Central Asia, European Presence in

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Central Asia, European Presence in

In 1450 Central Asia from west of Mongolia and the Hindu Kush to the eastern Caspian Sea was dominated by nomadic and sedentary peoples, speakers of Turkic and Persian. The remnants of the Mongol "Golden Horde," Turkic-speaking nomads, claimed tribute from Muscovy, a principality that preceded the Russian Empire. After 1552, when the Russian Czar Ivan IV (1530–1584) conquered the Kazan khanate, Russians began to move into the steppe zone, taking control from nomadic peoples. Cossack conquest was followed by Russian peasant settlement.

In the seventeenth century, Russia established Orenburg as a frontier post, to separate the nomadic Bashkords, who paid tribute to Russia, from the nomadic Kazakhs, whom the Russian government viewed as dangerous raiders and slave traders. In the eighteenth century, the Jungars, a western Mongolian (Oirat) people, expanded into Kazakh lands. This led one Kazakh tribal leader, Bukei Khan, (d. 1823) to seek protection from the Russian government. His followers were granted land in the steppe on the west bank of the Volga River, and were named the Inner Horde, to denote their status within Russian lands.

Between the early eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century, Russia came to control all of the other Kazakh hordes as well by expanding into the steppe lands with Cossack forward posts, by establishing treaties of protection when various Kazakh tribal leaders faced conflict, and by negotiating leases of steppe land to be granted to Russian (and other European) settlers.

Until the late eighteenth century, Russian colonial expansion was based on the concept of tribute relationships. As Cossacks in service to Russia expanded Russian control beyond Kazan, across Siberia to the Pacific coast (by the late 1600s), the Russian government accepted the obeisance of conquered peoples, established the amount of annual tribute (iasak) they would pay to the government, and took representatives from the ruling or leading households to live in Moscow. These representatives were used as hostages when the Russian government faced problems in its relationship with tribute-paying peoples, but they were also integrated into the Russian nobility, granted titles, and assimilated (at least to some extent) to elite Russian culture.

The Russian state viewed these treaty relationships as permanent, but the Kazakh hordes saw them as negotiations between individual leaders, ending with the death of the leader who made the commitment. Thus, leadership changes among Kazakhs led to conflict; if the new leader did not recognize treaty obligations with Russia, Russia sent forces to reestablish its conditions.

In the late eighteenth century, under the rule of Catherine I (1729–1796), Russia's elite explored Enlightenment ideas, and these turned its colonial project from a haphazard expansion into a purposeful spread of Russian power and culture. By the nineteenth century, Russian colonialism imitated aspects of British and French colonialism.

After conquering Kazakh nomads and demanding tribute and hostages, the Russian government began to "civilize" the Kazakhs. The Steppe Governate was organized, turning conquered nomad lands into a Russian province that had special colonial administration. The government levied taxes that pressured nomads to settle and farm, and to lease land to settlers. Eventually the government assessed land use, determined a norm for the amount of land that each nomad family needed, and seized what it deemed unused or underused lands for distribution to Russian farmers.

The conquered peoples of Central Asia who did not belong to a few noble families were deemed inferior and were not granted citizenship in the empire. They were given separate courts of law, lived under their own laws (as codified and revised by Russian administrators), were not allowed to serve in the military, were not given passports, paid different taxes than Russian citizens did, and were allowed only limited representation in Russia's first elected body of government, the Duma.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, Russia's relations with the Central Asian khanate of Kokand, the khanate of Khiva, and the emirate of Bukhara were both profitable and contentious. Central Asian merchants brought cotton and luxury goods to Orenburg's market, and they purchased sugar, matches, and other Russian manufactures. In the 1840s and 1850s Russia accused the Central Asian states of inciting rebellion among Kazakhs, and of enslaving Russians. The Russian army established advance positions, building forts at Verny (Almaty), Ak Mechet, and Shymkent in the 1850s.

In 1865 the Russian army took Tashkent from Kokand, and by 1876 Russia had defeated Khiva, Bukhara, and Kokand. Kokand's land became a new Russian colonial territory, Turkestan Territory, under the special regime of a Russian military governor. Bukhara and Khiva became protectorates, autonomous internally but controlled by Russia in foreign affairs. While the Russians deposed the khan of Kokand, they recognized the emir of Bukhara and the khan of Khiva, bestowing Russian noble status on them and inviting symbolic interaction with the Russian court.

