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Eclectic Magazine



New Series. } { Old Series complete
Vol. XLI., No. 6. } JUNE, 1885. { in 63 vols.



It is easier to write about the Russian advance at the present day than
it was a few years back. The ground has been cleared of much of the
rubbish which formerly encumbered it. Not long ago the apologists of
Russia were wont to compare the progress of her arms in Central Asia
with the progress of our own in India. We were warned of a certain law
of nature which impelled civilisation to advance on barbarism, and
were asked to hail with sympathy, rather than view with suspicion, the
extension of a Power which, as it swept on in its resistless course,
diffused the blessings of order, of knowledge, and of commerce over a
vast region hitherto sunk in a savagery of the worst description. But
public opinion is now somewhat changed. No one questions that Russia is
entitled to great credit for the civilising influence that has attended
her progress, for the large benefits she has conferred upon humanity in
her career of conquest through Central Asia. By crushing the Turcoman
raiders, indeed, and by abolishing the slave markets of Khiva and
Bokhara, she has restored peace and prosperity to districts which
were groaning in misery, and has earned the gratitude of thousands of
terror-stricken families. Whatever may happen in the future, she has
gained imperishable glory in the past by her victories of peace along
the desolated frontier of Khorassan; but here the register of her good
deeds must end. To suppose that she launched her forces across the
Caspian in 1869 and engaged in Central Asian warfare with a view to
these beneficent results, is to ignore the whole spirit and character
of her policy. Fortunately there is now no room for misconception. Her
soldiers and statesmen have recently laid bare her springs of action
with a plainness that is almost cynical, but at the same time with
a fulness of detail that must carry conviction to all unprejudiced
minds. It was during the Crimean war, we are told, that Russia first
realised her false position in regard to England. In her schemes of
aggrandisement in Europe she was liable to be met and thwarted at every
turn by British alliances and British influence; and when engaged in
war she was open to our attack in every quarter, in the Black Sea,
the Sea of Azof, the Baltic, or the coast of Georgia, without any
possibility of retaliation. If she was to develop in due course, as
had so often been predicted, into the leading Power of the world, it
was thus absolutely necessary that the inequality complained of should
be redressed. Some weak point in our armor must be discovered. Some
means must be found to shatter the palladium of our insular security.
Hence there arose the idea of creating a great Oriental satrapy, under
Russian administration, which should envelop the north-west frontier of
our Indian Empire, and from which, as occasion might arise, pressure
could be exerted, or, if necessary, armed demonstrations might issue,
which would neutralise British opposition in Europe, and would place
our policy on the Bosphorus or elsewhere in subordination to her
own. In former times, as is well known, elaborate schemes have been
discussed at St. Petersburg for the actual invasion of India, and, if
we may judge from the utterances of the Moscow press and the fervid
letters of certain Russian generals, the same exalted ideas still
prevail in many military circles; but assuredly no such extravagance
has been apparent in the careful plan of trans-Caspian operations
hitherto adopted by the Russian Government, which has, on the contrary,
been of the soberest and most practical character.

The end in view has been simply to arrive by gradual accretion of
territory at the frontier of India. In pursuance of this object Russia
has incurred expense without any immediate prospect of return, to
an extent which has filled economists with dismay; fifty millions
sterling, at least, having been expended by her in Central Asia during
the last twenty-five years. Native rights at the same time have been
mercilessly trampled on, and, above all, diplomacy has pushed its
privilege of deception far beyond the bounds hitherto recognised as
legitimate; but success, which condones all such irregularities, has
rewarded her efforts, and the crisis has now arrived, almost sooner
than was expected.

