The exploits of British officers, explorers, and adventurers furthering the interests of the British Empire in Central Asia are well-known and respected for their courage and dedication to the British cause. Similarly, British paranoia regarding Russian aggression toward India is well-documented in the writings of Moorcroft, Burnes, and Curzon, among others, particularly in the modern belief that an invasion of India from Persia, Afghanistan, or Chinese Turkestan would be such an arduous task that the threat was negligible. Less-well-known, at least in the West, are the intrigues and courage of for the Tsarist and Bolsheviks agents operating in Central Asia, and the real nature of Russian designs on India.
Russian agents were active in Central Asia for reasons ranging to a desire for territory bounded by natural borders, desire to open colonial markets, and desire to disrupt the power of their perceived enemies by attacking their possessions. Russian interest in Central Asia in general, and India in specific was first expressed by Peter the Great, an interest that was to be continued by his heirs. The expression of Russian interest took many forms, from invasion attempts to trade delegation to the encouragement of revolutionary movements.
Peter the Great was the first Tsar to recognize the benefits of adding even a portion of India to his domains. Anxious to prevent France and Great Britain from seizing the entire subcontinent for their own purposes, the Tsar remembered a diplomatic offer that he had long set aside. The Khan of Khiva had offered to become his vassal if offered Russian protection from his enemies. Given Khiva’s location halfway between Russia and India, and its access to the Oxus river, Peter decided to see if the offer was still open. To secure the cooperation of the Khan, the Tsar sent a well-armed force to act as either a guard for the Khan and his family, or to seize Khiva if there was resistance. The force sent to Khiva numbered approximately 4,000 men and included infantry, cavalry, and artillery. The force commander was Prince Alexander Bekovich, a Muslim convert to Christianity.
After an arduous march, the Russians arrived at Khiva and Bekovich plied the Khan with gifts to ensure a positive reception. Coming to meet with Bekovich, the Khan suggested that the Russian troops be quartered in nearby villages to avoid over-straining the city’s resources. Over the objections of his officers, Bekovich assented. The result was disaster for his entire force. Once Bekovich’s army was dispersed the Khivans struck, brutally slaying all but forty of the Russians. Most of these forty were allowed to return across the desert to Russia, but some were sold into slavery. In an example that is familiar throughout the Russian and British involvement in Central Asia, no punitive expedition to Khiva was mounted by Peter the Great, who was too distracted by events in the Caucasus to avenge his men. Russia did not turn a blind eye toward events in Central Asia for long. Forty years after Prince Bekovich went to his death in Khiva, Catherine the Great considered a plan to march her armies overland to India, appealing to local Muslim potentates along the way to join her armies to free their oppressed Indian Muslim brethren from the British. Catherine never embarked on the plan, but it serves to illustrate that India had not slipped from Russia’s consciousness. Indeed, her successor, Tsar Paul I developed a fascination with conquering India that drove him to first approach Napoleon with a plan for a joint Franco-Russian invasion of India of approximately 70,000 men. Again, the plan called for gaining the sympathy of local tribesmen by saying that the invaders had come to free them from the oppressive British. Napoleon declined Paul’s offer, believing that it was totally unworkable. Despite Napoleon’s refusal, Paul sent a forces of his own, numbering 22,000 Cossacks and supporting artillery, which left Orenburg for India in the dead of winter without maps detailing any part of the journey past Khiva. The mission was saved from certain disaster by Paul’s assassination and proclamation of his heir Alexander I as Tsar.
Later Russian attempts to infiltrate the Central Asian regions between their territory and British India were more cautious in nature, and functionally similar to British exploration and diplomatic missions of the time. The first of these sent Captain Nikolai Muraviev to Khiva to offer the Khan the friendship of Mother Russia, but to also assess Khiva’s military capabilities, economic strength, and to find any information possible about the many Russian slaves sold in the markets of Khiva and Bokhara. After making his way to Khiva, Muraviev was kept prisoner for seven weeks before receiving an audience with the Khan. In a stroke of fortune for Muraviev, the Khan agreed to send Khivan officials back to Tiflis (modern Tbilisi) with him to negotiate trade status and alliances.
While preparations for the return trip were made, Muraviev completed the part of his mission that had the greatest consequences for the future of Central Asia. After making contact with Russian slaves, he learned that there were at least 3,000 held in the lands governed by the Khan, and that many were treated with utmost cruelty. This information he reported to Tsar Alexander I, who did not make immediate use of it, being distracted by affairs in Europe. However, the number of Russian slaves and the conditions of their bondage provided “an excellent excuse for their subsequent expansion into Muslim Central Asia.”
