Yermak Timofeyevich


(G)Ermak Timofeyevich (Russian: Ermak Timofeyevich, born between 1532-1542 – 5-6 August 1585) was a Cossack Ataman and today a hero in Russian folklore and myths. During the reign of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, Yermak began the Russian conquest of Siberia.

Russia”s interest in the fur trade fueled their desire to expand eastward into Siberia. The Tatar Khanate of Kazan was established as the best entrance to Siberia. In 1552, Ivan the Terrible”s modernized army overthrew the khanate. After the capture of Kazan, the Tsar turned to the powerful and wealthy Stroganoff merchant family to lead the eastern expansion. In the late 1570s, the Stroganovs recruited Cossack fighters to invade Asia on the tsar”s behalf. These Cossacks elected Germak as their armed forces leader, and in 1582 Germak set out with an army of 840 to attack the Siberian Khanate.

On October 26, 1582, Germak and his soldiers overthrew the Tartar empire of Kuchum Khan at Kaslik in a battle that marked the conquest of Siberia. Yermak remained in Siberia and continued his fight against the Tatars until 1584, when a raid organized by Kuchum Khan ambushed him and killed him and his party.

More specific elements of Germak”s life, such as his appearance, background and dates of events, remain points of contention for historians because the texts documenting his life are not reliable. However, his life and conquests had a profound effect on Siberian relations, sparking Russian interest in the region and establishing the Kingdom of Russia as an aggressive imperial power east of the Urals.

There is less information about Germak than most notable explorers and historical figures. Much of what we know about Germak comes from folklore and legends. There are no modern descriptions of Germak and all biographies are merely estimates. One of the Siberian chronicles, the Chronicle Remezov, written over a hundred years after Yermak”s death, describes him as having a “broad face, black beard and curly hair, of medium height, but with broad shoulders and a broad torso” , but even this detailed description is not reliable because the narrator had never seen Yermak.

Apart from his unknown physical characteristics, the details of Germak”s life and the circumstances leading up to his raid on Siberia are unclear. Russian writer Valentin Rasputin regrets the lack of information we have about Yermak, given the enormous range of his contributions to Russian society. Our knowledge of Yermak”s upbringing and travels is minimal compared to that of other famous explorers such as Christopher Columbus. Historians face serious difficulties when trying to piece together the specifics of Germak”s life because the two main, primary sources about him may be either biased or inaccurate. These sources are the Stroganoff Chronicle, another of the Siberian chronicles, and the Synodic. The Stroganoff Chronicle was written at the request of the Stroganoff family itself, so it overemphasizes the family”s involvement in the conquest of Siberia. The Shinodik is an account of Yermak”s expedition, written forty years after his death by the archbishop of Tobolsk, Cyprian. The text was shaped by oral tradition and memories of his mission, but was almost certainly influenced by the archbishop”s desire to canonize Germak. The combination of forgotten details over time and the embellishment or omission of facts in order to accept Germak as a saint suggests that the Synodic could contain errors. Although Cyprian failed to canonize Germak, he made an effort to immortalize the warrior.

These documents, along with several others that chronicle Yermak”s expeditions, are filled with contradictions that make the truth about the warrior”s life unclear. These accounts, along with folklore and legends, are the basis of historical knowledge. As such, they are widely accepted and considered to reflect the truth.

Germak is usually described as brutal, cunning and bold. He also liked to describe himself as “we” instead of “I”. However, these descriptions can be attributed to the stereotypical characteristics of a Cossack. According to Rasputin: “The term Cossack is a Tatar word, which translates as bold, with a strong spirit, someone who has cut ties with his social class.” In official documents, Cossacks are referred to as “vagrants, thieves, robbers, renegades and fugitive peasants.”

The Cossacks appeared before the existence of Russia and were first mentioned by a Byzantine emperor in the 3rd century. Although Cossack settlements had leaders, the atamans, and laws, the settlers made no mention of the tsar or any other khanate. Only after the 16th century did the Cossacks build a close relationship with the Russian tsar. Yermak, the embodiment of Cossack free will, bravery and brutality, became famous for his exploits in the Volga.


