During the early nineteenth century, Russia's population, resources, international diplomacy, and military forces made it one of the most powerful states in the world. The English historian Geoffrey Hosking wrote that “Britain had an empire and Russia was an empire.” But as Barbara Truchman wrote in the “Guns of August”, "The essence of the problem was that in an empire as vast as Russia when an order was give no one was ever sure whether it had been delivered."

Russia completed its expansion south in 1884 into the Caucasus and Turkestan, to Chinese areas in the east, in part by sponsoring Balkan slaves against the Turks. Finland and northern California were all once part of the Russian empire. The Russians founded Fort Ross in northern California in 1812. It was the easternmost point of expansion and was literally on the other side of the world from western Russia. Russians also ventured to the South Sea islands.

Russia did not begin expanding beyond the Urals until 1582. Between 1582 and the 19th century, Russia swallowed up dozens of non-Slavic people, many of whom retained their original language and cultural identity. The Russian tsars expanded from the 16th century on established an every widening and advancing network of fortresses as they pushed forward into Siberia and Central Asia for protection against horsemen. As Russians migrated to the frontier areas the learned about te culture of the local people that lived there. This helped the Russians later expand their territory. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Internally, Russia's population had grown more diverse with each territorial acquisition. The population included Lutheran Finns, Baltic Germans, Estonians, and some Latvians; Roman Catholic Lithuanians, Poles, and some Latvians; Orthodox and Uniate Belorussians and Ukrainians; Muslim peoples along the empire's southern border; Orthodox Greeks and Georgians; and members of the Armenian Apostolic Church. *

Russian Expansion into Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltics

Three monarchies dominated Central and eastern Europe in 18th century: Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Russia' great rival in central Europe was Poland. After a union with Lithuania in 1447, Poland expanded its vast territories from the Baltic to the Black Sea, occupied the Baltic states, the Ukraine and parts western Russia and resisted German and Turkish incursions.

Catholic nobles in Poland failed to gain the loyalty of Orthodox Christian peasants in Russia and the Ukraine. They also lost power in the economy to German and Jewish merchants. The bloody 1648-49 Cossack uprising began the kingdom's dismemberment. The Cossacks defeated Polish armies twice in 1648 and 1649 and led an uprising of serfs and peasants against hated Polish landlords that left thousands dead, including many Jews who were regarded as oppressors, in the Ukraine. The Cossack chief, Bohdan Khemelnytsky led an autonomous state that lasted until 1654. He formed an alliance with Russia, which used the agreement to make the Cossack state part of Russia. From 1772 to 1795 Poland was divided, with Russia getting a large chunk.

The agreement made in 1654 was perceived as annexation by the Russians and a military alliance by the Ukrainians. The Cossacks asked for help from the tsar in their conflict against the Poles. In 1667, the Russians claimed Smolensk, Kiev and the land east for the Dnieper in what is now the Ukraine.

Peter the Great won Russia access to the Baltic (See Peter the Great). Lithuania, western Ukraine and Belarussia were all added to Russia in the 18th century under Catherine the Great (See Catherine the Great). After a war with Sweden in 1807-09, the Russian tsar became the Grand Duke of Finland Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Bessarabia (Moldova) were given to Russian by Hitler in the non-aggression pact before World War II.

Russia Expands Down the Volga Under Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible and his son started Russia’s southeastward expansion that pushed Russia to the Volga Steppe and the Caspian Sea. Ivan’s defeat and annexation of the Kazan' Khanate on the middle Volga in 1552 and later the Astrakhan' Khanate, where the Volga meets the Caspian Sea, gave Muscovy access to the Volga River and to Central Asia. This eventually lead to control of the entire Volga region, the establishment of warm water ports on the Black Sea and the seizure of the fertile lands in the Ukraine and around the Caucasus mountains.

