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A Salutary Lesson

Martin Greene

The Russian Conquest of Central Asia: A Study in Imperial Expansion, 1814-1914, by Alexander Morrison, Cambridge University Press, 640 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-1107030305
The Merv Oasis: Travels and Adventures East of the Caspian During the Years 1879-80-81, by Edmond O’Donovan, Smith, Elder & Co, London, Volumes One and Two, 1,006 pp (published 1882; available in facsimile reproduction editions)

In December 1880, Russia launched a military expedition against the semi-nomadic Akhal-Teke people of Western Turkestan, one of the region’s Turkmen peoples, whose homeland was an oasis close to the southeastern coastline of the Caspian Sea and adjacent to the northern slopes of the Kopet-Dagh mountains. A substantial part of the Akhal-Teke population gathered in their fortress at Gök-Tepe to face the onslaught. On January 12th, 1881, after three weeks of siege and bombardment, Russian units stormed the fortress. The fighting was fierce but the Russians’ overwhelming superiority in firepower meant that the outcome was never in doubt.

When it became clear that the situation was hopeless, a large number of Tekes tried to escape across the plains. Rout now turned to massacre as Russian cavalry units (Cossacks) gave chase, killing as many of the fleeing Tekes as they could catch – combatants and non-combatants, men, women and children. The estimated fatalities were 6,500 Tekes in the fortress and a further 8,000 on the plains. Russian fatalities were estimated to be 1,000.

The commander of the Russian force, General Mikhail Dmitrievich Skobelev, later explained the logic of his tactics at Gök-Tepe:

I hold it as a principle that in Asia the duration of peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter you inflict on the enemy. The harder you hit them, the longer they will be quiet afterwards. We killed nearly 20,000 Turkomans at Geok Tepé. The survivors will not soon forget the lesson.

One of the main ways in which news of these events reached the public in Western Europe was through reports published in the London Daily News by the Irish war correspondent Edmond O’Donovan, who was close to Gök-Tepe, when the action there was unfolding, and who subsequently spent six months with another branch of the Teke people, the Tekes of the Merv oasis, who had not yet submitted to Russian rule. Merv was to the east of the Akhal-Teke territory, across a stretch of the Qara-Qum desert.

In the decades preceding Gök-Tepe, Russia had absorbed the eastern and central parts of Western Turkestan into its empire by conquering and annexing territories across its southeastern border – the three established states in the region (Khiva, Khoqand, Bokhara) and extensive nomad-inhabited areas. The outcome at Gök-Tepe meant that it was poised to complete its conquest of the region.

This was a vast extent of territory inhabited by Muslim, Turkic-speaking peoples and corresponding to the present-day post-Soviet republics in Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. It was bordered to the south and southwest by Afghanistan and Persia respectively, and to the east by the Chinese empire. In size, it was comparable to the United States west of the Mississippi.

Russia’s dramatic advance into Central Asia had consequences for the so-called “Great Game” – the nineteenth century competition between Russia and Britain for dominance in the area between Russia and British India. Russia’s southward expansion into Western Turkestan was mirrored by the northward expansion of British India. The territories engrossed by British India included Sind, Baluchistan, Kashmir and the Punjab – corresponding to present-day Pakistan and a large part of Northern India.

The Russian acquisition of the Teke territories, which were strategically located relative to the mountain passes leading to British India, threatened to provoke a direct conflict between the imperial powers. In the event, direct conflict was avoided; and in the 1890s Russia and Britain, acting over the heads of all other interested parties, negotiated a settlement based on the borders as they stood at that point. This was confirmed by the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907.

One consequence of these events was that most of the territories between Russia and British India were absorbed by one or other of the imperial powers; and the distance between them was reduced from over two thousand to a few hundred miles, and at one point to less than twenty miles. Afghanistan and Persia remained nominally independent; and Eastern Turkestan, the Muslim, Turkic-speaking part of Western China, remained under Chinese control, thereby storing up problems for the future – among them the plight of the Uyghur people in modern China.

One of the strengths of Alexander Morrison’s new book is that it benefits from extensive research in Russian and some Central Asian archives. Drawing on these and other sources, it delineates the range of forces driving and shaping Russian (and British) expansion in the region. It also gives close attention to the part played by regional states and peoples in resisting and accommodating that expansion.

Concerning Gök-Tepe, Morrison shows that Skobelev’s mission was not just to secure the submission of the Akhal-Tekes, but to do so by inflicting a crushing defeat on them. In normal circumstances, submission alone would have been acceptable – even preferable – but circumstances were far from normal. A number of earlier expeditions into Akhal-Teke territory had produced unsatisfactory results, culminating, in 1879, in what was seen as a humiliating defeat for Russian arms. Having failed to take Gök-Tepe, the Russian force was compelled to retreat to Russian-held territory under pressure from Akhal-Teke units.

