The Russian Conquest of Central Asia: A Study in Imperial Expansion, 1814-1914 
by Alexander Morrison.
Cambridge, 613 pp., £35.99, August 2022, 978 1 107 03030 5
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Iran at War: Interactions with the Modern World and the Struggle with Imperial Russia 
by Maziar Behrooz.
I.B. Tauris, 214 pp., £21.99, May 2023, 978 0 7556 3737 9
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It’sa crowded field, but the most unsubtle of all 19th-century Russian paintings might be Vasily Vereshchagin’s 1871 canvas The Apotheosis of War. In an arid landscape, a towering pyramid of human skulls is being picked over by crows, with ruined Islamicate architecture in the background. This heavy-metal album cover avant la lettre was dedicated ‘to all great conquerors, past, present and future’. But to which conquerors was Vereshchagin alluding? The canonical skull-pyramid-builder in contemporary European minds was Tamerlane, the 14th-century embodiment of Oriental barbarism. But the conqueror Vereshchagin knew best was his own Russian Empire. The picture is unsubtle but not unambiguous. Was it a work of Western triumphalism or of anticolonial critique? The main signal it sends is about the volume of the dead.

Vereshchagin accompanied the Russian army as a junior officer during the conquest of Central Asia. Between 1853 and 1885 the empire annexed or subjected the Muslim khanates of Khiva and Khoqand, the emirate of Bukhara and many of the Turkmen tribes. Populated by around six million people, this vast region became part of the Soviet Union during the Russian Civil War and – thanks to its subsequent reorganisation into republics including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan – is now known to most non-experts as ‘the stans’. Though in retrospect the conquest appears rapid and almost inevitable, Alexander Morrison’s study shows that it was in fact the result of a long series of contingent decisions both by central authorities and actors on the ground, driven by a logic of Russian civilisational supremacy.

The justification for the conquest most commonly heard from the mouths of Russian leaders and officials at the time was that the Russians had come to bring civilisation and abolish the barbaric practice of slavery, particularly the enslavement of Russian subjects. This represented a significant shift in the narrative around anti-slavery, which had previously condemned Western imperialism. Yet by that point almost no Russian slaves remained in the khanates and, in practice, both slavery and other forms of bondage were allowed to persist for decades after the conquest.

Though some Europeans found this rationalisation for invasion plausible, in the 20th century more cynical interpretations emerged. One, which took its cues from Lenin, argued that Russia was driven by the desire of merchant capitalists to secure more reliable supplies of cotton after the disruptions of the US Civil War. Another, beloved of retired British corporals and their spiritual equivalents the world over, was that the conquest was part of Russia’s Great Game with Britain, a struggle that boiled down to the security of India’s north-west frontier. A third emphasised the agency of ‘men on the spot’, officers like General Konstantin von Kaufman, who produced excuses for military aggression to gain opportunities for fame and professional advancement.

Morrison finds neither the original explanation nor the later ones persuasive. Central Asia was not a significant source of cotton until the turn of the 20th century, and what it produced could have easily been obtained by trade. Though the Russians and the British certainly looked warily on each other’s projects of expansion, Central Asia wasn’t close enough to India for the conquest to be motivated by any desire to gain access to it, and in fact Russian and British officers often saw themselves as acting jointly as representatives of Western civilisation against Oriental savagery. As for ‘men on the spot’, their initiative mattered, but at no point did it come into serious conflict with the objectives of the centre. Indeed, tsarist imperial strategy presupposed a certain amount of latitude for the actions of its proconsuls.

Instead, Morrison presents an image of a blundering, gradual process typically driven by security dilemmas of the Russians’ own making: having established a fortified frontier on the arid, agriculturally unproductive southern steppe, they found their new strongholds impossible to maintain or supply – a problem that appeared to be solvable if only some more stable line of fortresses could be established. As this expansion provoked more and more dangerous opposition from the khanates, the search for security came to require the subjugation of their heartlands and suppression of the attendant revolts.