The warrior Yermak Timofegevich was born by the Chusovaya River on the eastern edge of the neighbouring Muscovite territories. The only information about Yermak”s upbringing comes from the Cherepanov Chronicle, which was never fully published, but in 1894 the historian Aleksandr Dmitriev concluded that it probably represents a copy or paraphrase of an original 17th-century document. According to the extract from the chronicle “On Germak and his birthplace”, his grandfather, Afonashi Grigorievich Alenin, came from Suzdal, northeast of Moscow. To escape poverty, he moved south to Vladimir, in the Murom forests. There he was arrested by the voevodas for showing the way to ruthless bandits who had hired him. His son and father Yermak, Timofei, relocated to the Stroganoff lands in Chusovaya to earn money. This is presumed to be the birthplace of Vasily Timofievich Alenin, later known as “Yermak”


Yermak worked in the Stroganoff river fleet as a porter and sailor, carrying salt along the Kama and Volga rivers. Tired of this, he formed a gang, quit his job and became a pirate on the rivers. That”s when he acquired the nickname Germak.

Prior to his conquests in Siberia, Germak”s combat experience consisted of leading a detachment of Cossacks for the Tsar in the Livonian War of 1558-83 and plundering merchant ships. Based on legends and folk songs, Yermak was involved in robberies and plundering in Volga with Hetman Ivan Kolzo and four other Cossack leaders. It was typical of the Cossacks to engage in piracy in the Sea of Azov or Caspian Sea and to rob various envoys and Russian or Persian merchants. Although a bandit, Yermak gained a reputation as an illustrious and loyal Russian fighter. Through his experience in the Livonian War, he learned battle tactics and surpassed other Hetmans in skill.

In the late 1500s, before the Yermak expeditions, the Russians tried to push eastward to Siberia in search of furs. Under Ivan the Great, the Russians entered northwestern Siberia, but “the approach to Siberia from this direction proved to be very arduous and difficult.” The Russians decided that a southern route through the Tatar Khanate of Kazan would allow them to penetrate Siberia more easily, but Kazan would first have to be overthrown. Ivan the Terrible”s first foreign objective when he came to power was to take Kazan. His modernized army proved successful in early October 1552, and Ivan proceeded to open up the East to Russian businessmen such as the Stroganovs. Anikei Stroganoff used the former Khanate of Kazan as an entrance to Siberia and established a private empire in the southwest corner of Siberia.

After the Russian conquest under Ivan the Terrible, the Tatar Khanate of Kazan became the Russian province of Perm. Ivan the Terrible had enormous confidence in the business ability of the Stroganoff family and gave them Perm Province as an economic investment that would certainly benefit Russia in the future. The Tsar also gave the Stroganovs permission to expand into the territories along the Tobol and Iritis rivers, which belonged to the Muslim leader Kuchum Khan. The Stroganovs proceeded to campaign eastward into non-Russian territories. They reached the Khanate of Siberia, a sister state of the former Khanate of Kazan, because it retained control of the fur in western Siberia.

During the Russian conquest of Kazan in the 1540s and 1550s, the Siberian khanate had suffered its own conflicts with rival tribes. It was on shaky ground until the rise of Kuchum Khan, a descendant of the famous Genghis Khan, in 1560. Kuchum Khan created allies among his neighbors and the Crimean Tatars in order to prevent Stroganoff”s expansion into the Urals.

In July 1572, Kuchum launched his first raid on the Stroganoff settlements, resulting in almost a hundred deaths. In 1573, the Tatar army expanded and changed leadership. Kuchum”s nephew, Mahmet-Kul, took control. The Stroganovs realized that they could no longer expect their settlers to remain in the lands around Perm if they were fighting only a defensive battle. The Tsar granted the Stroganoff family permission to invade Asia. However, the Tsar soon changed his mind and told the Stroganovs to withdraw from Siberia, fearing that Russia did not have the resources or manpower to overthrow Kuchum Khan”s empire.

The Stroganovs decided to ignore the tsar”s orders and, in the late 1570s, Anikei Stroganov”s grandsons Nikita and Maxim recruited Cossack fighters to wage war on their behalf. They chose Yermak Timofeyevich as the leader of the Cossack brigades.