Closer to British India Russian intrigues were a bit more subtle. Captain Yan Vitkevich was dispatched to Kabul bearing a message offering friendship and goodwill between the Tsar and Dost Mohammed, the ruler of Afghanistan. Vitkevich’s reception was not particularly warm, and the British agent Alexander Burnes was asked by Dost Mohammed to verify the Russian’s identity and purpose in Kabul. Burnes agreed that the Russian was likely who he claimed to be, and his messages genuine, although it would have better served his nation for it to be otherwise.
Vitkevich was treated shabbily until the British made a critical mistake in their dealings with Dost. In a misguided and arrogant attempt to safeguard their interests, Lord Auckland sent Dost a personal letter informing Dost that he should give up any hopes of recovering his former domain of Peshawar from the Sikhs and forbade him from entering any alliances with Russia or any other power without British permission. Further, Auckland asserted that any dealing with Russians would induce the British to allow the Sikhs to continue their aggression unchecked and that he would be removed from his throne. The results were predictable. Dost cast out Burnes, who he considered a friend, and received Vitkevich with all honors. Peter Hopkirk believes that the Russian was able to achieve his goals in Kabul by simply out-waiting his rivals and exploiting their mistakes.
Russia was not so fortunate in her next venture to counter British power in Central Asia. In 1839, General Perovsky marched for Khiva with the intention of seizing it to use as a base for future moves against British India. With a force of 5,000 troops and 10,000 camels, Perovsky moved south in the dead of winter. It was the misfortune of his command that the winter was especially harsh. After months of marching, the army headed back to Orenburg. When the bedraggled group finally made it back over 1,000 men had died, along with 8,500 camels.
Not all Russian attempts at drawing the Khanates into their sphere of influence were subtle in nature. In Tournament of Shadows, Meyer and Brysac report that Captain Nikiforov played on the fears of Khiva’s Khan, Allah Quli, telling him that if the British had made up their minds to absorb him or his neighbors the only way to preserve his throne was by way of a “firm alliance” with Russia, who would send troops to defend him. This is a clear example of Russian willingness to try methods other than force to extend the Tsar’s influence into Central Asia by means of diplomacy, rather than force. Russian willingness to use diplomacy continued in 1858, when Tsar Alexander sent a mission led by Count Nikolai Ignatiev to Central Asia to establish commercial links between Russia and the Khanates, and to counter British influence. Like his British counterparts, a significant portion of Ignatiev’s mission was devoted to gathering military and political intelligence.
The first stop for the mission was Khiva, site of a large amount of the Russian-British competition in Central Asia. Ignatiev borrowed the British stratagem of bringing bulky, but extremely valuable gifts to the Khan, which forced him to travel upriver to deliver them to the Khan. This had the added benefit of allowing Ignatiev to plot the course and channels of the Oxus, a valuable bit of intelligence for both trade and invasion. The river journey ended at Khiva at the insistence of the Khan, who also would not open his markets to Russian trade. However, he did allow the mission to progress onward to Bokhara, where Ignatiev successfully negotiated a trade agreement and gained other temporary concessions from the Khan at the expense of the British. The most valuable result of Ignatiev’s mission was not the Bokharan trade agreement or the temporary amity of the Khan, but the military intelligence gathered at both Khiva and Bokhara. If nothing else, the tour provided Russia with the information necessary to carry out a successful invasion in the future.
Typically, the Russian invasion of Central Asia did not occur over the routes painstakingly ferreted out by Vitkevich and Ignatiev, but in a region known well to Russian merchants – Tashkent. In 1865 Major-General Mikhail Cherniaev seized a golden opportunity offered by an incipient struggle for dominion of Tashkent between the Khan of Khokand and the Emir of Bokhara to invade the prosperous city. Cherniaev used his force of only 1,900 men and twelve guns to storm the city walls in the dawn light of June 15th. The general followed up his coup by promising not to interfere with the city’s Muslim religious practices and granted an amnesty from all taxation for a year. Finally, he visited the bazaars to meet the townsfolk and drink tea with them.
Russian acquisitions in the region continued apace, especially after the arrival of General Kaufman in Turkestan. Soon after his arrival, he used the pretext of a possible Bokharan invasion to occupy Samarkand, with few losses in 1868. In 1871 Samarkand was followed by Ili, near both Siberia and Kashgar, which was annexed by Kaufman with the excuse that it was too vulnerable a spot to allow it to fall into the hands of Russia’s enemies. Khiva finally fell to Russian invasion in 1873, avenging the slaughtered mission of 1717. The Russian juggernaut next crushed Khokand in 1875 and forced Kabul into a treaty of friendship in 1878, triggering the Second Afghan War. The British swiftly won their war in Afghanistan, in which Russia did not intervene, and signed a treaty with the Emir that gave the British control of Afghan foreign policy in return for a large annual subsidy and protection from Russian invasion.
