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Russianised Tashkent

I thought about the city's past. The description of the place I had in mind was Eugene Schuyler's, who was here in 1873 and found it already Russianised, for it was Tashkent which had become, in 1867, the seat of the governor-general, Kaufmann, through whom the tsar ruled his newly conquered provinces in Turkestan.

It was the Peace of Paris in 1856 which allowed Russia, whose armies had been tied up in the Crimea, to begin once again to expand into Central Asia. Defeat of the mountaineers of the Caucasus, too, secured the Caspian route into Turkestan (indeed Bariatinski, commander of the army of the Caucasus, put plans before the emperor for an attack upon India by that road). Advances were made, territory taken to secure frontiers. "No one should understand better than the English [wrote a St Petersburg newspaper) how the conquest of Asia may come about as much by inevitable progress of forces as by aggressive policy." In 1861 General Bezak submitted a plan for taking Tashkent which used just the same cover - "protecting our own Kirghiz" - as Peroffski's first steps east of the Aral forty years earlier. It wouldn't frighten the English (he said) as much as a southward move against Khiva or the Oxus would - "besides, the English are making themselves at home in China, and have no right to hinder us from protecting our own Kirghiz and rectifying our frontiers".

So the tsar's forces tiptoed towards India, chiding the British for their waspishness but nervous, all the same, of poking awake the British lion. "It is generally known [a historian of an earlier Khiva campaign had written] that the English have from remote times diligently watched over the events of the whole world, and that they are always troubled and dissatisfied if fate allows any other nation to have influence over the fate of mankind." The English democratic system, too, of alternate governments reversing each other's policies, baffled the citizens of an autocracy ruled by decree: first the Liberals with their "masterly inactivity" blew cold, then came in the Tories with their "forward policy" breathing fire; and besides that confusion was the further one of Central Asia falling within the sphere of the governments both of London and Calcutta, the home government and the East India Company. To allay the suspicions and quiet the threats of British statesmen the Russian foreign minister Prince Gortchakoff circulated a Note assuring the world that Russia planned no expansion, but meant merely to reach a secure frontier and spread "Russian civilisation" within it. "Of late years [the prince smoothly began] people have been pleased to assign to Russia the mission of civilising the countries which are her neighbours in Asia." The idea that the Russian despotism of corruption, vodka and the knout might give lessons in civilisation to the most barbarous Khan of Tartary was outrageous to most Englishmen, but Lord Clarendon's reply to Gortchakoff's Note made a different point: the British, he said, "fear not the designs of your Government but the undue zeal and excessive ardour of your generals in search of glory, paying no regard to the views of the Russian government".

This fear expressed by Clarendon was instantly justified by events. Gortchakoff had released his Note in 1864. Against orders from St Petersburg, in 1865 General Cherniayeff took Tashkent by a coup de main. He also took Kokand in 1865; Samarcand fell in 1868, Khiva in 1873 and Merv, the last stronghold of the Tekke Turcomans of the desert steppes, in 1882. The truth was that despite the tsar's autocracy and his minister's protestations, it was indeed "generals in search of glory" - the local commanders in Turkestan — who followed their own militaristic policy outside St Petersburg's control. And these local commanders lusting for medals certainly had their eyes on India. "Our presence in Afghanistan," wrote General Kruleffin 1855, "will promote the rising of the Indians against the hated English rule." The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 encouraged this confidence, and an Indian officer, Colonel Malleson, records the impression of Russian power felt in the north Indian bazaars at the fall of Samarcand. In the view of General Skoboleff, the rather appalling archetype of tsarist soldier-heroes, "Everyone who has concerned himself with the question of a Russian invasion of India would declare that it is only necessary to penetrate a single point of the Indian frontier to bring about a general rising . . . the overthrow of India might produce social revolution in England . . . in a word, the downfall of British supremacy in India would be the beginning of the downfall of England." So much for Prince Gortcha-koff's mealy mouthed assurances!

But, though the British government (Gladstone's Liberals from 1868 to 1874) huffed and complained and issued ultimata galore, they made no overt military response to the Russian advances. The quartermaster general in India might "solemnly assert my belief that there can never be a real settlement of the Russo-Indic question till Russia is driven out of the Caucasus and Turkistan": numerous British officers travelling privately might report what they found throughout Central Asia of Russian influence and Russian intentions; but the British government, Liberal or Tory, had control of its servants, so that British military men, unlike the Russian officers, did as they were told.

Nine years after it first came into existence as a garrison town, in 1873, the American Eugene Schuyler gave this description of Tashkent: "I could scarcely believe I was in Central Asia, but seemed rather to be in one of the quiet little towns of Central New York. The broad dusty streets, shaded by double rows of trees, the sound of rippling water in every direction, the small white houses set a little back from the street..."

Schuyler was an acute and incorruptible observer of the rule of the tsar's governor-general, the odious Kaufmann. This little bald-headed German martinet, extraordinarily vain, kept up in Tashkent an emperor's state in the 1860s and '70s, permitting no one to sit in his presence and no one to meet him unless in full-dress uniform, even ordering the erection of a fresh triumphal arch to greet his every return to the town. Schuyler — unlike another American, the journalist MacGahan, whose eulogistic account of Kaufmann's Khiva campaign is evidently influenced by Kaufmann's favour towards himself-coldly condemns such pomp. Indeed, though he seems rather to enjoy himself in their company, Schuyler condemns Russian society in their new Asiatic provinces, particularly for their want of knowledge or interest in the place and its people. "It seemed to many [of these Russians]," he wrote, "difficult to understand how I could be interested in a country, and come so far to see it, which for them was the epitome of everything disagreeable."