According to the Stroganoff Chronicle, on April 6, 1579, after hearing of the “boldness and bravery” of Yermak and his companions, the Stroganoffs sent a letter to the men asking them to come to their ancestral lands on the Chusovaya River, inviting them to fight the Tatars in the name of the Tsar.

Since Germak was the most prominent of the recruits, he became the captain (ataman) of the “conquest of Siberia”. However, the question remains whether Yermak, in fact, decided to fight the war on his own without being influenced by the Stroganoffs. This question arose because of the discrepancy between the narratives of the Stroganoff Chronicle and another Siberian chronicle, the Yesipov Chronicle, which does not even mention the Stroganoff family. Perhaps the Stroganovs tell the story in a way that inspires the Russian people to feel as much indebted to them as to Yermak for the conquest of Siberia. Historians are divided on this issue: some believe that the Stroganovs were behind Yermak”s campaign and others believed that they played no part in it.

Germak was officially recruited by the Stroganoffs in the spring of 1582. His mission was “to de facto conquer the country along the Tobol and the Iris, which was already de jure in the possession of the Stroganoffs by the Tsar in 1574″. The Stroganoff”s ultimate goal was to open a southern passage to Mangazëya for access to the furs. The Siberian Khanate blocked the road from the Urals to Mangazaya. After the khanate was overturned, the final destination of Yermak”s eight thousand kilometer journey was the Bering Strait. Yermak led a small army of 840 men, consisting of 540 of his own men and 300 of Stroganoff”s. His army consisted of “Russians, Tatars, Lithuanians and Germans”.

Nikita and Maxim Stroganoff spent twenty thousand rubles to equip the army with the best weapons available. This was especially to their advantage, because the Tatar opponents had no industrial weapons.

Germak first began his journey to Siberia from a frontier fortress at Perm on the Chusovaya River on 1 September 1582, although other sources claim that he may have begun his expedition in 1579 or 1581. Throughout their journey, they encountered resistance from the native allies of Kuchum Khan, but the high sides of their vessels acted as shields. When crossing the Urals, the Cossacks had to carry their belongings on their backs because they had no horses.

After two months, Germak”s army finally crossed the Urals. They followed the river Tura and found themselves on the outskirts of the empire of Kuchum Khan. They soon reached the capital of the kingdom, Kaslik. On October 23, 1582, Germak”s army fought the battle of Cape Chuvash. Germak”s infantry blocked the Tatars” passage with massed fire, Mahmet-Kul was wounded and the Tatars failed to inflict a single casualty on the Russian forces. Germak managed to capture Kaslik and the battle marked the “conquest of Siberia”. The Stroganoff Chronicle provides an account of Kuchum Khan”s reaction to the conquest of Kashlik and the success of Germak:

While Germak managed to take Kaslik, the battle reduced the Cossack force to 500 men. Germak also faced a supply problem. While the army had found treasures such as fur, silk and gold in the city, there was no food or supplies left. Residents had also fled the city. However, four days after Germak captured the city, the people returned and Germak soon made friends with the Ostiaq. The Ostiaq formally declared their loyalty to Germak on 30 October, supplementing their pledge with offerings of food in the town.

The supplies proved insufficient and the Cossacks soon went out into the desert to fish and hunt. Although Germak had defeated the Tatars, they continued to harass the Cossacks, preventing Germak from gaining full control of the region. The Tatars struck decisively on 20 December, when a group of 20 Cossacks were discovered and killed. Germak discovered that Mahmet-Kul had recovered from their previous battle and was responsible for the killing of the Cossacks. Yermak then engaged Mahmet-Kul and his forces in battle, defeating him once again.

Mahmet-Kul”s defeat gave the Cossacks a brief respite. However, in April 1583, he returned to the region. He was ambushed and captured by a small group of Cossacks. A few days after his capture, he sent a messenger to Kuchum Khan stating that he was alive and asking him to stop the attacks against the Cossacks and those who were subservient to Germak.