The 1880-81 expedition was therefore designed to bring overwhelming force to bear on the Akhal-Tekes with a view to demonstrating that, for Central Asian peoples, resistance to incorporation into the Russian sphere of influence could lead only to catastrophe. Skobelev was ideally qualified for the assignment. His tactics when he commanded a campaign against the Khanate of Khoquand in 1875-76 included a massacre which shocked even some of his own military colleagues.

On this occasion, nothing would be left to chance. A communications cable was extended across the Caspian Sea, and a railway line was constructed towards the Akhal-Teke territory, to ensure that there would be no recurrence of the supply and communications problems which had hampered the 1879 expedition. The 11,000 officers and men assigned to the force were slightly fewer than the number of combatants on the Akhal-Teke side, but the Russian units had the advantage of hugely superior firepower. Only one half (at most) of the Akhal-Teke combatants had a firearm of any kind.

The Akhal-Teke’s mud-walled fortress looked formidable but was vulnerable to Russian artillery fire and modern siege tactics. The Russian side could take the time necessary (in the event, three weeks) to construct a system of trenches extending to the fortress wall and lay an explosive charge at its base. The detonation of the explosives produced a large breach in the wall and this, together with a smaller breach made by artillery fire, and the effects of the three-week bombardment on the defending Tekes, meant that the fortress was ripe for the taking.

Skobelev now gave the order to begin the storming operation, urging on his troops with a suitably belligerent exhortation: “All right lads? The enemy are scum (dryan).” Despite the advantages enjoyed by the Russian side, the storming operation was not the walkover that might have been expected. A Russian officer who served in the expeditionary force described how, immediately after the detonation of the explosives, a unit of Akhal-Teke combatants took up position in good order in the resulting crater and met the storming units with “accurate fire, pikes and cold steel”.

Even if the outcome was never in doubt, the extent of Russian losses – one thousand dead – is testimony to the determination and fighting ability of the Akhal-Teke combatants. Another Russian officer who was involved in the action was impressed by their courage and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their people and their homeland, referring in particular to one of their number who, wounded and dying, “was somehow with outstretched hands defending that scrap of his native soil on which he lay”.

The taking of the fortress was quickly followed by the massacre on the plains. The official Russian histories of the campaign (there were two of them) indicate that the pursuit and “hewing” (rubka) of the fleeing Tekes continued for fifteen versts (around ten miles). Skobelev’s report states that the pursuing troops killed 8,000 Tekes “of both sexes” (oboego pola). Morrison’s analysis of the evidence relating to the Akhal-Teke fatalities, taking account of both siege and massacre, concludes that “a substantial proportion of the dead must have been non-combatants, mostly women and children”.

The modern reader can obtain some sense of the effect of these events on Teke society and culture from a song (reproduced by Morrison) which was recorded in the former Teke territories in the early 1900s by an official of the Russian administration:

Under every bush of steppe herbs
Lie the abandoned bodies of the fallen.

Grenades and bombs buried us in the ground
And arms and legs lay everywhere on the steppe.
One mourned a son, another a daughter.
And each parted company from the other.
“Do not reproach me with lying!” said the singer.
On the hill of Gök-Tepe blood is spilled,
Of which I am a witness, of which I sang.
In the world the Teke have become pitiful prisoners
And their good name has become without glory.

Edmond O’Donovan (1844-83) was a son of the well-known antiquarian John O’Donovan. As a young man, he combined medical studies at Trinity College Dublin with a clandestine role as the “centre” of the Fenian “circle” at the university; and, though he failed to complete his degree, he would continue to be closely associated with the Fenians for as long as he lived. He served as a volunteer in the French forces in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 but was captured and made a prisoner of war. Turning this mischance to his advantage, he embarked on a career as a war correspondent for English newspapers.

When he set out for Western Turkestan in January 1879 he was already well-established in his profession, having reported on conflicts in Spain, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Afghanistan. Making his way to the eastern coastline of the Caspian Sea, he established a good professional relationship with the Russian military authorities at their outpost at Tchikislar. This provided him with valuable insights into their aims and plans, but cooperation did not extend to allowing him to accompany Russian forces as an embedded journalist.

