The Great Russian Advance Begins

Count Nikolai Ignatiev

‘Where the imperial flag has once flown,’ Tsar Nicholas is said to have decreed, ‘it must never be lowered.’ Nor did his son Alexander have any reason to think differently. To those serving on Russia’s Asiatic frontiers the inference soon became clear. Raise the two-headed eagle first, and ask permission afterwards. Those who did just that found that they were rarely, if ever, repudiated. This turning of a blind eye to such expropriations by St Petersburg was to coincide with the rise of a new and aggressive breed of frontier officer. Not surprisingly, in view of their country’s defeat in the Crimean War, they were Anglophobes to a man. Between them, during the middle years of the nineteenth century, they were to add vast new tracts of Asia to Alexander’s domains.

One such officer was Count Nikolai Ignatiev, a brilliant and ambitious young political, who enjoyed the ear of the Tsar, and burned to settle his country’s scores with the British. As the latter would soon learn to their cost, he was to prove himself a consummate player in the Great Game. While serving as military attaché in London during the Indian Mutiny, he had repeatedly urged his chiefs in St Petersburg to take full advantage of Britain’s weakness in order to steal a march on her in Asia and elsewhere. Although he attempted to conceal his anti-British feelings, and enjoyed considerable popularity in London society, he did not entirely fool the Foreign Office. Describing him in a confidential report as a ‘clever, wily fellow’, it had him closely watched after a London map dealer informed the authorities that he had been discreetly buying up all available maps of Britain’s ports and railways.

In 1858, aged 26 and already earmarked for rapid promotion, he was chosen by Alexander to lead a secret mission to Central Asia. His task was to try to discover how far the British had penetrated the region, politically and commercially, and to undermine any influence which they might already have acquired in Khiva and Bokhara. For the Tsar was concerned about reports reaching Russian outposts on the Syr-Darya that British agents were becoming increasingly active in the region. If this were to turn into a race for the valuable markets of Central Asia, then St Petersburg was determined to win it. Ignatiev was instructed therefore to try to establish regular commercial links with both Khiva and Bokhara, if possible securing favourable terms and assured protection for Russian traders and goods. He also had orders to gather as much military, political and other intelligence as he could, including an evaluation of the khanates’ capacity for war. Finally he was to discover all he could about the navigability of the Oxus, and about the routes leading into Afghanistan, Persia and northern India.

Ignatiev’s mission, nearly a hundred strong, including a Cossack escort and porters, reached Khiva in the summer of 1858. The Khan had agreed to receive them, and they brought with them an impressive array of gifts, including an organ. These proved too bulky to be transported across the desert, having instead to be ferried across the Aral Sea and up the Oxus, thus providing the Russians with the opportunity to survey the latter’s lower reaches. It was a Great Game subterfuge borrowed from the British, who had charted the River Indus in somewhat similar manner nearly thirty years previously. Nor was the gift of an organ to an Eastern potentate entirely original, the British Levant Company having presented the Turkish Sultan with one more than two centuries earlier. The Khan was not that easily fooled, however. He received Ignatiev politely, accepted the gifts, but adamantly refused to let the Russian vessels proceed any further up the Oxus towards Bokhara. Even so, Ignatiev persuaded the Khan to open his markets to Russian merchants, only to see this collapse at the last moment when a Persian slave sought asylum aboard a Russian vessel. Nonetheless he left Khiva for Bokhara with a good deal of valuable intelligence, not to mention hawkish views on the need to cut the Khan down to size by annexing his territories.

Ignatiev was to fare marginally better in Bokhara, where, sixteen years after the beheading of Conolly and Stoddart, the cruel and tyrannical Emir Nasrullah was still firmly on the throne. Nor had age mellowed him. When, not long before, his chief of artillery had displeased him, he had personally cut him in half with an axe. For Ignatiev, however, he was prepared to put himself out a little. Once again he was at war with his old adversary and neighbour, the Khan of Khokand, and was anxious to do nothing likely to provoke the Russians into supporting his foe. He promised to free all Russians then being held in Bokhara as slaves, and actively to encourage trade between their two countries. He even suggested that they should divide the Khan of Khiva’s domains between them if the latter persisted in denying Russian vessels access to the Oxus from the Aral Sea. Finally he undertook not to receive any emissaries from the British, and to urge his Afghan neighbours not to allow any of them to cross the Oxus.