Jermac, taking advantage of this relaxation in hostilities, set out for the Iris and Ob rivers to complete the subjugation of the local tribal leaders.

Soon he met Ostiak Prince Damian, who was entrenched in a fortress on the banks of the Iris with 2,000 loyal fighters. It took Germac and his men some time to overcome their defences, it is said, as Damian was in possession of a gilded idol. Yermak”s forces eventually prevailed. However, upon entering the fortress, no idol was found.

Yermak then decided to subdue the most powerful Ostiaq prince in the region, Samar, who had joined forces with eight other princes. Yermak, seeing that Samar had not placed guards around his camp, launched a surprise attack, killing Samar and disbanding his forces. Germak was then able to secure the allegiance of the other eight princes.

After this conquest, he continued down the river and succeeded in capturing the main Ostiaq city of Nazim. Yermak”s friend, ataman Nikita Pan, and several Cossacks died in the battle. Yermak then directed his forces down the Ob River, capturing several small strongholds. After reaching one point, Yermak halted the expedition and returned his forces to Kaslik.

When he returned to Kaslik, Yermak decided to inform Stroganoff and the tsar of his conquests. While his reasons for this are unclear, experts believe that, in addition to wishing to clear his name of past transgressions, Germak also urgently needed supplies. In the end, he sent his trusted lieutenant Ivan Kolzo with fifty men, two letters (one for the Stroganoffs and one for Ivan the Terrible), and a large quantity of furs for the tsar. up to 5,000 , other up to sixty sacks of furs).

Kolzo”s arrival at the Stroganoffs” house came at an opportune moment, as Maxim Stroganoff had just received a letter from Ivan, denouncing Germak and threatening him and his followers with death. Kolzo, who brought news of the defeat of Kuchum Khan, the capture of Mahmet-Kul and the subjugation of the Tatar territories, was received by a relieved Maxim. Maxim provided Kolzo with lodging, food and money.

When Kolzo arrived in Moscow, he managed to get an audience with Ivan, despite the fact that there was a price on his head. The Livonian War had just ended, and Ivan had begun to receive reports of local tribes making raids on Perm . With the news that Kolzo brought about the expansion of his dominion, Ivan was pleased, immediately forgave the Cossacks, and proclaimed Germak a hero of the first degree.

The triumphant atmosphere spread throughout the city. Then Ivan prepared many gifts for Germak: furs, a cup, two reinforced armors with bronze bicephalic eagles and money. Ivan also ordered that a group of streltsy shooters be sent to reinforce Yermak. The Stroganoffs were also ordered to support this group with an additional fifty men upon their arrival in Perm. Yermak accepted the title “Prince of Siberia” from Ivan, who also ordered Mahmet-Kul to be sent to Moscow.

Returning to Kaslik, Kolzo informed Germak of the Tsar”s order to hand over Mahmet-Kul. Yermak, knowing that this would eliminate Kuchum”s sole motive for peace, nevertheless obeyed the Tsar and arranged for his transportation. Kuchum”s forces began to increase the frequency of their raids. Germak was now in a difficult situation, as a long winter had prevented the gathering of supplies and offerings, and the Tsar”s reinforcements had not yet arrived. Under Tsarist orders, the Stroganoffs had contributed fifty cavalry for reinforcements. However, horses had slowed the group from crossing Siberia and they did not even cross the Urals until the spring of 1584.

In September 1583, a call for help from a Tatar leader named Karacha reached Yermak begging for help against the Nogai Tatars. Yermak, wary, was nevertheless ready to help, and sent Koljo with a force of 40 Cossacks. However, Karacha was not to be trusted, as Colzo and his men were ambushed and all killed. Now without Kolzo, Germak was left with just over 300 men.

Sensing Yermak”s power waning, the tribes formerly under his control revolted and Kashlik was soon under siege by an army of Tatars, Voguls and Ostiaks. Cleverly, they surrounded the city, blocking passage to and from it, while protecting the attackers from Russian firearms. Germak, despite having limited supplies, managed to withstand the blockade for three months. However, the Cossacks could not hold out indefinitely, and on the cloudy night of June 12, 1584, Germak decided to act.

