This study focuses on the role played by Cossacks in the conquest, settlement, and transformation of Siberia into a new zone of Russian imperial power in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Chr. Witzenrath’s main argument is that Cossacks were influential actors within the Russian imperial system, and that the system was itself a product of an evolving negotiation between the centre and its most distant and potentially unreliable representatives. The tsar needed the Cossacks to squeeze out “the soft gold” of the Siberian fur trade and to provide information and defence, while the Cossacks needed the tsar to consolidate and institutionalise their powers and bolster their influence on the frontier.
The great contribution of the book is its focus on how the Cossacks were actually able to do this. Using a rich range of material (in particular, sources from the office of the voevoda of Irkutsk), Chr. Witzenrath takes us into the basic organisation (“the Cossack group”) that shaped the life of Cossack communities. We see how Cossacks within the group related to each other, how they made their “profit” and received their “salaries,” the rituals of their obedience and defiance vis-à-vis state power, and their interactions with non-Cossacks, such as the Buriat nomads of the Selenga region. Through it all, Chr. Witzenrath demonstrates that the Cossacks of Siberia provided the fundamental basis for early Russian empire-building in North Asia. While Cossacks are typecast in literature and song (and their own mythmaking) as lovers of volia, Chr. Witzenrath shows that they should also be recognised for their astute politics—serving and resisting the tsar, openly or subtly, when it served their purposes.
Yet perhaps the most important observation of the study is that even as Cossacks turned the relationship with the tsar to their advantage, their institutions and identities were themselves changed in the process. That is, the frontier led the centre, but the centre ultimately changed the frontier. In this respect, the story of the Cossacks of seventeenth-century Siberia has a great deal in common with the dynamic that touch frontiers across the world in the early modern period.