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Tashkent - Tsarist Bridgehead

Tashkent - Tsarist Bridgehead
'Central Asia - A Traveller's Companion' by Kathleen Hopkirk

Tashkent. . . refuge of damaged reputations and shattered fortunes.

    Lord Curzon

It was nearly midnight when I started out to explore. In the old town the dimly-lighted chai-khanas opening on the street were still filled with squatting Uzbeks and from all sides the flat native drums throbbed rhythmically in the warm Eastern-smelling darkness.

Fitzroy Maclean

AT FIRST GLANCE Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan and once the fourth largest city of the Soviet Union, seems of little interest, but for the visitor who knows something of its colourful history there is much to stir the imagination. It may be hard today to picture it as a caravan town on the Silk Road, but it is in fact one of the oldest cities of Central Asia, although it has been destroyed and rebuilt countless times in its 2,000-year history. The most recent in this long line of calamities was the disastrous earthquake of 1966, which is to blame for the city's 'new-town' appearance. But it had been razed to the ground even more effectively in earlier times by successive waves of conquerors who periodically descended on it. It had the misfortune to lie in the path of all the great east-west population migrations, and its status as a wealthy entrepot for merchants of silk, cotton, furs, rugs, spices, perfumes and gemstones made it an irresistible target. It was always rebuilt, however, once the marauders were well clear, for its climate and situation were ideal. Tashkent stands in the valley of the Chirchik, whose glacier-fed waters cascade down from the Tien-shan (Celestial) mountains on their way to join the meandering Syr-darya, and it has always been renowned for its fertility. Plant a fence-post in Tashkent, it has been said, and it will soon sprout leaves.

Tashkent - meaning stone castle - was first referred to by its present name in the eleventh century, when it was an outpost of the Arab Caliphate. The Muslim conquest of Central Asia in the eighth century was good for trade, for although the Prophet had disapproved of rich garments the Arabs - like the Romans and Byzantines - grew greedy for silk. Caravans from China passed through the northern foothills of the Tien-shan to reach Tashkent, and then proceeded to Samarkand, Bokhara and Merv. The era of the Crusades also gave a boost to the luxurious products of the silk trade, and the Frankish kingdoms of the Levant became eager customers. But all this came to an abrupt end in the early thirteenth century when the Arab Caliphate was in its turn trampled under foot by the dread horsemen of Genghis Khan. Tashkent was despoiled and then destroyed. As usual, however, it rose phoenix-like from its ashes, and became the northern stronghold of Tamerlane's mighty empire during the fourteenth century, and on his death in 1405 it was bequeathed to his 10-year-old grandson, Ulugh Beg.

Tamerlane's cities, with their dazzling tiled domes and minarets, were the glory of the Silk Road, and despite all its vicissitudes Tashkent still has buildings in its old quarter which date back to the Timurid period. Perhaps if Tamerlane had lived to achieve his dream of conquering China, the Silk Road would have survived longer, but it was at this time that China shut its doors firmly on the West. The Ming dynasty, having driven its Yuan predecessors back to the northern steppes, concentrated on consolidating and unifying the Chinese nation, which had fallen apart as the Mongol Yuan began to lose their grip. The Central Asian mercenaries who had helped the Yuan to keep control were thrown out, and even Muslim merchants from territories to the west were now regarded as enemies, associated with the long years of subjugation.

Tashkent, and all the other caravan towns, saw a sudden fall-ing-off of trade, and a gradual decline in prosperity, for the bales of precious silk could not now be replaced. In the sixteenth century the city was once more ransacked by an invader from the north - Shaybani Khan, leader of the nomadic Uzbek Turks, who were to give their name to the whole region. Tashkent adapted to this new overlord and built up its wealth again, and so the pattern continued. By the nineteenth century Central Asia in general had become a backwater, untouched by the currents of progress, for the fanatical mullahs practised a debased form of Islam which abhorred enlightenment and welcomed hatred and repression. A blind eye was turned to the depravity and cruelty of the rulers, and to their rapacious campaigns against one another. Tashkent, as a prosperous trading city, was for ever at the mercy of the predatory rulers of Khiva, Bokhara and Khokhand, its merchants being obliged to pay a hefty tribute to whoever was affording them 'protection' at the time.

Some of the bolder spirits amongst them began to look towards Russia for their salvation, for while Central Asia had declined, its northern neighbour had become a great imperial power. It was also beginning to industrialize, and was looking for new markets. A cautious trade developed between Tashkent and Orenburg, the last outpost of European Russia. But the mullahs of Tashkent looked to holy Bokhara for support and were implacably opposed to any dealings with Christians. Pulled one way by the merchants and the other by the mullahs, the city's elders found themselves in a painful dilemma. Russia, in the person of Major-General Mikhail Cherniaev, decided to settle the matter by capturing the city in June 1865.

He was taking quite a risk, for he had not bothered to ask St Petersburg for permission, and he had barely 2,000 men with him. As it happened Tashkent's inhabitants put up a far more determined resistance than he had anticipated, but in the end his superior tactics - and his artillery - won the day. Rather than see their city destroyed totally, the elders decided to submit, conferring on their conqueror the flattering title 'Lion of Tashkent'. Faced with a successful fait accompli, the Tsar graciously accepted the city and its environs as an addition to his domains, seeing that it greatly enhanced his prestige in the region and gave Russia a foothold in 'closed barbaric Asia'. A substantial Russian town soon sprang up beside the native one, run by a predominantly military administration. Although Russia's avowed policy at this time was solely to safeguard its southern borders against 'those whose turbulent and unsettled character make them undesirable neighbours', in practice Tashkent was to be the springboard for a relentless drive into the desert khanates. 'Where the ruling class is entirely military,' remarked Lord Curzon, 'and where promotion is slow, it would be strange if war, the sole available avenue to distinction, were not popular.'