Infiltrating secretly into the wagon line, Germak”s men managed to capture the concentrated forces by force, killing a large number. Karacha, having failed in his mission, was punished by Kuchum Khan, who sentenced his two sons to death. Karacha, moved by the loss of his sons, reassembled the native tribes and returned to the offensive against Germak the next day. However, Karacha”s forces were defeated, as the Cossacks managed to kill a hundred men with only 24 of their own casualties.

Defeated and ashamed, Karacha fled south to the steppes of Ishim, where Kuchum Khan was waiting. Yermak turned to the offensive, capturing many towns and strongholds east of Kaslik and extending the Tsar”s rule. Having already regained the loyalty of the rebellious tribes, Germak continued to travel as far as Iris throughout the summer of 1584 subduing tribes. Although he attempted to seek Karacha, Germak ultimately failed in this endeavor. Also, while Germak had managed to regain the loyalty of the tribes, his men were almost completely out of gunpowder. Even worse, while his reinforcements arrived, they were completely exhausted and suffering from scurvy. Indeed, many of the men, including their commander, had not survived the journey. So, in addition to dealing with the problem of escalating hostilities, their food shortage increased with the arrival of more men. Eventually, it is reported that the situation became so dire that Germak”s men turned to cannibalism, eating the bodies of the dead.

The exact details of Germak”s death no longer exist, but the legend has retained many variations. With the onset and worsening of food shortages, the people of Germak had now entered a period of famine.

Kuchum, knowing this, set a trap. The most common version is that he deliberately leaked information to Germak, claiming that merchants from Bukhara in Central Asia, travelling with large quantities of food, were being prevented from moving by Kuchum”s men. In August 1584, Germak set out with a group of men to free the merchants. Believing the reports to be false, Yermak ordered a return to Kaslik. Either because of a continuing storm or because the men were tired from rowing upstream, Germak”s forces halted on a small island formed by two tributaries of the Iris, and set up camp at night on August 4-5, 1584 .

Convinced that the river offered protection, Germak”s men slept without a guard. Kuchum, however, watched Yermak”s group and waited. Kuchum”s forces crossed the river around midnight. Their approach was obscured by the intensity of the storm and the darkness of the night. Kuchum”s Tatars attacked Germak”s men so quickly that they could not even use their weapons. A massacre ensued. In the ensuing chaos, it is reported that all but three men on the Russian side, including Yermak, were killed. Legend has it that, after fighting the invaders and being wounded in the arm by a knife, Germak found that their boats had been swept away in the storm and tried to cross the river. Because of the weight of the armor the Tsar had given him, Germak sank and drowned. At least one survivor was able to get across the river and return to Kaslik with news of Yermak”s death.

Yermak”s body was carried away by the river, where seven days later it is said to have been found by a Tartar fisherman. Easily identified by the eagle in his armor, Germak”s body was stripped and hung from six poles, where for six weeks the archers used it for target practice. However, it is said that the animals did not eat his carcass and his corpse did not give off a smell and caused fear and nightmares for the humans. Hearing these omens, the Tatars buried him as a hero, killing thirty oxen in his name. His precious armor was eventually distributed to the Tatar leaders.

Upon receiving news of Germak”s death, the Cossacks were immediately discouraged. The original group of men had been reduced to 150 fighters and command now passed to Glukov, the leader of the Tsar”s original reinforcement group. The Cossacks soon decided to abandon Kaslik and retreat to Russia.

Before travelling a long distance, they met reinforcements of 100 men, sent as an additional force by the Tsar. With this recovery, Germak”s group decided to return to Kaslik and reposition themselves according to the will of the Tsar.

However, the Tatars acting immediately had been informed of the group”s flight and recaptured the city almost immediately, preventing any peaceful resettlement of their former stronghold. Although their position appeared strong, they were no longer led by Kuchum, who had lost his power and was therefore not as stable as before. In addition, another three hundred reinforcements from the tsar soon arrived. Led by Chulkov, this new force provided a considerable boost to the group.