The primary constraint on this expansion was logistical. If they had symbolised casualties on the Russian side during the conquest, Vereshchagin’s skulls would have had to be of a totally different kind: the skulls of the camels that formed the backbone of supply trains before the establishment of the region’s railways. In thirty years of war the Russians lost fewer than five hundred men, the majority of them in two brutal battles during the conquest’s closing stages in Turkmen territory. But tens of thousands of camels died in the course of the invasion, usually because expeditions blundered with them into hot, cold, waterless or fodderless lands after Russians failed to heed indigenous knowledge about caravan trails or adequately scout the route ahead. Having exhausted the supply of camels in the region after one of these debacles, the army would have to wait a good while for their numbers to recover.

The more grimly ludicrous aspects of the war were the result of careerist infighting. In 1872 it became clear that the next target of the conquest would be the remote khanate of Khiva in the region’s south-west, the site of a failed Russian attack thirty years earlier. By now the Russians were confident of being able to avenge their predecessors, but leaders feared that with the conquest of the region now demonstrably nearing its end, the supply of medals and promotions was going to run dry. As a result, four separate columns were organised to converge on Khiva from different directions, providing plenty of time on the pitch for glory-seekers. The resulting logistical disasters led to the total collapse of one of the columns and near fatal supply crises for the others, though Khiva was ultimately taken without difficulty.

But this lack of difficulty meant that some officers would likely be denied the recognition for battlefield valour they craved. Their solution was a punitive expedition against the Yomud Turkmen population, resulting in a large-scale slaughter of civilians. As the Khivan chronicler Muhammad Yūsuf Bek (known as Bayānī) reported, the Yomud drew the conclusion that ‘now that we have encountered the Russians it is better for us to live by the sword. After our women and children were butchered it is our obligation to rise against Russia. It is better to die than to lead such a life in this world.’ But the Russian conquest rolled on, and Kaufman, now the first governor-general of Turkestan, won a stratospheric reputation for his effective stewardship of the vast new province.

Though people like Vereshchagin often castigated the British for the arrogance and cruelty of their brand of imperialism, in practice the Russians were no better. Clichés such as Russia being ‘between East and West’ were propaganda aimed at spreading the idea of a kinder, gentler empire closer to its subjects than the British were to Indians or Africans. Yet the majority of Russia’s officer corps – often native French or German-speakers – thought of themselves as full-blooded Europeans, culturally as well as geographically. The empire tried to maintain a façade of providing diplomatic excuses for conquest – the norms of European civilisation frowned on unprovoked military aggression – but nobody had any intention of recognising the Central Asian khanates as sovereign states. Instead, the conquest followed a pattern in which Russia would make an arrogant demand of one of the khanates, and when the opposing ruler demurred it was treated as ‘insolence’. Insolence justified invasion and further annexation, and the generally low human and material costs of the campaign cleared the way for yet more arrogant demands. In another common scenario, harm allegedly done to a Russian soldier or officer would prompt a punitive expedition that extracted a much larger death toll. In no case was proportionality recognised as an objective: provocations had to be punished with overwhelming force.

As elsewhere in the world during the peak of 19th-century imperialism, it was the relative performance of Russian and Central Asian troops on the battlefield that did more than anything else to encourage the onslaught. Both Russian and local sources emphasise the drill and discipline shown under fire by the Russian rank and file, which resulted in the failure of the shock tactics that the cavalry-heavy Central Asian armies relied on. In situations where logistical overstretch was not a concern, Russian troops could generally outfight enemy armies that were many times larger. Such lopsided victories helped promote the view that Russian lives simply mattered more than Central Asian ones.

Was this imbalance the result of some mysterious civilisational advantage having to do with education or nutrition? Or did it come from the steely valour of frost-tempered Russian muzhiks? Or perhaps it was the leadership of the Russian officer corps, which had once triumphed over Napoleon? Maziar Behrooz’s Iran at War, which analyses the history of Qajar Iran’s long conflict with Russia a few decades before the conquest of Central Asia, suggests one possible answer. Behrooz describes an audience between an Iranian prince and a British emissary in 1809, in the course of which the foreign visitor described a recent European battle where an army of 120,000 troops incurred 25,000 casualties. The prince refused to believe it: the scale of the armies and the slaughter entailed were on a scale unimaginable to him. ‘In our severest and longest battles,’ the prince said, ‘our loss never exceeds fifty to one hundred men.’

