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The Russian Conquest of Turkestan - 1864-1873

The 19th century was a time of weakness and disruption for the Uzbek khanates, with continuous invasions from Iran and from the north. In this period, a new group, the Russians, began to appear on the Central Asian scene. As Russian merchants began to expand into the grasslands of present-day Kazakstan, they built strong trade relations with their counterparts in Tashkent and, to some extent, in Khiva. For the Russians, this trade was not rich enough to replace the former transcontinental trade, but it made the Russians aware of the potential of Central Asia. Russian attention also was drawn by the sale of increasingly large numbers of Russian slaves to the Central Asians by Kazak and Turkmen tribes. Russians kidnapped by nomads in the border regions and Russian sailors shipwrecked on the shores of the Caspian Sea usually ended up in the slave markets of Bukhoro or Khiva. Beginning in the eighteenth century, this situation evoked increasing Russian hostility toward the Central Asian khanates.

Meanwhile, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries new dynasties led the khanates to a period of recovery. Those dynasties were the Qongrats in Khiva, the Manghits in Bukhoro, and the Mins in Quqon. In Khoresm, power was taken by Muhammad Amin (1763-1790), emir of the Kunrdads. His son Eltuzar assumed the title of khan in 1804, and the dynasty ruled the khanate of Khiva until 1920. These new dynasties established centralized states with standing armies and new irrigation works.

But their rise coincided with the ascendance of Russian power in the Kazak steppes and the establishment of a British position in Afghanistan. By the early nineteenth century, the region was caught between these two powerful European competitors, each of which tried to add Central Asia to its empire in what came to be known as the Great Game. The Central Asians, who did not realize the dangerous position they were in, continued to waste their strength in wars among themselves and in pointless campaigns of conquest.

Russian interest in the area increased greatly, sparked by nominal concern over British designs on Central Asia; by anger over the situation of Russian citizens held as slaves; and by the desire to control the trade in the region and to establish a secure source of cotton for Russia. Russia reached the Sea of Aral and the mouth of the Sir Daria in 1847 and erected two forts, one in a harbor of that sea and the other at the mouth of the river. This forward step brought her into hostile contact with the state of Khokand, whose rulers bitterly resented the appearance of the Northern Power in an area where they had hitherto been unchallenged. But Russia was not to be denied. In 1849 the advance up the great river was begun, the first outpost of Khokand being captured in that year; and four years later Ak Masjid, situated 220 miles up the Sir Daria, was taken.

The Russians strengthened their hold upon the Central Asian territory already occupied. Fort Perovsky, for example, raised in 1853 over the ruins of the fortress of Ak-Muzhid, which had been held by the Khan of Khokand, gave them a dominating position on the Sir Darya, 280 miles from its mouth. As soon as the Russian conquest of the Caucasus was completed in the late 1850s, therefore, the Russian Ministry of War began to send military forces against the Central Asian khanates.

The Crimean War had paralyzed Russian activity for some years. But when the United States Civil War prevented cotton delivery from Russia's primary supplier, the southern United States, Central Asian cotton assumed much greater importance for Russia. The Russian advance in Central Asia having in the mean time begun to attract the attention of the other European powers, it was deemed advisable to offer an explanation of the Russian policy. This was done by Prince Gortchakoff in a circular dated November 21, 1864. In this paper he dwelt on the dilemma in which civilized states in contact with wandering tribes found themselves. Control was necessary over such people, but the tribes brought into subjection became in turn the victims of similar aggression on the part of more remote tribes. Thus the process had to be repeated until the dominating power came into direct contact with one which afforded reasonable guarantees that it could maintain order within its own territory. It was while the Russians were drawing comfort from such reasoning as this that the three great states of Central Asia which had thus far succeeded in maintaining their independence — the khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and Khokand — were preparing to make a final stand against the invader. Alarmed at the victorious advance of the Russians, they did not hesitate to make common cause with one another. But their resistance was unavailing. Three major population centers of the khanates -- Tashkent, Bukhoro, and Samarqand -- were captured in 1865, 1867, and 1868, respectively. After Russian troops captured Tashkent and then Fergana, the khanate of Kokand was annexed by the Russian empire. In October, 1864, General Chernayev took Chemkent, the capital of Turkestan. Yakub Beg fought the Russians before Tashkent in 1864, when General Chernaieff, after the fall of Chimkent, failed in his attempt to capture the city by a coup de main, but in 1865 Tashkent was captured. Tashkent was made the metropolis of the frontier district of Turkestan; in July, 1867, it became the headquarters of a governor-general appointed for that district.

