Russian Turkestan. Shoshana Keller

Russian Turkestan

Imperial Russian military commanders conquered Transoxiana for a variety of reasons: to increase the prestige of the Russian Empire (especially in competition with the British Empire), to acquire new sources of cotton in the wake of supply disruptions from the American Civil War, to control and punish Turkmen slave traders and, not least, because they could. The logic of imperial expansion in the 19th century suggested that a strong state’s army should stop only when it met insurmountable physical or political barriers. In 1864 Russia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov explained in a general letter to the European powers: “The position of Russia in Central Asia is that of all civilized states which are brought into contact with half-savage nomad populations possessing no fixed social organization. . . The United States of America, France in Algeria, Holland in her Colonies, England in India; all have been forced by imperious necessity into this onward march, where the greatest difficulty is to know where to stop.”

Political organization

In 1867 Tsar Alexander II approved organizing the new territory into a province called Turkestan, ruled by a military governor-general who was based in Tashkent. When the Russians defeated Bukhara in 1868 and Khiva in 1873, they also annexed some territory from each khanate to Russian Turkestan, including Bukhara’s second city Samarkand. Three years later (1876) the Russians abolished the Khanate of Kokand and absorbed all of its territory into Turkestan. Simultaneously Russian forces moved south from Khiva into Turkmen territory and established the Transcaspian Province, centered at Ashkhabad, by 1882. This slow annexation was marked by the bloodiest fighting of the entire conquest, as the Turkmen resisted the Russian military far more effectively than did any other Central Asians. In January 1881, however, the Russians massacred approximately 14,000 Teke Turkmen at the fortress of Gok Tepe, which broke serious Turkmen resistance [Pierce, pp. 41–42].  These conquests reconfigured the political status and obligations of the peoples of Transoxiana, and so began the process of reconfiguring identities as well. Russian policy toward Turkestanis (as it is convenient to call them through the 1867–1924 period) was more interventionist than was Qing Dynasty policy toward the Turks of Xinjiang, but, similar to the Qing, the Russians were more interested in economic exploitation than they were in russifying Central Asians.

Russian policy in Turkestan is difficult to discuss coherently because the government never developed a consistent policy. Some officials repeatedly said that they wanted to “civilize” Turkestanis and give them the benefits of Russian society, but the military governors-general tended to believe that interference in local cultures would set off unrest, and the military prized stability above all. Most importantly, the Russian government never had the money or the personnel to implement transformative programs. Various investigative commissions made proposals over the years to fully incorporate Turkestan into the Russian legal system, or to build a broad network of Russian-native primary schools, but the concrete results of these proposals were always much smaller than reformers had hoped.

Tsarist officials also changed their minds about how to deal with Islam in Central Asia. In the 1820s in the Kazakh steppes the Russians had encouraged Tatar Muslims to “civilize” the nomads by establishing schools, which taught basic literacy (in Kazakh and sometimes Russian) and Islam to a small number of students. In Russian Turkestan, however, Governor-general K. P. von Kaufman (r. 1867–1881) banned all Muslim or Christian missionaries. He believed that Muslim teachers would stir up “fanaticism” and Christian teachers would enrage the populace. Von Kaufman further believed that mere exposure to superior Russian culture would cause Turkestani Muslims to abandon their backward ways, and so the Russian government did not need to devote scarce resources to changing local cultures. Von Kaufman’s complacent assumption turned out to be wrong, as the increasing Russian presence strengthened Islamic identity and practice as a counter-weight to Christian rule.

Legally, all Turkestanis had the status of inorodtsy (aliens), which meant that they were barred from military conscription and subject to different taxation rules. Inorodtsy were subjects of the Russian Empire but were treated differently than the core Slavic Christian population [Slocum]. While people in Russia proper were ruled directly by officials appointed from St. Petersburg, Turkestanis were ruled indirectly — they still answered to the same village elders and Islamic judges that they always had. These authorities continued to rule on the basis of Islamic law and/or local customary law, but their jurisdictions were now organized according to Russian administrative rules. Russian officials limited some of the power that traditional authorities exercised, such as the ability to impose harsh physical punishment (cutting off hands, blinding, execution), but everything except for serious criminal cases and civil cases involving large amounts of money was dealt with by traditional means [Brower, 2003, pp. 61–63].

