The Anglo-Russian Rivalry in Central Asia: Tracing the Dawn of Menace

Rohan teaches History at Lakshmibai College, University of Delhi, and is pursuing PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at rohan87jnu[at]

Rohan Srivastava
Rohan Srivastava

The Setting
The Russian expansionist policy was a natural corollary to its geography. Situated on the cross road between Europe and Asia, Russia had a position of advantage for expanding its influence in both the directions. As for its own frontier, Russia was in a very unfavourable position. In the north, the Arctic region was frozen for a great part of the year – both in the Tundras and the Seas. On the East, towards the Pacific, the Russians had to come in open contestation with the Chinese empire. On the West, the powerful armies of the Western European States kept the Russians at bay; thanks to the devastations that Napoleonic wars created which prepared the states to counter any possible invasion in their territories. In the South, their move was temporarily checked by the powerful Osmanlis in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thus, facing natural obstacles in the north and hostile oppositions in the East, West and South, the Russian were forced to seek an outlet for their trade and this was only possible in the South-East through the Kirghiz Steppes and in the South through the Caucasus. There were several motives behind the Russian expansion in Central Asia; firstly, the desire for protection from hostile attacks, secondly, economic necessities and lastly, the desire to establish a large empire.

Territorial expansion into new lands had been one of the most important political agendas of the Russian Tsar since the time of Ivan IV (r.1533-84), but the nineteenth century opened a new stage in the historical evolution in Russia owing to the emergence of imperialism which gave a colonialist outlook to the expansion.  It was a superb amalgamation of territorial aggrandisement with the extension of political sovereignty over conquered peoples in the belief that the colonising mission would bring riches to the Russian Empire and civilisation to the nomadic tribes of the steppe. In effect, the territorial expansion of the Russian empire also brought about significant commercial opportunities for the Russian merchants, in particular and other merchant communities, in general. However it is important to note that it was from this time that one could see the involvement of British to access this lucrative trade by establishing Company firms so as to reduce the importance of Portuguese trade enterprise in the global market. This seems apparent as by 1555 the English Privy Council had formally granted a charter to a group of English merchants, including Anthony Jenkinson, to form the Russia Company (or the Muscovy Company) in an effort to access the India trade without engaging the Portuguese. This project, however failed because the Portuguese were no longer a threat and the English shifted their priority to the strengthening of the English East India Company; finally leading to the disbandment of the Muscovy Company in 1623.
The East India Company, on the other hand, a purely trading enterprise, was gradually assuming an imperial design with the adoption of vigorous policy of territorial acquisition in the Indian peninsula. For the authorities of the company India was a valuable possession as they foresaw it as their future empire. It was natural to prioritise its defence and security in their policies. Being strongest in marine combat the British government did not apprehend any attack from the sea. They, nevertheless, were apprehensive about the overland trade routes which stretched beyond the North-West Frontier and gave easy access to their enemies. They, therefore, resolved to block this route and with this began the Anglo-Russian rivalry at the international stage.

The Russian Expansion

The Russian administration, in the wake of the political developments of the sixteenth century, tried to promote trade with her Muslim neighbours. This consequently led to the Russian control over Kazan by 1552 and Astrakhan khanate in 1556 and by the end of the sixteenth century Russian territory extended till the Khanate of Sibir. The control over Astrakhan proved rewarding for the Russians as it provided direct communication with Central Asia, Azerbaijan and Iran across the Kazak steppe, established Muscovy as the power centre, provided the Tsar with control over the trading waterways of the Volga and Kama River, and with access to the Caspian Sea. The Russian participation in the Eurasian trade grew considerably.

 Title page of Nakaz or the Instruction of Catherine the Great, 1767. (wiki image)

Title page of Nakaz or the Instruction of Catherine the Great, 1767. (wiki image)

During the reign of Peter the Great expansionist policy in Central Asia became militarist in nature. By 1715-1717 Peter began with an ambitious plan to add the Khanates of Yarkand, Khiva and finally Bukhara into the Russian dominion, “diplomatically if possible, military if necessary”.The Russian expansionist policy in Central Asia was presumably possible with the construction of a number of forts along the Ural River augmenting the already established forts along the Irtysh River. These forts served two purposes: first, they served as military and diplomatic outposts in order to pacify the nomadic tribal groups who lived near the Russian frontier and offer protection to the Russian merchants; second, in due course of time these forts were developed into important trading enterpots, attracting large number of caravan traders from the neighbouring cities such as Bukhara and Khiva. In 1735 a fort was established at Orsk, which was called the Orenburg fort until 1743, when a new Orenburg fort was built roughly 200 kilometres to the west. In addition, a new fort was established at Troitsk, and in 1752 a fort was added at Petropavlovsk, which closed the existing gap between Troitsk and Omsk. A Russian military fort was built in 1763 by Empress Catherine II, which was equipped with a customs office on the bank of the Siberian River Bukhtarma, a tributary of the Itrysh, in order to facilitate Russian trade with the countries to the south and, through them, with India. In order to promote traders to visit this location she ordered the officials to publicise that the merchants can freely trade without paying any tax for the next ten years. Thus, in a span of two centuries Russia was affirmatively claiming her authority over large part of Central Asia both in terms of territorialisation and commercial endeavours.

