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Russian Empires in the Age of Discovery

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the role of the Russian Empire during the Age of Discovery. We will identify the achievements of Russian explorers during this time, and highlight key developments and themes.

The Legacy of Russian Exploration in the Age of Discovery

If you learned about the 'Age of Exploration' or the 'Age of Discovery' in school, you might remember hearing all about people like Columbus, Balboa, Magellan, Cartier, Cabot, and many other European explorers. These explorers were sent to North America by various European nations, including Spain, Portugal, England, and France. But how much do you recall about Russian explorers? Probably not too much. The Western European nations tend to be the focal point when discussing the Age of Discovery, but that doesn't mean other nations, like Russia, didn't play a role.

Unlike the Western European nations who explored the East Coast of the Americas and eventually worked their way westward, the Russian Empire was involved in exploring primarily the West Coast of the Americas. This is why the Russian legacy of explorations tends to be forgotten. Think about it: Columbus' landing in the Americas, the establishment of the thirteen British colonies, French-British rivalry in North America... all of these critical developments we associate with the European colonization that took place along the East Coast. Given this fact, it is no surprise Russian exploration tends to be neglected.

Early Russian Exploration

During the mid-16th century, the Tsardom of Russia, under the leadership of Ivan the Terrible, began expanding into northwest Asia. This region is commonly called Siberia. Ivan's eastward expansion was spearheaded by a Cossack leader named Yermak. While little is known about Yermak's life, he was instrumental in exploring the river routes throughout Siberia. Siberian exploration was fueled by the fur-trade, and many Cossack explorers were involved in the trade. Warfare against various people groups was a consistent reality as the Cossack's expanded eastward toward the Pacific Ocean.

Depicted in this painting is Ivan the Terrible, under whose leadership Russia expanded into Siberia.
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In 1639, a group of explorers became the first Russians to reach the Pacific Ocean. This expedition was led by Ivan Moskvitin. Ivan Moskvitin is also credited with discovering the Sea of Okhotsk, which lies to the north of Japan.

Russian Discovery of North America

By the 18th century, Russian expansion into Siberia was progressing steadily, but the geography of the region was limited. Emperor Peter I, also known as Peter the Great conceived of a grand expedition to explore and map the extreme northwest of Siberia. One of the many goals of this expedition was to establish Russian sovereignty over the northwest tip of Asia. Taking place between 1733-1743, this 'Great Northern Expedition' was led by a Danish explorer in the service of the Russian Navy, named Vitus Bering. Hopefully, the name rings a bell. The Bering Strait is named after Vitus Bering. Bering's crew spotted what is now Alaska on July 15, 1741. They went ashore, becoming the first Europeans to set foot on the northwest coast of North America. Bering himself became ill and perished on an island now called Bering Island. Today, a grave marks his final resting place.

Russian America

Throughout the mid-18th century, primitive trading posts were set up along the Aleutian Islands. In 1784, the first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska was established at Three Saints Bay. Russian interest in Alaska was limited primarily to fur-trading. Sea otter pelts, in particular, were highly desired. As the fur trade became highly competitive, Russian companies began enslaving indigenous people in an attempt to increase profits. As a result, Russian-Aleutian conflict was common, and at times became violent. By the early 19th century, the Russians had moved south along the west coast of North America, establishing outposts as far south as the San Fransisco Bay area.

This 1802 engraving depicts Three Saints Bay.
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