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Russian Progress in Central Asia[53]

Frederick Engels

A few weeks ago we noticed[a] the immense step in advance taken by Russia, during the last few years, in Eastern Asia, on the Western shores of the Pacific. We shall now call the attention of our readers to a similar step in advance, taken by the same power, on another territory—that of Central Asia.

The probability of a collision of the two great Asiatic powers, Russia and England, somewhere half-way between Siberia and India, of a conflict between the Cossack and the Sepoy on the banks of the Oxus, has been often debated since, simultaneously, in 1839, England and Russia sent armies toward Central Asia[54]. The original defeat of these armies—a defeat caused in either case by the asperity of the country and its climate—for a while deprived these speculations of interest. England avenged her defeat by a successful but unproductive march to Cabul. Russia appeared to pocket her disgrace, but how little she gave up her plans and how successfully she obtained her ends, we shall soon see. When the late war broke out there was again the question raised, as to the practicability of a Russian advance to India; but little did the public know then where the Russian outposts stood, and where their advanced patrols were reconnoitering. Indian papers brought stray paragraphs of reported Russian conquests in Central Asia, but they were not heeded. Finally, during the Anglo-Persian war of 1856, the whole question was again discussed.

Matters, however, have been latterly, and are still, changing rapidly in Central Asia[b]. When Napoleon in 1812, put down in his map Moscow for a base of operations in a campaign against India, he but followed Peter the Great. As far back as 1717, that far-sighted Prince who pointed out all the various directions for conquest to' his successors, had sent an expedition against Khiva, which, of course, proved unsuccessful. The steppes of Turan remained undisturbed by Russia for a long while; but in the mean time the country between the Volga and the Ural, River was peopled with Cossacks, and the Cossack line along the latter river established. Still, beyond that river, the suzerainty of Russia over the three hordes or nations of the Kirghiz remained purely nominal, and Russian caravans were plundered both by them and the Khivans, until, in 1833, General Vasily Perovsky was sent to Orenburg as commander-in-chief. He found the commercial relations of Russia with the interior and south of Asia completely interrupted by these plundering nomades, so that even the military escorts given for some years past to the caravans, had been insufficient to protect them. To put a stop to this, he organized, first, movable columns against the Kirghiz, and very soon after commenced establishing military stations of Cossacks in their territory. In a few years he thus brought them under the actual control and dominion of Russia, and then took up the old plans of Peter the Great against Khiva.

Having obtained the sanction of the Emperor[c], he organized a force of about a division (8,000 men) of infantry, with numerous bodies of half-regular Cossack and irregular Bashkir and Kirghiz horse. Fifteen thousand camels were brought together to carry provisions through the desert steppes. To undertake the expedition in Summer, was out of the question, on account of the scarcity of water. Thus Perovsky chose a Winter campaign, and moved in Nov., 1839, from Orenburg. The result is known. Snow-storms and excessive colds ruined his army, killed his camels and horses, and compelled him to retreat with very great loss. Still, the attempt fulfilled its ostensible purpose; for while England has never yet been able to avenge the murder of her Embassadors, Stoddart and Conolly, at Bokhara, the Khan of Khiva[d] released all Russian prisoners, and sent an embassy to St. Petersburg to seek for peace.

Perovsky then set to work to prepare a line of operations across the Kirghiz steppe. Before eighteen months had passed, scientific and engineering expeditions were busy, under military protection, surveying the whole country north of the Jaxartes (Syr-Darya), and Lake Aral. The nature of the ground, the best directions for roads, and the best sites for large wells, were explored. At short intervals these wells were bored or dug, and surrounded with fortifications of sufficient strength to withstand any attack of the nomadic hordes, and of sufficient capacity to hold' considerable stores. Karabulak on the Or[e], and Irghiz on the river of the same name, served as central points of defense in the north of the Kirghiz steppe; between these and the towns on the Ural River the routes are marked by smaller forts and wells every ten or twelve[f] miles.

The next step was taken in 1847, by the erection of a fort on the Syr-Darya, about 45 miles above its mouth, which fort was called Aralsk. It could hold a garrison of a battalion and more. This very soon became the center of an extensive Russian agricultural colony on the lower part of the river and the adjoining shores of Lake Aral; and now Russia formally took possession of the whole country north of that lake and of the delta of the Syr-Darya. In 1848 and '49 the lake was for the first time accurately surveyed, and a new group of islands discovered, which were at once set apart for the headquarters of the Aral steam flotilla, the creation of which was taken in hand without delay. Another fort was erected on an island commanding the mouth of the Syr-Darya, and at the same time the line of communications from Orenburg to Lake Aral was further strengthened and completed.