Undeterred, he set out, accompanied by local guides, to cover the unfolding events as best he could. Travelling via Persia, he arrived in the vicinity of Gök-Tepe as the 1880-81 siege was nearing its conclusion. As he writes in The Merv Oasis, he established himself at an elevated position which was “not over twelve miles” from Gök-Tepe. He was therefore able, by using his “double field glass”, to see that the storming of the fortress was under way and the attempted escape across the plains had begun. He acknowledges that he stayed only briefly at that location and that he was “too far off to be able to make notes of details”, but adds that he was able to gather “many particulars of the siege and its conclusion” from “fugitives” whom he “encountered that evening and on the following days”.

It seems clear, however, that O’Donovan’s account of Gök-Tepe in The Merv Oasis depends mainly on information provided by informants, and that much of the information received was inaccurate – the chief problem being a failure to register the extent of the killings on the plains. Further, it seems clear that it was based on his contemporaneous notes, with little if any revision to take account of information that subsequently became available. The result is an account in which the outcome of the siege is a crushing defeat for the Akhal-Tekes, but there is no sense that the Russians’ pursuit of the fleeing Tekes amounted to a massacre.

After extricating himself from the chaos enveloping Gök-Tepe, O’Donovan set out for Merv – the sole remaining independent Teke territory and the new focus of Russian attention. He had already made contact with a senior Teke figure to explain that he was a journalist, not an agent of Britain or any other power, and that he had “nothing whatever to do with politics”. Even so, he could not know in advance how he would be treated on reaching his destination. In the event, the reception was cautious.

The Tekes of Merv had every reason to suspect that a European visitor might be an agent for one or other of the imperial powers. Nevertheless, O’Donovan succeeded in winning their conditional confidence, but this was based on the belief that he was – despite his protestations to the contrary – a British agent, and that he might be the means by which they could secure British support which would enable them to avoid the fate suffered by the Akhal-Tekes.

Much has been made of his appointment as a “Khan” of the Tekes of Merv, but the reality was that this was an instance of the Tekes following the traditional advice to “hold your friends close and your enemies (or potential enemies) even closer”. Any misstep on his own part, any misunderstanding on the part of the Tekes, or any one of a host of other mischances, could have had the most serious consequences for him.

Despite living under these stressful conditions, he seems to have acted in good faith towards the Tekes, providing them with objective and generally sound advice on everything from irrigation systems to military tactics and international politics. Meanwhile, his contact with Tekes at all levels, including top-level political and military figures who had escaped from Gök-Tepe, was journalistic gold-dust. It became increasingly difficult to maintain this position, however, as Russian overtures to the Tekes, and growing doubts about the prospects of British support, made his situation increasingly precarious.

The Tekes, while continuing to show him as much respect as previously, now made it clear that they would not countenance his departure from Merv – even temporarily – until there was some satisfactory resolution of the problems facing them. In these circumstances, he resorted to deceit, persuading them that there would be a meeting of the international powers in Persia at which he might be able to secure a favourable outcome for them. Thus, he departed Merv, never to return.

As events unfolded, the Tekes of Merv, bowing to necessity, submitted to Russia without offering further resistance; and Britain, in the context of broader understandings which would eventually lead to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, accepted the incorporation of the Teke territories into the Russian empire. O’Donovan returned to London, where he was feted for his adventures in Central Asia, presenting a paper at the Royal Geographic Society and publishing his award-winning book; he died in the Sudan in 1883 when an expeditionary force in which he was an embedded journalist – an Anglo-Egyptian force aiming to suppress the Mahdist uprising – was annihilated by Sudanese forces at El Obeid.

Morrison, commenting on the final Russian campaigns in Western Turkestan, observes that the “best-known [contemporaneous] European accounts were both by journalists”: O’Donovan’s book and an 1886 work by Edgar Boulanger. In his own work, he draws to a limited extent on The Merv Oasis to support his treatment of a number of topics. Most interesting for present purposes is his finding that the Russian authorities were intensely concerned about O’Donovan’s presence in Merv because they believed him to be a British agent and suspected that he might be preparing the way for a British intervention in the area.

Present-day readers of Morrison’s and O’Donovan’s books will find much to admire in both works – rigorous analysis based on extensive archival research in one case, and, in the other, notwithstanding its flawed account of the events at Gök-Tepe, insights into the Tekes’ world based on the author’s experience of living among them at Merv for six months. Their most urgent response to these works, however, will surely be to wonder whether a straight line can be drawn between Gök-Tepe in 1881 and Mariupol and the Donbas in 2022.

Clearly, it would not be altogether right to do so, as the situations differ in important ways. Equally, however, it would not be altogether wrong to make that connection, as Vladimir Putin clearly sees himself as acting in a tradition in which military action involving “slaughter” – targeted on whole populations, combatants and non-combatants, men, women and children – is the response of choice when neighbouring peoples resist incorporation into Russia’s sphere of influence.


Martin Greene in an independent researcher.




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