Under Ivan the Terrible, the Russians began their push into Siberia but were turned back by fierce tribes in the Caucasus. Muscovy's eastward expansion encountered relatively little resistance. In 1581 the Stroganov merchant family, interested in fur trade, hired a Cossack leader, Yermak, to lead an expedition into western Siberia. Yermak defeated the Siberian Khanate and claimed the territories west of the Ob' and Irtysh rivers for Muscovy. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Expanding to the northwest toward the Baltic Sea proved to be much more difficult. Ivan’s armies were unable to challenge the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, which controled much of the Ukraine and parts of western Russia, and blocked Russia's access to the Baltic. In 1558 Ivan invaded Livonia, eventually embroiling him in a twenty-five-year war against Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, and Denmark. Despite occasional successes, Ivan's army was pushed back, and Muscovy failed to secure a coveted position on the Baltic Sea. The war drained Muscovy. Some historians believe that Ivan initiated the oprichnina to mobilize resources for the war and to quell opposition to it. Regardless of the reason, Ivan's domestic and foreign policies had a devastating effect on Muscovy, and they led to a period of social struggle and civil war, the so-called Time of Troubles (Smutnoye vremya, 1598-1613).

Peter the Great Wages War to Gain Outlets to the Baltic and Caspian Seas

Peter the Great was determined to give Russia outlets to the Baltic Sea and the Caspian Sea. He brought European shipbuilders to Russia and set his sights first on the Caspian Sea, which was controlled by the Ottoman Turks. In 1696, his fleet captured Azoz, a important garrison on the Caspian Sea belong to Crimean Tatars, close allies of the Ottoman Turks.

Seeing an opportunity to break through to the Baltic Sea, Peter made peace with the Ottoman Empire in 1700 and then attacked the Swedes at their port of Narva on the Gulf of Finland. However, Sweden's young king, Charles XII, proved his military acumen by crushing Peter's army. Fortunately for Peter, Charles did not follow up his victory with a counteroffensive, becoming embroiled instead in a series of wars over the Polish throne. This respite allowed Peter to build a new, Western-style army.

As part of his effort to gain access to the Baltic Peter united with Denmark and Poland against Sweden, The result was the Great Northern War, which lasted for 21 years from 1700 to 1721. The Swedes had held the area now occupied by St. Petersburg for more than a century. Peter wanted it. In 1703, Russian troops moving south from Lake Ladoga and captured the last Swedish outposts on the Neva River. In May 1703, he ordered the construction of a fortress on Hare Island, the first structure that would later be St. Petersburg.

In 1709, Russians annihilated the Swedish army near Poltava and the Swedish king Charles II was forced to flee to Turkey. This marked the rise of Russia as great power and the decline of Sweden as one. After Charles escaped to Ottoman territory, Russia subsequently became engaged in another war with the Ottoman Empire. Russia agreed to return the port of Azov to the Ottomans in 1711. The Great Northern War, which in essence was settled at Poltava, continued until 1721, when Sweden agreed to the Treaty of Nystad. The treaty allowed Muscovy to retain the Baltic territories that it had conquered: Livonia, Estonia, and Ingria. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Treaty of Nystad gave Russia a large chunk of Swedish territory and a much needed outlet the Baltic, and its access to Europe. Through his victories, Peter acquired a direct link with Western Europe. In celebration, Peter assumed the title of emperor as well as tsar, and Muscovy officially became the Russian Empire in 1721. Peter the Great did not expand Russia's borders as much as and Catherine the Great but the territory he added of the Baltic was of utmost strategic importance.

Expansion to the Black Sea and Crimea Under Catherine the Great

Catherine II's reign was notable for imperial expansion, which brought the empire huge new territories in the south and west, and for internal consolidation. Catherine added one forth of Europe to Russia by taking advantage of the declining power of Poland and Ottoman Turkey. She expanded the borders of Russia in all directions in seven wars.

Catherine won Russia access to the Black Sea and the right to send ships through the Bosporus and the Dardenelles to the Mediterranean with a naval victory over the Ottoman Turks at Çeşme in the eastern Mediterranean in 1774 during a war with the Ottoman empire. From the Ottomans she also won a "protectorship" of Christian territory that later provided an excuse for incursions into the Balkans.