The architect of Russia's conquest of Central Asia was General Konstantin Kaufmann, for Cherniaev was regarded as too impetuous and was swiftly recalled, much to his chagrin. Kaufmann lived in considerable style, having a magnificent residence built to his specifications, and he was later criticized in St Petersburg for squandering government funds on needless extravagance. However, Russians of German extraction were always the target of malicious allegations by the Slavophil lobby, so perhaps there was a certain element of envy at work here. For there was no gainsaying Kaufmann's achievements: within ten years he had subjugated Samarkand, Bokhara, Khiva and Khokhand, and had himself become the Governor-General of a vast new Russian province. Turkestan was about half the size of the United States of America, and the now huge Russian empire was 1,000 miles nearer to British India than it had been at the beginning of the century. There was a certain amount of disquiet internationally about Russia's prodigious rate of expansion, and the forgotten region of Central Asia was suddenly under the spotlight.

A diplomat who managed to visit Tashkent in 1873 was the American Eugene Schuyler. General Kaufmann was away conquering Khiva at the time, but Schuyler reported with relish some of the gossip about him:

The Governor-General or Yarim Padshah (the half-king), as he is called, imitates in the state he keeps the Eastern monarchs by whom he is surrounded. He never rides out, so I am told, without a select guard of Cossacks, and even his wife and children had their escorts . . . When the Governor-General returns to Tashkent triumphal arches are erected, all the officials go several miles out of the city to meet him, and he is received with salutes of cannon. The triumphal arches and the receptions are supposed to be the outspoken expressions of popular feeling, but these demonstrations are hardly spontaneous.

Schuyler, Turkistan, 1876

Schuyler found New Tashkent a pleasant enough place, with its broad, tree-lined streets and small white villas. In fact it reminded him somewhat of Denver, Colorado. But he noted that 'no-one lives here who is not obliged to do so on account of his official duties. No-one comes to Tashkent to remain . . .' There was the usual Russian Club, where 'a bad dinner can be had every day', and where balls and concerts were held. To his surprise he found an excellent library attached to the clubrooms, containing 'an exceedingly good collection of books and articles relating to Central Asia' as well as the standard works of European literature. Not that Tashkent was a literary sort of place - far from it. It was at this time a small provincial capital riddled with the usual snobbery and cliqueishness of such places. 'The officers have little resource but gambling and drinking,' wrote Schuyler, 'and in many instances young men have utterly ruined themselves, some even having to be sent out of the country - and a man must be bad to be exiled from Tashkent - and others having died or committed suicide.' He was impressed, however, by the standard of law and order in both the old and new towns. 'Crimes are very rare,' he noted, 'and it is possible to walk or ride through any part of Tashkent at any hour of the night without incurring the slightest danger.'

This was certainly a change from the bad old days when the Central Asian cities were a byword for sudden death. But Stephen Graham, writing much later, lamented the inevitable decline of the old town. In his book Through Russian Central Asia, published in 1916, he says:

With the coming of the Russians, the angel of death has breathed on all that was once the grandeur of the Orient at Tashkent. Once there were no Russians in the land, and then what is now old Tashkent was the only Tashkent - it was a great Moslem city. But as the fine Russian streets were laid down, and the large shops opened, and the cathedrals were built, and the gardens laid out, the old uphill-and-down-dale labyrinth of the Eastern city changed to a curiosity and an anachronism. It faded before the eyes . . . Poor old Tashkent, there is much pathos in its destiny.

At the time of Schuyler's visit in 1873 the old Muslim town was still a thriving place, and the American estimated its population at about 120,000. Most were Uzbeks, but there were also Tajiks, Kirghiz, Tatars - or Mongols - and even Hindus. The residents were collectively known as Sarts, but this was not a nationality, simply signifying that they were settled as opposed to nomadic. Schuyler thought that Tashkent showed more variety than any other Central Asian town, partly because of its hilly terrain and rushing streams, and partly because of its verdure. 'Everywhere trees are leaning over the walls, for everywhere there are gardens,' he wrote. The fertility and luxuriance of Tashkent's gardens resulted from the proximity of the Chirchik river. Sixteen miles above the city at the village of Niazbek, now the site of a hydro-electric power station, a canal had been dug in antiquity to bring an abundance of water to the settlement, and had been patiently repaired each time it was destroyed by invaders. For water was Tashkent's life-blood.

Not all European visitors saw old Tashkent with Stephen Graham's romantic eyes. The Sart houses, arranged around internal courtyards, had no windows at all on the outside, which gave them a strange, secretive air to Western eyes. 'Great masses of baked mud, which we dimly perceive to be meant for houses, tower up as if to crush us in their fall', was how special correspondent David Ker described them. 'Viewed from above,' wrote Lord Curzon, 'we see nothing but an inclined plane of dusty roofs, the dearth of colour making it as ugly as are most Oriental towns from the panoramic point of view. The real interest and individuality are confined to the streets and, could we but penetrate their interiors, to the houses.' Schuyler, who had introductions to a number of important native families, was able to do this. He and his companion went to call on a merchant named Doda Mohammed:

Eventually we arrive at a small door which is half open. On calling out, three handsome lads in long loose shirts, girt with handkerchiefs round the waist, and close-fitting skull-caps, appear with smiling faces, greet us and take our horses. We enter, and find a large courtyard nearly surrounded with sheds filled with horses - the only kind of stable which is used here. We are taken through another door onto still another courtyard, on two sides of which are the balconies of the house. This is the tish-kari or man's court, and beyond, through a door and a narrow passage, is the itch-hari or woman's court. Doda Mohammed, being rich, has as many as three courtyards, but no-one who pretends to have a house at all has less than two. For the women must have some place where they can be at their ease, and where men do not enter.

