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Russian Expanion in Central Asia

Russian Expansion into Central AsiaIvan the Terrible sent the first Russian envoy to the English Court, and although the poor ambassador was wrecked and nearly drowned on his way to London, he succeeded in reaching it safely. Ivan also granted exclusive commercial privileges to the English adventurers in Russia; and, strange to say, it was an Englishman, the seaman Jenkinson, who first showed Russians the way to Turkestan and Bokhara. With Ivan's consent he hoisted the English flag in the Caspian, and it was our Tzar's letter of recommendation which enabled him to make his way to the courts of the princes of Central Asia.

Much of the the reign of Peter the Great was spent at war. At first he attempted to secure Muscovy's southern borders against the Tatars and the Ottoman Turks. His campaign against a fort on the Sea of Azov failed at first, but having created Russia's first navy, Peter was able to take the port of Azov in 1696. To continue the war with the Ottoman Empire, Peter began looking for allies in Europe. He traveled to Europe, the first tsar to do so, in a so-called Grand Embassy that included visits to Brandenburg, Holland, England, and the Holy Roman Empire. Peter learned a great deal and enlisted into his service hundreds of European technical specialists. The embassy was cut short by a revolt in Moscow that attempted to place Sofia on the throne. Peter's followers crushed the revolt. Peter had hundreds of the participants tortured and killed, and he publicly displayed their bodies as a lesson to others.

Catherine II's reign was notable for imperial expansion and internal consolidation. The empire acquired huge new territories in the south and west. A war that broke out with the Ottoman Empire in 1768 was settled by the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji in 1774. Russia acquired an outlet to the Black Sea, and the Crimean Tatars were made independent of the Ottomans. In 1783 Catherine annexed Crimea, helping to spark the next war with the Ottoman Empire in 1787. By the Treaty of Jassy in 1792, Russia acquired territory south to the Dnestr River. The terms of the treaty fell far short of the goals of Catherine's reputed "Greek project"--the expulsion of the Ottomans from Europe and the renewal of a Byzantine empire under Russian control. The Ottoman Empire, nevertheless, was no longer a serious threat to Russia and was forced to tolerate an increasing Russian influence over the Balkans.

The Russia of 1815 had a population of 50,000,000, spread over 2,000,000 square miles and bound together by common religion, language, and tradition. She was no mere patchwork empire, such as Austria or Turkey. The central provinces were peopled by a Slavonic race which had proved its capacity for absorption and colonisation, and thrust communities of alien blood beyond its frontiers. No European country exhibited fewer dialects than Russia, or less opposition in ethnological types. Her enormous population was as monotonous as her forest-fringed steppes. While Russia's extent and her unknown strength overshadowed the compact military monarchies of the West, she lagged far behind them in internal development.

While Czar Peter supposedly outlined the "Grand Design," Prince Gorchakov seems to have articulated the "operational strategy " by stating: "The position of Russia in Central Asia is that of all civilized states which are brought into contact with half savage nomad populations.... In such cases it always happens that the more civilized state is forced, in the interest of the security of its frontiers ... to exercise a certain ascendancy over those whom their turbulence and unsettled character made most undesirable neighbors ... the tribes on the frontier have to be reduced to the state of more or less perfect submission This result, once obtained, these tribes take to more peaceful habits, but are in turn exposed to attacks of more distant tribes." This would seem to imply the necessity for yet further conquests to protect their earlier conquests.

The course of Russian Empire held its way eastwards throughout the 19th Century. Nicholas I went to war with Persia in 1826; with Turkey in 1828 and again in 1853. He pursued the conquest of the Caucasus, founded an empire on the Pacific coast, and secured control of the chief water-routes of Central Asia. Under Alexander II a footing was regained in the Black Sea; the Caucasian barrier was pierced; and Turkey was again attacked. Bokhara, Khiva, and Kokand last relics of the Islamic sway in Central Asia were humbled to the dust; and the Turkoman tribes were brought to heel. Alexander III pushed the Russian frontier to the confines of China, Persia, Afghanistan, and British India. Under Nicholas II the conception that Russia is an Asiatic empire took concrete form. Persia was reduced to financial vassalage; and the continent was traversed by a network of trunk railway-lines.

Forced into a cooperative and defensive alliance first by the Mongol invasion and then by the Uzbek conquest, the Turkmens nevertheless retained their strong tribal divisions and failed to establish a lasting state of their own. The Turkmens opposed Russian expansion into Central Asia more vigorously than other nationalities. They defeated a Russian force in 1717, when Peter the Great first attempted the conquest of Central Asia. And, in the nineteenth century, when the Russians resumed their expansion into the area, Turkmen cavalry posed determined and prolonged opposition. The conquest of Turkmenia (also known as Turkestan) was not completed until 1885, and the territorial boundary of Russian Turkmenia was not set until a decade later by an Anglo-Russian border treaty. That treaty separated the Turkmens of Russia from the roughly equal number of their brethren in present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkey. Turkmenia became part of Russian Turkestan and was treated by the tsarist government as a colonial territory where Russians and other Slavs were encouraged to settle. A railroad was built, and other features of modernity were introduced. Turkmens resented losing their grazing land and in 1916 joined a Muslim uprising throughout Russia's Central Asian territory.

