Empire in Asia

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The Gorchakov Memoradum, 1864

In 1864 Russia began actively moving its imperial boundary east of the Caspian into the Kazakh steppe and the khanates of Kokand, Khiva and Bukhara, collectively known to the Russians as Turkestan. Although the advance was partly motivated by Russia’s strategic rivalry with Great Britain in Central Asia, the so-called “Great Game”, there were other factors at work. In addition to opening badly-needed markets to Russian goods and access to new sources of cotton following the supply disruptions of the American Civil War, the conquest of Turkestan was seen as a means of recouping Russian military prestige following the disaster of the Crimea and of countering British strength elsewhere by placing the tsar’s armies in a position to menace the Achilles’ heel of its rival’s rich Indian possessions.

        Following a failed attempt in July of that year, Russian troops succeeded in capturing the oasis town of Shymkent (Tchemkend), expelling the Kokandians and occupying it in September. Anticipating the outcry, particularly from Britain, which would accompany any further advances into Central Asia, Prince A.M. Gorchakov, the Russian Imperial Chancellor and Foreign Minister, prepared an official explanation for the diplomatic corps to provide foreign governments which he hoped would allay European fears and suspicions. In a memorandum dated 14 November intended to clarify Russia’s policy and circulated via its embassies, Gorchakov justified the succession of conquests by citing the need to protect its borders against lawless tribesmen in “the interests of humanity and civilisation.”

        Gorchakov explained the idea behind his country’s imperial advance into Central Asia in terms that many of his European counterparts would have found difficult to dispute, likening the Russian ‘dilemma’ of advancing until it could establish secure frontiers, and the need for final extension to be based on fertile land suitable for colonisation in order to counter strong states such as Kokand, to those of other empires, namely Britain, France, Holland and the United States. Like them, Russia had been “irresistibly forced, less by ambition than by imperious necessity, into this onward march, where the greatest difficulty is to know when to stop.” The memorandum’s comparison of Russia’s situation with that of the Western countries reflected the belief that Russian policies were consistent with those of other colonial powers, and was skilfully designed to make it difficult for them to protest its actions by equating its position in Central Asia to theirs in their own extensive overseas territories.

        In spite of these justifications, Gorchakov averred that Russia’s advance into Central Asia would be limited. The memorandum relied on a distinction between “civilised states” and “half-savage, nomadic populations who possess no fixed social organisation.” In such cases, according to Gorchakov, “the more civilised state is forced, in the interests of security and commerce, to exercise a certain ascendancy over those whose turbulent and unsettled character makes them most undesirable neighbours.” He presents this boundary concept as vindicating further expansion of empire in Turkestan while appearing to accord respect to state boundaries upon which the European international system rested, discriminating the “unstable communities” of nomad tribes from the “agricultural and commercial populations attached to the soil” of the Central Asian khanates, who, in spite of their “backward civilisation” and “the instability of their political condition”:

“… possessing a more advanced social organisation, offer us every chance of gaining neighbours with whom there is a possibility of entering into relations. Consequently, our frontier line ought to swallow up the former, and stop short at the limit of the latter.”

        He went on to promise that once Russia had reached what is now approximately the southern border of modern Kazakhstan, between Ysyk Köl and the Syr Darya, its frontier would be fixed in order to avoid “the danger of being carried away, as is almost inevitable, by a series of repressive measures and reprisals, into an unlimited extension of territory.” Accordingly, the Russian Empire would only expand to wherever it met a government able to impose order on a settled population and willing to maintain commercial relations, absorbing areas and peoples lacking “some organised form of society and a Government to direct and represent it,” but not those who “accept that peaceful and commercial relations with her are more profitable than disorder, pillage, reprisals, and a permanent state of war.” Gorchakov expressly identifies the former as an essential criterion for civilisation, stating that “no agent has been found more apt for the progress of civilisation than commercial relations.” Their development, however, “requires everywhere order and stability,” which would only follow “a complete transformation of the habits of the people” – to be imposed by Russian arms.

        As a statement of intent and summary of the Russian view of the peoples of Turkestan, the memorandum is a significant document, supplying not only the motive and legal basis of Russia’s Central Asian policy – although Khiva and Bukhara were subsequently absorbed, contrary to Gorchakov’s promises, they remained nominally independent as Russian protectorates until Bolshevik annexation in 1920 – but also the  moral rationale for intervention, in its interpretation of a tsarist ‘civilising mission’ not dissimilar from those in circulation in Western colonial discourse at the time. With its parallels to the imperial experience elsewhere, the imposition of highly subjective concepts such as order, commerce and civilisation, filtered through an industrial European lens, onto Central Asian khanates belonging to a much different civilisation and political tradition, presents another example of the difference between modern and early modern conceptions of empire.

