(RUSSIA and EMPIRE, 1856-1903 – continued)
Traders and settlers in Siberia, said to be around 0.9 million in 1800, had increased to 2.7 million by 1850, most of them in the western part of Siberia. During the reign of Alexander II, Russia expanded in the Siberian Far East. Russia had founded a penal colony in 1857 in the north of Sakhalin Island. In 1858, the Russians took advantage of China's weakness and signed, with the Manchu dynasty ruling China, the Treaty of Aigun. In this treaty, Russia gained 600,000 square kilometers of territory on the left bank of the Amur River (which now separates China from Russia) – a gain in territory almost the size of California and Oregon combined. In 1860, in the Treaty of Beijing, Russia gained territory south from the Amur River along the East Sea (Sea of Japan) to Korea – territory approximately the size of California. In the south of that region, in 1860, the Russians founded the port city of Vladivostok.
In the Caucasus, Russia had been facing the "holy wars" of Islamic mountain peoples. In 1857, with the Crimean War over, the Russians launched a new offensive there. The mountaineers grew tired of fighting and the Russians captured the legendary Shamil, leader of the resistance to Russia. In the Caucasus, the Christian Armenian and Georgians looked to the Russians for protection against the threat from the Turks as well as attacks by Muslim mountaineers, while some Muslims, rather than be ruled by the Christian Russians, migrated to Turkey.
And beginning in 1863, Russia sent military expeditions into Central Asia – between the Caspian Sea and China, north of Afghanistan. Here the population was sparse and largely tribal and Islamic. Largely they were mobile herders. Resistance to the Russians was armed with little more than a few antiquated firearms. The United States was Russia's primary source of cotton, and when this supply was curtailed during the U.S. Civil War the growing of cotton in Central Asia became of greater importance for Russia. The Russians captured the city of Tashkent in June 1865, and Tashkent became a Russian administrative center. Russian settlers began moving into the conquered areas, with the Russian army defending the settlers against attacks by local natives, which led to further Russian expansion.
In 1867, Alexander's government moved toward a greater consolidation of the frontier of its empire by selling to the United States all its "territory and dominion" on the continent of North America, namely Alaska, and adjacent islands – a continuation of a pull back from Fort Ross in northern California, in 1841. In 1875, Russia pulled back from the Kurile Islands (historically islands that belonged to the Ainu people). Russia acknowledged Japan's control there and received, in exchange, recognition of its control over the southern half of Sakhalin Island, giving all of Sakhalin, for the time being, to Russia.
Meanwhile, Alexander's Russia had regained some of its standing in the Western world. In 1870, Alexander repudiated that section of the 1866 Treaty of Paris that prevented Russia from having a naval force in the Black Sea. A conference of European powers, held in 1871, sanctioned Russia reestablishing a naval force in the Black Sea but reaffirmed the right of the Turkish sultan to close the Dardanelles and the Bosporus to war vessels.
Concerning the western frontier of Russia's empire, by now Pan-Slavism was energizing some Russians – a point-of-view that had risen with the decline of Russia's international standing from its loss of the Crimean War. The Pan-Slavists held that if Slavic and Orthodox Christian peoples other than Russians associated with Russia's empire, it would give Russia more power and influence in world affairs. Some Pan-Slavists believed that the old seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Constantinople, was or should be Russian. Some devout Pan-Slavic Orthodox Christians believed that Russia's empire should include lands from the Volga River to the Euphrates, from the Ganges River to the Danube, as, they believed, Daniel had prophesied. They credited Russia with the highest achievements: the religion of the Hebrews, the culture of the Greeks (who were also Eastern Orthodox) and the political order of ancient Rome. Following Prussia's unification of Germany's in 1871, Pan-Slavists wanted to put a check on German expansion in Central and Eastern Europe. Pan-Slavism, they believed, was essential if Russia was to be a great power.
Russia created an alliance with Prussia and Austria-Hungary, called the Three Emperor's League. Russia joined other Christian powers in trying to impose on the Ottoman Empire a program of reforms and to eliminate grievances among Christians within the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. In Russia, public opinion rose in support of a spontaneous rising against Turkish rule in the Balkans, the Russians siding with their fellow Eastern Orthodox Christians, whom they saw as suffering under Muslim rule. Public opinion goaded Alexander into going to war against the Turks, and on April 24, 1877, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Sultan – the Islamic ruler in Turkey. Alexander appeased Austria, lest Austria oppose his move against the Turks, and he did so by offering Austria the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina (helping to lay the ground for World War in 1914).
Russia's successful armies stopped short of capturing Constantinople, threatened with war by an aroused Britain if it did so. Russia made peace with Turkey at San Stefano. But Britain and other European powers were opposed to any increase in Russia's influence in the Balkans. At a conference of the major powers at Berlin in 1878 – called the Congress of Berlin – the map of the Balkans was redrawn with what appeared to be a diplomatic defeat for Russia, to which Russian public opinion reacted with bitterness.
The Russians had to be satisfied with their gains in Siberia and Central Asia. By 1876 the Russians had conquered or had made a protectorate of all of what is today Uzbekistan. Also in 1876 they occupied the north of present-day Kyrgyzstan. By 1881 present-day Kyrgyzstan was a part of the Russian Empire. And in 1881 the Russians overcame the fierce resistance of Turkmen tribes, capturing the Dengil-Tepe fortress, near Ashgabad, putting present-day Turkmenistan under Russian control.
In their 19th century conquest of Central Asia, the Russians had lost perhaps less than a thousand soldiers. The Russians encouraged local semi-nomadic peoples to develop agriculture, while not interfering with local law and other customs of the conquered Islamic peoples, and Russia was to receive from Central Asia cotton and other raw materials. In the conquered territories the Russians sold tobacco, manufactured goods and, with devastating consequences, vodka. The Russians spread syphilis. Merchants bought up land and then leased the land back to local peoples at extortionate rates. And the Russians taxed local peoples.
Among the conquered peoples of Siberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia, only the Yakuts in the northeast of Siberia managed to adapt well to Russian dominance, the Yakuts, at least their elite, preserving their language and, under a Christian veneer, their shamanist tradition.
Copyright © 2003-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.