After being rebuffed in Afghanistan and a humiliating defeat by the Turkoman at Geok-Tepe, Russian armies were again successful in 1880, avenging their 1879 loss at Geok-Tepe in a brutal display during the sack of the city. Geok-Tepe was followed by a peaceful Russian withdrawal from Ili, which had little strategic utility, and the 1884 capture of Merv from the Turkoman tribes. The capture of Merv again demonstrated that Russia was not above using deception to defeat their enemies. After occupying Tejend, eighty miles away, Lieutenant Alikhanov and a small party approached Merv and convinced the city into capitulating without a fight by claiming that they were the advance party of a large artillery equipped force, and that if the surrender was immediate not garrison would be stationed in Merv. The ploy worked and Merv was Russian.
During this outburst of Russian expansion, British authorities became convinced that Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, known as Madame Blavatsky, was a Russian agent who used her leadership of the Theosophical Society to inflame Indian nationalists. There is ample evidence that Blavatsky may have been connected to Russian intelligence operatives, partially based on a letter she wrote in 1872 to a Russian Director of Intelligence that laid out her qualifications and stratagems for ensnaring the naive and unwary “...must confess that three-quarters of the time the spirits spoke and answered in my own words...” Whether Madame Blavatsky deliberately fed the flames of Indian and Sikh nationalism will probably remain unknown, but the net effect was for British authorities to spend time and resources watching her movements and her associates for signs of subversion. The emphasis on Blavatsky and her high profile in European and Indian society surely allowed actual Russian agents to operate more freely and in blissful obscurity.
Russian tweaking of the British did not stop at the possible exploitation of the occult and esoteric services of the likes of Madame Blavatsky. They also allowed Indian subversives such as Duleep Singh to find safe haven in Moscow. While Meyer and Brysac assert that this was likely due to Britains harboring of Russian revolutionaries, they also note that Singh promised Tsar Alexander III an easy conquest of British India.
Russian slyness played a crucial part in Russia’s next major acquisition, as did Alikhanov, now a Colonel. With the British seemingly ready to go to war to protect the Afghan border town of Pandjeh, the Russians agreed to attack the town unless first attacked, which meant that the Afghans would have to be the aggressors if war between the two empires was to be avoided. At this point it was up to Alikhanov to provoke an incident. To achieve this, Alikhanov wrote an incredibly insulting letter to the Afghan commander at Pandjeh, which accused him of cowardice. Due to British counsel Alikhanov’s trick did not work and the Afghans maintained their defensive posture. During this time, Russian troops continued to advance, and they issued an ultimatum: withdraw or be forced out. The ultimatum provided a five-day time frame for the Afghan withdrawal. At the end of the five days, the Russian advance continued and, according to Colonel Alikhanov, an Afghan opened fire, wounding a horse. As expected, the Russian force opened fire on the Afghans and slaughtered them. The Russians had added another town to their empire.
Pandjeh was the last major town of Central Asia to fall to the Russian advance, which is not to say that they immediately lost interest in capturing Indian trade or enhancing the status of the Russian Empire. To avoid open warfare with the British, they turned east, running a railway from Moscow to Vladivostok to promote Far Eastern trade. The new rail link was expected to allow exploitation of Siberian resources and to cut into Britain’s monopoly on seaborne trade from the East. This of course also allowed rapid transport of Russian troops and materiel from West to East, which was bound to cause concern for both China and Japan, the main powers on Asia’s Pacific coast.
Competition between the Russian and British Empires came to an end in 1907 with the Anglo-Russian Convention, which formally recognized that Afghanistan lay in Britain’s sphere of influence. For her part Russia agreed to send no agents to Afghanistan and direct political inquiries to London. Likewise, Britain agreed to maintain Afghanistan as an independent state and to discourage Afghan hostilities toward Russia. The matter of Tibet was resolved by both sides agreeing to routes all dealings through China and to not interfere with its internal affairs. Persia was the most complex matter dealt with in the Convention. Here, both empires agreed to support Persia’s independence and allow others to trade within its borders. They also divided it into spheres of influence that were not completely unlike those the allies maintained in West Germany after World War II. At least until the 1917 Communist Revolution, British and Russian competition in Central Asia was over.