From 1860 to 1890, Russia conquered Central Asia. What started as crafting a strong border along their Siberian territories grew into the conquest of most of modern day Central Asia.

Russia and Central Asia have a long, intertwined history that altered between coexistence and conflict. The Russians didn’t start expanding eastwards until the 1500s and they didn’t ’t really consider invading the region until the 1700s and even then, it’s contained to the Steppe lands. We don’t really see engagements with major Central Asian powers until the late 1700s/early 1800s. Their approach isn’t systematic or well planned. The Russians are responding to events unfolding, both in the region and from the around the world, as much as they are trying to shape events to fit their own priorities. They don’t fully subdue the region until the 1880s and roughly 30 years later WWI begins. By 1917 the Tsarist Empire collapses, and Russia loses all control over their conquered territories, including Central Asia. It would be up to the Bolsheviks and the various Central Asian republics to determine what relations would look like during the rest of the 20th century.  

Early Russian Incursions (1580s-1700s)

As we mentioned, Russia and the various peoples of Central Asia traded and interacted with each other for most of their early history. The Russians did not consider expanding eastwards until the 1500s, starting with the overthrow of the Kazan khanate in 1552 and Astrakhan khanate in 1556 (two main centers of trade for people from all over the world). In 1580, they overthrew the Khanate of Sibr, opening up Siberia and introducing Kazakh peoples to Cossacks and Slavic merchants, and officials.

Peter the Great courtesy of Wikicommons

Up until Peter the Great’s reign in 1682, the Russians and Central Asians spent their time learning about each other and establishing centers of trade. Neither saw each other as a source of danger since the Central Asians khanates were more concerned about fighting each other and resisting pressures from Safavid Iran and China whereas Russia was establishing itself as a state.

It was Peter the Great who turned Russia into an empire and pushed into the Central Asia region, sparking conflict with the Bashirs, Astrakhans, Khiva Khanate, and even Iran. Peter ordered several forts to be built along the current Kazakhstan border and took the Volga and Ural lands, encircling Central Asia. Their first proper incursion into the region was within Steppe lands. The Russians tried to implement tribute and oaths of loyalty, but the Kazakh people either resisted or manipulated Russian demands to fit their needs. They often played the Russians against their other enemies such as China, the Zunghar people, and the different Uzbek Khanates. However, the more involved they became with the Russians, the more restricted their political freedom became and by 1730 they officially asked the Russians for their protection.

Kazakhs and Kyrgyzs peoples 1700s-1800s

The first Tsarina to truly interact with her Muslim subjects was Catherine the Great. She chose a position of tolerance while enforcing methods of police control. Catherine believed that if she could use the Islamic hierarchy to manage the people, she could instill law and order in the region. As long as she controlled who was recognized by the state as a legitimate source of religious authority, she could control the people and bind Islamic ideals to the Tsarist system. She implemented this policy with the Muslims in Siberia, the Volga and Ural regions, and the Crimea, utilizing the indigenous Tatars. When Russia tried to implement this system with the Kazakhs they ran into issues.

Catherine the Great courtesy of Wikicommons

Lack of knowledge is a key component in the Russian rule, and they were aware of this. As they incorporated the land, they sent several expeditions into the region to understand the territory, the people, and the benefits they could reap from the area. Ian W Campbell’s book Knowledge and Ends of Empire goes into great detail how much the Russians didn’t know as they conquered the Steppe lands and the efforts, they went through to fill in their knowledge gap.

Since the Kazakhs were nomads, they did not practice a type of Islam recognized by the Russians, so they were unable to utilize any existing religious structure, like they did with the Tatars. Instead, they had to engage with the different tribal leaders and indigenous informers and spies to manage the steppe peoples and enforce a form of sedentary lifestyle (with mixed results).

In an effort to “bring civilization” to the Kazakh people the Russians abolished the hordes and reorganized the land along tribal lines into three regions. They implemented a heavy bureaucracy consisting of auls, townships, and districts. In 1844, the Kazakhs traditional courts were stripped of authority over serious criminal cases and subjected Kazakhs to Russian military courts.

Authority was maintained by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and military governors, which tried their best to manage the theft and abuse the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz peoples experienced from Russians officials and the Cossacks. This abuse seems to have been driven by the lawlessness common to vast frontiers (one can think of the US’s own Wild West as an example) and because most Russians looked down on the Kazakhs and Kyrgyzs as inferior people.

Uzbek Khanates 1800-1900

Driven by mistreatment, starvation, and fear of the Russians, many Kazakh peoples found shelter in the Uzbek khanates. By the 1800s, all three Khanates were experiencing civil wars and intense rivalries with each other and either ignored or were disinterested in the Russian encroachment. They were vaguely curious about the increase of British visitors but didn’t seem to realize that it meant trouble for their people. To be fair, the British were notoriously bad at trying to enlist the aid of the Khanates as can be seen with the Conolloy-Stoddart-Nasrullah affair.