A brief summary of the salient points which have marked the persistent
advance of Russia in Central Asia seems to be all that is required
at present. For the first ten years following on the Crimean war
her generals, having crossed the Kirghiz steppes from Orenburg,
were gradually feeling their way along the valley of the Jaxartes.
Creeping up the river, and taking fort after fort and city after
city, they everywhere defeated the rabble soldiery of the Uzbegs,
and finally, in 1867, planted the Russian flag on the famous citadel
of Samarcand, adjoining the mausoleum of Timúr. Here, according to
prearranged design, the progress of the Russian arms was arrested,
pending the approach of co-operating columns from the Caspian; but,
in the meantime, the neighboring Khanate of Bokhara, hitherto the
most important of the Central Asian States, was brought completely
under control, and the influence of Russia was fully and firmly
established on the Oxus. To the westward a still more important series
of operations was now commenced. In 1869 the first Russian detachments
crossed the Caspian, and boldly invaded the country of the Turcomans.
Had such an expedition been carried out in Europe, it would have
been stigmatised as piracy, for there was absolutely no provocation
on the part of the tribesmen, nor even was the formality observed of
declaring war. Coercive measures, without further warning and with
varying success, were directed against the tribes of the neighborhood.
Gradually the sphere of action was extended. Khiva was reduced in 1873,
and then the Tekkehs, the principal tribe of the Turcoman confederacy,
who inhabited the steppe from Kizil-Arvat to Merv, were seriously
attacked. The western division of this tribe, called the Akhals, made
a stout resistance, on one occasion in 1879 beating off the regular
troops led by Lomakin, and seriously imperilling the whole Russian
position. Ultimately, however, in 1880, the renowned Scoboleff, greatly
assisted by the Persian chiefs of Kuchán and Bujnoord, who furnished
carriage and supplies from the adjacent frontier of Khorassan,
penetrated to the heart of the Akhal country and took their stronghold,
Geok Tepeh, by storm. All active opposition then collapsed, and in
due course conciliation, combined with intimidation, being skilfully
employed against the Eastern Tekkehs, who were demoralised by the
subjugation of their brethren in Akhal, and who applied for support
in vain both to Persia and to Cabul, Merv—“the Queen of the East,” as
she has been called—surrendered to Russia in February, 1884, and the
first act of the great Central Asia drama, after twenty-five years of
sustained and energetic action, was brought to a successful close. It
is needless to say that during this long and desperate struggle to
reach and occupy Merv there were many phases which tended to distract
public attention from the main object in view. To many persons who
followed the Russian proceedings with an observant and even friendly
eye—for the atrocities committed by the Turcomans had excited general
indignation against them—the explanation which most commended itself
was, that as Russia had already established an important government in
Turkestan very imperfectly supplied with the means of communication
with the Wolga, she found it indispensable to supplement the northern
line with a more direct and assured route to the west, which route
should traverse the Turcoman steppe _viâ_ Merv and Askabad, and should
thus connect Tashkend and Samarcand with the Caspian. And it is quite
possible that consideration of this nature—which from a strategical
point of view were perfectly sound and proper—may have had some weight
in determining the course of events, combined, as they naturally were,
with a full appreciation of the advantages in respect to prestige and
military power which must accrue from the creation of a new empire in
Central Asia; but I must adhere to my view that neither strategy, nor
lust of conquest, nor military glory, nor any of the thousand and one
motives which in matters of peace and war ordinarily actuate nations,
was the governing principle in directing the Russian advance into
Central Asia. That principle was, I believe, an intense desire to reach
the threshold of India, not for the purpose of direct or immediate
attack, but with a view to political pressure on Great Britain,
with which Power she would thus, for the first time, be brought in
territorial contact.