Following a war that broke out with the Ottoman Empire in 1768, the parties agreed to the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji in 1774. By that treaty, Russia acquired an outlet to the Black Sea, and the Crimean Tatars were made independent of the Ottomans. In 1783 Catherine annexed Crimea. From that time on the Black Sea was no longer an Ottoman lake and the new Russian port of Odessa became a major trading center.

The annexing of the Crimea helped spark Russia’s next war with the Ottoman Empire, which began in 1787. By the Treaty of Jassy in 1792, Russia expanded southward to the Dnestr River. The terms of the treaty fell far short of the goals of Catherine's reputed "Greek project" — the expulsion of the Ottomans from Europe and the renewal of a Byzantine Empire under Russian control. The Ottoman Empire no longer was a serious threat to Russia, however, and was forced to tolerate an increasing Russian influence over the Balkans. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Catherine the Great and the Partitioning of Poland

Russia's westward expansion under Catherine was the result of the partitioning of Poland. Catherine installed one of her former lovers as a king in Poland and then presided over the break up of Poland between Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1772, 1793 and 1795, which eliminated Poland until it was reborn in 1918 and gave Russia: Lithuania, Belarus and western Ukraine,

As Poland became increasingly weak in the eighteenth century, each of its neighbors — Russia, Prussia, and Austria — tried to place its own candidate on the Polish throne. In 1772 the three agreed on an initial partition of Polish territory, by which Russia received parts of Belorussia and Livonia. After the partition, Poland initiated an extensive reform program, which included a democratic constitution that alarmed reactionary factions in Poland and in Russia. Using the danger of radicalism as an excuse, the same three powers abrogated the constitution and in 1793 again stripped Poland of territory. This time Russia obtained most of Belorussia and Ukraine west of the Dnepr River. The 1793 partition led to an anti-Russian and anti-Prussian uprising in Poland, which ended with the third partition in 1795. The result was that Poland was wiped off the map. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Although the partitioning of Poland greatly added to Russia's territory and prestige, it also created new difficulties. Having lost Poland as a buffer, Russia now had to share borders with both Prussia and Austria. In addition, the empire became more ethnically heterogeneous as it absorbed large numbers of Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Jews. The fate of the Ukrainians and Belorussians, who were primarily serfs, changed little at first under Russian rule. Roman Catholic Poles resented their loss of independence, however, and proved to be difficult to integrate. Russia had barred Jews from the empire in 1742 and viewed them as an alien population. A decree of January 3, 1792, formally initiated the Pale of Settlement, which permitted Jews to live only in the western part of the empire, thereby setting the stage for anti-Jewish discrimination in later periods. At the same time, Russia abolished the autonomy of Ukraine east of the Dnepr, the Baltic republics, and various Cossack areas. With her emphasis on a uniformly administered empire, Catherine presaged the policy of Russification that later tsars and their successors would practice. *


The Cossacks were Christian horsemen who lived on the steppes of Ukraine. At various times they fought for themselves, for the tsars and against the tsars. They were hired by the tsar as soldiers whenever there was a war or military campaign that necessitated ruthless warriors. They became part of the Russian irregular army and played a major role in expanding Russia’s borders. [Source: Mike Edmunds, National Geographic, November 1998]

Cossacks were originally an amalgamation of runaway peasants, fugitive slaves, escaped convicts, and derelict soldiers, primarily Ukrainian and Russian, settling frontier areas along the Don, Dnepr, and Volga rivers. They supported themselves by brigandry, hunting, fishing, and cattle raising. Later the Cossacks organized military formations for their own defense and as mercenaries. The latter groups were renowned as horsemen and were absorbed as special units in the Russian army.

Cossack is a Turkish word for "freeman." Cossacks are not an ethnic group but rather a kind of warrior caste of free-spirited, farmer-horsemen that evolved around 300 years ago and have their own customs and traditions. They call themselves "sabers." Cossacks are different from Kazakhs, an ethnic group associated with Kazakhstan. However, the Tatar word “Kazak”, made be the root word for both groups.

