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Russian Conquest

I thought about General Kaufmann advancing on Samarcand by this route amid the praetorian guard of one hundred Cossacks without which he went nowhere. "He came to Central Asia with no knowledge of the country [Schuyler reported to the American government] and, by holding himself in a very lofty position, has acquired very little knowledge of it during his stay." Seizing as his excuse for conquest on a rumour that the Emir of Bokhara was assembling an army at Samarcand, Kaufmann marched from Tashkent over these plains with a force of 3,500 in April 1868. The emir's army, if it had ever existed, had vanished by the time Kaufmann approached Samarcand, but he entered the city, garrisoned it, and set out to chase a handful of Bokhariots retreating rapidly enough to Bokhara. However, he was soon brought back to Samarcand by news that its citizens, aided by a certain Jura Beg, had taken advantage of his absence to shut up the Russian garrison in the citadel, where its plight was desperate. Indeed the Russians were on the point of blowing up themselves and the citadel when Kaufmann, returned by forced marches, took his revenge on Samarcand. His excuse was the city's "treachery". For firing on the Russian garrison he executed men out of hand, as if for a criminal act. Schuyler says, "It is impossible to consider it in this light": civilians had given up the city to Kaufmann when their protectors (the emir's troops) had abandoned them, but when another friendly liberating army appeared, under Jura Beg, they joined him in attacking the invaders. However, for the soldier who thinks brutality an effective quietus, an excuse for firm action is soon found. What Samarcand suffered was nothing to what Kaufmann was to inflict upon Khiva five years later. Still, the Emir of Bokhara was sufficiently impressed by the brutal German banging about in his kingdom that he signed a treaty which, though preserving Bokhara itself under his own tyranny, made him virtually a vassal of the tsar. Thus the Russian conquest was extended.

I thought how clearly our morning's drive had illustrated the difficulties of forming frontiers in Asia. From Samarcand, if you had just conquered it, your eye would rest on the snow peaks to the south and you would say to yourself, "There is my secure frontier". Advance thirty miles to that southern frontier and you find yourself through the range by an easy pass, with a further plain, and further mountains, enticing you again southward. Seize the plain, reach the Oxus (as the Russians did); still it is necessary (as the Russians found) to enter the Afghan mountains in order to subdue tribes sowing disaffection over your frontier. The British had expanded willy nilly in this way up India into Afghanistan from the south. "Englishmen [wrote a St Petersburg newspaper editor in 1875] with their Indian experience to teach them, know how difficult it is to avoid the acquisition of fresh territory in the east, however much they may charge us with the lust of conquest." Though the tsars somehow held back from taking that last disastrous step across the Oxus, leaving to their successors one hundred years later the fatal advance into Afghanistan which was to prove the beginning of the end of the Russian Empire, in the 1870s Russian expansion into Afghanistan from the north looked inevitable.

In 1878, bumptious and aggressive, a Colonel Grodekoff was commissioned by the tsar (and permitted by General Kaufmann) to make a trip from Tashkent into Afghanistan. A grandiose passport issued by Kaufmann for the whole of Central Asia (save only the Merv oasis) showed off the swagger of Russian dominion, and made it seem certain that Grodekoff's ride was a preliminary to an invasion across the Oxus, where the Afghan Uzbegs (despite being beaten with stones into providing food for him) were reported to be pining for Russian occupation: "Are the Russians coming soon? [the colonel quotes them as asking] Would to God the time might be hastened! The English [one of them cannily adds] we do not like at all." Grodekoff, who was another short, bald, irascible soldier, this time glaring at Central Asia through rimless eyeglasses, had little respect and less patience with the natives and their customs along his route, seizing a spade, when he found himself delayed - "I had not brought a single book" — in order to dig a drainage canal across the courtyard of his dwelling, ignorant (or regardless) of how such an activity degraded him in Asiatic eyes. He wore full uniform all the time. "Any masquerade I might have adopted would only have impeded my movements, on account of my unsatisfactory knowledge of oriental languages, and my ignorance of the ceremonial observance which Mussulmans make use of at almost every step." If there is a contemptuous tone in these opening remarks, it is nothing to the colonel's restiveness en route. Having landed at a marshy spot on the Afghan bank of the Oxus, and fearing for his health, he refuses to wait even a day whilst permission to forward him to Mazar-i-Sharif is sent for by the local chief: '"I am tired of all this nonsense,' I said, raising my voice." The ride to Mazar did little to calm him, for he is soon screaming out again, "What nonsense you talk! Put an end to this farce!" and stamping in and out of his tent in a fresh huff at every happening. "I exploded with anger" - "I lost all control over my temper" — in the way he indulged his rage with orientals, Grodekoff could claim to represent a new breed of traveller in Central Asia.

It is a style which would have got him into deep trouble a few years earlier. At the root of Colonel Stoddart's fatal difficulties at Bokhara had been his inflexible sense of his own dignity, which, combined with ignorance of local observances (customs Burnes had mastered well enough to survive there a few years before) gave mortal offence. The admirable travellers of the 1820s and '30s, Moorcroft and Trebeck, Conolly, Pot-tinger, Richmond Shakespear, Fraser - all these resourceful men took pains to move quietly without giving offence, whether or not they kept up a disguise, amongst the tyrants and autocrats of pre-Russianised Turkestan. Their lives depended upon it. But by 1878 the grumpy Grodekoff, and English officers too such as Captain Burnaby or Colonel Valentine Baker, men with a good deal of the bully in their manner, could swagger about Central Asia pretty much as they pleased, secure amongst tribes cowed by Russian fire power (though Grodekoff, his "unsatisfactory knowledge of oriental languages" notwithstanding, makes out that he heard his guards conspiring to murder him every night of his journey.

"Journey to Khiva" by Philip Glazebrook