With this conviction strong on my mind, and with a lively sense of
the inconvenience to India of Russian contiguity, is it surprising
that I should feel constrained to put the following questions? Ought
we to have remained passive while the meshes were thus being woven
round us? Ought we not rather to have impeded by all the means at
our command the passage of the Russian columns from the Caspian to
Merv? There were many such means available. We might have persuaded
Persia, whose jealousy was already excited by the movement of the
Russian columns along her frontier, to interdict that supply of grain
and transport animals from Khorassan which was indispensable to a
successful advance. We might have furnished the Tekkehs of Akhal with
arms and money to resist the invaders. We might have warned the Russian
Government in plain but forcible language that her occupation of Merv
would infallibly lead to war. It is impossible, indeed, to acquit
ourselves of shortcoming in this respect. It is impossible to avoid the
conviction that, by a want of firmness in action as in language, the
crisis which now threatens us has been unduly accelerated. I have no
wish to reopen old sores, or to revive the acrimonious strife of 1881,
when the questions of the evacuation of Candahar and the abandonment
of the Quetta railway were debated with the keenness of political
disagreement, embittered by the virulence of party feeling; nor,
indeed, although strongly advocating at the time the retention of the
Western Afghan capital, and believing as I still do that Russia was
mainly encouraged to advance on Merv by our retirement from Candahar,
am I at all insensible to the solid advantages which resulted from
the adoption by the Government of the day of an opposite course of
action. I freely admit three distinct sources of gain. Firstly, the
considerable expense of maintaining an independent government in
Candahar for the last four years has been saved to the public treasury;
secondly, we have avoided local friction with the Dúrání population,
which might have seriously hampered us under present circumstances;
and, thirdly, we have succeeded during the interval in maintaining
friendly relations with the Amir of Cabul, a result which, according
to the best authorities—I refer especially to Sir Lepel Griffin’s
statement on this head—would have been impossible had he been subjected
to the constant sense of humiliation, as well as to the pecuniary
loss, occasioned by the dismemberment of his kingdom and the continued
presence of a British garrison at Candahar. Yet, admitting the value
of such results, I cannot but think them a poor compensation for the
cramped position, both military and political, in which we now find
ourselves. At any rate, if we were at present established in strength
at Candahar as we were in 1881, with the railway completed to that
town from Sibi, and with a small detachment occupying Girishk on
the Helmend, the improvement in our military position would be at
least equivalent to an additional force of 20,000 men in line should
hostilities really supervene with Russia, whilst the relations we
should have been able to establish during the interval with the Hazáreh
and Parsiwán section of the population—relations which must in the
future constitute our chief element of strength in the country—would
have rendered us almost indifferent to the jealousy and opposition of
the Afghans.

Having thus disposed of all preliminary matter, I now take up the
frontier question, from which arises our present acute misunderstanding
with Russia. Oriental states have notoriously elastic and fluctuating
frontiers, and Afghanistan is no exception to the general rule. At
different periods, indeed, since the institution of the kingdom of
Cabul by Ahmed Shah in 1747, the Afghan power has extended on one side
to Cashmire, on another to Deregez in Khorassan, while to the south it
has stretched into Beluchistan and even to the frontiers of Sinde. More
frequently of late years it has been circumscribed within much narrower
dimensions, and has moreover been disintegrated and broken up into
three distinct chiefships. The normal condition of the kingdom may be
considered to be such as it presented on Shir Ali Khan’s accession to
power in 1868, Herat and Candahar being united to Cabul, and the seat
of government being established at the eastern capital. It was shortly
after this, in 1872, that, on the invitation of Russia, who had already
brought Bokhara under her influence, and was exercising a tutelary
direction of her affairs, we undertook, in the interests of Shir Ali
Khan, to specify the northern districts over which we considered that
he was entitled to claim jurisdiction, the object being thus to define
a frontier between the Afghans and Uzbegs, which should obviate in the
future all risk of collision or misunderstanding. As Russia at that
time had no relations whatever with the Turcomans of Merv, it is not
very obvious why it should have been thought necessary to protract
the Afghan frontier beyond the Bokhara limit to the west of the Oxus.
Perhaps the object especially was to protect the Afghan-Uzbeg states of
Andekhúd and Mymeneh, which in the time of Dost Mohammed Khan had been
subject to Bokhara. Perhaps Russia already contemplated the absorption
of Merv, and foresaw that all territory outside of the Afghan boundary
would naturally fall into her own hands. At any rate, the memorandum
of 1872, better known as the Granville-Gortchakoff arrangement, after
defining the Bokhara frontier as far as Khjoa Saleh on the Oxus, went
on to name, as districts to be included in Shir Ali’s dominions,
“Akcheh, Sir-i-Púl, Mymeneh, Shilbergán, and Andekhúd, the latter
of which would be the extreme Afghan possession to the north-west,
the desert beyond belonging to independent tribes of Turcomans;” and
further: “The Western Afghan frontier between the dependencies of
Herat and those of the Persian province of Khorassan is well known
and need not be defined.” Now, however much it may be regretted that
this memorandum, which was evidently drawn up as a mere basis for
negotiation, and not as a formal declaration of territorial rights, was
not more explicit in defining the trace of the line, and especially in
marking the points at which it would cross the Murgháb and abut on the
Heri-rúd, it did at any rate establish two main points of geographical
interest. In the first place, it clearly distinguished between the
independent Turcoman desert to the north and the Afghan hilly country
to the south; and in the second place it naturally, and as a matter of
course, assigned to Afghanistan the “dependencies of Herat” to the west
of the Murgháb, which dependencies again were divided, it was said,
from Persian territory by the “well-known” boundary of the Heri-rúd.

