I realize that Russia had ambitions in the east and they took over Siberia. However Siberia was just north of the Mongols really and its islands were easily accessible to Japan in history. They even had navies to invade. However it were the Russians who beginning from Moscow took over Siberia.

What special skills did the Russians have that others lacked because of which they could not take?

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    (1) Why do you think anyone wanted Siberia? (2) Siberia was not accessible at all. I think you're basing that on the distance on maps but Siberia is huge and conditions were extreme.
    – Semaphore
    Jan 2, 2021 at 10:59
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    – MCW
    Jan 2, 2021 at 11:27
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    #falsepremise "During past millennia different groups of nomads – such as the Enets, the Nenets, the Huns, the Xiongnu, the Scythians and the Uyghurs inhabited various parts of Siberia. . . . In the 13th century, during the period of the Mongol Empire, the Mongols conquered a large part of this area.[14]" Wikipedia
    – MCW
    Jan 2, 2021 at 11:59
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    @Semaphore: And 3) Why did Russia sell Alaska (which had similar climate, population, and distance from Moscow) so cheaply?
    – jamesqf
    Jan 2, 2021 at 18:26

5 Answers 5


The Russian expansion east is really interesting. It is covered in depth by "China and Russia: The Great Game" by O Edmund Clubb.

Basically, there were many parties vying for control of the land. Qing China and Russia both had a huge interest in controlling Siberia, as they were well aware of the threat from nomadic steppe peoples. For example, the Mongolians had emerged from the steppe to conquer much of the known world. Likewise, the Qing ruling class, the Manchu, were also from the steppe.

Initially, Qing China controlled much of the populated regions of Siberia thru tributary relationships, direct military intervention, and by playing different parties against each other. Over time, as Russian and European power grew, Russian control grew while Qing control diminished. As the lands were sparsely populated, and the Russians maintained stability, the Qing were ok with Russian Expansion until the 1800s, when the Qing empire had weakened, and when Russia got most of its "good" Siberian land.

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    And China had other problems to deal with, primarily European incursions on its coast.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 2, 2021 at 18:28
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    I think this answer considerably exagerrates the military importance of Sibiria. There never has been a northern threat to China from Sibiria, except by Russia. The threats came from Manchuria (under Qing control from the start) and Mongolia. With these under Qing control, there was little reason to expand further.
    – Jan
    Jan 5, 2021 at 10:23
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    @Jan Most Americans call all of Russia west of the Urals "Siberia" even though that isn't correct. Most Americans would be happy to include Mongolia with this as well. I probably shouldn't be using such inaccurate vocabulary probably. Jan 5, 2021 at 14:46

I note that in the 1600s Russia and the Qing dynasty fought over territory in north eastern Asia (and thus in Siberia) and that the Qing won, and kept that area until Russia captured it in the 19th or 20th century.


Siberia is named after the Siberian Khanate in western Siberia.

The modern usage of the name was recorded in the Russian language after the Empire's conquest of the Siberian Khanate. A further variant claims that the region was named after the Xibe people.[7] The Polish historian Chyliczkowski has proposed that the name derives from the proto-Slavic word for "north" (север, sever),[8] same as Severia.


The Khanate of Sibir (Siberian Tatar: Sıbır Qağanlıq), also historically called the Khanate of Turan,1 was a Turkic Khanate, located in southwestern Siberia and with a Turco-Mongol ruling class. Throughout its history, members of the Shaybanid and Taibugid dynasties often contested the rulership over the Khanate between each other; both of these competing tribes were direct patrilineal descendants of Genghis Khan through his eldest son Jochi and Jochi's fifth son Shayban (Shiban) (died 1266).[citation needed] The area of the Khanate had once formed an integral part of the Mongol Empire, and later came under the control of the White Horde and of the Golden Horde of 1242-1502.


So the Khanate of Sibir, located in Siberia, was part of the Mongol Empire centuries before it was part of the Russian Empire.

In post number 14 at:


It is suggestd that the Mongol Empire might have possibly included direct control or indirect overlordshop of most or all of Siberia up to the Arctic Ocean, making it possibly the largest empire ever.


And there may have been other examples of Eastern Asian, central Asian, and Western ASian realms gaining control over territories that are defined as parts of Siberia.

  • That territory that the Chinese and Russians fought over in the 17th cenury is the southwestern corner of Siberia, roughly between Khabarovsk and Wladiwostok.
    – Jan
    Jan 6, 2021 at 3:21

You might want to look into the reasons why the Roman empire did not expand (much) beyond the Rhine and Donau rivers. Or did not conquer Scotland. Certainly the area between the Rhine and Vistula rivers (most of today's Germany and a good part of Poland) would have made a nice addition to the imperium, and there actually were military threats from that area, see the incursions of Cimbri and Teutons, the Marcomanni, or later Franks, Vandals and Suebi?

The problem was that with the Roman style of warfare and politics, these areas simply were too hard to control and there was little of value (to the Romans) at that time.

The problem with Siberia from the point of view of the Chinese is even greater: Not only is Siberia far away from the areas where a Chinese army could be raised and supplied, there is also a steppe and desert belt between China and Siberia - another area that is hard to control and that has little of value. In fact, the threat from those steppe peoples was so great that everything that came further north must have seemed rather unimportant. Capitals were moved and huge amounts of resources were poured into fruitless campaigns (e.g. Yongle's five northern campaigns) and into extensive defensive works just to keep those nomads at bay.