Perovsky, who had retired from the Commandership of Orenburg in 1842, now returned to his post, and advanced in the spring of 1853 with considerable forces to Aralsk. The passage of the desert was effected without much trouble, and now the army marched up the Syr-Darya, while a steamer of light draft escorted its movements on the river. Arrived at Akmetchet, a fortress about 450 miles up its course and belonging to the Khan of Khokan[g] the Russians took it by assault and at once turned it into a stronghold of their own, and so successfully, that on its being attacked in December following by the army of Khokan, the assailants were completely defeated.

While in 1854 the attention of Europe was fixed upon the battles fought on the Danube, and in the Crimea, Perovsky, from his newly-gained base of operations on the Syr-Darya, advanced with 17,000 men against Khiva, but the Khan[h] did not wait for his arrival on the Oxus. He sent Embassadors to the Russian camp who concluded a treaty, by which the Khan of Khiva acknowledged the suzerainty of Russia, and ceded to him the right of making peace and war, and supreme power over life and death, and the right to fix the routes of caravans, the duties and customs, and to make regulations for trade generally throughout Khiva forever. A Russian consul took up his seat at Khiva, and along with it assumed the functions of supreme arbiter, under the Russian Government, of all political matters belonging to Khiva.[55]

With the submission of Khiva, the conquest of Turan is virtually decided; perhaps, since then it has also been decided in reality: The Khans of Khokan and Bokhara[i] have also sent embassies to St. Petersburg[56]; the treaties concluded with them have not been published, but they may be pretty nearly guessed at. Whatever independence Russia may feel inclined to leave .to these "petty States whose sole strength lay in their inaccessibility, which now, for Russia at least, no longer exists, is of a merely nominal character; for a force of some 20,000 men, sent either from Khiva or Akmetchet, toward the more fruitful valleys of Upper Turan, would be quite sufficient to quell any attempt at opposition, and to march from one end of the country to the other. That Russia, in these regions, has not been idle since 1854, we may take for granted, although she keeps her doings secret enough, and after the rapid, silent and persevering progress she has made in Turan during the last twenty-five years, it certainly may be expected that her flag will soon wave over the mountain-passes of the Hindoo Koosh and Bolor Tagh.

The immense value of these conquests, in a military point of view, is in their importance as the nucleus of an offensive base of operations against India; and, indeed, with such an advance of the Russians in the center of Asia, the plan of attacking India from the North leaves the realm of vague speculation, and attains something like a definite shape. The tropical regions of Asia are separated from those portions which belong to the temperate zone, by a broad belt of desert passing from the shores of the Persian Gulf[j], right across that continent, to the sources of the Amoor. Leaving the Amoor country out of consideration this belt was until lately all but impassable by armies; the only imaginable route across it being that from Astrabad, on the Caspian, by Herat to Cabul and the Indus. But with the Russians, on the lower Jaxartes (Syr-Darya), and Oxus (Amu-Darya), and with military roads and forts, affording water and stores to a marching army, the Central Asiatic desert no longer exists as a military obstacle. Instead of the one unprepared route from Astrabad by Herat, to the Indus, Russia now has three different routes at her disposal, which, at no distant period, may be perfectly prepared for the march of an army. There remains, first of all, the old route by Herat, which, as matters now stand, cannot any longer be closed to Russia; secondly there is the Valley of the Oxus from Khiva to Balkh; thirdly, the Valley of the Jaxartes from Akmetchet to Khojend, whence the force would have to strike across a well-watered and populated country, to Samarkand and Balkh. Herat, Samarkand and Balkh would form a capital base of operations against India. Balkh is only 500 miles from Peshawur, the North-Western outpost of the Anglo-Indian empire. Samarkand and Balkh belong to the Khan of Bokhara, who is even now at the mercy of Russia, and with Astrabad (which is either now occupied by Russians or may be occupied any day they like) and Balkh in the hands of Russia, Herat cannot be withheld from her grasp whenever she chooses to seize it. And as soon as this base of operations will be in her actual possession, England will have to fight for her Indian empire. From Balkh to Cabul is scarcely any further than from Cabul to Peshawur, and this one fact will show how small the neutral space between Siberia and India has now become.

The fact is, that if Russian progress goes on at the same rate and with the same energy and consistency as during the last twenty-five years, the Muscovites may be found knocking at the gates of India within ten or fifteen years. Once across the Kirghiz steppe, they get into the comparatively well cultivated and fruitful regions of Southeastern Turan, the conquest of which cannot be disputed to them, and which may easily support for years, without effort, an army of fifty thousand or sixty thousand men, quite strong enough to march anywhere up to the Indus. Such an army, in ten years, can completely subdue the country, protect the construction of roads, the colonization of a vast extent of land by Russian crown peasants (as is now done on Lake Aral), overawe all surrounding states, and prepare the base and line of operations for an Indian campaign. Whether such a campaign will ever be undertaken depends on political contingencies which are now only matters of remote speculation.[k]

Written about October 8, 1858
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5471, November 3, 1858 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1404, November 9, 1858 and,
with additions made by Marx, in The Free Press, Vol. VI, No. 23, November 24, 1858
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] See this volume, p. 50.—Ed.