Russia expanded its territorial control in Central Asia in competition with two other aspirants, China and Britain. Russian diplomatic missions and scientific expeditions reconnoitered Central Asia when British agents were doing the same in Afghanistan, with both sides working toward the Pamirs, the Amu Dar'ya (the Oxus River of Greek geography), and the Turkmen (Turcoman) territories. After the Jungar threat vanished in the late eighteenth century (due largely to an epidemic), Russian expansion eastward in Central Asia met little resistance until the 1850s.

China asserted its authority over Xinjiang (the New Territories, or Eastern Turkistan) but was faced with challenges from local forces, especially those of the Uighur military and political leader Yakub Beg (1820–1877). Russia held Kuldja (Yining), as an extension of its steppe territory, from 1871 to 1881, but then returned it to China. Russia continued to compete with China for influence in Eastern Turkistan until the 1940s.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the British tried to extend control of Afghanistan from their imperial territory of India. After the Afghans thoroughly defeated the British army and drove them from Kabul twice, Britain held strong influence over Afghanistan, but did not make it a colony. Afghanistan remained an independent state under the Durrani shahs.

Competing with Britain for dominance in Central Asia, in what English poet Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) dubbed the Great Game, Russia defeated Turkmen tribes in the region that Russia named "Transcaspia," and in the 1890s Russia took control of the Pamir region. Russian control over these distant regions of Central Asia was secured in part by improved transportation. The Russian government established steamship navigation on the Aral Sea and the Syr Dar'ya, and transported troops from the Transcaucasus to the Turkmen coast by ship across the Caspian Sea.

In 1879 the Tekke Turkmen defeated the advancing Russian army. However, a quickly constructed railroad from the coast to Merv allowed the Russian army to move larger numbers of troops, and to defeat the Tekke in 1881. Russia consolidated its control of the region by defeating the Merv (Mari) Turkmen in 1884. In the 1880s and 1890s, Russia and Britain negotiated the boundary between Russian-controlled territory and Afghanistan.

Russia sent agricultural colonists to nomad lands. By 1917 more than one million Russians were farming in the Steppe Governate and Turkestan Territory. They were concentrated in Jetti-Su (Seven Rivers), the region around present-day Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the Chu Valley, near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. By contrast, in the sedentary farming zones of Central Asia, Russia promoted cotton cultivation but sent few agricultural colonists; most Russian colonists in the rest of Central Asia settled in cities. Russians founded or expanded cities throughout Central Asia, and established the Tashkent-Orenburg rail line, which linked the Central Asian colony to Moscow. Oil was found on the eastern Caspian, increasing Russian settlement in Krasnovodsk (Turkmenbashi), Turkmenistan.

With encouragement from the imperial government, a diaspora of Tatar Muslims from Russia expanded in the Steppe Governate and Turkestan Territory. Many who had facility in Russian as well as their native Turkic language acted as interlocutors for the colonial administration. Tatar missionaries preached traditional and modernist (Jadid) Islam. They also opened traditional Koran schools and reformed Islamic schools in these regions. Russia sent Orthodox missionaries and established Russian-Native schools, modern schools that taught subjects in Russian and in the native languages.

As the colonial economy expanded wealth in Turkestan's cotton-growing regions, Central Asians responded to these new cultural trends in a variety of ways. The ancient madrasas (institutions of higher Islamic learning) in Bukhara expanded, as did the amount of land put into waqf (Islamic charitable foundations).

Fledgling movements for cultural reform or defense emerged among the colonized peoples, who became divided between those seeking greater accommodation with and advantage from Russia, and those striving to protect their land and culture from encroachment. After Russia's 1905 revolution and the ensuing relaxation of press censorship, Central Asians began publishing their own newspapers, opening more reformed schools, experimenting with theater, and organizing political movements.

In 1916, although the Russian government feared that "pan-Turkist" Central Asians would fight on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, there was instead a Central Asian uprising against conscription into the Russian army and against Russian colonial settlement. The uprising was most violent in areas where nomad lands had recently been given to colonists; there the uprising continued until the February 1917 revolution brought down the Czar's imperial government. Following the February Revolution, Russians in Central Asian cities maintained the crumbling empire. The Communist leadership did not allow Central Asians to claim independence.

Kazakhs formed several political parties that called for freedom and fought against the Bolsheviks until 1920. Several hundred Turkestani political activists established an autonomous Turkestan government at Kokand in January 1918, but the Soviet Red Army destroyed much of Kokand and dispersed the leaders. Many of them continued to fight against Bolshevik control in Central Asia into the 1920s; the Communists called them Basmachis.

