction of Siberian railroad reduced the transporting costs , the cost of transport of a tone of wheat from Siberia to the west of Ural Mountains was still expensive; The cost of transport from Chelyabinsk to the mouth of the Rhine amounts to Pound 2 16s, while same quantities from India costs was only 12s. (46)
            In the eastern part of Siberia, in spite of the harsh climate, the agriculturalists here made a decent living and made progress in agriculture. However, in the early 20th century, Eastern Siberia still failed self-supporting in agricultural production. Some 200,000 tons of wheat enter the Transbaikal were from Manchuria and regions such as Irkutsk and Yakutsk received large supplies from the western part of Siberia. (47)

III.5 Mining Industry
            The mining industry began to take shape before the decline of the fur trade, in 1624 after iron was discovered near Tomsk. (48) Soon copper, silver and other minerals were detected in other regions. Salt mines were started near Tobolsk. And all these mining industries stimulated the increment in population and the upgrading of towns.
            However, mining industry actually flourished two centuries after the discovery of iron near Tomsk. With the decline of the fur trade in the early 18th century, mining became the important industry in Siberia. The Russian state was the chief who developed the mining business, and some of the wealthy private families have been involved also. Early in the eighteenth century, the mines of the Transbaikal, and the eastern Urals became important. (49) In 1726, copper mines were opened around Tomsk and Kuznetsk. (50) Gold mines were also detected in the Urals, and mine started in the Sayan Mountains. (51)
            By 1740 Siberia became the foremost producing regions of precious metals and produced more copper than any other regions of the world. (52) In the late 18th century, gold production in Siberia grew so rapidly that it accounted for 75 percent of the total gold output of the empire. (53) Since the mining industry flourished, other industries also flourished by the side-effect. Copper works, cast-iron foundries and iron works sprang up, and skilled workers and craftsmen brought to the region paved the way for the growth of towns and the flourishing of trade. (54)
            However, it was limited only to the western part of Siberia, mainly near Ural Mountains. While minerals could be easily transported due to vast river system directly linking Western Siberia to the Ural Mountains, ores produced in eastern parts could not. (55) Except the western part of Siberia, mining industry could not develop fully until the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861 made the eastern part of Siberia more difficult to be developed. (56) In western parts, it was beneficial in that liberated serfs flooded into these areas, providing labor forces. However, in southern parts, it was not beneficial at all. It changed the condition of mining industries in Siberia. Not many serfs moved to eastern parts of Siberia because of the lack of cheap transportation. Moreover, the serfs originally resided in the eastern parts of Siberia were emancipated; therefore, the labor cost increased and it led to a significant reduction in the exploratory diggings. (57) Also, it increased the cost of transporting those ores, and it clearly proved the disadvantages of the great distances between the mines and the work. Therefore, even though many mines were opened around Altai areas in the early 18th century, it did not prosper until the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
            Much similar to mining industries of ores such as iron, coal mining prospered in western part of Siberia, but did not prospered in eastern part of Siberia. In Western Siberia, there are rich coal seams, so-called Kuznetsk coal basin. (58) The coal from this seam gives a good coke, which has been successfully used in metallurgic operations; therefore it stirred up the development of mining and metallurgic industries along with the Kuznetsk and Western Siberia. However, in other parts of Siberia far from Ural Mountains, the coal mining did not developed fully. In most cases it had been developed along certain rivers and Siberian postal routes in small ranges. (59). In the region of Kirghiz steppes, coal mining industries developed in some level, due to the special care of government for a long time. (60) However, the production of coal in Kirghiz steppes also did not made any progress but fallen. From 1880 to 1885 they got in average 1,635,000 poods of coal a year; however, it has considerably fallen afterwards, and in 1891 it was only 86,800 poods, because there were no cheap transportations and labors. (61) Consequently, metallurgic industries could not thrive in these areas until the construction of the Trans-Siberia Railroad.

IV. Conclusion
            Siberia always served as attractive places for those who conquered this place. Before the 18th century, Siberia allured many people from all over the world, mainly Russian by fur. Since fur was essential for people living in cold weather; it not only comprised a huge part in Russian domestic economy but also served as a primary article of an international trade. Novgorods sold fur from Siberia to Byzantine and Western Europe. Until the 18th century, the primary product that Russia exported to China was fur.
            After the harsh exploitation, the fur industry waned. Then precious metals and minerals started to attract people from other areas. Mining industry became the important industry in Siberia with the decline of the fur business. Mining industry itself allured many people from the Russia, the western part of Ural Mountains. Also, it stimulated the development of other industries and villages around the mining fields. However, economic activities of people in Russia were limited because of the harsh weather. Especially in the eastern parts of Siberia, the weather was so harsh in winter. The mean temperature of Yakutsk, for example, was about -46¡Æ F in January. (62) Verkhoyansk, which was located in north-eastern part of Siberia, reached -60.7 ¡Æ F in January mean, which is -15 ¡Æin Celsius. (63) In this harsh climate, people in Siberia were limited in conducting economic activities. Only after the construction of the Trans Siberian Railroad, people were enabled to conduct more thorough economic activities, such as smelting ores or tapping of the resources and transporting them. Also the Trans Siberian Railroad enabled more people to rush to Siberia, thus cheapened the costs of labor than those of before the construction of the railway.
            Overall, Siberia economy had been depended on rich natural resources until the Russian Revolution. Siberia served as repository of fine resources, alluring people from other regions. Those people who came to Siberia exploit the resources of these vast lands by mining and hunting. And these industries beset other industries, thus forming the economy of Siberia.