As an American, and a diplomat accredited to St Petersburg, Schuyler encountered few problems in Tashkent once he had convinced the authorities that he was not an English spy. For the Russians were very keen to keep any British observers well away from Turkestan while they quietly incorporated the Khanate of Khiva into their empire. David Ker, correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, fell foul of these military regulations (in spite of arming himself with a false American passport), and ended up in Tashkent a frustrated and disappointed man. During months of traipsing around desert and steppe, suffering privation, illness and persecution, he had always found himself prevented from catching up with General Kaufmann's forces. At least in Tashkent, he hoped, he would not be ejected or imprisoned, and he might even get a bath.

At length, through all the surroundings of the genuine East - massive walls standing up white and bare in the blistering sunshine, turbaned greybeards squatting in the shadow of lowbrowed archways, and tapering trees outlined against the blue summer sky - we reach a great rampart of baked earth, pass through the gate, and are in Tashkent. It is Friday, 15th August 1873, and I am four thousand miles east of England, having travelled, one way and another, seven thousand four hundred and forty miles since I left London on 8th March.

Ker, On the Road to Khiva, 1874

The 'dismal' hotel, however, reminded him of a deserted stable, having no food, no drink, no furniture and no bath. The mail awaiting him at the Post Office brought him no comfort: his editor was not interested in excuses, why was he not at Khiva? 'My reward', fumed Ker, 'for six months of anxiety, illness, imprisonment, and subterfuge worse than all - is the credit, in my own country and among my own people, of being a liar and a villain.' After posting off an indignant dispatch, he hired a droshky and Cossack driver and ventured into the old town 'through dust, and heat, and dogs and offal, and all the loathsome minutiae of a genuine Eastern town'. Forced to abandon his cab once he reached the maelstrom of the Great Bazaar, he plunged

into the welter of strange figures - gaunt dervishes, with the brand of the desert still upon them; veiled women, imprisoned in close-fitting umbrella-cases of blue cotton; greasy pastrycooks, over whom the flies swarm with a comfortable assurance of congenial pasture; shaggy porters waddling under huge baskets; brown paunchy children, in the minimum of clothing and the maximum of dirt; and bare-limbed water-carriers, poising their bulging skins on their brawny shoulders, like caricatures of Atlas.

Ker soon departed for England, eager to rescue his reputation and to write his book. Kaufmann, the author of his misfortunes, returned victorious from his campaign, and life in Tashkent returned to normal. The foundations for a splendid new cathedral were laid, not far from the old wooden Orthodox church, but Kaufmann did not live to see it completed. He died in 1882 and was buried with due pomp in a garden nearby. The central square of the Russian town was named after him, and a large statue erected in his memory. The traveller Stephen Graham described it in 1914:

The Kaufmann Square is, I suppose, the noblest position in the new city, all the avenues and prospects being used to frame the monument which stands there. This is the statue of General Kaufmann, who took possession of the land for the Russians. On one side of the monument is a fierce, dark, enormous, two-headed eagle in stone. But between its claws this year a dove had its nest. From behind the eagle General von Kaufmann stands and looks over his new-conquered country. On the other side of the monument there is the following inscription: 'I pray you bury me here that everyone may know that here is true Russian earth in which no Russian need be ashamed to lie.' Rather interesting that this should be said by a Russian with a German name.

A later visitor, Colonel F.M. Bailey, watched the Bolsheviks demolish this monument in 1919. The square was then renamed Revolution Square.

General Cherniaev, having triumphantly outlived his detested rival, was at last given the post he had long coveted, that of Governor-General of Turkestan. He hastened to Tashkent and set about dismantling as many of Kaufmann's achievements as possible, ostensibly to save money for the Tsar. The library could go, for a start, he decided. Many of the books were by dangerously radical writers, and there were even humorous journals and popular newspapers lying around. A few books were deemed worthy of preservation and removed to the museum, but thousands of volumes were dispersed, some ending up in the bazaar. Kaufmann's sophisticated chemical laboratory was the next victim of his economy drive, followed by the silkworm-breeding and experimental cotton farms.

After a couple of years of intemperate behaviour and public outcry, Cherniaev was hurriedly recalled to St Petersburg and pensioned off. 'You quarrelled with everyone,' sighed Tsar Alexander. 'You could not remain there.' His successor, General Rosenbach, was reputed to know 'as little about Turkestan as about Zululand', but he smoothed ruffled feathers by reinstating the library and the farms, and set about recovering the laboratory equipment which was by now scattered all over the old town, much of it broken. His economies seem to have been more effective than those of Cherniaev, moreover, for he reduced Turkestan's budget deficit by 28 per cent.

In 1888 the Honourable George Curzon stayed with General Rosenbach after an extensive tour of Central Asia via the new Transcaspian railway. He was entertained very simply - an improvement, Curzon felt, on the 'reckless extravagance which used formerly to prevail' - in the residence built for Kaufmann. He was impressed by the garden:

Behind the Government House at Tashkent extends a beautiful garden, in which a military band plays, and to which the public are admitted three times a week. It contains shaded walks and sylvan retreats, a respectable cascade formed by an artificial dam, and a pit for bears, which was kept filled by Cherniaev, who had a craze for animals, until one of his pets nearly bit off the leg of a Kirghiz.

Curzon, Russia in Central Asia, 1889

As yet, Tashkent was not connected to the Transcaspian line, and Curzon had to travel across the Hungry Steppe from Samarkand - a distance of 380 miles - in the standard Russian conveyance, a tarantass. This 'sorrowful and springless vehicle' reminded Curzon of a ramshackle wooden boat on wheels, and he confessed to hankering after his second-class railway compartment 'as eagerly as did the Israelites in similar surroundings after the flesh-pots of Egypt'. But it was only a matter of time, he predicted, before the railway line was extended, for strategic reasons if nothing else. For this was the era of the Great Game, and Curzon was typical of his generation in suspecting Russia of casting covetous eyes in the direction of India.