Ignatiev knew perfectly well that the Emir’s promises were worthless, and that he had no intention of keeping any of them once the threat from Khokand was over. Nonetheless, as at Khiva, he and his men were able to gather valuable intelligence which was to come in useful later. Altogether it had been a bold journey, fraught with hardship and danger, and even if it had failed in its objectives it had helped to restore Russian self-esteem. Ignatiev returned to St Petersburg to find himself a celebrity and more highly regarded than ever by his superiors. In the detailed report which he produced on the mission he urged the immediate annexation of the Central Asian khanates, lest the British get there first. While this was being carefully considered by the Tsar and his advisers, he was assigned to an even more challenging task, this time 3,500 miles away to the east, in China. His new mission was to give Ignatiev considerable satisfaction, for not only was he raised to the temporary rank of general, so as to invest him with the authority he would require, but it also offered him the chance to pit his wits against the British.

A crisis had arisen over Alexander’s fears for his new and ill-guarded possessions in the Far East, which his Siberian garrisons had acquired for him during the previous three or four years at the expense of the Chinese. Fearful lest the British gain possession of China, as they already had India, the Russian commanders had been driving remorselessly eastwards along the great Amur river, and southwards down the Pacific seaboard towards what is now Vladivostok. The Chinese Emperor, being fully engaged at this time with the Taiping rebellion, and with British and French demands for land concessions and other privileges, was in no position to stop them. Thus, at little cost to themselves, the Russians were able to relieve him of nearly 400,000 square miles of his empire. Now, however, they found their new possessions threatened by the British.

Just how this came about is too complex to go into in any detail here, but broadly it resulted from the Second Opium War, the so-called Arrow War, between Britain and China in 1856. Following their victory, the British had made various demands of the Emperor, to which he had reluctantly agreed. These included the right of European powers to have diplomats residing in Peking, the opening of more ports to foreign trade, and the payment of a huge indemnity to Britain. When the Emperor tried to go back on these, a powerful British and French force was dispatched to enforce them, with orders to march on Peking if necessary. The prospect of the British thus gaining a foothold in the Manchu capital struck fear into the Russians, lest it imperil their Far Eastern domains. Such was the situation when Ignatiev set out by sleigh and on horseback for distant Peking in the spring of 1859. His most urgent task was to secure the Tsar’s new territories by coercing the Chinese Emperor into formally ceding them to Russia, thereby making them a permanent part of the Russian Empire. It was a classic Great Game mission, and St Petersburg could not have entrusted it to a more determined or resourceful player.

On reaching the Forbidden City, Ignatiev immediately offered his services to the hard-pressed Emperor as an intermediary between himself and his European foes. At first these were declined, for it was feared that despite his protests of strict neutrality he might in fact be in league with the British and French. Nor, as it would later transpire, were they that far out, for Ignatiev was playing a double game. At first he assisted the invaders, discreetly supplying them with maps of the Chinese positions and with intelligence from inside the capital, to which he had access. At the same time he did everything he could to prevent them from coming to terms with the Chinese, fanning the flames of discord, and encouraging them to press on towards Peking. Finally, when the British and French troops were at the very walls of the city, he again offered his services to the Chinese as a mediator. By now the Emperor had fled the capital, leaving his brother to cope with the enemy. Already the latter had burned down the magnificent Summer Palace, which lay five miles outside Peking, and fearing the wholesale destruction of the city if foreign troops entered it, the defenders gratefully accepted Ignatiev’s offer.

Faced by the onset of the cruel winter of northern China, the British and French were anxious to enforce the provisions which the Emperor had originally agreed to, and then to depart. Ignatiev, however, was careful to keep this from the Chinese. Instead he played on their fears of the foreign troops staying on, and indeed Lord Elgin, the British commander, did momentarily toy with the idea, writing to Lord John Russell, then Foreign Secretary: ‘We might annex the Chinese Empire if we were in the humour to take a second India in hand.’ Finally the British and French settled for their original demands, both signing separate treaties with the Chinese, and then made plans to leave at once. Ignatiev succeeded in convincing the Chinese that he had not only hastened the departure of the foreign troops, but had also persuaded them to reduce the indemnity they were demanding. He now set about negotiating a treaty with the defeated Chinese on behalf of his own government, the formal ceding of Russia’s new Pacific territories being its main provision. When the Chinese hesitated over his demands, he used a brief, and purely administrative, delay in the troops’ departure to frighten them into agreement, claiming that he had ordered it. On November 6, 1860, the last of the foreign troops left. Eleven days later, without the British or the French suspecting what was afoot until it was too late to prevent it, the Russians, in the person of Ignatiev, and the Chinese signed the Treaty of Peking.