Changes in nomad life

In general, tribal chiefs and settled elites were more directly affected by the Russians than were ordinary farmers or herders. The completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1895 encouraged Slavic settlement of the steppes, and undercut the traditional ways that Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Kara-kalpak tribal leaders had maintained their power. More nomads had to adapt to settled or semi-settled farming, usually in their winter pastures (in modern Uzbek the word for “winter” is qish and for “village” is qishloq). As they had in the steppes north of the Syr Darya River, the Russians divided the land into administrative units that broke up traditional migratory routes, but also made tribal leaders the guardians of access to remaining pasturage. This gave Kyrgyz manaps, for example, unprecedented power in their local areas and changed the balance of power among tribal units.  After 1882 Turkmen tribes were divided among those in Khiva (mostly Yomut), Bukhara (Ersari), and the Russian Transcaspian Province (Teke). Each large grouping had a distinct experience, depending on the government they lived under. They did not have to cope with many Slavic settlers in their lands, but their chiefs were forced to obey an external authority for possibly the first time, which was an enormous political change. The Transcaspian Teke learned to live with the Russians: their chiefs acquired basic Russian language and political skills, and most Teke turned to cash crop cotton farming. Turkmen tribes outside Transcaspia retained more autonomy, but they too began to abandon nomadism in response to economic pressure. Some tribes could still move to Persia or Afghanistan if they chose, since neither tsarist authorities nor their Soviet successors were able to completely close the southern borders until the 1930s.  [Edgar, pp. 174, 183–184].

Russian Turkestan - modernization

Settled elites dealt with Russians mostly in commerce, which had deep, long-term effects on individual and communal identities. The Russians reduced Bukhara and Khiva to protectorate status, which left their political structures intact but with severely weakened legitimacy in the eyes of their subjects. Behind the facade of traditional rule, Russian power became increasingly visible through the railroad—built in 1885—that linked Ashkhabad with Tashkent via Bukhara. In Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent and several towns in the Ferghana Valley Russian “new” cities developed alongside the old Central Asian cities.  The new Russian settlements were inhabited by administrators, doctors, teachers, and entire families, who required very different living conditions than did soldiers in barracks. Accordingly, the new Russian cities featured wide boulevards, parks, and churches. There was apparently no permanent European settlement in Khiva, aside from isolationist German Mennonite and Cossack communities.

Merchants and commerce

Turkestani merchants had traded with Russia for centuries, but exchanging fancy dyed textiles for samovars was very different from having Russians (and their Tatar interpreters) actually move in. The Russians restructured much of the Turkestani economy, turning it into a producer of raw textile materials for the Russian market. As in British India, natives were limited to growing and processing cotton and silk, which was then shipped to Russia for finishing. The Turkestanis who ran cotton ginning mills, who served as high-level mediators between the emir and Russian bureaucrats, or who governed on behalf of the Russian administration found themselves becoming a new kind of community— a modern community. This community of modernized Turkestanis was marked by several characteristics:

     • modern Turkestanis were embedded within an international web of political and commercial connections that extended from home to St. Petersburg and the rest of Christian Europe, more than to Persia, India, or the Ottoman Empire;

     • their political allegiance shifted from local tribal hierarchies to Russian government officials;

     • they did not come from the traditional warrior elites, but from the more flexible merchant and clerical groups;

     • they spoke, dressed, and behaved more like Russians than Turkestanis, yet remained distinct from Russians;

     • they were more interested in prospering in this new world than in preserving the old.


Turkestani elites came to value Russian education as beneficial for their children’s futures. This process took several decades. Russians established the first Russian-native schools in Turkestan in the 1870s. These schools taught arithmetic, geography, and basic literacy in Türki and Russian, alongside the traditional Islamic curriculum. By 1909 there were 98 of these schools and approximately 450 students in the province, compared with thousands of traditional Muslim elementary schools (called maktabs). A handful of Turkestani boys were sent to study in St. Petersburg or Moscow. In Bukhara, even the Islamic seminary (madrasa) faculty allowed a Russian doctor to lecture on medical science [Keller, 2001, pp. 18–20; Khalid, p. 84].  While the number of Russian-educated Turkestanis was always very small, their positions as intermediaries between the state and the people gave them disproportionate power. The educational process itself had some surprisingly wide effects. For example, in order to write textbooks for Turkestani children, educators had to codify a standard Turkic language out of a number of regional dialects. This newly-standardized language would become the basis for modern Uzbek in the twentieth century.