Central Asians sought support from outsiders in their struggle against the Bolshevik government. The Turkish soldier and politician Enver Paşa (1881–1922), in flight from the Ottoman Empire after its demise at the end of World War I and from occupation by the British, joined the Basmachis. The British launched part of their anti-Bolshevik intervention from Afghanistan's territory into Turkmen lands and Bukhara. However, some Kazakhs and Turkestanis joined the Communist Party in its early years, and their numbers expanded rapidly after the Bolsheviks fully reconquered Central Asia and eliminated political alternatives.

The Bolshevik government ended the protectorates of Khiva and Bukhara, fomenting uprisings against the traditional rulers and creating in their place short-lived People's Republics. In 1924 the Nationalities Commission of the Soviet Union's government drew boundaries to create the Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Turkestani exiles saw this as a typically imperial "divide and rule" strategy, one that ended any possibility for united Central Asian opposition to Moscow's authority. The Nationalities Commission presented its justification for boundary making through its understanding of the idea of "nation." Groups that shared language, history, culture, and territory needed to have political units within the Soviet Union in order to develop, and the planners in Moscow applied this concept to the five groups that they saw as the main "nationalities" of Central Asia: Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks.

The Soviet government tried to secure its hold on Central Asia not only through force, but also through incentives. Establishing national republics opened positions in government, in Communist Party membership, and in many sectors of development, to members of the "titular" nationalities. Policies designed to attract support from the poor, such as land reform, made Soviet rule more secure, although in the 1920s many thousands of Central Asians fled from famine, hardship, and Soviet rule to Xinjiang or to Afghanistan.

Throughout the Soviet period, while the Soviet government regarded its own policies as anti-imperialist and anticolonial, exiles and outsiders condemned the Soviet Union's control of Central Asia as imperialistic and colonial. Many elements of Soviet rule in Central Asia were similar to twentieth-century colonialism elsewhere, but many aspects were strikingly different, so that arguments over whether the Soviet Union was a colonial empire are complex.

From the 1920s until the 1960s the Soviet government encouraged immigration of skilled workers, Communist Party members, and peasants from the rest of the Soviet Union to Central Asia. In the 1930s many Russians immigrated in the hope of improving their quality of life. In the 1940s refugees from the European regions of Russia under attack in World War II moved to Central Asia, as did unwilling exiles from nationality groups that the Soviet government dubbed enemies, including Volga Germans, Koreans, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, and others. In the 1950s and 1960s, as heavy industry grew in Central Asia, immigrants from other parts of the Soviet Union moved there as expert workers and for improved work opportunities.

But in the 1970s this trend ended; emigration of Russians and other nonnative nationality groups from Central Asia to other parts of the Soviet Union exceeded immigration. Throughout this period, every Central Asian republic experienced a rapid natural increase in population, and Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan's populations remained overwhelmingly dominated by their titular nationalities.

In Kazakhstan, due to famine-related starvation of nomads in the 1930s and to heavy Russian immigration, Kazakhs formed less than half of the population during most of the Soviet period. But out-migration of Russians in the 1980s and 1990s, plus Kazakh natural increase, made Kazakhs the absolution majority of the population in independent Kazakhstan. In Kyrgyzstan, the situation was similar, though Kyrgyz always maintained a scant majority.

The Soviet state encouraged immigration from other regions to Central Asia largely to support economic and political development. In the 1970s, when other regions of the Soviet Union began to face labor shortages, and when Central Asia, with its rapid population growth, had an excess of young workers, the Soviet Union's central planners tried unsuccessfully to attract Central Asians as labor emigrants to other regions. In spite of high birth rates, a third world population structure, underemployment, and lower living standards, Central Asians very rarely chose to move to other parts of the Soviet Union. However, in the tenuous economic conditions following 1991, many Central Asians began to seek a living through temporary labor migration.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet economic planning treated Central Asia as a source of agricultural products. The state collectivized agriculture between 1929 and the mid-1930s, forcing nomads to settle and small farmers to turn their land over to large collective farms. The policy was disastrous in its initial stages. Nomads slaughtered their livestock rather than turn it over to the collective farms, and then starved under famine conditions in the early 1930s, due to reduced herds, drought, and government neglect. Perhaps a quarter to a third of the Kazakh population died.

Collective farms in sedentary areas were required to plant cotton rather than grain crops, and with drought this led to severe hardship, though not to mass starvation. Nationalization of land and the formation of collective farms was intended to give the government control of farm production and to facilitate mechanization. In the 1940s and 1950s some of these plans started to be fulfilled, with tractors and other farm machinery becoming increasingly available in Central Asia.

Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan produced the vast majority of the Soviet Union's cotton. In each of these regions, the government invested heavily in the extension of irrigation canal systems. The largest, the Kara-Kum Canal, built between the 1950s and the 1980s, diverted half of the flow of the Amu Dar'ya River into a new channel that eventually crossed Turkmenistan. The project raised Turkmenistan's cotton output and standard of living, but also led to the demise of the Aral Sea, as each year the water flowing in was reduced.