It had been a Machiavellian performance of the highest order by the young Ignatiev, then still in his late twenties, and a remarkable diplomatic triumph for the Russians. First, they had formally added a vast tract of territory, the size of France and Germany together, to their already huge northern Asiatic empire. Second, they had got the Chinese to agree to their opening consulates at Kashgar, in Eastern Turkestan, and at Urga, the capital of Mongolia, then both under Peking’s rule. They had thereby stolen a march on their rivals, the British, who had obtained no such facility, for the establishment of consulates meant that Russian merchants and goods would have exclusive access to these important new markets. It was with considerable satisfaction, therefore, that Ignatiev left Peking on November 22 and rode hard for St Petersburg. ‘Not since 1815’, one British historian has written, ‘had Russia concluded such an advantageous treaty, and probably never before had such a feat been carried off by so young a Russian diplomat. The successes of 1860 went far to obliterate the bitter memories of the Crimean defeat, the more especially as they had been achieved in good measure by hoodwinking the English.’


Six weeks after leaving Peking, Ignatiev arrived in St Petersburg. Once again he had ridden the whole way across Asia, this time in the middle of winter. After his filthy clothes, crawling with lice and fleas, had been removed and burned, he was summoned to report to the Tsar at the Winter Palace. There, in recognition of his remarkable services to his country, he was awarded the coveted Order of St Vladimir by the delighted Alexander. He was also allowed to retain his temporary rank of general. Finally, to make full use of his firsthand experience of the region and its peoples, he was made head of the recently formed Asiatic Department of the Foreign Ministry. Ignatiev thus joined the growing number of hawks and Anglophobes holding high positions in St Petersburg or on Russia’s frontiers. Among these was the energetic War Minister, Count Dmitri Milyutin, who had been appointed at the age of only 34. Another was Count Nikolai Muraviev, the forceful Governor-General of Eastern Siberia. It was he who had originally seized the vast Pacific territories which Ignatiev had now secured permanently for the Tsar. A third was Prince Alexander Baryatinsky, Governor-General of the Caucasus, who viewed the halting of British political and commercial penetration in Asia as a matter of urgency. In 1859, using new strategies, he had finally forced the submission of Imam Shamyl, thereby bringing to an end, except in parts of Circassia, four decades of bloody resistance to Russian rule. He saw the Caucasus as a powerful base from which the Tsar’s armies could ‘descend like an avalanche on Turkey, Persia and the road to India.’

Nor was this new mood for empire-building confined to the highest echelons of government. Most of the younger army officers favoured forward policies in Asia, and were eager to spoil what they believed to be Britain’s game there. Indeed the entire army, which Milyutin was drastically reorganising, was thirsting for fresh conquests following its successes in the Far East, not to mention the chance to expunge the memory of its Crimean defeat. As for the risks of a collision with Britain, most soldiers believed that sooner or later another war with Britain was inevitable anyway. In addition, Russian merchants and factory owners were pressing for the markets of Central Asia, as well as China, to be opened up to their goods, provided the caravans could be protected from plunder by Kazakh, Kirghiz and Turcoman raiders. Finally, the hawks at the top had an unexpected ally in Otto von Bismarck, then Prussian ambassador to St Petersburg, and soon to become his country’s chief minister and the architect of the German Empire. Believing that the more the Russians became involved in Asia the less of a threat they would be in Europe, he strongly encouraged them to embark on what he called their ‘great civilising mission’.

But those close to the Tsar who urged him to press southwards into Central Asia before the British got there had to bide their time. For Alexander had more critical matters to attend to at home. Largely as a result of the many shortcomings in Russian society which the Crimean War had shown up, he had embarked on a series of major liberal reforms aimed at modernising the country. The most momentous of these was the emancipation in 1861 of some forty million serfs, and the distribution of land to them, which predictably was resisted fiercely by many landowners. At the same time Alexander faced yet another uprising in Poland, which took him eighteen months to put down, and earned him much opprobrium in Europe. There were senior officials around him, moreover, who opposed forward policies in Central Asia. One was Count Mikhail Reutern, the Minister of Finance, who strongly cautioned him against taking on any new financial burdens until the country had recovered from the economic ruin resulting from the Crimean War. Another was Prince Alexander Gorchakov, who in 1856 had succeeded Nesselrode as Foreign Minister. It had been his uncomfortable task to try to justify the crushing of the Polish uprising to the rest of Europe. He now warned Alexander that the importance which the British accorded to India would make any moves by Russian troops towards its frontiers too perilous to contemplate.

