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Russian Advance

Russian advance south below the long treeline of the Siberian taiga began early in the eighteenth century, just before Peter the Great's death, but was not completed for over 150 years. It was as much a matter of gradual annexation as of open warfare and in this it bore a striking resemblance to the British conquest of India, which was taking place at approximately the same time. The first objective was to subdue the great blankness of the Stepnoy Kray, the steppe region of the Kazakhs, who roamed its grasslands in nomad parties with their horses and their other herds. The nomads were grouped into clans, and the clans gave their allegiance to one or other of the three Kazakh hordes — no longer the military striking-forces of old (which is what the original Turkic orda meant), but each a kind of mobile confederacy. When Abdulkhair, Khan of the Lesser Horde, made his peace with the Russians in 1730 the way was open for further progress into the heart of the steppe, though this was often enough resisted locally by some Kazakhs who thought their khan treacherous, and others to whom any word of his would have meant nothing anyway, their loyalties belonging elsewhere.

By the time the Tsar's writ ran through the Stepnoy Kray, there was an extensive immigration by the Russian peasantry, who had been despatched thither to settlements which would establish a political presence close to China and counter any inclination of the Muslim Kazakhs to rise against their Christian overlords. That is how civilian Slavs came to swell the ranks of the soldiery soon after Alma-Ata was translated into Verny in 1868. Every householder was instructed to plant trees outside his dwelling in order to improve the appearance of the place, as well as to give shelter from the summer heat. There was one other purpose in the patient acquisition of a not particularly attractive immensity of flatlands. The completed annexation of the steppe region made expansion across the rest of Central Asia much easier. By the time those saplings had first blossomed in Verny, two ancient cities of the Uzbeks, Tashkent and Samarkand, had become part of the Russian Empire as well. By 1870 Kirghizia had been annexed, by 1881 there was a Russian garrison as far to the west as Ashkhabad and, before the nineteenth century was over, the Tadzhilc lands had also succumbed. The whole imperial progress, down to the mountainous barriers of the south, had been inevitable from the moment Peter the Great was seized with the notion of a secure passage from Russia to India for the purpose of profitable trade: as that other great imperialist Lord Curzon subsequently recognised. "Russia was as much compelled to go forward" in his opinion "as the earth is to go round the sun."

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse


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