Notes (1)      Article : Siberia : History, from Rusnet Online Encyclopedia.
(2)      Article : Siberia, from Britannica Online Encyclopedia
(3)      Bobrick 1992, p.68
(4)      Bobrick 1992, p.68
(5)      Bobrick 1992, p.68
(6)      Fox 1998
(7)      Fox 1998
(8)      Article : Fur Trade : Russia, from
(9)      Vajda 2000
(10)      Handbook 1920, p.25
(11)      Handbook 1920, p.319
(12)      Handbook 1920, p.25
(13)      Handbook 1920, p.25
(14)      Handbook 1920, p.26
(15)      Handbook 1920, p.26
(16)      Handbook 1920, p.320
(17)      Handbook 1920, p.320
(18)      Great Siberian Road, from Nationmaster
(19)      Great Siberian Road, from Nationmaster
(20)      Trans-Siberian Railway, from Wikipedia
(21)      Crawford 1893,p.261
(22)      Trans-Siberian Railroad, from Britannica Online Encyclopedia
(23)      Dillon 1843, p.6
(24)      Article : Fur Trade: Russia, from
(25)      Article : Fur Trade: Russia, from
(26)      Bobrick 1992, p.72
(27)      Bobrick 1992, p.72
(28)      Article : Fur Trade: Russia, from
(29)      Article : History of Siberia, from Wikipedia
(30)      Article : Khabarovsk Krai, from Wikipedia
(31)      Dillon 1843, p.36
(32)      Dillon 1843, p.35
(33)      Dillon 1843, p.40
(34)      Article : Treaty of Kyakhta, from Wikipedia
(35)      Dillon 1843, p.40
(36)      Dillon 1843, p.40
(37)      Dillon 1843, p.75
(38)      A Summary View of the Statistics and Existing Commerce of the Principal Shores of the Pacific Ocean, p. 84
(39)      Article : Siberia : History, from Rusnet Online Encyclopedia.
(40)      Article : History of Siberia, from Wikipedia
(41)      Handbook 1920, p.236
(42)      Article : History of Siberia, from Wikipedia
(43)      Article : History of Siberia, from Wikipedia
(44)      Handbook 1920, p.236
(45)      Handbook 1920, p.236
(46)      Handbook 1920, p.236
(47)      Handbook 1920, p.239
(48)      Bobrick 1992, p.130
(49)      Bobrick 1992, p.131
(50)      Bobrick 1992, p.131
(51)      Bobrick 1992, p.131
(52)      Bobrick 1992, p.311
(53)      Bobrick 1992, p.312
(54)      Bobrick 1992, p.312
(55)      Crawford 1893, p.171
(56)      Crawford 1893, p.166
(57)      Crawford 1893, p.166
(58)      Crawford 1893,p.176
(59)      Crawford 1893, p.179
(60)      Crawford 1893, p.183
(61)      Crawford 1893, p.185
(62)      Handbook 1920, p.37
(63)      Handbook 1920, p.37

Note : websites quoted below were visited in November/December 2008.

WHKMLA      History of Siberia, from World History KMLA,
Dillon 1843      Chevalier Dillon, Conquest of Siberia, and the history of the transactions, wars, commerce carried on between Russian and China, from the earliest period, London: Allen and Co., 1843, from Internet Archive,
Bobrick 1992      Benson Bobrick, East of the Sun, New York: Poseidon Press, 1992
Crawford 1893      John Martin Crawford, Siberia and the Great Siberian Railway: With a General Map, St.Petersburg: Department of Trade and Manufacture Ministry of Finance, 1893, from Internet Archive,,
Handbook 1920      A Handbook of Siberia and Arctic Russia, His Majesty Stationary Office, 1920, from Internet Archive,
Barrett 1908      Russia's new era, Barrett, Robert John, London, Financier and Bullionist, Ltd, 1908, form Internet Archive,
Rusnet      Article : Siberia : History, from Rusnet, Online Encyclopedia., visited in December 6th, 2008.
EB Siberia      Article : Siberia, from Britannica Online Encyclopedia,, visited in December 5th, 2008.
EB Trans-Siberian Railroad      Article : Trans-Siberian Railroad, from Britannica Online Encyclopedia,, visited in December 5th, 2008.
Fox 1998      Gregory William Fox , Life in 13th century Novgorod ? Trade, 1998,, visited in December 5th, 2008      Article : Fur Trade: Russia, from,, visited in December 5th, 2008.
Vajda 2000      Edvatrd J. Vajda, The West Siberian Tatars, 2000,, visited in December 5th, 2008.
Absolute Astronomy      Article : History of Siberia, from : Absolute Astronomy,, visited in December 5th, 2008.
Wikipedia : Treaty of Kyakhta      Article: Treaty of Kyakhta, from Wikipedia,, visited in December 5th, 2008.
Wikipedia : Trans-Siberian ailroad      Article: Trans-Siberian Railway, from Wikipedia,, visited in December 6th, 2008.
Wikipedia : Khabarovsk Krai      Article: Khabarovsk Krai, from Wikipedia,, visited in December 6th, 2008.
Wikipedia : History of Siberia      Article: History of Siberia, from Wikipedia,, visited in December 21th, 2008
Infoplease      Article : Siberia : History, from Infoplease,, visited in December 7th, 2008.
Nationmaster      Article : Great Siberian Road, from Nationmaster, visited December 21th, 2008

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