By the time that Miss Annette Meakin visited Tashkent in the winter of 1901, Curzon's prophecy had come true: she and her elderly mother arrived at Tashkent's new station, and not in one of Curzon's ordinary second-class compartments, either. The station-master at Ashkhabad had charmingly insisted on providing a 'special' carriage for their exclusive use, an honour indeed. In a few years' time, he told them, they would be able to travel to Tashkent in a far more expeditious manner, for a new railway line was being built from Orenburg which would bring the former caravan town to within three days' journey of Moscow.

Miss Meakin, musician, classicist and Fellow of the Anthropological Institute, had already made a study of the Tatars of Kazan and the Crimea (the remnants of the Mongol Golden Horde), the tribes of northern Siberia, and the Muslims of Morocco, Egypt, Turkey and Palestine. She had been the first Englishwoman to cross Siberia by the new Trans-Siberian railway in 1900, and went on to become a prolific author. Arriving in the depths of winter, the Meakins found Old Tashkent an impossible place to explore on foot:

The streets are paved by nature with the same clay as that with which the houses are built, so that they are inches deep in powdery dust in summer, and covered with an even greater depth of oozy mud in winter. Of all the towns I saw at this season Tashkent was certainly the richest in mud. On one occasion when we were visiting two of the wealthiest families in the native town, who lived in the same street exactly opposite each other, we had to get into the droshky to cross the road. Had we attempted it on foot the mud would have reached above our knees .

Meakin, In Russian Turkestan, 1903

During her year in Central Asia Miss Meakin was able to study the local women in the privacy of their own homes, and was even permitted to photograph them unveiled. The creatures who to male travellers seemed merely a shapeless mass of draperies, veiled in black horsehair and shod in clumsy boots, turned out often to be young and pretty. They all had glowing complexions, and indignantly denied that they ever used cosmetics, except on their eyebrows, which were frequently joined in a straight line over the nose:

I was told by the ladies of Tashkent that it was the custom there for every woman to dye her eyebrows in summer with the juice of a particular plant that grows in the gardens. When the juice is fresh it dyes a dark green, but they do not mind that, as it is considered to impart brightness to the eyes, besides making the brows thicker.

She was amazed at the length of their hair, which hung to their ankles in numerous long plaits, finished off with a tassel of brightly coloured glass beads. 'One girl graciously allowed me to count her plaits,' wrote Miss Meakin. 'She had fifty-five long plaits, and all her own hair.' Those less well-endowed by nature extended their plaits with strands of black silk. Girls were always married very young, in line with the Sart proverb: 'Do not keep salt long or it will get damp. Do not keep a young girl or she will spoil.' Perhaps as a result, there was an appallingly high rate of infant mortality, for many mothers were little more than children themselves:

Families are very numerous, sixteen children is not an unusual number for one mother, but she seldom rears more than half of them. Many young mothers die, and their babies too, for want of a skilled woman to attend to them ... A large proportion of children die because their girl-mothers have no notion how to look after them.

Miss Meakin made many Russian friends in Tashkent who showed her great kindness and hospitality, for by then it was no longer the 'punishment posting' it had been in the days of Schuyler and Curzon. Russian colonial rule, although paternalistic, had brought certain advantages to the ordinary people. The introduction of American long-staple cotton (thanks to Kaufmann's experimental farm) had increased their yields, and an impartial system of justice and a reasonable level of taxation had given them security from the extortions of the corrupt old khans, while the abolition of slavery had literally freed many of them from bondage. The early Russian colonists were often dedicated men who were on excellent terms with the local population. But the start of the new century had seen an influx of settlers of an entirely different stamp, who were resented by the early settlers and the natives alike.

Lured by grants of land, the impoverished, the unsuccessful and the plain greedy flocked to Turkestan from central Russia in search of a better life in an agreeable climate. 'They had no wish to work hard, were not interested in improved methods of husbandry, and looked down upon the hardworking and disciplined natives,' declared Count Pahlen. However, they served the government's purpose of ridding central Russia of its surplus rural population and simultaneously of Russifying an outlying region of the empire. Sadly, the proliferation of bureaucracy required to administer these new crown lands, not to mention the construction of the Orenburg-Tashkent rail link, led to a falling-off of the previous high standards, and by 1908 Turkestan was a byword for corruption.

So worried was Tsar Nicholas II that he dispatched Count Pahlen to the region in June 1908 with sweeping powers to investigate all aspects of the administration, and to prosecute offenders. A Baltic aristocrat of German extraction, Pahlen was enlightened, liberal, energetic and very thorough. This was a severe blow to the slack and venal officials of Turkestan, who tried in vain to pull the wool over his eyes. For a year he and a hand-picked group of assistants toured the province systematically, examining the books, interviewing both civil servants and native elders, and making exhaustive notes. His final report ran to nineteen volumes.

Pahlen sailed down the Volga to Samara (later renamed Kubyshev) and there transferred to the railway. As they travelled east the country grew ever more desolate, until at last it became a salty desert with an occasional camel on the horizon. At wayside stations they were gazed at - contemptuously, Pahlen felt - by slant-eyed Kalmyks in shaggy fur caps. 'I had my first glimpse', he wrote later, 'of that peculiar subtlety with which the Asian regards the European. What I believe to be genuine contempt is veiled by an appearance of outward submission that somehow suggests inner awareness of a culture and an outlook on life vastly older than our own.' (The Kalmyks are a Mongolian race, and therefore indirectly descended from Genghis Khan.)

Two days out of Orenburg, the Count was startled to see ships, apparently sailing over the steppe. They had reached the Aral Sea, at that time an immense expanse of water, though now sadly depleted by over-use for irrigation. 'After leaving the station called "The Sea of Aral" behind us,' wrote Pahlen, 'we were cheered by the view of the snow-covered summits of the Kara-Tau gradually rising on the horizon. From this time on I never once, during my entire sojourn in Turkestan, lost sight of mountains in the distance.'