The Russians brought Tatar interpreters with them, and many of these Tatars stayed even after a cohort of Turkestanis had mastered Russian (this can be roughly dated to the 1880s). The Tatars, after more than 300 years of Russian rule, were much more comfortably westernized than were Turkestanis. Tatars preferred to live in Russian neighborhoods and send their children to Russian schools (the Russians maintained a separate all-Russian school system for their own children). Tatar men could serve as military officers, and Tatar women did not cover their faces in public. Tatars viewed themselves as culturally superior to Turkestanis, and worked hard to enlighten their eastern cousins by teaching in Russian-native schools or serving as doctors and midwives. Not only were they an important vehicle for modernizing the new Turkestani elite, they also provided a new model of Muslim behavior that Turkestanis could embrace, reject, or adapt, and in doing so define their own developing identities. Historian Marianne Kamp provides an excellent example of the tensions and excitement between Tatars and Turkestanis when she discusses the passionate debates over women’s status in the two communities [Kamp, pp. 35–40].

The most consciously modern group of Turkestanis are known to us as the Jadids.  The Jadid movement was another Tatar import, founded in the 1880s by Ismail Bey Gaspirali in the Crimea. The first Jadid school opened in Samarkand in 1893. Within ten years Jadid schools operated not only in most larger towns, but also spread east into the Kyrygyz steppelands and Xinjiang as well.  Two points of interest: A) the men who made up this movement were themselves a bridge population between traditional and modern Turkestani identity structures. Many Jadid reformers were educated in madrasas, so they were at home with traditional Islamic practices. They did not want to secularize their society, but to use Western methods of literacy training and scientific reasoning to improve and strengthen Turkestani cultures.  B) The Jadids were a minority within the minority of modernized Turkestanis. Their educational methods made Jadid schools attractive to the rising merchant class, but the Jadid interest in independence caused the authorities—on whom those same merchants depended—to treat them with great suspicion. The Jadid movement remained very small before 1917, but then they found new patrons in the Bolsheviks, who pursued a much more radical form of modernization. The Bolsheviks would find the Jadids a useful bridge population for their own political program, at least for the first ten years after the revolution.

Ordinary people

What about the vast majority of Turkestanis, who never interacted with Russians and who did not have higher educations in any language? We know very little. Farmers were pushed into growing cotton as a cash crop, a process that gradually eroded their dependence on tribal or village leaders and instead put them at the mercy of Russian and international markets. Leaders who could no longer provide goods or fighting prestige then lost their status, making it less important to remember who their descendants were. A military statistical survey of the region published in 1903 said that Uzbek tribes were identifying more with the towns where they lived than with the line of their ancestors [Geiss, p. 231]. This suggests that they had made a major break from the old ways of establishing identity.

The new silk- and cotton-processing factories needed local labor, and so a working population (too small to be called a “working class”) developed. The 1897 Imperial Russian census reported that 10.7% of women in the Ferghana region were employed, mostly in textile production. By 1914 Russian surveyors counted 20,925 industrial workers in Turkestan, out of a total population of 6.5 million [Allworth, pp. 93, 320]. Some of these workers gained access to greater education—in the town of Andijan an Uzbek factory owner sponsored a Jadid school for the children of his workers, although few other owners were so generous [Keller, 2001, p. 23].

The Russian Empire was disrupted by increasing violence during the last decades of its existence, from the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 to the 1905 Revolution, the Lena Goldfield Massacre of 1912, World War I, and finally the revolutions of 1917. Turkestanis did not participate in these events until 1916, when anti-draft riots turned into large-scale attacks on Imperial agents and on Slavic settlers in the Kyrgyz steppelands. The catastrophic fighting of 1916–1917, in which many more Turkestanis than Russians died, cannot be characterized as a nationalist uprising, but as violence driven by anger at economic and political oppression.