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan produced primarily grain and livestock, with Kazakhstan's output expanding rapidly after Soviet prime minister Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) initiated the "Virgin Lands scheme," opening grazing lands in northern Kazakhstan to tilled agriculture. Although the Virgin Lands were not reliable in producing grain, farm output expanded until the 1970s, when it began to stagnate.

In the 1920s and 1930s the state did little to invest in industry in Central Asia. Mines were developed in Kazakhstan to feed the growing industrial complex in Russia. The state invested in some textile mills in Central Asia, mainly for processing silk. Until the 1940s, the Soviet Union seemed to treat Central Asia much as any empire treated its colonies, as a source of raw materials. But during World War II, the policy changed, as Soviet economic planners decided that industry should be placed in areas of the Soviet Union less vulnerable to invasion.

In addition, the postwar boom necessitated finding new sources of energy. Uzbekistan became home to part of the Soviet Union's airplane manufacturing industry, and its gas supplies were rapidly exploited. Kazakhstan gained diverse metallurgical industries and became a large producer of oil. Kazakhstan also became home to part of the Soviet space program at Baikonur and to aboveground nuclear-weapons testing at Semipalatinsk (Semay). Turkmenistan's gas output outstripped Uzbekistan's by the 1960s, and pipelines exported that gas to Ukraine and Russia. The Soviet state built hydroelectric dams and factory complexes in Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

In the early twentieth century, there was almost no industrialization in Central Asia; this changed rapidly after 1940. However, throughout the Soviet period, agriculture remained the dominant economic sector in each of the Central Asian republics except Kazakhstan, and none of the Central Asian republics approached the level of industrial development found in central Russia, Ukraine, or the Baltic republics.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union considered education to be the key to social change, to economic development, and to the creation of a Communist society. In the 1920s in Central Asia, the state took control of all schools, closed Islamic schools, and promoted modern, socialist education by founding teacher training programs and passing laws making basic education mandatory. In the 1930s collective farms built schools that made education widely available in rural regions for the first time. Literacy grew through a program of "end illiteracy" courses that taught adults to read and write. By the 1960s almost all Central Asian children attended school, and the government claimed literacy rates of more than 90 percent in the under-fifty population in all of the Central Asian republics.

Large numbers of Central Asians entered specialized institutions of secondary education and higher education. Although Russian was the language of the Soviet government, most educational institutions in Central Asia taught in the native languages, and included Russian as a second language. In every Central Asian republic, Russian language schools were available in cities and larger towns, but statistics show that for primary and secondary education, the percentage of children who attended schools in which instruction occurred in the titular nationality's language was equal to or greater than the percentage of the titular nationality within the population.

Although many parents saw benefit in having their children learn Russian for future career advancement, the real possibility that children would learn to speak Russian was related to the presence of native Russian speakers in the population. In Kazakhstan, Russians and other Russian-speaking immigrants were as numerous as Kazakhs and were present in most rural regions as well as in the cities. By 1989, 60 percent of Kazakhs claimed fluency in Russian. The percentages were much lower in the other republics, where Russians were significantly fewer and were concentrated in cities: Fluency in Russian was claimed by 35 percent of Kyrgyz, 27 percent of Turkmen, 28 percent of Tajiks, and 23 percent of Uzbeks.

Throughout the Soviet period, the state supported both Russian-language and native-language media and cultural institutions in all of the Central Asian republics. As a whole, the Soviet state's policies on cultural assimilation were ambiguous. Although in the 1950s and 1960s, government policy proclaimed that nationalities would "draw close" and "merge," the state provided the resources both for Russification, and for full use of native languages in government, education, cultural institutions, and many branches of service and industry. Many Central Asians believed that mastering Russian would lead to advancement, while many also resented Russia's "big brother" attitude toward Central Asians, and the refusal of Russian immigrants to learn Central Asian languages. In the realm of education and culture, the Soviet Union's policies could be seen as colonial and Russifying, but they were dramatically unlike those of any other empire in promoting the rapid expansion of modern education and universal literacy.

Russians dominated political decision making for Central Asia, but native people moved up in Communist Party ranks to positions of authority. As each republic was established, titular-nationality Communists were given the most public roles as leaders, with Russian advisors standing in secondary positions. Before World War II, Russians outnumbered titular nationals in the republic-level Communist Parties. But after World War II, the Communist Party came to mirror the relative numbers of each nationality group in each republic more closely, so that in republics where titular nationals predominated, they also comprised the party majority.