The growing effectiveness of Western armies, in other words, resulted not from their supposed civilisational achievements but from their greater ability to kill and to be killed. Armies grew larger as a result of more sophisticated recruitment, training and procurement systems, while weapons grew deadlier and more accurate at greater distances. Often described in the bloodless language of technological progress, these advances required the use of drill and propaganda to suppress the natural reluctance to kill (soldiers in the era of muskets could rarely hit a human target) and the urge to flee in terror when a comrade was ridden down, shot or blown up. The soldiers trained in such an environment were more indifferent to the lives of the enemy and to their own, and so perhaps more willing to kill civilians when ordered to.

This isn’t to say that the regional rivals of the Russian Empire were sterling examples of humane warfare. Behrooz describes a late 18th-century campaign in which a series of Iranian victories over the restive small states of the South Caucasus were followed by mass reprisals against the civilian population, a common sequel to military action. The difference was that both Iranian and Central Asian rulers sought to establish hegemony over political entities and trade routes, not to subjugate a population in the long term. The civilisational rhetoric of the Russian conquest licensed not only the wholesale transformation of conquered societies in the interests of Russian and European settlers and capitalists, but also the extirpation of entire populations branded as ‘robbers’, ‘barbarians’ and ‘bandits’. As Russia gained an upper hand in its wars against the Qajars in the Caucasus, it embarked on decades of brutal, often genocidal counterinsurgency warfare against traditionally autonomous local peoples like the Circassians.

The same pattern recurred in Central Asia. While the urbanised oases of Bukhara and Khiva were ultimately deemed militarily unproblematic and turned into Russian protectorates rather than annexed outright, revolt in the khanate of Khoqand in the eastern part of the region prompted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against its Kipchak inhabitants. In the west, semi-nomadic populations like the Turkmens were too ungovernable and too much of a threat to settler agriculture and frontier security to be allowed to maintain their freedom. As it began to complete the conquest, Russia sought to settle on a border with Iran, which would finally allow a permanent boundary to take the place of the vexingly fluid frontiers of the conquest zone. The Akhal-Teke Turkmen were in the way of this process of tidying up; during an initial attempt to ‘pacify’ them in 1878, they were able to exploit Russian logistical blunders to ward off the invaders, preventing the Russians from consolidating their control of Transcaspia.

In 1879 the Russians staged an attack on an even larger scale. Decades of bitter experience had failed to teach officers that grand invasion plans only multiplied the logistical problems posed by Central Asian campaigning. When the starving, weary army reached its objective, the fortified city of Gök-Tepe, it proved incapable of effectively assaulting the fortifications despite indiscriminate artillery bombardment (the main casualties of which would have been the village’s civilian inhabitants). Although the Turkmen incurred much heavier losses, they scored another victory against the Russians – one of the costliest in Russian lives of the entire conquest. Predictably, the need to avenge defeat by a people they had branded as savages led to a punitive expedition. Led by General Mikhail Skobelev, a ruthless veteran of the Central Asian campaign, the attack of 1880-81 was logistically better prepared and its strategy more deliberate. This time, the Russian army conducted a three-week siege of Gök-Tepe, subjecting its 45,000 inhabitants to relentless shelling and mortar fire. When the city was finally taken, Russian soldiers pursued and slaughtered Turkmen who tried to escape. Even by 19th-century standards this was a crime against humanity. British and French writers happy to forget about their own legacies of massacre seized on the Russian depredations as yet more evidence of the Russian Empire’s civilisational inferiority to their own.

Nobody, least of all the Turkmen themselves, denied that the events at Gök-Tepe were part of a military conflict rather than a one-sided targeting of civilians, and more Russians were killed in 1881 than in 1879. But casualties on the Russian side were precisely why the reprisal was so brutal. If the premise of the Russian conquest, as demonstrated over and over again, was that Russia couldn’t tolerate dissent from a people deemed to be ontologically inferior, then any successful effort to even the score could only result in a greater need to restore the proper balance. Each Russian life lost at Gök-Tepe would be paid for by twenty Turkmen ones. That was the real apotheosis of war, European-style.

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