The Gorchakov Memorandum of 1864

        (Circular.)                                                                                                                        St Petersburg: November 21, 1864

        The Russian newspapers have given an account of the last military operations executed by a detachment of our troops in the regions of Central Asia with remarkable success and important results. It was to be foreseen that these events would the more attract the attention of the foreign public that their scene was laid in scarcely known countries.

        Our august Master has commanded me to state to you briefly, but with clearness and precision, the position in which we find ourselves in Central Asia, the interests which inspire us in those countries, and the end which we have in view.

        The position of Russia in Central Asia 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 found, in the interest of the security of its frontier and its commercial relations, to exercise a certain ascendancy over those whom their turbulent and unsettled character make most undesirable neighbours. First, there are raids and acts of pillage to be put down. To put a stop to them, the tribes on the frontier have to be reduced to a state of more or less perfect submission. This result once attained, these tribes take to more peaceful habits, but are in their turn exposed to the attacks of the more distant tribes.

        The State is bound to defend them against these depredations, and to punish those who commit them. Hence the necessity of distant, costly, and periodically recurring expeditions against an enemy whom his social organisation makes it impossible to seize. If, the robbers once punished, the expedition is withdrawn, the lesson is soon forgotten; its withdrawal is put down to weakness. It is a peculiarity of Asiatics to respect nothing but visible and palpable force; the moral force of reason and of the interests of civilisation has as yet no hold upon them. The work has then always to be done over again from the beginning.

        In order to put a stop to this state of permanent disorder, fortified posts are established in the midst of these hostile tribes, and an influence is brought to bear upon them which reduces them by degrees to a state of more or less forced submission. But soon beyond this second line other still more distant tribes come in their turn to threaten the same dangers and necessitate the same measures of repression. The State thus finds itself forced to choose one of two alternatives, either to give up this endless labour and to abandon its frontier to perpetual disturbance, rendering all prosperity, all security, all civilisation an impossibility, or, on the other hand, to plunge deeper and deeper into barbarous countries, where the difficulties and expenses increase with every step in advance.

        Such has been the fate of every country which has found itself in a similar position. The United States of America, France in Algeria, Holland in her Colonies, England in India – all have been irresistibly forced, less by ambition than by imperious necessity, into this onward march, where the greatest difficulty is to know when to stop.

        Such, too, have been the reasons which have led the Imperial Government to take up at first a position resting on one side on the Syr-Daria, on the other on the Lake Issyk-Kaul, and to strengthen these two lines by advanced forts, which, little by little, have crept on into the heart of those distant regions, without however succeeding in establishing on the other side of our frontiers that tranquillity which is indispensable for their security.

        The explanation of this unsettled state of things is to be found, first, in the fact that, between the extreme points of this double line, there is an immense unoccupied space, where all attempts at colonisation or caravan trade are paralysed by the inroads of the robber tribes; and, in the second place, in the perpetual fluctuations of the political condition of those countries, where Turkistan and Khokand, sometimes united, sometimes at variance, always at war, either with one another or with Bokhara, presented no chance of settled relations or of any regular transactions whatever.

        The Imperial Government thus found itself, in spite of all its efforts, in the dilemma we have above alluded to, that is to say, compelled either to permit the continuance of a state of permanent disorder, paralysing to all security and progress, or to condemn itself to costly and distant expeditions, leading to no practical result, and with the work always to be done anew; or, lastly, to enter upon the undefined path of conquest and annexation which has given to England the Empire of India, by attempting the subjugation by armed force, one after another, of the small independent States whose habits of pillage and turbulence and whose perpetual revolts leave their neighbours neither peace nor repose.

        Neither of these alternative courses was in accordance with the object of our august Master’s policy, which consists, not in extending beyond all reasonable bounds the regions under his sceptre, but in giving a solid basis to his rule, in guaranteeing their security, and in developing their social organisation, their commerce, their well-being, and their civilisation.

        Our task was, therefore, to discover a system adapted to the attainment of this three-fold object.

        The following principles have, in consequence, been laid down:–

        1. It has been judged to be indispensable that our two fortified frontier lines – one extending from China to the Lake Issyk-Kaul, the other from the Sea of Aral along the Syr-Daria – should be united by fortified points, so that all our posts should be in a position of mutual support, leaving no gap through which the nomad tribes might make with impunity their inroads and depredations.

        2. It was essential that the line of our advanced forts thus completed should be situated in a country fertile enough, not only to insure their supplies, but also to facilitate the regular colonisation, which alone can prepare a future of stability and prosperity for the occupied country, by gaining over the neighbouring populations to civilised life.