The railway line between the Aral Sea and Tashkent had been built alongside the Syr-darya river, in spite of persistent warnings by local people. Now, to his annoyance, the Count discovered that a section of line had been washed away by a flash flood. He, his party and all their baggage had to be transported across the gap in 'a tiresome operation of trolleys and boats', and then had to wait while a new train was hastily sent to fetch them. There must have been some red faces in Tashkent, where officials were already awaiting him with considerable nervousness.

The Governor-General evidently decided that a sumptuous reception might mollify his powerful visitor, for Pahlen was greeted by an elaborate welcoming ceremony. Magnificent oriental carpets had been strewn on the railway platform, and a huge silken marquee erected over tables groaning with refreshments. Numerous delegations came to pay their respects and there were interminable speeches, all in a temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit. At the banquet given that evening in his honour at Government House, Pahlen was struck by the incongruity of this very European occasion in the middle of Central Asia:

The women were in low-cut evening gowns with sparkling jewels and flowers in their hair. One would have found the same setting anywhere in St Petersburg, Berlin, Vienna or Paris. Even the flowers on the dining table - roses, white acacia, violets, lovely tulips and daffodils - were reminiscent of home. The fare we were offered, too, was anything but oriental. The menus, printed in French, informed us that we were to be served with a dinner of six or seven courses equal to anything we could have expected at home, while the champagne and other wines were all imported from Europe.

But when, after dinner, we moved into the garden where coffee was served, we were at once back in Asia, with its pitch-black night and the myriad stars of the Milky Way, with the all-pervading din of crickets, the murmuring water in the canals, the bitter taste of the scent-laden desert air which makes the heart beat faster, although it seems so light, since Tashkent lies 600 metres above sea level.

The enchanting garden of the Residence had been turned into a fairyland by candles and coloured lanterns. Noiselessly, the Sart servants glided among the guests, their white caftans, embroidered skull-caps and bright silk sashes catching the light. 'The formal black of European evening dress,' mused Pahlen, 'and even the pretty gowns of the ladies, seemed somehow out of place in this oriental setting.' He went on:

As I looked at the assembled guests I found myself wondering what we Europeans had brought this land, apart from perhaps a little ease and a few technical means of livelihood. Were the people happier before the Europeans stepped in? Was the advent of the soldier, the European engineer and technician to engender a ferment of disintegration destined eventually to destroy the souls of the people together with their ethical and moral standards?

Alas, Count Pahlen was a man ahead of his time. Although he succeeded in rooting out a good deal of corruption in the Turkestan administration - the Governor-General who had entertained him so lavishly at Tashkent was one of the first to resign - his broader recommendations were quietly ignored. This was not surprising since the Prime Minister, Stolypin, was a firm advocate of colonization. Pahlen lost everything eight years later in the Bolshevik coup: his estates in Latvia and, worse, his library and all his notes and photographs from his year in Turkestan. He died, a poor refugee in Germany, in 1923, but not before dictating his memoirs to a member of his family. (Mission to Turkestan, 1908-1909, was published in English only in 1964, and it is from this work that the above extracts are taken.)

When the dust had settled after the Pahlen investigation, life resumed much as before in Tashkent. The allotment of land to Russian settlers - opposed by the Count because it deprived the local populace of their livelihood - proceeded amid growing resentment. Glittering balls continued to be given by the socially prestigious, to the mortification of the socially inferior, and in 1914, when the writer and anthropologist Ella Christie was there, 'European life was quite gay'. The Russians entertained lavishly, and there was a 'very fine' winter theatre, as well as an outdoor summer one, with regular visits by travelling dramatic companies. The roads in the Russian town had by now been macadamized, and were all bordered with acacia, poplar or elm trees, with rills of water running between them. Mrs Christie wrote:

The chief streets have an imposing aspect, from the number of large and fine houses with which they are lined, many of them standing apart in their own walled-in gardens. The roofing of the houses generally consists of felt or painted iron. The interior both of the Russian and Sart houses is lighted by excellent petrol lamps of from five to twenty-six candle-power, and similar lamps also illuminate the streets, though after the electric station was installed for the tramway service electric light was gradually introduced, and a telephone service was in full working order.

Christie, Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand, 1925

Although Stephen Graham, who visited Tashkent in the same year as Ella Christie, deplored the Russification of this Central Asian city, Mrs Christie pointed out that there were now hospitals and dispensaries where the Sarts could take their children to be vaccinated, and even X-rayed, and that lepers no longer lived in the midst of the healthy but had their own village and land. In the old town, however, there was still a weekly marriage market, where Kirghiz parents sold their little daughters of 9 to 12 years to the highest bidder. Mrs Christie was saddened at the spectacle, but noted that the girls seemed to feel 'no more concern than a puppy would on being transferred to a new master'. Girls were not highly regarded by the nomads.

Stephen Graham, who was there in May 1914, found the old city ablaze with colour. 'On the roofs of the mosques are thousands of red poppies in bloom,' he wrote, 'and occasionally the crane's nest is to be seen on the tops of the towers whence the muezzin calls to prayer.' He described the Sarts as 'an absolutely unambitious people, honest, quiet, sober. They are uninterested in everything except small deals in the wares they make or sell'. The underlying dissatisfaction of a subject people was evidently not apparent to the casual visitor. Neither did Graham or Ella Christie come into contact with the Russian working class, or suspect for one moment that within three years society would be torn apart. Graham went so far as to predict that 'the friendship of English and Russians in Central Asia must mean a larger, stronger life for both Empires'. But what they could not have known was that as early as 1905 an underground branch of the Social Revolutionary Party had been formed among the large contingent of railway workers based in Tashkent. The trickle of dangerous new ideas which arrived in Turkestan via the railway line from Russia gradually became a flood, and in October 1917 when the Bolsheviks seized power in the capital, the Tashkent revolutionaries were quick to follow suit.