Some dynasties actually managed to bring (parts of) the steppes under control, but these usually were dynasties whose ruling families hailed from the steppes themselves, e.g. Liao (11th to 12th century) or Qing (17th to 20th century). The Tang dynasty also managed to reach out into Mongolia in the 7th century and also had at least a little bit of steppe credibility via family ties.

But all Chinese dynasties also had other fronts to defend: for example the sea shore against pirates or the southwestern border against the Tibetans. And moreover they had to be on the guard against peasant rebellions and against generals trying to found their own dynasties. So if bringing the steppes under control seemed costly, many Chinese dynasties opted for building walls instead of more campaigning.

So what about the steppe peoples themselves, did they show any interest in the forests to their north? The Secret History of the Mongols actually describes some confrontation with forest peoples. But my guess is that most of Siberia was uninteresting to the Mongols and their successors and predecessors. Steppe people love cavalry warfare. They are not great fans of walking into battle. This makes it harder for them in forested areas.

And also for the steppe people it must have been apparent that there was little of value to the north of them and much of value to the south and south-west. If the steppe peoples were able to evade well-organized Chinese armies, they certainly would have been able to evade war bands from the forests. They might have been content to establish some kind of relation that made it look as if they were in charge in some way, and otherwise leave those areas alone.

  • You could also add 635 km long Lake Baikal to those "barriers". Jan 5, 2021 at 23:39

China ? Would have been the number one but:

  • costs ?
  • why ?
  • our farmers can grow a lot of food which we then can tax
  • The barbars is towards the north, so costs ? Why create trouble with them ?

This is basically the reasons why the chinese bureaucrazy killed of the seagoing merchant fleets (which were done in an unnecessary expensive way.) China could have dominated the Indian ocean and Indonesia too if not for the expenses.

In the Tang era China extended its influence and control into the Western Regions ie Tashkent and Samarkand by building military forts and cities. This had its costs but the farmers which payed for it thru taxes, occassionally threatened to revolt because of the taxes while the gain in taxes due to controlling the trade routes weren't that large.

Russia could only grow by expanding to the east while in the west (Balticum, current Poland) is the christian kingdom/knight orders. The expansion eastwards was blocked by the Mongols so it was possible only after the weakening of the Mongol's threat.

Were Japan that interested in expanding into Asia while avoiding China ie avoiding conflict with China ?

  • The Tang also tried to expand into Mongolia, although this was successful only for a short period.
    – Jan
    Jan 5, 2021 at 10:25

Harsh Siberia and even harsher Cossacks

When we talk about Siberia, first thing we notice is that this huge area is very sparsely populated, both today and in history. This is not without the reason. Climate in Siberia is harsh, with relatively short summers and long, cold winters. As a result, classical agriculture with grain is almost impossible. Thus, it is very hard to create classical village settlements - there is simply not enough food for usual farming population and fodder for the cattle .

As a result, Siberia was largely inhabited by nomads, with occasional market towns which were only permanent settlements. Primary economical products of such a way of life were cattle in large herds and fur from hunting. Nomads would occasionally organize themselves into conquering hordes and raid their more sedentary neighbors to the East and West (China and Russia) . But, in the end, nomads could not create great civilizations. With the advent of technology (especially firearms) they were beaten back to their steppes and forests. Now it was the time for counter-attack.

As mentioned before, Siberia didn't have much to offer economically, and main thing that interested early explorers and conquerors like Yermak Timofeyevich was fur. Fur was much in the demand (winter and ceremonial clothes for nobility), was relatively portable and had large price/weight ratio. Cossacks , as and odd assortment of free people, robbers, explorers, daredevils and brigands, were naturally drawn to this potentially large profit. Of course, fur and ore traders like Stroganovs sensed opportunity as well. They tactically encouraged and financed Cossack expeditions deep into Siberia, promoted exploration of river routes and took over old Siberian Tatar settlements and forts, also building completely new. Latter, they started trade in bulkier goods like ore and timber, although this largely depended on waterways and latter railway. Somewhat latter, Russian Imperial government started their own colonization of Siberia, by moving mostly convicts into large territory. Even when finished with their sentence they could not return to Russia. Instead they remained in Siberia. As a rule, they would depend on food and other things imported from mainland, therefore there were no serious attempts of rebellion, to separate and form independent state.

Now, it is a well known fact that Cossacks and other Russian explorers went all the way to Pacific, and to Chinese, Mongolian and Korean border. Chinese and Koreans had occasional border clashes with them that are well documented. Question remains, why Chinese didn't attempt to explore on their own deeper into Siberia ? Most likely answer is that they didn't have a class of free vagabonds like Cossacks. Yes, there were bandits in China, sometimes even warlords. But, they didn't have support of central authorities, or some special status. They were either criminals, or if they became powerful enough robber barons. Prevailing ideology in China was Confucianism, with the stated goal of preserving and harmonizing existing status between Heaven and Earth. Much was written about Chinese isolationism in those years, and this is no place to search for causes. It is sufficient to say that China effectively stifled foreign trade, especially private trade. Considering that they need anything from surrounding "barbarians" , they didn't feel the need to expand. And unlike Russia, they didn't permit private initiative in exploring. As a consequence, even in 16th and 17th century it was the Russians (Cossacks) that traveled all the way to China, not the other way around.

  • Aren't the Cossacks Slav rather than Turkish? Jan 5, 2021 at 23:40
  • @PieterGeerkens Of course they are Slavic (i.e. Russian) but there are some theories about their origins, i.e. that they started as Turkoman tribes. Anyway, in this period we are talking about they were definitely Slavic.
    – rs.29
    Jan 6, 2021 at 0:54

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