Nasrullah Khan of Bukhara courtesy of Wikipedia

Charles Stoddart was sent to Bukhara by the East India Company to win over the emirate, Nasrullah. Instead Nasrullah found him so insulting, he threw him into a bug pit for a few days. Stoddart remained in Bukhara for three years before the Company sent Captain Arthur Connolly to rescue him. Connolly traveled disguised as a merchant, but the Emirate was on alert since Britain was invading Afghanistan at the same time. Around the time Connolly was arrested, the Afghans organized a revolt that drove the British out of their country (only one British survivor made it back to India). Nasrullah wasn’t impressed and felt even more insulted by Connolly’s and Stoddart’s behavior, so he beheaded them when he caught them trying to smuggle letters to India.

Modern historians have poked several holes into the Great Game narrative, and it may be safe to say that the Great Game is more of a reflection of Britain’s own insecurities and fears than reality (with the Russians taking advantage of said fears). At the same time, Russia was feeling insecure compared to the other European states, had a need to make up for the humiliating defeat suffered during the Crimean War, were concerned about the security of their southern frontier, and held racist beliefs about the inferiority of the Central Asian peoples.

Their first attempt was to invade Khiva in 1839, but that ended in disaster. They would not try again until 1858, pushing southward, along the Syr Darya. By 1860 they had taken and established forts in what is modern day Almaty, Kazakhstan and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. In 1864 Colonel Mikhail G. Cherniaev finished the conquest of the land along the Syr Darya by taking the towns of Yasi and Shymkent. In 1865, he took Tashkent from Kokand, conquering the last bit of Kazakh land.

At this point, we can organize the Russian conquest around three major events: the subjugation of the Bukhara and Khiva Khanates, the abolishment of the Kokand Khanate, and the slaughter of the Turkmen people in the Ferghana valley

Conquering the Bukharan Khanate

However, conquering Tashkent dragged them into the rivalry between Kokand and Bukhara. The Russians wanted to turn Tashkent into a buffer state between themselves and Bukhara while Bukhara hoped the Russians would return the city to them. When Emir Muzzafar sent an envoy to embassy to the Tsar, he was arrested and Muzzafar was told he no longer had the right to speak to the Tsar directly. Muzzafar was stunned and furious so he arrested a Russian diplomat sent from Tashkent. The Russians attacked the Bukharan town of Jizza but returned from lack of supplies. The Bukharans responded by marching on Tashkent but were defeated by the Russians at Irjar. The Russians then took Khujand, cutting off communications between Bukhara and Kokand, preventing a coordinated resistance.

Konstantin Petrovich Von Kaufmann courtesy of Wikicommons

To neutralized Kokand, further the Russians a treaty with Kokand granting Russian merchants free trade rights in the khanate and vice versa in Russian Turkestan. However, since Russia’s economy was bigger, this made Kokand an economic vassal.

Bukhara tried to resist the Russians but because of a divided military, internal rebellions, and antiquated technology, Muzzafar was forced to surrender in June 1868. The treaty restored Muzzafar’s sovereignty but took Samarkand away, controlling Bukhara’s main water source. Russian merchants were allowed to conduct business in Bukhara with the same rights as local merchants and Bukhara had to pay a compensation for Russia’s expenses during the war.

While the conquest of the Syr Darya basin and Tashkent had been approved by ministers in St. Petersburg, the Bukharan conflict was decided by officers on the ground. They actually recalled Cherniaev in 1866 only for his replacement, Romanovskii to attack Khujand. In 1867, Romanovskii was replaced by Konstantin Petrovich Von Kaufmann (who was a bit of an asshole) who served as Turkestan’s first governor-general. Despite the fact that its military had gone rogue, the Russians could not tolerate retreating or returning the land. Think about how it would affect its standing amongst the European powers (sarcasm)

Kaufman called his conquered territory Turkestan and made Tashkent as its capital. Given its distant from St. Petersburg, Kaufman enjoyed remarkable independence and was more like an emperor than a civil servant.

Conquering the Khivan Khanate

By 1859, Russia had conquered the North Caucasus and created a port in modern day Turkmenboshi, Turkmenistan. This allowed the Russians to transport goods via the river, instead of making the long and dangerous journey from Khiva to Orenburg. This deeply hurt Khiva’s income and cut into the incomes of the Turkmen who protected or raided the traveling merchants.

That, combined with the Russian conquest of Kokand and Bukhara and Khiva was in serious trouble. Khivan Emir Muhammad Rahim, learned from Bukhara, released all Russian prisoners, and negotiated with Russia for peace. Kaufman, however, wasn’t interested in peace. Instead, he sent message after message to Alexander II to complain about Khiva’s insolence and the danger it posed to Russian merchants, finally getting his permission to launch a military campaign to punish Khiva. In 1872, Kaufman led an invasion of four columns, consisting of over 12,000 men and tens of thousands of camels and horses and attacked Khiva from three directions. The Khivans did not resist vigorously whereas the Turkmen fought viciously.

On June 14th, Muhammad Rahim surrendered and Kaufmen forced him to govern under a Russian led council while he ransacked the palace for personal prizes. On August 12th, 1873, Rahim signed a stricter treaty then the one Muzzafar signed. The treaty forced the khan to acknowledge he was an obedient servant of the Tsar, granted control of navigation over the river Amu Darya to the Russians, and granted extensive privileges to Russian merchants. They also agreed to pay Russian 2.2 million rubles over the course of twenty years.