A mob stormed the Residence, murdered the Governor-General and flung his corpse out of an upstairs window. It was only after several days that his widow was permitted to remove his remains for burial. In four days of rioting and bloodshed, most of the former Tsarist officials were either summarily executed or imprisoned by the newly formed Cheka, or secret police, and a witch-hunt of 'counter-revolutionary elements' was unleashed. The native population stood aside and waited to see whether the promised freedom and equality would apply to them. It soon became clear that they would not. The revolutionary government was composed entirely of Europeans, mainly railway navvies, and their attitude to the local people was as colonial as that of their predecessors. Resentment simmered in the old town, and things finally came to a head on Boxing Day, 1917. A Danish diplomat watched anxiously:

The long-expected and much-apprehended Sart revolution broke out at last - that is to say, it started as a general demonstration against the politics of the Government. The Sarts had gathered in large numbers, about 200,000, the whole of the street looking like a billowing sea of white turbans, many-coloured silk talars, green and light blue silk standards by the thousand. The whole procession, among which were a large number of mounted men, thronged and swarmed in the direction of the Government palace - fantastic and resplendent, like a scene from the Arabian Nights . . . What would happen? As by a sudden flash of intuition, one glimpsed the terrible abyss between European and Asian culture, and the fundamental difference between European and Asiatic minds. Never before had the hatred against Russia been so livid as now.

A.H. Brun, Troublous Times, 1931

But despite their vastly superior numbers, the Sarts were disorganized and had no real leaders. When they stormed the jail and released the old Tsarist officers and other political prisoners, greeting many of them with affectionate cheers, the Tashkent Commissars decided that the natives must be crushed. Cannon and machine-gun fire soon dispersed the mob, with many casualties. As for the released Russians, most were recaptured and executed, on the grounds that they were the secret instigators of the riot. Similar revolts in other parts of Turkestan were also put down with great severity.

Captain Alfred Brun, as a representative of a neutral power, had the unenviable task of trying to persuade the Commissars now running Tashkent to look after the starving Austro-Hungarian prisoners-of-war who were held in camps in Turkestan. A Swedish colleague was trying to do the same for the German prisoners. Brun knew that in 1916 there had been 190,000 prisoners and that there were now thought to be around 40,000. Some had been moved to Siberia, but vast numbers had died of neglect and sickness. The Troitsky camp, just outside Tashkent, was known as 'the death camp'. Its cemetery contained over 8,000 graves. There was also a special 'punishment camp', mainly for officers, which Brun described as hell upon earth, where even the strongest minds could be toppled into insanity. 'I shall never forget', he wrote, 'the enthusiastic reception I got in this camp, simply because the prisoners realized that, after all, there was still somebody who would try to lighten the pressure of their ghastly circumstances.'

The Commissars took the view that the Great War had nothing to do with them, and if the prisoners cared to join the Red Army they would be fed, otherwise they could fend for themselves. This attitude was strenuously opposed by Brun and the other relief workers, but many prisoners did enlist, simply to better their lot. They proved very useful to the Bolsheviks in subduing the natives and fighting the White Russian resistance, and also in suppressing rival revolutionary groups when necessary. Some of the prisoners, like some of the revolutionaries, were simply freebooters, for both money and goods could be extorted at the point of a gun in these anarchic times. 'I regret to say', wrote Brun, 'that these marauding expeditions were a strong temptation to some of the lower natures among my charges.' Prisoners unwilling to join the Reds began to drift into Tashkent, hoping to find work. Some set up home with Sart women, and a few enterprising Hungarians formed a 'Gypsy Orchestra' and earned a precarious living playing in restaurants.

But the restaurants and shops began to close, for food was running out. The railway line to the north was in the hands of the Whites, while the Transcaspian line to the west was continually being fought over. By the summer of 1918, native parents were abandoning newborn babies to the wolves, cases of cannibalism were reported among the Kirghiz, and Brun's prisoners were dying at the rate of 500 a month. He did his utmost to help them, with no co-operation whatever from the Commissars, who were too busy denouncing each other and struggling for supremacy. There was a rapid turnover: Brun had to deal with ten different Commissars in his eighteen months in Tashkent. 'One of the most deplorable characteristics of the Bolshevist revolution', he later wrote, 'was the inherent distrust exhibited towards anyone who happened to possess a little more culture or knowledge than the rest.' Such men were speedily removed from the government, and usually shot. 'The special qualities at a premium during those times were hatred of the one-time upper classes, vindictiveness on the part of the working classes, coarseness and brutality.'

As Brun's difficulties multiplied daily, his only consolation was the company - in his rare moments of leisure - of a handful of fellow-Scandinavians, mostly Red Cross workers, and some kind Russian families. The latter, although living in much reduced circumstances under the Bolshevik regime, were delighted to offer rooms to civilized foreigners rather than have their houses requisitioned. As well as welcoming them to their homes, they acted as interpreters and sometimes took considerable risks to help the foreigners if they got into difficulties with the unpredictable Commissars. In letters to his wife Brun referred to the 'charming, hospitable home' of Mr Korotsky, former President of the Supreme Court of Turkestan, and his family, with whom he celebrated Easter. In 1918 the Bolsheviks had not yet succeeded in abolishing religious practices, and all the services of Holy Week were enthusiastically attended:

Palm Sunday heralded the approach of the Feast, the young people of the city streaming to the church in great numbers, all with a green branch or a cluster of lilacs in their hands. Service over, they returned to their homes in the dusk-hushed calm of the evening, only this time all the young girls carried a lighted taper, which made the whole length of the Pushkinsky appear like a procession of fireflies moving along. Locust flowers and lilac blossoms scented the air, but no breath of wind disturbed the little flame of light in the young girls' hands, and if they managed to reach home with the candle still burning they would find their true loves before Easter came round again.