Most Cossacks were of Russian or Slavic origin. But some were Tatars or Turks. Cossacks have traditionally had strong links with the Orthodox church. The were some Muslim Cossacks, and some Buddhist ones near Mongolia, but they were sometimes discriminated against by other Cossacks. Many Old Believers (a Russian Christian sect) sought refuge with the Cossacks and their views shaped the views of Cossacks about religion.

Cossacks represent an image and spirit that ordinary Russians have traditionally admired, The symbol of the Cossacks is stag that continues to stand even though it has been pierced and bloodied by a spear. Of the Cossacks, Pushkin wrote: "Eternally on horseback, eternally ready to fight, eternally on guard." Augustus von Haxthausen wrote: "they are of robust stock, handsome, lively industrious, submissive to authority, brave good-natured, hospitable...indefatigable, and intelligent." Gogol also often wrote about the Cossacks.

Early Cossack History and Bandits

Cossacks trace their origins at least back to the 1400s. According to legend they evolved from mythical beings, but are believed to have originally been descendants of Tatars (Mongols in Russia) or maybe Scythians (fierce nomads who migrated from Central Asia in the 7th century B.C.) or ancient Scythian-like people called the Kossaraka in Greek inscriptions from the Black Sea area. Even today, Cossack speech is filled with words of Mongol origin.

Most Cossacks were runaway serfs, hunters, freebooters and fugitives who lived in the frontiers beyond the reach of Russian authorities. The early Cossack made a homeland for themselves on the rich, grassy steppes of Russia, the Ukraine and Central Asia described by Gogol as "an ocean of green and gold, sprinkled with millions of different flowers."

In the early days the steppes of Ukraine were regarded as the equivalent of the Wild West and the Cossacks were the equivalent of the Indians. In the late 1400s, no government controlled the Russia steppes. The Mongol empire that once controlled them had collapsed in Central Asia and Europe and the Russian government was weak and small.

The early Cossacks were bandits and mercenaries who traveled on horses in warrior bands that were for all intents and purposes "lordless, womanless, propertyless" egalitarian societies. They raided Slavic hunters, fisherman and traders and caravans that entered the no-man's land where they made their home. They attacked merchant vessels that traveled on the Don and Volga river as well as Turkish ships that plied the Black Sea.

A shortage of women was a problem among the Cossacks. Their wives were often kidnapped in raids. A lauded Cossack feat was to attack a wedding party and make off with the bride. Although a few Cossacks joined the fighting legions, they have traditionally played a passive role.

Don Cossack and Other Cossack Groups

The Cossacks organized themselves into self-governing communities in the Don basin, on the Dnieper River in the Ukraine and in western Kazakhstan. Each of these communities had names, such as the Don Cossacks, their own army and elected leader and acted as separate ministates. After a network of Cossack forts was built the number of hosts increased. By the late 19th century there were Amur, Baikal, Kuban, Orenburg, Semirechensk, Siberian, Volga, and Ussuriisk Cossacks.

The Don Cossacks were the first Cossack group to emerge. They appeared in the 15th century and were a major force to be reckoned with until the 16th century. The Zaporozhian Cossacks formed in the Dnieper River region in the 16th century. Two offshoots of the Don Cossack that emerged in the late 16th century were the Terek Cossacks Host, based along the lower Terke River in the northern Caucasus, and the Iaik (Yaik) Host along the lower Ural River.

The Don Cossacks were the largest and most dominant of the Cossack subgroups. They originated as a band of mercenaries that lived around the Don River about 200 to 500 miles south of present-day Russia. By the second half of the 16th century they had grown large enough that they were the most powerful military and political force in the Don region.

In tsarist Russian, they enjoyed administrative and territorial autonomy. They were recognized and received an official seal under Peter the Great and established settlements in the Ukraine, along the Volga River, and in Chechnya and the eastern Caucasus. By 1914, most of the communities were in southern Russia, between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus.

Peter the Great visited Starocherkassk, the capital of the Don Cossacks, near the Black Sea. He saw a drunken Cossack wearing nothing but his rifle. Impressed by the idea of man giving up his clothes before his weapons, Peter made a naked man holding a gun the symbol of the Don Cossacks.