The truth was, that Tashkent society was made up of exiles from St Petersburg who had disgraced themselves, or bankrupted themselves, and had come into this wilderness, as they regarded it, in desperate hope of recouping favour and fortune by some bold stroke of commercial or military adventurism. Hence the officers' impatience to attack everything, every city and every khan, but most fervently of all to attack the world's richest prize, British India.

Typical of such desperadoes with nothing to lose, who played the Great Game wearing Russian colours, was Captain Vitkevich. Born a Lithuanian count, he was exiled at seventeen to Orenburg for his part in the Black Hand Polish Plot of 1824, and drafted as a private soldier into the army (a common tsarist punishment for turbulent nobles). Exploits against the Kirghiz, and expertise in local affairs, brought him promotion under General Peroffski until, made a captain in 1837, he was sent from Teheran to Kabul on a secret mission whose object was to separate the Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammed, from his allegiance to the British. Alexander Burnes greeted him in Kabul (the British had learned of Russia's mission by a chance interception of Vitkevich in the Khorassan desert) and asked him to Christmas dinner. Very different was the official recognition accorded these two men by their respective governments. Carving the turkey was Burnes, brimming with bounce, knighted by his Queen, at thirty-two an established figure whose knowledge of Central Asia was much valued by his superiors: but Vitkevich, though successful in his Kabul intrigues, found no support or even recognition on his return to St Petersburg, the foreign minister declaring that he knew no one of that name "except an adventurer . . . lately engaged in some unauthorised intrigues at Cabul". And so, like the Lermontov hero ("If I die, I die: my carriage has come -goodnight"), Vitkevich drove to his lodgings and shot himself.

Certainly there were bankrupts and soldiers of fortune amongst the British in India, men trying as best they could to shake the pagoda tree - certainly too the Indian Army was looked down upon by British regiments - but India was upon the whole run by a core of men who were knowledgeable about the country and much interested in it. This was never true of Russian Turkestan, for the Russian who was not at St Petersburg or Moscow felt himself an exile from all that counted in life, and regarded Central Asia (just as a Turkish pasha regarded his pashalik, or an Englishman, later, was to regard Hong Kong or Shanghai) as a Godforsaken posting amongst a savage people, to be exploited for the mending of the exile's fortunes as rapidly as possible. There were few ideals or scruples amongst the Russians in Turkestan.

And yet, adds Schuyler in a somewhat resigned tone, despite the place attracting "the scum of military society", and suffering an administration wanting in "the high moral qualities which should have caused Russia's civilising mission", more harm would be done to Central Asia by Russia's withdrawal than by her continued presence. "Having once taken possession of the country it would be almost impossible for the Russians with any fairness to the natives to withdraw from it." They had interfered with the structure, and were now committed to propping it up. But he reckoned that the government of Turkestan had cost the Russian treasury a deficit of nineteen million roubles between 1868 and 1872, and concludes, "had Russia known fifteen years ago as much about the countries of Central Asia as she knows now, there can be hardly a doubt that she would not have moved in that direction". That of course was the argument of the British russophobe: Central Asia of itself was no use to the tsar, who had "conquered it merely for the prospects its acquisition opened in respect of India". For whatever reasons, by Schuyler's day the Russians' rule looked permanent.

Today, the Russianisation of Central Asia is so long established a fact that I doubt if a native of the khanates which existed before Russian conquest would know quite what to eliminate in order to return to a pure pre-colonial state of things. I was thinking about this as I walked behind a watercart spraying the Tashkent streets. Would Uzbegs, left to themselves, think it an important priority, to splash water about the streets with so prodigal a hand? Not only are streets washed, and swept by women with twig besoms, there are no pi-dogs in these wide well-planted avenues either, and no beggars or packs of dirty children. Vultures do not load the rooftops watching for carrion and offal to be dumped in alleys, and no lepers lean against heaps of rubbish. In short, Tashkent doesn't really resemble an Asiatic city at all. But is this state of things how the Uzbegs themselves like to find their cities? — or is it the hated sanitisation of colonialism, which will be allowed to lapse, as soon as Uzbekistan is free of Moscow, until Tashkent again resembles the truly Asiatic cities of Afghanistan and Pakistan?

My question was partly answered when I came upon a gang of workmen dealing with an emergency — and dealing with it in such a reach-me-down style that I could see in their efforts the compromise between Russia and Asia. A branch had fallen across the pavement into the roadway. The weight of foliage in these acacias and planes seems to be enough to crack off branches, which he about the squares with wilting leaves; but in this case the limb, still attached to the trunk, had fallen amidst the traffic and must-be attended to. A team had arrived. In the West, possibly even in European Russia, the road would have been coned off, vehicles with winking lights and hoists would have congregated, a frontliner in hard hat and ear-defenders would have ascended by hoist with a chainsaw to sever branch from trunk, and a good deal of tea would have been drunk at the heart of a major traffic jam. The method I watched now was Asiatic, and simpler. After many duff shots a rope was flung over the branch overhead. To this rope, twisted so that it gripped the branch, the team of five or six Uzbegs attached themselves and, rushing into the traffic in a half circle first one way and then the other, like maypole dancers getting up steam, they endeavoured to generate a violent enough swing on the bough to break it free of the trunk. With the cars and buses tearing past they took their chance. A crack! - the branch broke and fell - down tumbled the team in a heap in the road - the job was done. I felt encouraged: there would surely still be odd corners of pre-Russian Turkestan left, if only I could find a way into them, whether helped or hindered by Alex.

Journey to Khiva by Philip Glazebrook