Nikolay Przhevalsky and Russian Expansion: The Exploration of Central and East Asia

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Nikolay Przhevalsky and Russian Expansion: The Exploration of Central and East Asia


Between 1869 and 1884, Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky (1839-1888) conducted a number of expeditions of exploration into central Asia. During these expeditions he helped to chart the interior of Siberia, Mongolia, and China. He made a number of important natural history discoveries, including the last discovered species of wild horse and wild camel. He became the first European since Marco Polo (1254-1324) to visit Lop Nor in China and he was the first European to explore the upper portions of the Huang Ho River, a river important in Chinese history and folklore for over three thousand years.


During the first part of the nineteenth century Russia was not a large nation. However, like the United States, it had a large expanse of land, stretching to the Pacific Ocean, that was occupied by nontechnological people. In the middle of the century, following the sale of Alaska to the United States, defeat in the Crimean War, and the sale of some of the Kuril Islands to Japan, Russia began to flex its muscles in central Asia, in part to help compensate for these other losses.

At this time, too, the Chinese were distracted by foreign incursions and internal rebellion (the Taiping rebellion), drawing their attention away from the northern border. This combination of circumstances opened the door for Russian annexation of Siberia and other central Asian provinces, as well as Russian seizure of Chinese territories that were later formalized in treaties signed in the 1860s. Some of the apparent Russian imperialism occurred because military officers greatly overstepped their authority, while other territorial annexations followed governmental policy, albeit at a more rapid rate than intended. In addition, the Russians pointed out that they were simply following the lead set by the Americans in their West, by the British in India, the French in Africa, and the Dutch in their colonies. In 1861, partly to consolidate their hold over the Russian Far East, the city of Vladivostok was founded on the coast of the Sea of Japan.

By 1879 Russia had absorbed eastern provinces to the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. However, a great deal of this land was largely or completely unexplored, except as was necessary to annex it or to wage military campaigns. Among those who set out to alleviate this lack of knowledge was Przhevalsky, who traveled throughout central and eastern Asia, mapping, collecting biological specimens, and surveying future travel routes. By the time of his death in 1888, Przhevalsky had visited and written about many of the recently acquired territories, as well as some that Russia hoped to acquire.

Przhevalsky made a number of discoveries during his travels. In addition to describing Przhevalsky's horse and the wild bactrian camel, he collected widely from both plant and animal kingdoms, preserving his specimens for later scientific study. As the first European in centuries—and, in some cases, even longer—to enter many parts of central Asia, he either discovered or rediscovered important features such as the salt lake at Lop Nor, the Tien Shan mountains, the Takla Makan desert, and more. He also crossed the Gobi Desert, was turned away from Lhasa, Tibet, and explored parts of what were to become Turkistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, to name a few. His books relating his travels were published in both Russian and English, becoming popular for a time.


Przhevalsky's explorations and discoveries must be set in the larger context of Russian and Chinese history to ascertain their full impact at that time and later. The Russian conquest of Siberia and central Asia had largely ended by 1700, though some areas remained free of annexation until the mid-nineteenth century. These annexations took place, for the most part, rapidly and without terrible loss to Russia. What makes this unusual is that the Mongol hordes that repeatedly overran European and Chinese empires for centuries came from precisely this part of the world. By the time Przhevalsky set out on his journeys, not only had central Asia been largely annexed to Russia, but its inhabitants had fallen under the control of either Russia or China, apparently never again to wield military power. The mere fact that he could explore this area for several years was evidence that centralized governments now controlled central Asia.

In addition to signaling the end of nomadic might, Przhevalsky's explorations gave indication of Russia's continuing interest in consolidating its territories and seeking access to warm water ports for commercial and military purposes. Russia was concerned about British incursions to the north from their colony of India, as well as possible Chinese claims to these lands. By mapping these regions first, Russia hoped to not only lay claim to them, but possibly to extend its borders closer to ports that would remain open even during the cold Russian winters. The first of these goals was not unlike America's purchase of the Louisiana Territory and expansion to the West; by so doing, it was thought, the possibility that European powers might compete with the United States in the New World was diminished. So, too did Russia's claims in the Far East help reduce the chance of competition in its own backyard. Along those same lines, Przhevalsky's explorations of Chinese territories helped to bolster Russian claims to them and, by opening routes from northern China into, for example, Turkistan, Russia helped to encourage migration and trade between these areas.