Under the Soviet, Don Cossack lands were incorporated into other regions. Today, many are based around the city of Stavropol. The Don Cossack uniform includes an olive tunic and blue pants with a red stripe running down the leg. Their flag features crises, sabers and a double-headed Russian eagle.

Cossacks Help the Czars

The tsars offered the Cossacks autonomy in return for military assistance. The Cossacks were stationed in Imperial Guard camps on the Don River, the Urals, Siberia and the Black Sea. Even though Russian nobles and tsarist soldiers were frequently preyed upon by Cossacks, Ivan the Terrible set the trend in 1570 by hiring them as mercenaries in exchange for gunpowder, lead and money (three things the steppe didn't produce) to free Russian prisoners enslaved by the Tartars and Turks.

The Cossacks helped expand and define the borders of the Russian empire and then helped protect them. The tsar often placed Cossacks on the front line in wars or military campaign that necessitated ruthless warriors. The Cossacks played a crucial roles in exploring the Siberian and Alaskan frontiers. They conquered all of Siberia in less than 70 years. Many industrial towns in Siberia and of northern Kazakhstan, including Alma Altay, began as fortified Cossack forts.

The Cossacks remained dependent on the tsar militarily and politically but were allowed to more or less run their territories as independent states. In the late 17th century the Russian government tried to limit Cossack freedom and privileges. The Cossacks were most upset by demands that they return fugitives, which they viewed as a violation of their traditional freedoms. By the end of the 18th century, the frontier had move far enough south so that military significance of the Cossacks was diminished.

After 1738 the Don Cossack chief commander was appointed by the Russian government. Before that he was elected by the Don Cossacks. After 1754, local commanders were also appointed. Using the these methods, the Cossacks were completely absorbed into the Russian military, with each enlisted Cossack required to put in 30 years of military service.

The Cossacks were expected to do what the tsar told them. Czar Paul once ordered then “to conquer India” and they actually set off to try and do that. The mission was only called off after the tsar was assassinated. Later they were put to work protecting Chinese laborers building the Trans-Siberian railway from tigers.

Cossack Fighting Tactics

The traditional Cossack weapons were the lance and saber. The kept a knife in their belt and a four-foot “nagaika” (whip) in their boot, which was used on people to keep order and intimidate them. Many served in the cavalry with Mongolian horses. One modern Cossack told National Geographic, Mongolian horses "were strong—they could break any rope." His mount "was a great horse. She saved my life many times because she didn't turn away when I fell from the saddle."

Although the Cossacks were known for their bravery their tactics were usually on the cowardly side. They traditionally chased down stragglers with their lances and either stripped of everything they owned, including the clothes on their back, and often sold their prisoners to peasants. The Cossack were notorious for switching sides, even in the middle of a conflict. If the were threatened by the enemy, according to one French officer, the Cossacks fled and only fought if they outnumbered the enemy two to one. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Cossacks mostly fought side by side with Russia Imperial Army. They played big parts in capturing the Caucasus and Central Asia and were instrumental in turning back the armies of Napoleon and the Ottoman Turks. They also played a major role in the brutal pogroms against the Jews, who passed on stories of Cossacks killing innocent children and cutting opened pregnant women.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the traditionally unruly and undisciplined Cossacks were organized into regiments that fed on the sick and wounded in Napoleon's retreating army like a pack of wolves and chased them all the way to Paris. A Prussian officer, who observed the merciless tactics, later told his wife: "If my feelings had not been hardened I would have gone mad. Even so it will take many years before I can recall what I have seen without shuddering." [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

During the Charge of the Light Brigade in Crimean War, a Russian officer reported, the Cossacks were "frightened by the disciplined order of the mass of [British] cavalry bearing down on them, the [Cossacks] didn't hold but wheeled to the left, began to fire on their troops in an effort to clear their way to escape." When the Light Brigade had been driven out of the Valley of Death, "the Cossacks...true to their nature...set themselves to the task at hand—rounding up riderless English horses and offering them for sale." Needless to say the Cossacks were not normally recruited as officers. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Cossack Brutality and Violence

The Cossacks were in constant state of conflict. If they were not engaged in a military campaign for the Russian government they were fighting with the neighbors or among themselves. The Don Cossacks routinely fought with other Cossack groups.

