Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and southern Kazakhstan cover the territory of former Turkestan. The region is mostly desert and semi-desert, with the exceptions of the mountainous east and the river valleys. The major rivers are the Amu Darya, Zeravshan, Syr Darya, Chu, and Ili. Of the five major ethnic groups, most Turkmen, Kyrgyz, and Kazakhs were still nomads in 1900, but most Uzbeks had taken up agriculture or urban life, the traditional pursuits of the Tajiks.
Russia was drawn into Turkestan by the need for a stable frontier and the desire to forestall British influence. The Turkestan oblast was formed in 1865, subject to the Orenburg governor-general, from territories recently conquered from the Kokand khanate. These included Tashkent, one of the two largest towns in the region (the other was Bukhara). In 1867 the Turkestan government-general was established, consisting of two oblasts—Syr Darya and Semireche—responsible directly to the war minister, with Tashkent as its capital.
Further annexations from the Uzbeg khanates expanded the government-general. Bukhara's defeat in 1868 added the Zeravshan okrug, including Samarkand. The right bank of the lower Amu Darya was annexed to the Syr Darya oblast as a result of Khiva's defeat in 1873, and the remainder of Kokand was annexed as the Fergana oblast in 1876. In 1882 Semireche was transferred to the new Steppe government-general, reducing Turkestan to two oblasts, but four years later the Zeravshan okrug, enlarged at the expense of Syr Darya, was renamed the Samarkand oblast. In 1898 Semireche was returned to the Turkestan government-general and the Transcaspian oblast was added to Tashkent's jurisdiction.
Turkestan's value to Russia was primarily strategic until the late 1880s. In the wake of the construction of the Central Asian Railroad, connecting the Caspian seacoast with Samarkand in 1888 (extended to Tashkent in 1898), the government-general's importance as a source of cotton grew rapidly. It supplied almost half of Russia's needs by 1911. The opening of the Orenburg-Tashkent railroad in 1906 facilitated imports of grain to deficit areas like Fergana, where 36 to 38 percent of the sown area was given over to cotton by World War I. To the same end the construction of a line from Tashkent to western Siberia was begun before the war. Cotton fiber and cottonseed processing were the major industries.
As of the 1897 census, Turkestan's five oblasts contained 5,260,300 inhabitants, 13.9 percent of them urban. The largest towns were Tashkent (156,400), Kokand (82,100), Namangan (61,900), and Samarkand (54,900). By 1911, 17 percent of Semireche's population and half of its urban residents were Russians, four-fifths of them agricultural colonists. In the other four oblasts in the same year, Russians constituted only 4 percent of the population, and the overwhelming majority lived in European-style settlements alongside the native quarters in the major towns.
The Soviet government reorganized the government-general in 1918 as the Turkestan ASSR of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. In 1924 the Turkestan republic was abolished. Its northern districts, inhabited by Kazakhs, were incorporated in the Kazakh ASSR of the Russian republic; its eastern districts, inhabited by Kyrgyz, were joined to the Kazakh republic as the Kyrgyz Autonomous Oblast. The remainder of Turkestan was divided into the Turkmen and Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republics, the latter's southeast forming the Tajik ASSR.
See also: central asia
Becker, Seymour. (1988). "Russia's Central Asian Empire, 1885–1917." In Russian Colonial Expansion to 1917, ed. Michael Rywkin. London: Mansell Publishing.