        3. And, lastly, it was urgent to lay down this line definitively, so as to escape the danger of being carried away, as is almost inevitable, by a series of repressive measures and reprisals, into an unlimited extension of territory.

        To attain this end a system had to be established, which should depend not only on reason, which may be elastic, but on geographical and political conditions, which are fixed and permanent.

        This system was suggested to us by a very simple fact, the result of long experience, namely, that the nomad tribes, which can neither be seized nor punished, nor effectually kept in order, are our most inconvenient neighbours; while, on the other hand, agricultural and commercial populations attached to the soil, and possessing a more advanced social organisation, offer us every chance of gaining neighbours with whom there is a possibility of entering into relations.

        Consequently, our frontier line ought to swallow up the former, and stop short at the limit of the latter.

        These three principles supply a clear, natural, and logical explanation of our last military operations in Central Asia. In fact, our original frontier line, extending along the Syr-Daria to Fort Perovsky on one side, and on the other to the Lake Issyk-Kaul, had the drawback of being almost on the verge of the desert. It was broken by a wide gap between the two extreme points: it did not offer sufficient resources to our troops, and left unsettled tribes over the border, with which any settled arrangement became impossible.

        In spite of our unwillingness to extend our frontier, these motives had been powerful enough to induce the Imperial Government to establish this line between Lake Issyk-Kaul and the Syr-Daria, by fortifying the town of Tchemkend, lately occupied by us. By the adoption of this line we obtain a double result. In the first place, the country it takes in is fertile, well wooded, and watered by numerous watercourses; it is partly inhabited by various Kirghiz tribes, which have already accepted our rule; it consequently offers favourable conditions for colonisation and the supply of provisions to our garrisons. In the second place, it puts us in the immediate neighbourhood of the agricultural and commercial populations of Khokand. We find ourselves in presence of a more solid and compact, less unsettled, and better organised social state; fixing for us with geographical precision the limit up to which we are bound to advance, and at which we must halt, because, while on the one hand any further extension of our rule, meeting, as it would, no longer with unstable communities, such as the nomad tribes, but with more regularly constituted States, would entail considerable exertions, and would draw us on from annexation to annexation with unforeseen complications; on the other, with such States for our future neighbours, their backward civilisation, and the instability of their political condition, do not shut us out from the hope that the day may come when regular relations may, to the advantage of both parties, take the place of the permanent troubles which have up to the present moment paralysed all progress in those countries.

        Such, sir, are the interests which inspire the policy of our august Master in Central Asia: such is the object, by his Imperial Majesty’s orders, of the action of his Cabinet.

        You are requested to take these arguments as your guide in any explanations you may give to the Government to which you are accredited, in case questions are asked or you may see credence given to erroneous ideas as to our action in these distant parts.

        It is needless for me to lay stress upon the interests which Russia evidently has not to increase her territory, and, above all, to avoid raising complications on her frontiers, which can but delay and paralyse her domestic development.

        The programme which I have just traced is in accordance with these views.

       Very frequently of late years the civilisation of these countries, which are her neighbours on the continent of Asia, has been assigned to Russia as her special mission.

        No agent has been found more apt for the progress of civilisation than commercial relations. Their development requires everywhere order and stability; but in Asia it demands a complete transformation of the habits of the people. The first thing to be taught to the populations of Asia is that they will gain more in favouring and protecting the caravan trade than in robbing them. These elementary ideas can only be accepted by the public where one exists; that is to say, where there is some organised form of society and a Government to direct and represent it.

        We are accomplishing the first part of our task in carrying our frontier to the limit where the indispensable conditions are to be found.

        The second we shall accomplish in making every effort henceforward to prove to our neighbouring States, by a system of firmness in the repression of their misdeeds, combined with moderation and justice in the use of our strength, and respect for their independence, that Russia is not their enemy, that she entertains towards them no ideas of conquest, and that peaceful and commercial relations with her are more profitable than disorder, pillage, reprisals, and a permanent state of war.

        The Imperial Cabinet, in assuming this task, takes as its guide the interests of Russia. But it believes that, at the same time, it is promoting the interests of humanity and civilisation. It has a right to expect that the line of conduct it pursues and the principles which guide it will meet with a just and candid appreciation.

                                                                                                                                                                  (Signed) Gorchakov.

Causes of the Afghan War: Being a Selection of Papers Laid Before Parliament with a Connecting Narrative and Comment. London : Chatto & Windus, 1879. pp. 222-227.

Annotated by Daniel Lee