The Cossacks were notorious for the brutal tactic they used to suppress revolutionary movements and massacre Jews during pogroms. Cossack bands were particularly fond of going after Polish noblemen. The cry "The Cossacks are coming!" is call that sent shivers of fear into the hearts of many people that lived before World War II.

One Canadian woman told National Geographic, "My grandpa remembers the Cossacks. When he was a boy, they rode into his village between Ukraine and what is now Belarus. He remembers his grandma standing outside her front door and having her head loped off. During another encounter he remembers the Cossacks calling for his other grandma to get out of her house, where in mortal fear she hid. They then threw some sort of grenade-like bomb into her small home, killing everyone within."

Expansion in the Caucasus

Georgia was taken over piece by piece mostly under Czar Alexander I (ruled 1801-1825). By the mid 19h century all of Georgia was under Russian rule.In 1801, Georgia was formally annexed by the Russian tsar Paul I. The Georgian royal family was exiled and Georgia was divided into two provinces, The annexation of Georgia led to the war with Persia between 1804 and 1813 in which Persia lost Baku, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Dagestan and other territories to Russia, which managed to hold on to them and make them part of the Soviet Union.

The early 18th century Peter the Great brought much of the Caspian Sea coast under his control. In 1723 he ordered that Baku be captured from the Iranian Safavids. This marked the beginning of the Russian influence in the region. Twelve year later the Safavids took it back. Russia under Catherine the Great, sought to extend its hegemony over the area of northern Azerbaijan. This led to clashes with Iran which had firmed its grip on the territories in southern Azerbaijan rule under the Safavids,

Azerbaijan was absorbed by Russia after the war with Persia between 1803 and 1813, which ended with the Treaty of Gulistan that allowed Russia to take Baku, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Dagestan and other territories from Persia. Another war was fought between Russia and Persia from 1826 to 1828.. This conflict ended with the Treaty of Turkmanchay, which gave the khanates of Yerevan and Nakhchivan to Russia. The final result of two Russian-Persian wars was to divide Azerbaijan between Persia and Russia. The border was fixed at roughly in its present position in 1828. Northern Azerbaijan constituted two provinces of czarist Russia (Baku and Elisavetpol provinces) and part of Yerevan Prince.

In 1828, eastern Armenia came under Russian rule after war Persia from 1826 to 1828. Following Russia’s victory in the Russo-Turko War of 1877-78, it was given part of previously Ottoman-controlled Armenia. Many of the Armenians that live in the Caucasus moved there from Iran after the Russian conquest.

Odessa was founded as a trading post by Russians in the 18th century. It began as an ethnic melting pot governed by a French aristocrat.

Moldova was originally a Danube principality known as Bessarabia. It has been part of Russia at various times and was fought over by Russia and Turkey. It was claimed from Turkey in 1812 along with Wallchia (now part of Romania).

Russian Explorers in Central Asia

Groundbreaking expeditions by Francis Younghusband and Nikolay Przhevalsky in Central Asia were motivated by the desire of Russia and Britain to control Central Asia. Przhevalsky traveled through Mongolia, west China, Kazakhstan and other eastern former Soviet Republics between 1870 and 1880. Younghusband, a British explorer-spy, traveled west from China into Central Asia and what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan between 1886 and 1894. While in western China, he came across a large Russia force in the Pamirs.