General Romanovsky first signally defeated them on May 20, 1866, when a Bukharan force of 5000 infantry and 35,000 mounted troops were compelled to make a disorderly retreat. In October of the same year the border strongholds of Ura-tepe and Jizak were captured; the seizure of Yani Kurgan, in the beginning of 1867, gave to Russia the control of the Sir Darya basin. On May 12, 1868, the conjoined forces of Bukhara and Khiva, to the number of 40,000, were defeated by the troops under General Kaufmann, and the fall of Samarkand on the following day led, on June 18, 1868, to the cession by treaty of that city, of the Katta Kurgan, and the Valley of the Zerafshan. In 1868 the Khanate of Bukhoro signed a treaty with Russia making Bukhoro a Russian protectorate. Khiva became a Russian protectorate in 1873, and the Quqon Khanate finally was incorporated into the Russian Empire, also as a protectorate, in 1876.

In the second half of the 19th century all of Uzbekistan was divided between the khanates of Kokand and Khiva and the emirate of Bukhara. Up to this time the administration of the newly acquired Russian territory had been carried on chiefly through the agency of native officials, and no serious attempt had been made to improve the former methods of government which had been in force under the Khokandian Khans and Beks. But at about the time when Romanoffsky was appointed Governor in supersession of Tchernaieff, a special commission was appointed by the Czar to report on the best means of governing the country. This commission, which is known as 'The Steppe Commission, submitted an elaborate report in the spring of 1867, which was submitted for the consideration of a superior committee, under the presidency of the Russian Minister of War, who was assisted by delegates from the Ministries of the Interior, of War, and of Foreign Affairs.

As the result of these deliberations, an ukase was published on July 23, 1867, announcing the formation of the Province of Turkestan, which was to be ruled by a Governor-General, who would be appointed by the Emperor, and placed under the orders of the Russian War Office. This new province was to include the whole of the newly acquired territory, together with that portion of the Siberian Province of Semipalatinsk which lay to the south of the Tarbagatai Mountains. Tashkent was fixed as the headquarters of the province, which was divided into the two districts of the Syr Daria and Semiretchinsk, each of which was to be controlled by a military governor nominated by the Ministry of War. The district of Syr Daria included the 'uyezds,' or sub-districts, of Kazala, Perovski, Turkestan, Chimkent, Aulie-Ata, Kurama, Khojent, and the city of Tashkent (which formed a separate sub-district of its own); while the district of Semiretchinsk was divided into the 'uyezds' of Sergiopol, Kopal, Vernoye, Issik Kul, and Tokmak.

The three Asiatic Khanates of Kokand, Bokhara, and Khiva, preserving only an appearance of independence, and having lost some portions of their territories, had fallen under the actual influence of Russia. Kokand is isolated from the two other Khanates. Khiva was separated from Bokhara, and Bokhara and Khiva were entirely open to Russian troops, who, at the same time, command the irrigation sources of those Khanates, and by that means alone held the populations of those countries entirely at their mercy.

As the Russian annexation of Samarkand and the Zarafshan Valley created considerable excitement in England, Lord Clarendon, the British Minister for Foreign Affairs, in the following spring had several conferences with Baron Brunnow, the Russian Ambassador, regarding the rapid advances of Russian troops towards Afghanistan and India; and he then said, that while her Majesty's Government felt neither suspicion nor alarm at these movements, yet something had to be done to allay the uneasiness of the British and Indian public. With this object, therefore, he recommended the recognition of some territory as neutral between the possessions of England and Russia, which should be the limit of those possessions, and be scrupulously respected by both Powers.

The idea of Lord Mayo's Government was that a girdle of semi-independent States should be formed on the frontier of each country—Afghanistan, Beluchistan, and Kashgar being subject to British influence; while Khiva, Bokhara, and Khokand remained under Russian control. But Russia did not relish this idea. Although the English thereby clearly displayed their desire for peace, Russia had no intention of putting a limit to her advance until she had arrived in close proximity to the frontiers of British India; and, therefore, after some further interchange of communications, this idea also was abandoned, and all that resulted was a repetition of the Russian promise that Afghanistan should be completely outside the sphere within which Russia should be called upon to exercise her authority.

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Page last modified: 14-03-2013 16:54:51 ZULU