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CREES Noon Lecture. “Writing the Russian Conquest of Central Asia, 1839-1915.”

Wednesday, February 8, 2012
12:00 AM
1636 International Institute/SSWB, 1080 S. University

Alexander Morrison, lecturer in imperial history, University of Liverpool. <br>Sponsor: CREES.

Between 1839 and 1895, Imperial Russia annexed approximately 1,500,000 square miles of territory in Central Asia, an example of European expansion that in speed and scale is matched only by the “Scramble for Africa” or the British annexation of India slightly earlier. Unlike the latter, however, it has generated a very meagre modern historiography, and the interaction of Russian motives, local dynamics, and ideological and technological change which brought it about are still very imperfectly understood. In English-language historiography the dominant interpretation is that of the “Great Game,” asserting that it was designed to threaten the British in India, something which tells us much more about how the British perceived it than it does about either Russian motives or the Central Asian experience of Conquest. In Russian-language writing the emphasis is usually placed on the Moscow textile industry’s need for a secure source of raw cotton and a captive market for Russian manufactured goods, crude economic determinism derived from the works of Lenin rather than from any actual evidence. The paucity of modern research is all the more surprising given the richness of the available sources–not only archival and published documents, but Islamic chronicles, officer memoirs, and military historiography which together represent an earlier, diverse and now largely ignored written legacy. This material is under-used and long overdue a reappraisal, but it has to be handled with caution. In the case of chronicles in Persian and Turkic this is because they are the product of an elite literary tradition more concerned with the internal politics of the Central Asian khanates than with the Russian advance itself. In the Russian case it can be deceptive in at least two respects–firstly because although it involved very small bodies of troops, this was one of the few unequivocally successful military campaigns for Russian arms in the nineteenth century. The weight of published campaign memoirs is thus disproportionate both to the numbers who took part and to the purely military dangers and difficulties they encountered in what was for the most part a classic case of asymmetrical colonial warfare. The other reason is that well before the conquest came to an end it was being quite deliberately narrated and mythologised in official historical works, beginning perhaps with the “Historical Section” of K. P. von Kaufman’s Turkestanskii Al’bom (1871-72) and the campaign histories of the Khiva Expedition of 1873. During his tenure as War Minister the Turkestanskii General Alexei Kuropatkin commissioned both M. A. Terent’ev’s Istoriya Zavoevaniya Srednei Azii (1906) and A. G. Serebrennikov’s vast publication of documents related to the conquest (1908–15). This process reached its peak in 1915, with the memorialisation and commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the fall of Tashkent. The last major article published by Voennyi Sbornik, running for the whole of 1916, even as Central Asia was convulsed by revolt, and still unfinished when the February Revolution broke out, was on the lessons which the Central Asian conquest supposedly held for Russia’s immediate challenges on the Eastern Front. This paper will analyse both the process of composition and the purposes for which these works were used by the Russian military establishment, and attempt to establish what, if any, impact they had on educated society in Russia.

Alexander Morrison has been lecturer in imperial history at the University of Liverpool since 2007. From 2000-07 he was a Prize Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, where he wrote his doctoral thesis, “Russian Rule in Samarkand 1868-1910. A Comparison with British India,” which was published under the same title by Oxford University Press in 2008. In the summer of 2010 he was a visiting fellow at the Slavic Research Centre, Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan.