The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)


The Road to Crisis

The disaster in America was a great shock for Britain, a setback which suggested that the empire could be vulnerable. The British had managed to build up a dominant position – directly, as well as through the East India Company – that brought prosperity, influence and power. It fiercely protected its stepping stones – the oases that linked together to connect back to London – and was jealously vigilant against any attempts to dislodge or weaken its grip on the channels of communication from the Sea of Java to the Caribbean, from Canada to the Indian Ocean.

Although the nineteenth century is normally seen as the high water mark of empire, a time when Britain’s position continued to strengthen, there were signs that the opposite was the case – that its grip was beginning to loosen, prompting desperate rearguard action that often had disastrous strategic, military and diplomatic consequences. The realities of trying to retain and hold on to territories scattered across the globe led to dangerous games of brinkmanship being played with local and global rivals, with increasingly high stakes. By 1914, these rose to the point that the fate of the empire itself was gambled on the outcome of war in Europe: it was not a series of unfortunate events and chronic misunderstandings in the corridors of power in London, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and St Petersburg that brought empires to their knees, but tensions over the control of Asia that had been simmering for decades. It was not Germany’s spectre that lay behind the First World War; so too did that of Russia – and above all the shadow that it cast on the east. And it was Britain’s desperate attempt to prevent this shadow growing that played an important note in bringing the world to war.

The threat that Russia posed to Britain grew like a cancer in the century before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, as Russia transformed itself from a ramshackle, archaic kingdom with an agrarian economy into a reformed and ambitious empire. This set alarm bells ringing in London with increasing regularity and at increasing volume as it became clear that Russian growth and expansion had not just brought its interests into competition with those of Britain but threatened to overwhelm them.

The first sign of problems came in the early 1800s. For many decades, Russia had been rolling back its frontiers to incorporate new territories and new populations on the steppes in Central Asia, which were made up of a mosaic of tribal populations to its south and east, like the Kyrgyz, the Kazakhs and the Oirats. To start with, this was done with a reasonably soft touch. Although Marx was deeply critical of the imperialist process of creating ‘new Russians’, it was undertaken with considerable sensitivity.1 In many cases local leaders were not just richly rewarded but were also allowed to remain in power; their positions within their territories were endorsed and formally recognised by St Petersburg. Concessions such as sweeping tax breaks, land grants and exemptions from military service likewise made Russian overlordship easier to tolerate.2

Territorial expansion fuelled economic growth that began to accelerate across the nineteenth century. For one thing, the previous heavy expenditure on defences against raids and attacks from the steppes was reduced, freeing funds to be used elsewhere and in other ways.3 For another, rich rewards were garnered from gaining access to the wonderfully fertile land of the steppe belt that stretched across the top of the Black Sea and extended far into the east.

Russians had previously been forced to cultivate less attractive terrain for their crops, resulting in grain yields that were among the lowest in Europe and which exposed the population to the threat of famine. One British visitor in the early eighteenth century noted that the Kalmyk, a grouping of the Oirat tribe who had made the Lower Volga and the northern fringes of the Caspian their home, were able to put out 100,000 well-armed, able-bodied men. But with the fear of attack all but constant, agriculture did not fully develop. ‘A few hundred acres’ of the fertile land of this region, wrote the same traveller, ‘would be of great value in England, tho’ here it is waste and uncultivated.’4Trade suffered, as did the development of towns, which remained modest in size – and in number: only a very small part of the population was urbanised before 1800.5

As this began to change, Russia’s ambitions and horizons began to expand. In the early nineteenth century, imperial troops attacked the Ottoman Empire, securing major concessions, including control of Bessarabia, the region bound by the Dniester and Prut rivers, as well as considerable territories by the Caspian Sea. This was followed soon afterwards by an attack to the south of the Caucasus that inflicted a series of embarrassing defeats on Persia.