The republic-level Communist Party had limited scope for decision making. Economically and politically, the Soviet Union was centralized, and decisions were handed down from Moscow. But having a titular national at the head of the republic's state and party structures became an important symbol, significant enough that when Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931) replaced the Kazakh Party leader Dinmukhamed Kunaev (1911–1993) with a Russian late in 1986, Kazakhs in Almaty rioted, and the replacement came several years later.

World War II was an important turning point in Central Asia. Central Asians were equal citizens of the Soviet Union along with all other nationality groups, and Central Asian men were conscripted into the Soviet army at the same high rate as men from other parts of the Soviet Union. Central Asians who had not previously met Russians learned at least limited Russian, enough to understand commands, and they fought far from their homes beside other Soviet soldiers.

Germany attempted to appeal to anti-Communist nationalism among Central Asians, forming exiled Central Asians into the Turkistan Brigade, which fought on the German side and tried to attract deserters from Central Asia. However, despite many reasons for discontent, the vast majority of Central Asian soldiers fought loyally for the Soviet Union, and the experience transformed them. Following World War II, Central Asia was far more deeply Soviet than it had been before.

From the 1950s until the 1980s, the Soviet Union used Central Asia to promote to third-world countries the advantages of socialism and alignment with the Soviet bloc. The factors that made Soviet Central Asia unlike most colonial territories, including heavy government investment in education, increasing industrial development, and the full presence of Central Asians in the Communist Party and in government, were the factors that made Central Asia a showplace for the third world. However, although Central Asians had equality, and sensed themselves to be Soviet citizens, their standard of living, levels of income, rates of participation in the most prestigious positions in politics and the economy, and their ability to influence general policies in the Soviet Union, never reached the levels of the country's European territories. Central Asia lagged behind much of the Soviet Union in almost every development measure.

Central Asian republics declared their independence late in 1991, as the Soviet government fell. Each had republic-level government institutions that formed the base for a new state, but Soviet economic integration meant that each had difficulty establishing a viable independent economy. Tajikistan suffered civil war and extreme impoverishment. Outside states vied for influence in Central Asia. Turkey invested in schools, factories, and the media. Iran emphasized relations with Tajikistan. Pakistan expanded trade, as did China.

Many missionaries came, Muslim and Christian. Russia tried to maintain influence by forming the Commonwealth of Independent States and later by drawing up economic and security agreements with Central Asian states. United States oil, gas, and minerals companies invested in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Great Game for external dominance of Central Asia was not an extension of the Russian or Soviet colonial projects; it was neocolonial economic control of a region where states refused to be dominated politically by outsiders.

Uighurs in the Xinjiang Province of China had been the target of programs hatched in the Soviet Union to enhance the nationalist movement and separatism from China. From the 1920s to 1940s, several Uighur nationalist parties formed, and some of their leaders received support and training from the Soviet Union. In addition, the Soviets had invested in oil development in Xinjiang. However, during and after World War II, the Soviets abandoned this policy. The East Turkistani political leadership was decimated in the late 1940s (partly due to a plane crash), and the Chinese Communist Party asserted control over the province in the 1950s.

The Chinese Communist Party's policy was more overtly colonial in Xinjiang than was Soviet policy in Central Asia. China encouraged massive Han Chinese immigration to Xinjiang, treated Xinjiang as a rawmaterial-producing periphery, carried out nuclear testing at Lop Nor, and has not aggressively pursued raising the educational level of Uighurs or promoting their presence in the party. In most development indicators and measures of living standards, Uighurs lag behind Han Chinese in Xinjiang Province. They also lag behind most of China's more developed provinces. After the demise of the Soviet Union and the de facto independence of the five Central Asian states, the Uighur nationalist movement became more active, with exiles operating in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The Chinese government repeatedly cracked down on any signs of nationalist activity, which it termed separatism.

see also China, after 1945; China, First Opium War to 1945; Empire, British; Oil.


Benson, Linda. The Ili Rebellion: The Moslem Challenge to Chinese Authority in Xinjiang, 1944–1949. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1990.

Howe, G. Melvyn. The Soviet Union: A Geographical Survey, 2nd ed. Estover, U.K.: Macdonald and Evans, 1983.

Kappeler, Andreas. The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History. Translated by Alfred Clayton. Harlow, U.K.: Longman, 2001.

Olcott, Martha Brill. The Kazakhs, 2nd ed. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1995.

Ryan, Michael. Contemporary Soviet Society: A Statistical Handbook. Brookfield, VT: Edwin Elgar, 1990.

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