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)
A better understanding of the Russian river navy represents a possible avenue of research in this regard. The Cossacks were primarily river raiders, or perhaps there is a dual nature to the Cossack existence (river raiding versus horse raiding). In any event, I submit it is no accident that the Cossacks have long been categorized by their river of habitation: Don, Dnieper, Kuban, Terek, Ural/Yaik, Amur, Baikal, Semirechie, etc. The river boats used by the Don Cossacks (strugi and chaiki) are rather famous in specific historical battles, but not generally understood as part of a larger system of Cossack identity and culture. The strug apparently excelled in river combat, carrying several dozen men; the chaika apparently being designed for river deltas and coastal raiding in the Black Sea. Though specific historical evidence eludes me, Wikipedia claims that each chaika would carry several small-bore cannons for ship-to-ship combat (i.e., falconets). Larger sea-worthy ships similar to cogs, known as baidak, allowed for less militant trade actions along the shores of the Black Sea. Naturally, any ship can be pressed into military service -- especially for use ferrying supplies and munitions.
My primary thought was that such a tactic allowed the Russians to use their strengths (previous contact and collaboration with Cossacks, dominance of river transport, etc.) to counter their weaknesses (passage through hostile territory, steppe combat, etc.). In many cases, the Russians were attacked primarily on land when their wagon trains and supply lines were poorly defended. In some cases, the original inhabitants attacked in strength adequate to threaten and destroy Russian fortifications.
One should not make light of the fact that as a conquering army, the Russians rarely faced pitched battles against organized opponents. The military forces utilized by the original inhabitants were more haphazard, though many fought to the death in defense of their land. Tales of Russian brutality and slaughter also inspired resistance and hatred, even among those supposedly under Russia's domain:
(Donnelly, The Russian Conquest of Bashkiria, Chapter 6: The Orenburg Expedition)
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.