Then, in the midst of all this beauty and silence, a shot, then another, and then many of them - all coming from the same direction. But the young people on their way home from church did not greatly mind. Had they thought it over, they would have realized that these shots meant the plundering of a house, the destruction of a home. But human feelings are gradually blunted under conditions such as these: each man must look out for himself.

In August Captain Brun's circle was enlarged by the arrival of Colonel F.M. Bailey from British India. He had been sent to discover what the attitude of the Commissars was towards the war. Would they put up any resistance if the Germans and Turks tried to push through Transcaspia to India? Were they, on the contrary, co-operating with German agents around Ashkhabad and sending precious cotton to the Germans? Bailey received a distinctly frosty reception in Tashkent, which was by now dominated by Bolsheviks, for it seemed the British had been helping the Social Revolutionaries of Transcaspia. Although the Bolsheviks had been delighted to make use of revolutionaries of all descriptions when pushing through their October coup, they were now hell-bent on eradicating any rival factions, and the Tashkent Commissars were waging a ruthless war along the Transcaspian railway.

It soon became clear to Bailey that the Bolsheviks were not going to help the Allies win the war: indeed they became daily more hostile to all the Westerners in Tashkent. Brun's relief funds were soon seized at gun-point, Bailey was for a while placed under house arrest and so was the young American Consul, Roger Tredwell. In October Bailey received a tip-off that his life was in imminent danger, and with Tredwell's help he managed to disappear. When he had first arrived in Tashkent he had been taken aback - as a British officer - at the sight of so many prisoners-of-war wandering freely around in the field-grey uniforms of the German army. Now he audaciously took on the persona of an Austrian prisoner, complete with false papers, and simply melted into the crowd. His own book, Mission to Tashkent, written with a very British understatement, gives an enthralling account of his adventures which are unfortunately beyond the scope of this book.

Early in January 1919, a counter-revolution took place, amid general jubilation and rejoicing, for conditions in Tashkent had reached a nadir. Alfred Brun heard a man reading a proclamation 'informing us all that the tyranny of the Bolsheviks had been broken, and would be succeeded by a new democratic government, bent on securing peace and orderly conditions for the inhabitants of the country'. He was amazed to recognize the man as the former chief of the Cheka. Church bells rang, prisoners were released, and 'joy and satisfaction reigned supreme'. But the celebrations were premature, for the coup had been bungled. 'Had all the different "Fronts" moved at the same time,' wrote Colonel Bailey later, 'there is in my mind no doubt that Bolshevism would have been crushed in Turkestan. But these forces never acted together; difficulties of communication and lack of unison were the causes.' Bailey himself was in no position to help, having broken his leg in the countryside outside Tashkent. As it was, the railway navvies proved the deciding factor. This considerable force of working men had at first supported the new democratic government, but they went over to the Bolsheviks en masse when they realized that many of the new leaders wanted to put the clock right back and restore the monarchy.

The triumphant Bolsheviks, back in control, unleashed a new reign of terror and wholesale slaughter. Brun was arrested and thrown into a foul-smelling prison with his Swedish colleague and a Red Cross worker called Johannes Kleberg. There were twenty-five prisoners in the cell when they arrived and others were being added all the time, including women. Night came, and they settled down as best they could. After some hours, Kleberg woke his friends to say good-bye: the guard had told him he was to be released. 'We shook hands and wished him good luck,' wrote Brun. 'That was the last we ever saw of Kleberg. He was shot that night, and his home was sacked, but we did not hear about it till some three days later. Nor did we know at that time that a promise of liberty always means that you will be the next to be shot.' The guards found it more convenient if the victims came quietly. Thanks to the efforts of his Russian friends, Brun and his other companion were released after ten nerve-racking days, during which many of their cell-mates were dragged out and summarily shot. Brun, the father of a teenage daughter, found it unutterably shocking that the self-appointed chief executioner was only a youth. 'It was horrible', he wrote, 'to see a man so young that his face had not yet lost the rounded contours of childhood, filling the part of a hardened executioner without flinching.'

Colonel Bailey meanwhile had slipped back into Tashkent, changing his papers so frequently that he sometimes had difficulty remembering his current name. He dared not sleep more than one night in the same place, and was entirely dependent on his gallant White Russian friends - who took enormous risks to hide him -and a spirited Irish girl, Rosanna Houston, who was governess to one of the Russian families. However, life had its lighter side, even in the revolutionary turmoil of Tashkent. One day an English showman turned up in the town with a troupe of performing elephants, en route for India. How on earth they had managed to get there during a world war and a revolution remains a mystery. An aged Serbian fortune-teller also passed through with an equally elderly parrot who would pick out a lucky envelope for you in return for a few coppers. He had spent his life making a meagre living in this way, and had travelled all over China and India. There was also an itinerant Chinese 'dentist' in the old town who, for a small fee, claimed to remove maggots from your teeth with a pair of chopsticks.

As Bailey racked his brains for a way of eluding the Bolsheviks and escaping to India, the end of winter raised his spirits:

The spring now came on quickly and was very lovely in Tashkent. The streets for many days were scented by the flowers of the acacias which formed the avenues; this is, perhaps, the pleasantest memory I keep of my year in Tashkent. The scented air, deep shade and running water in the streets made one wish that men were not so unkind and that people had leisure and quiet to enjoy it all.

Brun also put his worries aside for a moment to enjoy the spring, despite having been bitten by a stray dog and dreading the possible onset of rabies. (Happily he was spared that horror.)

