Buryats, Tunguses and the Silver Mirage


Monument to Beketov in Chita

The zealous owner of Yakutia

It is difficult to say exactly when and where Beketov was born. Probably somewhere in the early 17th century. But in 1627, our hero was already a centurion in the Yenisei prison – a position that just about anyone and without experience will definitely not be trusted.

Already in the next year, 1628, Beketov, taking 30 archers and 60 industrialists eager for adventure and profit, set off on his first known to us (but probably not the first in principle) campaign. The task was familiar by the standards of place and time – to beat the local Tungus who attacked the Russian people. On the way, Beketov, as a solid man, did not forget to lay a small fort not far from the confluence of the Rybnaya river into the Angara. And on the way I also collected yasaka (tribute) from local tribes – almost 700 precious sable skins.

A few years later, in 1631, our hero went to the Lena River. And he laid there the Lensky prison – the first Russian fortification in Yakutia. And he did not just lay it down, but launched an active activity. Starting from the accounting and taxation of the sable harvest, produced by the hands of those very 60 industrialists, and ending with the establishment of a judicial system in the wild.

The latter was intended for all the same Russian hunters of the beast. When they could not share what they had caught in traps or crossed each other’s path in a different way, the disputants went to Beketov, the embodiment of state power in the vastness of Yakutia. And they received a verdict – not for free, of course, but by paying the duty with the same sables. The accumulated duty, almost a hundred skins, from Beketov, which is typical, did not disappear anywhere, but was delivered to the Yenisei prison in 1633. This, however, was a trifle against the background of the total income of the state from the campaign to Lena – as many as 2,500 sables.

Then Beketov served on the Yenisei, then returned to the Lena to establish new prison and beat the rebellious (not all of them were) Yakuts. And he also wrote petitions to Moscow in the spirit of “raise my salary” or “allow us to trade in slaves from the natives.” However, he had grounds: as early as 1641, Beketov’s campaigns brought the treasury 11.5 thousand rubles – a colossal amount of money at that time.

In general, he lived a normal life on the Siberian frontier.

Dreams of hard currency

Huge money was made from furs in Siberia in the 17th century – sable skins were the real oil deposits of their century. The fur was called “soft gold” and anyone was happy to lay their hands on it.

But real gold was still cooler.

Furs were put into circulation as the equivalent of money not at all from a good life. They occupied a considerable volume during storage and could deteriorate. And not all attempts to pay with them in foreign countries were deliberately doomed to luck.

But there was nowhere to go – everything was bad with the deposits of precious metals in Europe. Their influx came either from the Spanish possessions in America, or from the Muslim East. To join this club with independent sources of gold or silver would count as the greatest fortune any country.

Siberian adventures of Peter Beketov: Buryats, Tungus and the silver mirage
Furs were the main wealth of Siberia. But the thought that there might also be silver was “blown away” by many.

And when rumors began to circulate in Siberia that somewhere on undeveloped lands there were deposits of silver, the pioneers seriously strained themselves. It seemed that an even more tempting jackpot loomed ahead.

Race between the prison

Unfortunately, the rumors were not supported by reality – the pioneers saw silver from the natives, and thought that the deposits were nearby. In fact, precious metals fell to them through third and tenth hands, and the primary source was contacts with China. But even in the form of a mirage, thoughts about silver were too strong, and provoked real competition.

In the case of Beketov, the main competition was between the Yenisei (that is, his) and Krasnoyarsk prison. The question was simple – whoever settles down behind Baikal first, he will put up his fortifications, establish connections, and, therefore, will take the main profits from the silver deposits. And that they would be there, no one thought to doubt.

It only remained to collect the expedition earlier than the sworn friends.

The Yenisei governor Afanasy Pashkov approached the matter creatively and used the alcohol monopoly. That is, he began to sell vodka at exorbitant prices – the sable hunters still had no choice. And the money for the expedition was quickly accumulated.

In June 1652, a detachment of a hundred Cossacks – the most serious, by the standards of Siberia, force – set out on a journey. It was headed by Peter Beketov.

Big hike

Transbaikalia was not an absolute blank spot – there was fragmentary information about the territory from individuals who came there as part of small groups. Therefore, Beketov’s detachment did not move entirely at random.

The key to control of the region was the Shilka River. Having fixed on it, it would be possible to send detachments along this river and its numerous tributaries. Moving on water would give speed – that is, the ability to quickly respond to unexpected events in a hostile land. Therefore, Beketov moved there.


Another (indirect) monument to the hero of our article in Chita

On the way, he was constantly harassed by Buryat raids. It was possible to either beat them off, or avoid them, moving quickly through the water – so as not to waste energy. But it was not possible to reach the intended goal in one season, and the Cossacks were forced to stop for the winter.

So that people would not get bored with nothing, Beketov singled out a group to visit the Buryats – so that it was discouraging to rob the Cossacks on a campaign. The visit was successful – the natives were taken by surprise and severely beaten. In one of the settlements, the wife of a Yakut prince was captured, who regularly paid the Russians yasak. The Russians not only did not touch the spouse who was staying with relatives, but also brought them back under guard to the Yakut lands – if necessary, Beketov easily used force, but he honored treaties and tried to maintain good relations.

The whole next year was spent on the construction of forts on the tributaries of the Shilka and generally on the development of new territories. Much attention was paid to collecting tribute – a substantial sable treasury of 760 skins was sent to the Yenisei prison.

Tunguska problem

It only remained to establish a large prison directly on Shilka itself. But then problems began – the local Tungus, apparently having heard about the success of the Russians in the west, decided to unite and “knock off” Beketov before he had time to settle down. Understanding perfectly well that if this is not done now, then later it will be impossible to drive away the guests by any means.

They managed to lock the Cossacks in a small winter quarters – without bread and horses, surrounded by enemy crowds, sooner or later they would simply starve to death. There was only one way out – to build rafts and, under cover of night, go wherever the current will take. And it carried it to the Amur River.

In the summer of 1654, Beketov and his Cossacks united with the people of Onufriy Stepanov. A few months later, they were to face the troops of Manchu China – the first truly serious state in all the decades of the Siberian epic. But that’s a completely different story.

Beketov managed to take part in a shock defense against the Chinese of the Kumar fort. On this, his traces are lost. The pioneer is believed to have lived until at least the early 1660s. Having had time, probably still a lot to serve the continuing expansion of Russia.

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