Ivan Pokhabov: a harsh antihero of the conquest of Siberia


Ivan Pokhabov is often confused with the namesake Yakov, who is famous for the foundation of Irkutsk (by the way, there is a city monument in his honor). But no, they are still two different people.

Fortification Builder

Our hero was born somewhere in 1610, in the family of the Yenisei Cossack. Not a simple one, but a centurion – which, given the time and place of birth, opened up good prospects for Ivan. True, no one put a silver spoon in his mouth. In Siberia of the 17th century, for a person with Pokhabov’s history and connections, this, as a rule, meant one thing – to go to underdeveloped lands and knock out yasak (fur tax) from the local population in favor of the Moscow tsar. And in 1646 Pokhabov, having gained experience on the Yenisei, went to Baikal. There, where not yet fully “explained” Buryat tribes lived.

Collecting yasak was not as easy as it seemed: many natives were, to one degree or another, tributaries of more powerful tribes and khans. And even if it was possible to deal with the previous “roof” quickly and without problems, it was just the beginning. After all, the tributaries themselves were often not at all eager to pay the tax, and with the nomadic lifestyle of many of them, it was very easy to get away from this very payment.

To collect yasak more efficiently, Pokhabov launched the construction of new forts (small wooden fortresses) and strengthened the old ones. And also did not hesitate to collect expeditions for the voluntary-compulsory collection of furs. The size of taxes under Pokhabov grew and grew – our hero clearly did not suffer from the modesty of appetites. And there were more and more clashes with the Buryats.

For a short time, Pokhabov’s warlike character frightened the Yenisei authorities. His place as a Baikal clerk was given to another, calmer person. But the neighboring Buryats were not pacifists – feeling the hand of the Moscow tsar weakened, they stopped paying yasak, and some even openly rebelled.

Then Pokhabov was immediately returned, giving him as many as 64 service people – professional military men. By the standards of a rather deserted Siberia, whose conditions were multiplied by the technological and organizational superiority of the Russians, this was a very serious force. Pokhabov added six more people to it, equipped at his expense. And 26 volunteers joined the detachment, scenting good prey.

Their premonitions did not deceive them – Pokhabov walked through the recalcitrant Buryats with fire and sword. The result of the campaign was the founding of a new, Osinsky prison. Constructed competently, it cut the Buryat lands into two parts. As a result, those tribes that found themselves between the Russian fortresses decided for themselves that it was easier for them to voluntarily pay yasak than to fight the Russians, who were getting stronger every year.

Silver rush

It remained to deal with the tribes that did not fall into this zone. Pokhabov went to the Irkut River, where in the course of other affairs he took several hostages. The usual demands for payment in furs followed, but there was a nuance.

The captured Buryats turned out to be tributaries of Turukai, a prince from Mongolia. As luck would have it, one of the Russian chieftains managed to send an embassy to him – and Turukay, without thinking twice, took people from there as hostages. Negotiations began, during which Pokhabov was forced to release everyone.

True, another thing turned out, namely that the Mongols had a lot of precious metals. There were no sources of this resource in Europe: either the Spanish colonies in South America, or mines in Muslim lands. And the need for silver and gold, a source of hard currency, was enormous. Everyone understood this, including Pokhabov. Therefore, our hero temporarily forgot about yasak and began to find out where the source of silver is, which could become a business for Siberia more abruptly than all furs put together.

Pokhabov immediately began to persuade Turukai to take him “to the main thing.” The Mongol, remembering Ivan’s behavior with his tributaries, of course, did not believe him, but did not refuse. True, he answered with an Asian cunning – the escorts did not lead Pokhabov’s embassy in a direct way, but circled 8 times longer than required.


Urga at the beginning of the 19th century

Our hero either understood the hint, or a two-month trip was enough to discourage the desire to develop the “silver theme” further. Be that as it may, Pokhabov reached the nomadic city of Urga, and, having agreed with the Mongols about their embassy in Moscow, went back to Baikal, where he had a lot of things to do.

Or he could eventually get to the capital of China and try to turn the course of history.

Boxing by correspondence

In fact, there were many things to do – and even more than Pokhabov himself had expected.

The thing is that our hero practically did not limit himself in his behavior on Lake Baikal. Moreover, the case concerned not only the Buryats and other natives, but also completely Russian colonists. And they could already write petitions to the Yenisei governor. And write a lot.

Pokhabov was charged with bribery and open robbery under the guise of taxes and requisitions. And also rape – the complaints repeatedly featured phrases like “my fiance had a scoundrel on the bed” (and other nasty things).

But our hero knew the principle of “who first declared”, and began to write back petitions at the speed of a typewriter, bonfires in all the deadly sins of his accusers. The Yenisei governor instigated an investigation, held several confrontations and passed an unpleasant verdict for Pokhabov – to beat with batogs and prohibit him from holding leading positions.

Pokhabov received Pokhabov in full, but the second did not work out – family ties helped in the form of a brother from Moscow, who achieved an acquittal and allowed Ivan to continue serving as a clerk of the Bratsk prison.

Great exodus

There Pokhabov again deployed in full force. Underground distilling, yasak trips and even the slave trade – although it was not so much in letter as in spirit.

He approached the matter creatively – so that everything was according to the law, the Buryat prisoners had to be recorded as serfs. And for this it is imperative to baptize. True, it took a long time to do this in accordance with all the canons and with all the respect, and, therefore, expensive.

Then Pokhabov came up with know-how. In winter he drove more Buryats to the river. An ice-hole was made in the ice. We took 2-3 future serfs, who, so as not to run away, were tightly tied to the middle of a long pole. After that, the Buryats were lowered into the hole several times. The priest uttered sacramental words, and now freshly baked Christians appeared before the audience, whom they could write to the serfs. Fast and convenient.

Ivan Pokhabov: a harsh antihero of the conquest of Siberia
Method of high-speed baptism of Ivan Pokhabov. Illustration by Nikolai Fomin

It was difficult for nomads accustomed to freemen to endure this for a long time, and in 1658 they raised a major riot. Moreover, this time almost the entire population rose, not being “squeezed” in time by Pokhabov’s jails.

Ivan began to rush about – either violently punishing the rebels who had fallen under the arm, then falling into panic and demanding reinforcements in Yeniseisk in order to fight everyone at once. The latter, however, were not needed – realizing that they would never defeat all the Russians in an open war, the nomads decided to leave for Mongolia, under the arm of the local khans and princes. Some of them eventually returned – but much later.

But reinforcements from Yeniseisk still came. And not by itself, but with the “investigators” appointed by the voivode – the authorities appreciated Pokhabov for his courage and activity, but they were fed up with his “arts”.

As a result, the governor made a compromise decision. Pokhabov was sent on a kind of pension – he was banned from holding positions, but 268 dessiatines of good arable land near Yeniseisk were allocated. From this it was quite possible to live. What Ivan Pokhabov did safely until 1668, until he died.

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