How lovely the spring was here in Tashkent! The warm and delightful March winds spread a cloak of green all over the city when they opened the buds. The trees and bushes, especially the almond-trees and peach-trees, were in their glory, and each of the flat clay roofs of the houses in the Sart quarter shone like a purple carpet with wild crocuses, and over the wide streets and on the beautiful open squares, the scent of the locust-tree blossom lingered like incense.

For Brun, if not for Bailey, relief was in sight. The White Russian forces controlling the railway line to Orenburg were eventually beaten back, and Tashkent was once more in communication with the outside world. A special train was arranged by Moscow for the evacuation of foreigners and Brun, Tredwell and the remaining relief workers packed their bags. Rosanna Houston pluckily decided to stay on, feeling that her three young charges - not to mention Eric Bailey - still needed her. It was a courageous decision, for the situation for middle-class Russian families became increasingly unpleasant, and Miss Houston was soon forced to teach in a Soviet school. (In the end she managed to escape, by having herself transferred to Ashkhabad and then fleeing into the Kopet Dagh mountains, where bandits helped her to cross into Persia.)

For Bailey, of course, there was no question of evacuation, for he was still a wanted man. He felt the loss of his friends keenly, but at least both Brun and Tredwell were carrying well-concealed messages from him. One of these eventually found its way to England, to the great relief of Bailey's mother, who had feared the worst after so many months of silence. At Easter in 1919, he slipped into Kaufmann's ornate cathedral and at midnight joined in the joyful cry of 'Christ is risen!' The service, which unknown to the congregation would be the last public celebration of Easter for seventy years, was conducted by the Bishop of Tashkent, 'a very fine high-souled man with great influence for good'. Bailey discovered that he was later shot by the Bolsheviks. He himself was luckier, for he managed to escape in the end, disguised as, of all things, a Cheka agent.

It was many years before Tashkent saw another English visitor, but an Austrian prisoner who remained an unwilling resident of the city from 1916 to 1921 wrote this sad description of the run-down capital in a letter to Ella Christie:

When I arrived in Tashkent it was a garden city of striking beauty, with modern shops, carriages, motor-cars, with the life of a small European capital. What has the October revolution made of Tashkent? Today it is a dead and filthy town, where nothing remains to remind us of her pristine beauty. The shops are all empty and closed, and they have generally been transformed into Soviet offices. The whole trade of the East has come to an end. One never sees those interminable caravans of camels, whose countless processions once filled the streets of Tashkent with their joyful bells. Hotels, restaurants and cafes are equally closed. The tram-cars have ceased to run. There is no more lighting in the streets. Everywhere we have the same picture of destruction and devastation.

At least the trams were running again when Fitzroy Maclean visited the city in 1937, even if they could only be boarded 'after a hand-to-hand fight', with fists, teeth and feet being used freely. Tashkent at this time had a very unsavoury reputation and Maclean, then a young diplomat serving in Moscow, was given a motherly talk by a ticket-collector on his train, warning him of the dangers and temptations to which he was about to be exposed. This was reinforced on arrival, when he tried to take a nap on a park bench:

I had scarcely closed my eyes when I awoke to find my neighbours shaking me and asking me in agitated tones whether I realized that I had fallen asleep. On my replying that that was what I was trying to do, they seemed profoundly shocked and explained that if you were foolish enough to go to sleep out of doors in a city like Tashkent anything might happen to you.

Maclean, Eastern Approaches, 1949

However, to Maclean the 'noise and strife' of Tashkent seemed quite a relief after the atmosphere of terror and suspicion in Moscow, where Stalin's purges were in full swing.

By now Kaufmann's graciously laid-out town had acquired a rash of 'the usual square white factories, Government offices and blocks of flats in the strictly utilitarian style of modern Soviet architecture', and many more were to spring up a few years later as heavy industry was relocated to Tashkent during the Second World War. Evacuees also poured in, and in three months the population doubled from 500,000 to a million. Among them, by chance, was Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia's great poets. Her husband had been shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921, her son disappeared in the purges, and she spent most of her life in penury and fear. But Tashkent's spectacular spring raised her spirits as it had done those of Brun and Bailey, and in 1944 she wrote 'Tashkent Breaks into Blossom':

As if somebody ordered it,

the city suddenly became bright -

it came into every court in a white, light apparition.

Their breathing is more understandable than words,

in the burning blue sky

their reflection is doomed

to lie at the bottom of the ditch.

I will remember the roof of stars

in the radiance of eternal glory,

and the small rolls of bread

in the young hands

of dark-haired mothers.

Ten years later the Oncological Clinic of a Tashkent hospital received a rather special patient: the future Nobel prizewinner Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A victim of Stalin's paranoia, he had been arrested for making a light-hearted remark while serving at the front in the Second World War and consigned to a labour camp. There he developed a tumour and was operated on by a fellow inmate, but there was no opportunity for follow-up care, and the cancer recurred a few years later when he was living in exile in Kazakhstan. After a weary, 1,000-mile journey in 'hard-class' the sick man made his way to the hospital, only to be turned away. Patients could not be admitted without an identity card, snapped the receptionist, and as an exile he did not have one. But Solzhenitsyn could go no further and so he lay down on the floor, ignoring threats and curses. Fortunately for him a woman doctor took pity on him, he was treated and eventually cured. Ten years later the doctors, nurses and patients were immortalized in Solzhenitsyn's banned novel Cancer Ward.

His descriptions of Tashkent's old town, with its blind clay walls, sound very like those of Schuyler in 1873, but this air of timelessness would endure for only twelve more years. At 5.23 a.m. on 26 April 1966, a massive earthquake struck Tashkent and the factories, offices and blocks of shoddily built flats collapsed like a house of cards. Miraculously, only a handful of people are said to have lost their lives, but 300,000 were made homeless. Many former evacuees volunteered to help with the clearance and reconstruction of the city which had given them refuge during the dark days of the war.