The terms of this agreement were in February 1873 formally accepted by
Russia; and, faulty and irregular as the document is from a diplomatic
point of view, it has quieted all frontier agitation between the Oxus
and Heri-rúd for the last ten years, and would have served the same
purpose for another ten years in advance but for the unfortunate
intrusion of Russia into the controversy as a sequel to her conquest of

Russia first reintroduced a discussion on the frontier early in 1882,
suggesting, in the interests of peace and order, that the arrangement
of 1872-3 should, in respect to the western portion of the line, be
complemented by some formal demarcation, determined by actual survey of
the country; but as the Tekkehs were then independent, and there seemed
to be no advantage in encouraging Russia to absorb their territory
up to the line of demarcation, the proposal for a joint commission
of delimitation was received by us at the time with some coldness.
Two years later, in February 1884, affairs having much advanced in
the interim, negotiations were resumed, and in due course (July 1884)
commission _ad hoc_ was appointed, General Lumsden being nominated
by the British Government, and General Zelenoi by the Russian, with
instructions to meet at Serakhs in the following October.

Now, it is quite evident that in the earlier stages of these frontier
discussions the Russian Foreign Office understood the provisions of the
1872-3 arrangement, which were held to govern the later negotiation,
in their natural and common-sense acceptation. The principle of a
distinction between plain and hill was fully recognised, and the phrase
“dependencies of Herat” was held necessarily to include the province
of Badgheis, a tract which extended from the Paropamisus range to
Serakhs, and which had been a dependency of Herat from the time of
the Arab conquest. The line on which the commissioners were to be
engaged is thus everywhere spoken of by M. de Giers and M. Zinovieff
in the preliminary negotiations as a direct line from Khoja Saleh to
Serakhs, or to the neighborhood of Serakhs, and there is no hint of
any deflection of the line to the south. After the annexation of Merv,
however, and especially after M. Lessar had perambulated Badgheis and
made a careful study of the valleys of the Kushk and Murgháb rivers,
larger views appear to have dawned upon the Russian authorities.
Geographical and ethnological conditions were then invented that had
never been thought of before. It was discovered that the Paropamisus
range was the true natural boundary of Herat to the north, that the
district of Badgheis, which lay beyond the range, had been absolved
from its allegiance to Herat by efflux of time, Afghan jurisdiction
having been suspended during the Turcoman raids which had desolated the
district for above fifty years; above all, it was asserted that the
Saryk Turcomans who dwelt at Penj-deh and in the valley of the Kushk,
well within the Afghan border, must be registered as Russian subjects,
because another detachment of the same tribe, who dwelt at Yolatan,
beyond the desert and near Merv, had proffered their allegiance to
the Czar. Questions of principle of such grave moment, it was further
stated, required to be settled by the two European Governments before
the commissioners could enter on their duties, and General Zelenoi was
accordingly, without further explanation or apology, sent to rusticate
at Teflis, regardless of the public convenience or of the respect due
to his colleague, who had been waiting for him for four months on the
Murgháb with an escort of 500 men and a large gathering of attendants
and camp-followers.

