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Astrakhan and Orenburg were the Russian Empire’s two “official” entrances from Asia in the early modern era. Russia’s “Asia” was conceived broadly as the expanse of Eurasia from the Ottoman Empire to the shores of the Pacific. Russia’s control of the Volga River, culminating in the conquest of Astrakhan on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the 16th century, was intended to open direct access for Russia’s merchants to reach Asia. Throughout the 17th century, trade with the Middle East and Central Asia increased, followed by an important breakthrough in relations with China culminating in the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. In the 18th century, Russia’s Asian trade increased; Astrakhan’s customs fees collected from Asian trade goods surpassed the revenue generated by Russia’s Baltic ports in the first half of the century. A growing trade with the Central Asian Khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and Khoqand led to the creation of Orenburg as the entry point for overland trade from the steppe in 1753. In theory, the new outpost separated Russia’s “Asia” into separate zones for increased regulation: Astrakhan for goods arriving from the Caspian Sea, imported from Iran and India, and Orenburg for the increasing steppe traffic. This is not to suggest that increased regulation produced better control over Eurasia’s trade networks, but rather to reveal Russia’s significant investment in profiting from Asia’s trade as much as its competitors in Britain or the Netherlands did. While overland Eurasian trade remains plagued by a historiographical assumption of its decline in the 18th century, Astrakhan and Orenburg were vital centers of Eurasian commerce, revealing the robust overland trade that remained outside of West European observation.

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The medieval state of Kievan Rus’ took shape in the late 10th century when Vladimir (Volodimer), reportedly a descendant of the semi-legendary Ri͡urik, established his exclusive rule over the Slavs, Finns, and Balts dwelling along the river systems stretching from the southern end of Lake Ladoga to Kiev (Kyiv) and adopted Christianity from Byzantium for his realm. His descendants, collectively known as the Riurikid dynasty, oversaw the growth of Kievan Rus’ into a complex federation of principalities, populated mainly by sedentary agriculturalists but also benefiting from urban commerce linked to broad intercontinental trade networks. Riurikid princes repeatedly competed with each other and also contended with nomads of steppe, especially the Pechenegs, Polovt͡sy (Kipchaks, Cumans), and the Mongols who conquered both the nomads of the Pontic steppe and the Rus’ principalities in 1237–1240. Over the next century the western portions Kievan Rus’, located in modern Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, were absorbed by Poland and Lithuania. Its northern principalities continued to be ruled by their Riurikid princes under the hegemony of the khans of the Golden Horde, the portion of the Mongol Empire more accurately known as Juchi’s ulus. As the Golden Horde fragmented in the 15th century, those principalities coalesced to form Muscovy, the precursor of modern Russia. Muscovite rulers expanded their realm by seizing territories from Lithuania and in the mid-16th century by annexing the Tatar khanates of Kazan’ and Astrakhan’, two heirs of the Golden Horde. By the time Riurikid dynastic rule ended in 1598, Muscovy had also subdued the Khanate of Sibir’, launching a new phase of development arising from its exploration and incorporation of Siberia and resulting in its transformation from a regional power into a vast Eurasian empire.