Despite the tumultuous state of the Tatar leadership and their new recruits, however, the Russians did not continue to try for Kaslik. Instead, in a culmination of events immediately after Yermak”s death, they established a new settlement in 1587 (in the future Tobolsk). Although the Tatars quickly began raids against their familiar enemy, after a short time they stopped, leaving the Russians in their new city.

Germak”s heroic efforts in the Russian East laid the foundations for future Russian expansion. Merchants and farmers followed Yermak”s initial march into Siberia hoping to exploit some of the land”s rich furs. This trend grew exponentially after Yermak”s death, as his legend spread rapidly through the region and, with it, news of a land rich in furs and vulnerable to Russian influence. Colonisation efforts soon followed: Tioumen, the first known town after Germak”s death, was founded in 1586.

The settlement of this area facilitated the establishment and development of Siberian agriculture. Most of these farmers were, in fact, soldiers who grew their own food out of necessity.

After the initial return of the Cossacks shortly after the death of Germac, an ambitious fortification project began under the leadership of Boris Godunov. His achievements, including the extension of protection for Russians in the region, would drive even greater numbers of businessmen to Siberia. In 1590, Tobolsk received a major boost as it was named the main city and administrative center of the region. The fur trade also continued to grow, with the help of the Cossacks, who in 1593 established the trading center of Berezovo on the Ob River.

Future explorers would also point to Germak”s strategy of reaching out to Siberian territories, which, unlike those in many other colonization efforts, already had an established imperial power. However, Germak wisely recognized that the Kuchum territories were not unified. Germak noted that many of these peoples were nothing more than vassals and that they were quite diverse in terms of race, language and religion. Unlike Kuchum and the Muslim Tatars, many of these groups were pagan. Because of these differences, many simply paid tribute to avoid trouble and it didn”t matter who it was paid for. Thus, Germak”s only power was to recognize the general background and use it to his advantage: first identify and then execute quick, effective ways to establish influence in the region.

Germak”s actions also redefined the meaning of the term “Cossack”. It is known that their recruitment had previously been banned by the Russian government. However, by sending his letter and his trusted lieutenant Ivan Kolzo to Ivan the Terrible, Yermak transformed the image of the Cossack overnight from a bandit to a soldier recognized by the Moscow Tsar.

Now, the Cossacks of Yermak were effectively integrated into the military system and managed to get support from the Tsar. This new arrangement also served as a kind of relief for the Cossacks, who had previously harassed the Russian border. By sending as many of them as possible eastward to unconquered territories, the growing and highly profitable areas on the border of Russian territory were given a chance to “breathe”.

Germak”s remains also continued to have considerable power and prestige years after his death. In particular, the search for his armour influenced at least one element of Siberian relations. Decades after Yermak”s death, a Mongolian leader who assisted the Russian government approached the Tobolsk voivode and asked for his help in obtaining an object believed to be Yermak”s armor. The reason he approached the voivode was that he had previously been denied trade by the Tatars after he had offered them ten families of slaves and a thousand sheep. The Tatars, although convinced that the armor had divine properties, agreed to the sale with the involvement of the boeber. Shortly afterwards, the Mongol, convinced of the power of Germak”s armor, refused to serve the Russian government because he no longer feared their power.

The Russian people pay tribute to the myth of Yermak in various ways.

Many statues and monuments have been erected in his honour throughout Russia.

In the square of the Novocherkask Cathedral, there is a monument from 1903, where Yermak is shown holding a banner in his left hand and the ceremonial cap of his rival, Kuchum Khan, in his right hand. The back of the monument reads: “To Ataman of the Cossacks Germak Timofegevich, conqueror of Siberia, from the grateful future generation. In honour of the 300th anniversary of the Cossack Army. He died in the waves of Iris on 5 August 1584.”

There is also a statue of Germak in Tobolsk and one in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

Two icebreakers were named after Germak. The first, built in Newcastle, England in 1898, was one of the first large ships of this type ever built, and the second in 1974 was the first of an impressive new type of ship.

Yermak is an important heroic figure in Russian history, depicted in film, literature, poetry, song and paintings.


  1. Γερμάκ Τιμοφέγεβιτς
  2. Yermak Timofeyevich