Vasily Surikov was the foremost Russian painter of large-scale historical subjects. He was a true realist, and his pictures are genuine representation of history without stylisation or idealisation typical of official hystoriography. They are remarkable for the original way in which they represent space and movements of people. Surikov’s major pieces are among the best-known paintings in Russia.
In the 1890s Surikov turned to the theme very close to his nature and artistic position. Being a cossack by birth (he was born in Krasnoyarsk) the artist believed that his ancestors had come to Siberia with Yermak’s army. Yermak Timoifeyevich was a chief of a free cossack army and was seen by the people as a hero, protector of the poor and a fighter for freedom.
In 1581 he began his voyage into the depths of Siberia, following the Tagil and Tura rivers. The following year they were on the Tobol, and 500 men successfully laid siege to Qashliq, the residence of Khan Kuchum, near what is now Tobolsk. After a few victories over the khan's army, Yermak's people defeated the main forces of Kuchum on Irtysh river after a 3-day battle in 1582. The remains of the khan's army retreated to the steppes, abandoning his domains to Yermak.
It is this battle in West Siberia that Surikov depicted on his canvas. He had been collecting the material for several years travelling and studying the life, customs and traditions of the local people, making sketches of folk types, of old garments and weapons. The general impression of the picture is the grandness of the battle, enormity of the people’s collision. “Two storms meet”, are the author’s words about the action. Surikov rendered the intensity of the violent clash of masses as well as the mood and state of every warrior. The painter found original colours for representation both the brave faces and bright coats of the cossacks and the mongoloid faces with high cheekbones and the fur garments of the Tartar tribes. Surikov was sure that every nationality has a beauty of its own.