Ignatiev and his allies were to win the day, however. Freed finally from his other problems, Alexander allowed himself to be persuaded by them of the need to steal a march in Central Asia on the scheming British. Any fears of a strong British reaction to moves there by Russia were brushed aside by Ignatiev. He pointed out that the British, after a succession of costly wars – with Afghanistan, Russia, Persia and China – not to mention a bloody insurrection in India, showed clear signs of entering a passive phase, and of wishing to avoid becoming embroiled in further conflicts. But what finally decided the Tsar was something which had happened in America, whose Southern States had long been Russia’s principal source of raw cotton. As a result of the civil war there, supplies of this vital commodity had been cut off, badly affecting the whole of Europe. The Russians, however, were more fortunate than most. For some time they had known that the Khokand region of Central Asia, especially the fertile Ferghana valley, was particularly suitable for growing cotton, with the potential to produce it in very substantial quantities. Alexander was determined to get his hands on the cotton-fields of Central Asia, or at least on the crop itself, before anyone else did. And that meant the British.

Originally it had been hoped that cordial relations and commercial co-operation might be established with the individual khanates by means of alliances, thereby avoiding bloodshed, expense and any risk of provoking untoward British reaction. But Ignatiev insisted, from his own recent experience at Khiva and Bokhara, that this was merely naïve. The rulers of Central Asia, he said, were untrustworthy and totally incapable of keeping to any agreement. Conquest was the only way of being sure, and thus keeping the British out. His view, which enjoyed the support of Count Milyutin, was to prevail. By the end of 1863 any remaining hopes of imperialism by negotiation had been finally abandoned. The Russians were ready to move into Central Asia, albeit gradually at first.

Their initial move, in the summer of 1864, was to consolidate their existing southern frontier with Central Asia by closing a gap, 500 miles wide, in the middle. It involved seizing several small towns and forts situated in the northern domains of the Khan of Khokand, and was achieved without difficulty.

Alarmed by these aggressive moves, which had robbed him of the oasis towns of Chimkent and Turkestan, the Khan immediately dispatched an emissary to India to beg for military assistance from the British. However, this was politely refused, for the doctrine of ‘masterly inactivity’ now guided British policy in Central Asia. What frontier activity there was, including mapping the hitherto unmapped and the construction of strategic roads, was confined to areas close to India’s own frontiers, in the somewhat pious hope that the Russians might show similar restraint. It would take more than that, though, to convince St Petersburg that the British had lost interest in Central Asia.

The Russians now prepared for their next step, encouraged no doubt by Britain’s failure to respond to the Khan of Khokand’s plea for help. But anticipating the outcry, particularly from the British, which would follow any further advances into Central Asia, the Russian Foreign Minister, Prince Gorchakov, first sat down to prepare an official ‘explanation’ for such moves which, he hoped, would allay European fears and suspicions. It was skilfully designed, moreover, to make it difficult for powers like Britain, France, Holland, and even America, to object. For it compared Russia’s position in Central Asia to theirs in their own extensive colonial territories. In December 1864 Gorchakov’s memorandum was circulated, via the Tsar’s ambassadors, to the major European powers.

‘The position of Russia in Central Asia’, declared this celebrated document, ‘is that of all civilised states which are brought into contact with half-savage nomad populations possessing no fixed social organisation. In such cases it always happens that the more civilised state is forced, in the interests of the security of its frontiers and its commercial relations, to exercise a certain ascendancy over those whose turbulent and unsettled character make them undesirable neighbours.’ In their turn these newly pacified regions had to be protected from the depredations of the lawless tribes beyond them, and so on. The Russian government therefore had to choose between bringing civilisation to those suffering under barbarian rule and abandoning its frontiers to anarchy and bloodshed. ‘Such has been the fate’, Gorchakov wrote, ‘of every country which has found itself in a similar position.’ Britain and the other colonial powers had been ‘irresistibly forced, less by ambition than by imperious necessity, into this onward march’. The greatest difficulty, he concluded, lay in deciding where to stop. Nonetheless, having consolidated its frontier with Khokand, Russia was intending to advance no further.

‘We find ourselves’, he assured the other powers, ‘in the presence of a more solid, less unsettled and better organised state, fixing for us with geographical precision that point at which we must halt.’ Whether he himself really believed this, or whether he was merely playing for time on behalf of a government already bent on subjugating the khanates, is a question which still exercises scholars. Certainly N. A. Khalfin, the Soviet historian of this era, believes that it was a deliberate smokescreen aimed at deceiving the British. Needless to say, the Russian advance did not stop there as Gorchakov had promised. Within a few months they were driving south once more. The great Russian push into Central Asia was about to begin. It was not destined to halt until the khanates of Central Asia lay prostrate at the Tsar’s feet.


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