Summary of the imperial period

Conquest by the Chinese and Russian empires brought enormous changes to Central Asian societies. Politically, Central Asian khanates lost their independence and the Khanate of Kokand was destroyed. For ordinary Central Asians, especially those who fell under Russian governance, these changes turned out to mean more than paying old taxes to new rulers. The steppe lands where nomads grazed their herds were divided under administrative rules set in St. Petersburg, and then settled by increasing numbers of Slavic farmers. Tribal leaders and Islamic judges had their power redefined and curtailed by Russian bureaucrats, while the emir of Bukhara and the khan of Khiva could only do what the Russians allowed them to. Meanwhile the residents of Tashkent found their city growing rapidly in importance as the Russian administrative center. The loss of political independence was less of a shock for Muslims of the Xinjiang “new frontier,” because they had not governed themselves for a century before the Qing arrived.

All Central Asians found themselves being drawn into the modern global economy, which meant new mercantile and industrial wealth for a few and impoverishment for many. Economic changes in turn drove social changes, as new elites emerged and the old structures of genealogy and tribal custom lost their importance. By 1917, however, it was still not accurate to refer to the “nations of Central Asia” as one would have referred to the “nations of Europe.” Individual and communal identities were changing rapidly, but it took the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century to thoroughly transform the bases of identity structures.


Allworth, Edward, ed. Central Asia: 130 Years of Russian Rule. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994, 3rd edition.  Classic summary of the Russian conquest; key chapters written by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse.

Bacon, Elizabeth. Central Asians Under Russian Rule: A Study in Culture Change. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980 (reissue of 1966 original). A bit dated, but a clear, concise and comprehensive cultural study by an anthropologist.

Becker, Seymour. Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968. The only study that focuses on Bukhara and Khiva under imperial rule.

Brower, Daniel. Turkestan and the Fate of the Russian Empire. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. A brief and clear history that focuses on the Russian side of the story.

Brower, Daniel and Edward Lazzerini, eds. Russia’s Orient: imperial borderlands and peoples, 1700–1917. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Impressive collection of essays, suitable for undergraduate use. Chapters by Brower, Khalid, Gross, and Martin deal specifically with Central Asia.

Cracraft, James, ed. Major Problems in the History of Imperial Russia.  Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1994. Gorchakov memo pp. 409–411

Demko, George. The Russian Colonization of Kazakhstan, 1896–1916. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1969. A very useful and detailed geographer’s study of population movement.

Edgar, Adrienne. Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. While most of this excellent book focuses on the 20th century, there is also a helpful introductory chapter on pre-Soviet Turkmen identity.

Kamp, Marianne. The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2006. The first fifty pages cover the Imperial period, focusing on women.

Keller, Shoshana. To Moscow, Not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign Against Islam in Central Asia, 1917-1941. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001. Chapter 1 covers the Imperial period in a general overview.

Keller, Shoshana. “Women, Gender and Women’s Education: Early Through Late Modern Central Asia,” Encyclopedia of Women in Islamic Cultures. Leiden: Brill, Vol. IV, 2006, pp. 291–296.

Khalid, Adeeb. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Chapter Two focuses on the cultural effects of Imperial Russian rule.Martin, Virginia. Law and Custom in the Steppe: The Kazakhs of the Middle Horde and Russian Colonialism in the Nineteenth Century. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2001. Good legal study based on Russian and Kazakh archival sources.

Northrop, Douglas. Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. pp. 34–46 deal with the veil in the 19th century.

Pierce, Richard. Russian Central Asia 1867–1917, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1960. Still the single best survey of this period.

Sahadeo, Jeff.  Russian Colonial Society in Tashkent, 1865 - 1923.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007.  A study of colonial life in the administrative center of Russian Turkestan.

Vambery, Arminius. Travels in Central Asia. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1865. A European travel account by a very knowledgeable observer.

Shoshana Keller is Professor of Russian and Eurasian history at Hamilton College. 

She is the author of “To Moscow, Not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign Against Islam in Central Asia, 1917 – 1941” and articles on education, administration, women, and the economics of manual cotton picking in Soviet Uzbekistan

Source: Hamilton


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