This post represents a thought process and maybe some conjectures.
In various historical sources pertaining to the history of the Russian Empire prior to 1900, the means of travel are often obscured in secondary and tertiary sources (monographs, textbooks, articles, etc.), which would explain why this conjecture struck me as being partially novel. However, earlier scholars (Russian and American) have published much research on this very topic, at least tangentially. For example, one need look only as far as Wikipedia to learn the basics of Siberian River Travel. There is at least a superficial similarity between Russian settlement in Siberia and that found in Canada: a vast wilderness sparsely inhabited except for a long narrow corridor near the southern border with extensions northward through arable land and mineral deposits.
I have the impression that Russians tended to expand and move through new territory primarily via domination of rivers and river travel, while the lands through which they traveled tended to be previously dominated by horse travel (in the steppe zones) and foot and snow-shoe travel (in the taiga). I have a modest number of examples:
- The Yermak Expedition, aka the so-called Conquest of Siberia (1580) (Failed)
- Gradual Conquest of Siberia through establishment of portage/river forts (ostrogi) (1580-1650)
- The Semyon Dezhnev Expedition (Arctic Coast) (1648)
- The Bekovich-Cherkassky Expedition to Khiva (1717-1718) (Failed – wiped out by Khivans)
- The Bukholts Expedition (1716-1717) (Failed – wiped out by Junghars)
- The Orenburg Expedition (1734-35) (Besieged by Bashkirs, Orenburg construction abandoned)
In northern Bashkiria Tevkelev was in danger. The rebels laid an ambush for his detachment at a narrow defile along the Ai River. The plot was discovered beforehand; but when the inhabitants of the village where Tevkelev’s party was located discovered the ambush had failed, they planned to massacre the troops while they were sleeping. This surprise failed too. Only a few men were wounded before the alarm was sounded and the Russians turned the tables, surrounded the village, and captured all the inhabitants, except for a few who escaped into the woods. Some 1,000 of the villagers, including women and children, were shot or put to the sword by the dragoons, Meshcheriaks, and Bashkirs who served in the Russian forces. Another 500 were driven into a storehouse and burned to death. “And thus,” wrote Rychkov, “the entire village of Seiantusa and its inhabitants, including women and children both small and great, was destroyed in one night by fire and sword, and the settlement was burned to ashes.”
The next day Tevkelev moved his forces to a Meshcheriak village, and after a conference with his subordinates dispatched several parties to take revenge. Approximately fifty Bashkir villages were burned, about 2,000 Bashkirs killed, those who remained alive were executed, and the wives and children were distributed to the troops.
In short, it seems many of the most terrifying uses of force involved neither boats nor horses. It should be noted, however, that Tevkelev and his forces had come to the area by boat and were acting in response to raids against Russian supply-wagons.