The Turkmen

While Khiva was subdued, the Turkmen were as rebellious as ever and Kaufman jumped at the opportunity to expand his power and earn more “glory”. In July 1873, he required that the Turkmen pay 600,000 rubles with only two weeks to deliver, knowing it would be impossible to do. When they failed, Kaufman launched an attack on the Yomut, a Turkmen tribe. American journalist Januarius MacGahan reported the following:

This is war such as I had never before seen, and such as is rarely seen in modern days…I follow down to the marsh, passing two or three dead bodies on the way. In the marsh are twenty or thirty women and children, up to their necks in water, trying to hie among the weeds and grass, begging for their lives, and screaming in the most pitiful manner. The Cossacks have already passed, paying no attention o them. One villainous-looking brute, however, had dropped out of the ranks and leveling his piece as he sat on his horse, deliberately took aim at the screaming group, and before I could stop him, pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the gun missed fire, and before he could renew the cap, I rode up and cutting him across the face with my riding-whip, ordered him to his sotnia.

Januarius MacGahan

By end of July, the Turkmen agreed to pay and Kaufman extended the deadline.

Even though Russian conquered Kokand, they had a hard time implementing political control, having to deal with a still strong khanate and an angry populace. The death of the old khan, Alim Qul, allowed Khudoyar Khan to return to rule. However, his close ties with Russia inspired a revolt amongst the Kokandi Kyrgyz nobles who drove him out in August 1875. The Russians placed his son, Nasruddin on the throne, but another revolt drove him out as well and Russia was stuck with a region deep in civil war with no clear factions.

Kaufman, worried that Bukhara or the British would take advantage, launched another military campaign. This campaign was particularly bloody, with Major-General Mikhail D. Skobelev making it a point of murdering civilians to crush all future rebellions. Vladimir P. Nalivkin, a young officer serving under Skobelev wrote the following of an incident where Skobelev ordered his Cossacks to charge fleeing civilians while their divisional commander countermanded the order. He then told Nalivkin to chase after a Cossack bearing down on an unarmed man carrying his child. Nalivkin wrote the following:

“With a cry “leave him alone! Leave him alone!” I rushed towards the man (sart), but it was already too late: one of the Cossacks brought down his sword, and the unfortunate two or three-year-old child fell from the arms of the dumbfounded, panic-striken man, landing on the ground with a deeply cleft head. The man’s arms were apparently cut. The bloody child convulsed and died. The man blankly stared now at me, now at the child, with wildly darting, wide eyes.

God forbid that anyone else should have to live through the horror I lived through in that moment. I felt as though sinects were crawling up my psine and cheeks, something gripped me by the throat, and I could neither speak nor breathe. I had seen dead and wounded people many times; I had seen death before, but such horror, such abomination, such infamy I had never been seen with my own eye: this was new to me.”

Vladimir P. Nalivkin

The war ended in 1876 with the bombing of Andijan, which Skobelev described himself as a pogram. Kaufman abolished the Kokand Khanate on February 19th, the same day as the anniversary of Alexander II’s ascension to the throne. He renamed the region the Ferghana District and named Skobelev its governor.

Finally, the Russians finished their conquest by subjugating the Turkmen Tekke tribes who lived around the oases in the Qara Qum desert. The reason for the attack was geopolitical. The Russians had won a war against the Ottoman Empire in 1878 but the British prevented the Russians from seizing Constantinople, so Kaufman was ordered to march on India.

Kaufman sent three columns towards Afghanistan and Kashmir and a fourth column heading towards the town on Kelif on the Amu Darya. To get there, they had to march through Tekke Turkmen territory. The attack was called off a week later, but the Russians continued south to establish a line of forts on the border of Iranian Khurasan. These forts were vulnerable to Turkmen attack, so the Russians laid siege to the town of Gok Tepe.

Their artillery was devastating but the Russians were defeated by fierce Turkmen fighting when they decided to storm the town. Skobelev led a revenge campaign in November 1880, finally blowing up the walls of Gok Tepe in January 1881. He ordered the Cossacks to pursue and kill anyone fleeing. The total cost was 14,500 Turkmen killed, including many non-combatants, destroying the Tekke Turkmen for decades and finalizing Russian control over Central Asia.


For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia by Robert D. Crews Published by Harvard University Press, 2006

The Rise and Fall of Khoqand: Central Asia in the Global Age 1709-1876 by Scott C. Levi Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017

The Bukharan Crisis: a Connected History of 18th Century Central Asia by Scott C. Levi Published by University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020

Tatar Empire: Kazan’s Muslims and the Making of Imperial Russia by Danielle Ross Published by Indiana University Press, 2020

Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Coexistence by Shoshana Keller Published by University of Toronto Press, 2019

Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Khiva, 1865-1924 by Seymour Becker, Published by RoutledgeCurzon, 2004

Tournament of Shadows: the Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac Published by Basic Books, 1999

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