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"Boundaries of History": Alexander Morrison about the Russian conquest of Central Asia in 1814-1914

On December 17, Dr Alexander Morrison, who currently holds a position at New College (Oxford University, UK), presented his brand-new book "The Russian Conquest of Central Asia: A Study in Imperial Expansion, 1814-1914" at the online session of the regular research seminar "Boundaries of History"

"Boundaries of History": Alexander Morrison about the Russian conquest of Central Asia in 1814-1914

On December 17, Dr Alexander Morrison, who currently holds a position at New College (Oxford University, UK), presented his brand-new book The Russian Conquest of Central Asia: A Study in Imperial Expansion, 1814-1914 at the online session of the regular research seminar ‘Boundaries of History’. Scholars of Imperial Russia and those who study its southern and eastern borderlands know well Morrison’s earlier contributions to the field, including numerous articles and especially his 2008 book Russian Rule in Samarkand: A Comparison with British India as well as a recent volume The Central Asian Revolt of 1916 (2019) which he co-edited. His new monograph concludes his long-term research on the Russian enterprise of the imperial conquest in the region.

As Alexander Morrison stated at the beginning of his talk, the book is targeted at the broad English-speaking audience still hypnotized by popular myths and uncritical approaches towards the British-Russian imperial contest in Central Asia. The monograph is 540-pages long contribution, while at the seminar Dr Morrison only had enough time to introduce the participants to its core conceptual framework. Arguing against established historiographical interpretations of the Russian conquest of the region, his book reassesses the engines behind the imperial expansion, highlighting the aspects of new political imagination spread among the Russian elites. It was not the situation in the Steppe that suddenly changed and prompted the conquest, as numerous rebellions and caravan attacks constantly took place during earlier stages of the Russian presence there as well, but rather the status that the empire acquired in the eyes of its own elites after its army triumphally marched into Paris in 1814. Joining the concert of the great European powers on equal terms and in many ways emulating what the British and French Empires did to maintain their prestige, the Russian Empire could no longer tolerate nuisances that potentially threatened its territorial sovereignty, including fuzzy external boundaries of steppe polities. 

The conquest of this huge region, spanning more than 1000 square kilometers, progressed in several consequent phases moving the Russian border further south with each one. The book itself is structured chronologically according to these phases. The success of the first operations that shifted the border from Orenburg-Troitsk-Omsk to Akmolinsk (1822-1836) was further developed in 1845-1854 when the forces were sent to Kokand and Semirechie, establishing also fort Verniy (now Almaty) as a new bridgehead for following military enterprises. The most essential strategic move was General Chernyayev’s campaign and his seizure of Taschkent (1864-1865). Further campaigns established Russian hold in Samarkand and irrigated territories (1866-1872), Ferghana (1875-1876), Transcaspia (1869-1885), and the Pamirs (1881-1905). According to Morrison’s argument, what impelled this continuous drive further south was a search for a ‘natural frontier’, a firm line that would present itself in the landscape and establish a clear border with a recognized territorial sovereignty. Even when the Russian authorities retrospectively doubted far-flung penetrations into the alien and often hostile lands, every expansion established a point of no return, for the matters of prestige allowed only to move further but never to revert back.

This colossal enterprise, encompassing unprecedented logistical challenges, could not be carried out without enormous resource base provided by the central government, hence the argument about the ‘accidental’ nature of the conquest cannot be substantiated. It was not only the center-periphery dynamics that determined the nature and final success of the conquest but also the relations of the Russian army with local populations. Besides the necessity of fostering a mutual understanding with regional power elites, the Russian army heavily depended on Kazakh pastoralists that herded camels, the most reliable means of transport in the Steppe. Military campaigns were planned in accord with a herding calendar of these animals, while final success of the warfare often depended on the quality of the Russian-Kazakh interactions. Archival sources also confirm that the Russian authorities worried more about their relations with local polities than about conflicts with the British forces in the region.

Dr Morrison’s presentation was followed by several rounds of discussion with listeners of different scholarly backgrounds asking questions both on the scope of archival research behind the book and on its potential to contribute to the fields of new imperial, comparative, and global history.