The English Counter-Policy

The policy of containment of the Russian expansionism in Central Asia by the English only became conspicuous, if not ubiquitous, in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century. The English government in India looked upon with suspicion the movements of Russia as they were fully aware of the strategic importance of these Khanates for the safety of their Indian Empire. England, burdened with the dual responsibility of being the first industrial nation and a coloniser, was interested in preventing the extension of Russian Empire towards India. If once Russia could assume such a menacing position in Central Asia as to threaten their Indian Empire, it could have placed her in a position to become a stumbling block to the free course of their policy in Europe also. It was in this light that the Russian advance in Central Asia was considered to be a part of hostile design against the English government and therefore, they were determined to adopt counter-measures to oppose their advance. From 1800 to 1829 Russia was engaged in establishing her stronghold in trans-Caucasia and Black Sea. To her success she was able to clinch her dominant position in these regions by the Treaty of Unkiar Skellesi.  It is then that Russia outwitted other European powers and began to consolidate her hold over the nomads of steppe and the desert zone across the Cossack lines which ran up to the Ural River past Orenburg to its head and thence eastward to Semipalatinsk and the Chinese frontier.

The Dawn of Menace and The Quest for Empire in Central Asia

The new drive of Russian colonisation started in 1801 with the annexation of Georgia, which was then Iranian territory. The annexation of Georgia gave Russia a vital strategic position against Ottoman Empire and Iran. Russia soon annexed the cities of Ganjeh and Erevan, culminating into the first Russo-Iranian war. The war lasted for nine years and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813. Iran lost most of her Caucasian possessions, including Baku, Darband, Ganjeh and Georgia, and gave up her right to maintain a navy on the Caspian. The second war broke out between Iran and Russia in 1826, however Iran was again defeated and the Treaty of Turkoman Chay was signed in 1828. In addition to the former treaty arrangements Iran had to yield the khanates of Erevan and Nakhichevan to Russia besides paying war indemnity of 20 million rubles. It was due to the scheme of diplomatic arrangement between Iran and Russia, and the latter’s persuasion to besiege the town of Herat in 1837 by the former which threatened the British of an anticipated attack on their Indian Empire. It was a natural corollary that to counter-act the Russian and Iranian movement in Afghanistan the British threatened war with Iran and subsequently, in June 1838 occupied Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf in order to exert pressure on her; whereupon the Shah abandoned the siege. It was made clear by the British authorities that they would display both forms of action – sustained competition with Russia and effective portioning of Iran into spheres of influence, and the inclusion of all of future Afghanistan up to the Amu Darya within the sphere of British Empire of India. It would not be an exaggerated belief that the British were determined to this plan of action as early as 1830s. This also meant that the British authorities had given up their hopes on Central Asia, and that, Russia was considered the sole master of the region up to the Syr Darya near the Aral Sea until the 1850s.

The second half of the nineteenth century brought several significant changes that were to shape the dynamics of the Anglo-Russian rivalry. For Russia, the technical and military development in Western Europe was shifting the balance of power. The emancipation of Serfdom in 1861 could also not help Russia in fixing her internal problems. The internal weakness inevitably affected her international position, and her diplomatic failures in Europe were followed by humiliating defeat in the Crimean War against the collective the forces of Britain, Trance, Turkey and Sardinia-Piedmont (1853-6). The Russian prestige was plummeted with the loss and consequently, her political role in the Balkans and in Ottoman was materially reduced. Again, for Russia Central Asia and the Far East acquired more significance; a ‘psychological compensation’ for her lost prestige or perhaps because it was easier to compete with Western European powers in Central and East Asia.      

The dissolution of English East India Company in 1858 and the proclamation of British Empire in India had changed the power structure and the foreign policy of Britain towards Central Asia. Any direct combat with Russia was avoided in Central Asian region, nonetheless, any movement towards southern Iran and Afghanistan was to be diplomatically repelled, if possible and militarily combated, if necessary.  The need to maintain Afghanistan as a buffer zone between the areas of influences was the only practicable option for the British. However, her role in Iran implied conspicuously the desire to extend the monopoly in trade and territory in Central Asia. In other words, there was no significant departure from the political stand that Britain took in 1838 after capturing Kharg Island; only the timbre was kept lower than earlier.

Also, the decline of Ottoman Empire gave impetus to the third dimension to the ‘Eastern Question’. Other European powers began to compete for their share in the various segments of the economies and territories of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire. It made Iran vulnerable to Russia. An overbearing Russian presence on Iranian frontier, and an equally bullying British presence in the Arabian Sea, sustained competition between them for the control Iranian internal politics and the carving up of the country into the spheres of influence. It is noteworthy that the culmination of Anglo-Russian rivalry over the question of spheres of influence in Iran only resolved after the Convention of 1907, though informally, the chalked out arrangement had already been in operation since 1830s.

In the second half of the nineteenth century Russia began to conquer Central Asia rapidly. It became the focal point of the Russian colonial policy which had its direct impact on the Russia’s relation with Iran. The khanates of Bukhara, Khoqand and Khiva came under Russian domination after series of battles; the final battle of Geok-Tepe concluded the military operations. This phase proved not only significant for Russia in terms of her expansionist ventures in Central Asia but it also checked the constant Turkoman raids in the north-eastern province of Iran. In the open contestation between Great Britain and Russia it was Iran which suffered most of the losses and from 1860s to 1880s, especially after the capture of Merv in 1884, Russia was able to create a strategic military base for herself to further her expansionist policy southwards. The issue between Britain and Russia in second half of the nineteenth century was more economic than political and it was to this end that one could perceive various instances of blockade of railroad constructions in Iran in the 1890s. Equally significant then becomes the position of Russia which she held at the southern shores of Caspian Sea, thanks to the fishing concession that she could win over in Iran super ceding British intentions till 1902. However, such concessions and political manoeuvring didn’t stay for long in favour of both Britain and Russia. And the matter only got worse in the wake of the first world war when the fury of European camps was swayed towards the politically Central Asian provincial states, especially Iran. By this point Central Asia was no more a bone of contention between Britain and Russia alone, and that, it in turn marked the final stage for the quest of empire amongst Europeans colonisers, Czarist Russia and the khanate nomadic chieftains in Central Asia.      

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