Przhevalsky wrote about his experiences and findings and received awards for his contributions to science and geography. Advised and inspired by another great Russian traveler Pyotr Petrovich Semenov-Tyan-Shansky, chairman of Russian Geographic Society and explorer of the Tian-Shan mountains, Przhevalsky led pioneering expeditions that crossed the Mongolian and western Chinese deserts and mountains. He explored and described the Alashan and Kunlun mountains; discovered a number of mountains and lakes; and had a wild horse he first described to the West named after him. The goal of his most famous expedition was Lhasa in Tibet. Unfortunately, he never reached it. When the expedition was just a couple of days away, his group was told by Tibetan ambassadors that foreigners were not welcome in Lhasa as they might attempt to steal the Dalai Lama. In 1888, as he was preparing another expedition to Lhasa, Przhevalsky died of typhoid in Kyrgyzstan. He was buried on the shore of Issyk-Kul lake there with the simple epitaph "Traveler Przhevalsky" on his grave. []

Swedish explorer Sveb Ander Hedin spent more than 50 years (1885 to 1935) exploring and mapping the deserts of Central Asia, Tibet and western China. He traced the Silk Road and the source of several rivers. In the 19th century Xinjiang was was explored by European adventurer-archaeologists such as Hedin and Britain's Sir Aurel Stein. Stein (1863-1943) was a Jewish Hungarian-born explorer who pioneered the study of the Silk Road and looted Buddhist art from caves in the western Chinese desert. Accompanied by his dog Dash, he carted away a treasure trove of ancient Buddhist, Chinese, Tibetan and Central Asia art and texts in a number of languages from the ancient city of Dunhhaung and gave them to the British Museum.

One of the most memorable figures of the Great Game was Shoqan Uaalikhanov (1835-65), a writer-explorer, statesman and spy who was the grandson of a Kazakh khan. He graduated from a famous Russian military school and was a friend of Dostoyevsky. He traveled extensively in Central Asia and filled notebooks with also sorts scientific and anthropological observations. Shoqan’s greatest claim to fame was his infiltration of Kashgar disguised as a Muslim merchant. It is said he was only the second European since Marco Polo to enter the city (the other fellow was beheaded after his identity was discovered).

Expansion into Central Asia

The Kazakhs are the most Russified of all the groups in Central Asia. This is because they were the first people from the region to be brought under Russian rule and have maintained close contacts with Russians over a long period while the other groups in Central Asia remained relatively isolated.

In 1640, the Russians reached the Caspian Sea but were unable to penetrate into Kazakhstan because of the Oryats. Cossacks built a number of forts along the Kazakhstan border to keep the Oryats out of Siberia and to protect important trade routes to Asia. In the 1730s, the khans of three Kazakh zhuz asked the Russians for help in their battle against the Oryats and swore oaths of allegiance to the tsar. The Kazakhs of the Young Zhug and some from the Middle Zhug accepted Russian citizenship.

Once the forces of Aleksandr Baryatinskiy had captured the legendary Chechen rebel leader Shamil in 1859 in the Caucasus, the army resumed the expansion into Central Asia that had begun under Nicholas I. The capture of Tashkent was a significant victory over the Quqon (Kokand) Khanate, part of which was annexed in 1866. By 1867 Russian forces had captured enough territory to form the Guberniya (Governorate General) of Turkestan, the capital of which was Tashkent. The Bukhoro (Bukhara) Khanate then lost the crucial Samarqand area to Russian forces in 1868. To avoid alarming Britain, which had strong interests in protecting nearby India, Russia left the Bukhoran territories directly bordering Afghanistan and Persia nominally independent. The Central Asian khanates retained a degree of autonomy until 1917.

Russian diplomatic and military interests later returned to Central Asia, where Russia had quelled a series of uprisings in the 1870s, and Russia incorporated hitherto independent amirates into the empire. Britain renewed its concerns in 1881 when Russian troops occupied Turkmen lands on the Persian and Afghan borders, but Germany lent diplomatic support to Russian advances, and an Anglo-Russian war was averted.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikstan were conquests of Nicholas I early in the 19th century. Uzbekistan was added by Alexander II (ruled 1855-81). Turkmenistan was added by Alexander III (ruled 1881-94) after another war with Persia. For the conquest of Khiva in Central Asia in 1874, Russia employed 8800 camels to supply 5,500 men. At one time Russians ruled more people that spoke Turkic languages than the Ottoman Turks.

See Separate Articles on Great Game under Central Asia.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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