The abrupt and discourteous manner in which Russia gave effect to her
altered views, by withdrawing her commissioner, was not calculated to
improve the prospect of an amicable settlement. Other graver matters,
too, soon supervened. Before General Lumsden had arrived at the
Heri-rúd, Russia had pushed forward a patrol to Púl-i-Khatún, about
fifty miles south of Serakhs, thus occupying one of the points on which
the Commission would have had to adjudicate; and subsequently she
extended her advance still further into the “debateable” land, placing
a strong post at Ak Robát, in the very centre of Badgheis, so as to
cut off from the Afghans a famous salt lake which supplies the whole
country with salt as far as Meshed and Askabad, and was thus a valuable
source of revenue; and also taking possession of the pass and ruined
fort of Zulficár, fifty miles south of Púl-i-Khatún, where one of the
favorite tracks of the old Turcoman raiders crossed the Heri-rúd, and
where an Afghan picket was already stationed. This last aggression,
which was later sought to be justified by Russia on the ground of
retaliation for an unauthorised Afghan advance on the Murgháb, brought
the outposts of the two nations into immediate contact, and would
certainly at the time have caused a collision but for General Lumsden’s
urgent remonstrances. On the Murgháb, too, affairs were equally
critical. As long ago as 1883, before the appointment of a frontier
commission was ever thought of, the Amir of Cabul, alarmed by the
Russian proceedings at Merv, had established a strong military post
at Bala Murgháb, in the Jamshídí country,[1] and about fifty miles
short of the Saryk settlement at Penj-deh. This was a purely military
precaution, with no political significance, and could give offence to
no one. In March of the following year, however, the situation was a
good deal altered. Owing to a visit from M. Lessar, who came from Merv
for the express purpose of testing the fidelity of the Saryk Turcomans
to the Amir of Cabul, and who was generally regarded as the forerunner
of a Russian advance, so much alarm was created in the neighborhood
that application was made to the commandant at Bala Murgháb to send a
detachment of his troops to Penj-deh for the protection of the Saryk
tribesmen; and it was fortunate that this requisition was complied
with, for otherwise the chances are that the Afghans would have lost
the place, as the Russians were actually preparing to attack it.

[1] Bala Murgháb, where Sir P. Lumsden and his party have passed the
winter, is apparently built on the site of the old city of _Abshín_,
which was the capital of the _Shárs_ of Gharshistan, a line of princes
of great celebrity in Oriental history. The family was of Persian
descent, and reigned in Gharshistan (the upper valley of the Murgháb)
for nearly two centuries during the Samanide and Ghaznevide dynasties,
the Shar Abu Nasar, who was defeated by Mahomud and died in captivity
at Ghazni in A.H. 406, being one of the most learned men of his time.

The importance of this incident of the Afghan occupation of Penj-deh
has been a good deal exaggerated by Russian partisans, who claim
that the “debateable” land reserved for the adjudication of the
commissioners was thus first invaded by the Afghans; but in reality, as
will be presently explained in detail, no question had ever been raised
in the country as to Penj-deh being outside the jurisdiction of Herat,
previous to M. Lessar’s visit in March 1884, and the Cabul commander
at Bala Murgháb, in ignorance of the appointment of a commission in
Europe to consider any such question, naturally and properly supposed
that he was merely carrying out an arrangement of internal police
in strengthening his northern outpost. As it afterwards turned out,
however, Russia attached the greatest importance to this obscure
position of Penj-deh. Colonel Alikhanoff, indeed, always preferring
action to negotiation, made an attempt to seize it with a detachment
from Merv a few months after its occupation by the Afghans, and only
desisted when he found that he must fight for its possession. There
have been since repeated demonstrations of attack from the northward,
and at the present moment it is the point where a collision between
Russians and Afghans is most to be apprehended, the Saryks of Yolatan
under Russian orders holding Púl-i-Khishti on the Kushk river, while
the Saryks of Penj-deh under Afghan orders hold the neighboring

Online LibraryVariousEclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume XLI, No. 5, May 1885 → online text (page 1 of 27)