These expeditions also helped to compensate for Russia's humiliating loss to the British-French-Turkish alliance in the Crimean War. This war was started by Russia, ostensibly to protect southern Slavs and the Orthodox Church from the Ottoman Empire. Although Russia initially seized parts of what is now Romania and destroyed many Turkish ships in the Black Sea, most of the war was fought on the Crimean Peninsula, on Russian territory. It ended in October 1856, after two and a half years, with Russia suing for peace. The embarrassment of this loss was partially offset by sub-sequent territorial gains and military excursions in the East, including the annexation and exploration of these territories.

It must also be noted that, although already annexed, some of the Eastern territories remained not only unexplored, but largely untouched by their annexation. Although the annexed territories paid Russian taxes, their situation was not very different from previous political arrangements under which they paid tribute to their nomadic conquerors. By exploring these territories and writing of his travels, Przhevalsky was able to excite some popular interest in the Russian people. This, in turn, helped to encourage some to move east, bringing with them the Russian language and some degree of education and culture. From that perspective, the "Russification" of the Russian Far East was assisted by Przhevalsky's travels and writings.

One of the unintended consequences of Russia's exploration of and claims to portions of central Asia may be seen in lingering border disputes between Russia and China during most of the twentieth century. As noted above, Russia occupied and annexed parts of Chinese territory while China was engaged in rebellions and other military distractions. This allowed Russia to more or less force China to relinquish some territories in the Treaties of Aigun (1858) and Peking (1860). Some of these areas and others along the Russian-Chinese border became the subject of disputes that periodically escalated into armed conflict (always stopping short of actual war) between Russia and China on a number of occasions. Such tensions persisted well into the 1990s, though easing somewhat towards the end of that decade.

Not least among the impacts of annexing, exploring, and opening Siberia and the Russian East was that of natural resources. This part of the world has become increasingly important in the production of petroleum, diamond, gold, timber, and more. The mineral resources of Siberia and the Central Asian republics are still not fully realized, and seem likely to increase in importance to the several nations that now comprise this area. By chance, because of Russian claims and exploration, these resources are Russia's (and the central Asian republics') to exploit and not China's. This, in turn, could have a significant impact on the future economic development of China, Russia, and the republics in which these resources now lie. Resources from this region helped to finance and build the Soviet Union, including (ironically) its competition with China, and they may now help the new republics of the former Soviet Union if political stability permits their development and exploitation.

Although hardly a household name, even in Russia, Przhevalsky contributed greatly to the exploration and opening of the Russian Far East. It is tempting to compare him to the American explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838), but this comparison would be inaccurate. Lewis and Clark were sent to explore, map, and discover central and western North America. In addition, a very important part of their mission was to make contacts with the natives of these areas to try to build commerce for the fledgling United States. By comparison, Przhevalsky's trips were primarily for the purpose of exploration and consolidation. Commerce was not stressed, the rough boundaries of the areas to be explored were known, and the inhabitants were already technically subjects of an established and ancient Russian nation. In addition, while Lewis and Clark's expedition lasted for a much longer time than any of Przhevalsky's, they made only a single voyage, while Przhevalsky returned for a total of four trips covering a much greater geographical extent. Though similarities exist, the differences of these journeys of exploration are more apparent.

Przhevalsky died in 1889 on the shores of Ysyk-Köl in Turkistan, one of the largest mountain lakes in the world, first discovered by him in 1883 (and briefly named after him). Although his work was instrumental in the exploration and exploitation of the Russian Far East, he remains a relatively obscure figure who is chiefly known by Przhevalsky's horse.


Further Reading

Dukes, Paul. A History of Russia: Medieval, Modern, Contemporary, c. 882-1996. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

Przhevalsky, Nikolay. From Kulja, Across the Tian Shan toLop-Nor. Translated by E. Delmar Morgan. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969.

Przhevalsky, Nikolay. Mongolia, the Tangut Country, and the Solitudes of Northern Tibet. London: S. Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1876.

Rayfield, Donald. The Dream of Lhasa: The Life of NikolayPrzhevalsky. London: P. Elek, 1976.

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Nikolay Przhevalsky and Russian Expansion: The Exploration of Central and East Asia

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