Russians had limited and intermittent contacts with the Kazakhs between the mid-sixteenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century, when Russia began to exert control over them. Harassed by their neighbors, particularly the Kalmyks, in 1731 the nomadic Kazakhs placed themselves under the protection of the much more powerful Russian state. Afterward, Russian penetration into Kazakhstan was unremitting and included building a network of forts and settling the land with Russian peasants. Despite a series of Kazakh rebellions against them, Russian expansion continued, and by the second half of the nineteenth century Kazakhstan was firmly under Russian control.

The tsarist policy of ending Kazakh nomadism and of settling the land with Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews continued. The new settlers received huge portions of the most fertile land. An almost exclusively non-Kazakh class of workers began to appear, and a budding industry, operated by the new immigrants, began to grow. These developments threatened to destroy the traditional form of existence of the Kazakh pastoral nomads. The indigenous population's resentment against the settlers, as well as against conscription of Muslims into the military, erupted as a major rebellion in 1916 and, although quickly suppressed, set the stage for the nationalist movement in Kazakhstan following the February Revolution of 1917. Kazakh nationalists established a national government and engaged in an armed struggle against both pro- and anti-Bolshevik Russian forces. By mid-1919, however, weakened by the struggle, Kazakh nationalists sought accommodation with the Bolsheviks.

Although Peter the Great attempted the first Russian invasion of Turkestan in the beginning of the eighteenth century, systematic Russian penetration of Turkestan was undertaken only in the midnineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva, greatly reduced in size, had become vassal states of the Russian Empire. The rest of the territory and the entire territory of Kokand was incorporated into Russian Turkestan, created in 1867, which was divided into five provinces and presided over by a Russian governor general. Turkestan, together with the four provinces of Kazakhstan, constituted what came to be known as Russian Central Asia (subsequently Soviet Central Asia). In spite of tsarist toleration of the Muslim religion and customs, Russian conquest of Turkestan had an immediate impact on some of the indigenous culture and society. Early in the twentieth century, economic development came to Turkestan, new towns sprang up, cotton grew where once nomads grazed their herds, and railroads linked Turkestan with markets in Russia. The nomadic Kirgiz, Kazakhs, and Turkmens were especially resentful of the evolving changes. In 1916, when the Russian government ended its exemption of Muslims from military service, much of Russian Central Asia rose in a general revolt against Russian rule.

Russian conquest of the Kirgiz began in the mid-nineteenth century, and by 1876 they were absorbed into the Russian Empire. Kirgizia became a major area of Russian colonization, with Russians and other Slavs given the best land to settle, reducing considerably the grazing lands used by the Kirgiz nomads. Kirgiz resentment against Russian colonization policies and conscription for noncombatant duties in the army led to a major revolt throughout Russia's Central Asian territory, including Kirgizia. Casualties were high on both sides, and thousands of Kirgiz fled with their flocks to Afghanistan and China. The tsarist government did not recognize the Kirgiz as a separate national entity or political unit. Kirgizia, along with other Turkic nations of Central Asia, was included in Russian Turkestan, created in 1867. At first the Bolshevik attitude toward the Kirgiz was equally unenlightened. Having defeated the nationalists, the White armies, and foreign interventionists in Kirgizia by 1919, the Bolsheviks included it in the newly established Turkestan Autonomous Republic.

Unlike the other nationalities of Soviet Central Asia who are ethnically Turkic, the Tadzhiks trace their origins primarily to the Persians who settled the area as early as the sixth century BC and were part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Tadzhiks were under Uzbek rule, and by the eighteenth century most of Tadzhik territory was under the khanate of Bukhara. The Afghan conquest of Tadzhik territory from the south began in the mid-eighteenth century, and Russian expansion into Tadzhik lands from the north followed a century later. By the end of the nineteenth century, northern Tadzhikistan was under Russian rule, southern Tadzhikistan continued under the khanate of Bukhara, and the remaining Tadzhik territory was within Afghanistan. Russian conquest of Tadzhikistan and subsequent immigration of Russian settlers had a minimal effect on traditional Tadzhik society. The revolutionary movement in Tadzhikistan was composed of Russians, not Tadzhiks. Therefore, Soviet power was established in 1918 with little resistance, and northern Tadzhikistan was included in the newly created Turkestan Autonomous Republic. Nevertheless, when the Red Army invaded the khanate of Bukhara in 1921, it met with fierce resistance from the growing basmachi movement. The movement continued until 1924 when the Tadzhik Autonomous Republic was created and incorporated into the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.

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Page last modified: 21-08-2012 12:59:50 ZULU