[b] The Free Press of November 24, 1858 gives the beginning of the article up to the words "When Napoleon in 1812..." as follows:

"I enclose some extracts from a memorandum which I have drawn up, on the latest progress of Russia in Central Asia. Part of these statements may perhaps be new to you, since the principal source from which they are derived—official Russian documents published at St. Petersburg in the Russian vernacular—have, so far as I know, not yet penetrated to England.

"The connexion between Lord Palmerston's acts and the encroachments by Russia on Central Asia becomes evident from simple attention to the chronological dates. For instance: in 1839, Russian progress in Khiva, despite a military defeat; in 1854, final success in Khiva, although Russia limited herself to a simple military demonstration and did not fire a gun; in 1856, while the progress through the Kirghiz steppe to South-Eastern Turan is quickly going on, a convergent movement in the Indian insurrection. In the Russian official documents, material facts (faits accomplis) only are stated; the underground agencies are, of course, studiously concealed, and the armed force which in the whole drama formed part of the scenery only, is represented as the principal actor. As you are perfectly acquainted with the diplomatic history of the case, I limit myself, in the extracts forwarded, to facts as represented by Russia herself. I have added some few considerations on the military bearings on India of the Russian progress in Central Asia.

"The question might be raised, why Alexander II has published documents respecting the Russian encroachments on Northern and Central Asia, documents which Nicholas used to anxiously conceal from the eyes of the world. Generally speaking, it may be said that Alexander finds himself in the position, not yet realised by his father, of initiating Europe into the secrets, of Russia's 'Asiatic destiny, and thus making Europe his professed cooperator in working out that destiny. Secondly, those documents are in fact accessible only to learned Germans who praise Alexander's condescension in contributing to the spread of geographical science. Lastly, after the Crimean war, the old Muscovite party was, stupidly enough, grumbling at the apparent loss of Russian prestige. Alexander answered them by publishing documents which not only show the immense material strides made by Russia during the last year, but the mere publication of which was an act of defiance, an asseveration of 'prestige', such as Nicholas had never ventured upon."

The part of the article that follows this text is entitled "Notice of Russian Documents".—Ed.

[c] Nicholas I.—Ed.

[d] Alla-Kuly.—Ed.

[e] More precisely, between the Or and the Irghiz.—Ed.

[f] The Free Press has here "twenty" instead of "twelve".—Ed.

[g] Khudayar Khan.—Ed.

[h] Mohammed-Emin.—Ed.

[i] Nasrulla Khan.—Ed.

[j] The New-York Daily Tribune has here "the shores of the Baltic".—Ed.

[k] Instead of the last sentence The Free Press has: "We defy any military man who has studied the geography of the country to deny it. And if we are right in this, then the struggle of 'the Cossack and the Sepoy' (if there be still Sepoys to fight for England), will not occur, as was expected, on the Oxus, but on the Cabul and Indus".—Ed.

[53] The heading is given according to the following entry in Marx's Notebook for 1858: "8 Friday. Russian Progress in Central Asia." As we see from Marx's letter to Engels of October 8, 1858, Marx also published this article in The Free Press on November 24 but changed its beginning and end. It appeared in The Free Press under the heading: "Russian State Papers Respecting Her Recent Advance to Our Indian Frontiers."

[54] This refers to General Perovsky's abortive expedition organised in 1839 to conquer Khiva, and to the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1838-42. When speaking of the British reverses, Engels seems to have in mind the difficulties experienced by the British army during the seizure of and withdrawal from Kabul in 1839-42.

[55] The Khanate of Khiva acknowledged its dependence on Russia only as a result of the treaty signed by Russia and Khiva on August 12, 1873. Between 1853 and 1857 Perovsky erected a number of fortifications on the Syr-Darya River.

[56] On its arrival in Bukhara, after the negotiations in Khiva, the Russian mission on October 11, 1858 reached an agreement with the Emir of Bukhara on freedom of navigation for Russian ships on the Amu-Darya, on the reduced duties on Russian goods and on authorisation of a temporary commercial agent in Bukhara. Under the 1868 treaty concluded after the capture of Samarkand by the Russians and the defeat of the Emir's army, and supplemented by the 1873 treaty, Bukhara acknowledged Russia's protectorate.

The Kokand Khanate was finally annexed to Russia in February 1876.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.59-64), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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