The balance of power in the Caucasus was tilting decisively. These were regions, provinces and khanates that had been either independent or Persian clients for centuries. Redrawing this map represented a major shift in the region, and an unequivocal sign of Russia’s growing ambition along its southern frontier. It did not take the British long to understand the significance of this – especially once news was received that a French mission had been sent to Persia to compromise Britain’s position in the east. Revolution in France in 1789 had produced similar results to the Black Death, with large-scale suffering giving way to a new age of determination and resurgence.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Napoleon was plotting not only to conquer Egypt but to dislodge the British from India. He was purported to have written to the powerful Tipu Sultan of Mysore to tell him of the numerous and invincible French forces that would soon ‘deliver you from the iron shackles of England’.6 Certainly, the lure of India loomed large in the minds of French strategic thinkers at the time.7 It continued to do so, as is clear from the dispatch of one of Napoleon’s trusted generals, the Comte de Gardane, to Persia in 1807, with orders to agree an alliance with the Shah, but also to make detailed maps to prepare for a major French campaign in the Indian subcontinent.8

The British reacted immediately, dispatching a senior official, Sir Gore Ouseley, to counter French overtures to the Shah along with a suitably impressive delegation that would ‘impress the Native at large with the permanence of our connection’.9 A great deal of work now went into impressing the Shah and his court, even though behind closed doors few tried to hide their disdain for local customs. Particular scorn was reserved for the seemingly incessant demand for lavish presents. Ouseley was dismayed to learn that a ring he had presented to the Persian ruler, along with a letter from King George III, was deemed too small and not valuable enough. ‘The meanness and covetousness of these people’, he wrote indignantly, ‘are quite disgusting.’10 It was an attitude shared by another British officer visiting Teheran around the same time. The Persians are obsessed, he wrote, with the formalities of giving gifts and presents – to the extent that a long book could be written about ‘the rules of sitting down and standing up’.11

In public, things were rather different. Ouseley – a fluent Persian-speaker – made sure when he arrived that he was received further away from the capital than the French ambassador, understanding that this reflected higher status on him and on his mission, and took care to arrange a meeting with the Shah sooner than his rival, noting with pleasure that his chair was positioned closer to the throne than normal.12 The effort to win goodwill extended to the dispatch of British military advisers, in the form of two Royal Artillery officers, two NCOs and ten gunners, who trained Persian soldiers, advised on frontier defences and even led surprise attacks on the Russian position at Sultanabad, where the garrison’s surrender in early 1812 was a propaganda coup.

Things changed when Napoleon attacked Russia in June of the same year. With the French bearing down on Moscow, the British saw the benefits of distancing themselves from Persia and siding with the Russians – ‘our good friends’ as Ouseley called them in a report sent to the Foreign Secretary which also noted the wider implications of the French attack on Russia. This was for the best, Ouseley concluded, for there is a ‘very perverse trait in the Persian character which renders them insensible of, and ungrateful for, all favours conferred upon them’; the friendships he had worked so hard to win could be sacrificed easily and without much regret, since Persians were ‘most selfish egotists in the world’.13

Britain’s prioritisation of its relations with Russia led to disappointment in Persia, where it was felt that previously reliable allies had changed course unexpectedly. This turned to bitter recrimination after a surprise attack through the Caucasus by Russian forces, emboldened by the repulse of Napoleon in 1812. To many, the fact that Ouseley – who had made such efforts to cultivate the Shah – drafted the humiliating Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 following the Russo-Persian War which awarded most of the western flank of the Caspian, including Dagestan, Mingrelia, Abkhazia, Derbent and Baku, to Russia, seemed nothing less than an act of betrayal.

That the terms of the treaty heavily favoured Russia provoked disgust among the Persians, who interpreted it as a sign of profound untrustworthiness and self-interest. I am extremely disappointed about Britain’s conduct, wrote the Persian ambassador to Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary. ‘I depended on the great friendship of England’, and on the ‘strong promises’ that had been given regarding support for Persia. ‘I am disappointed totally’ by the way things had turned out, the ambassador went on, warning that ‘if things remain as they are now left, they are not at all for the honour of England.’14 As a result of Napoleon’s attack, Russia had become a useful ally; the sacrifice of ties with Persia was the price that had to be paid.

Russia’s increasing importance at an international level was not limited to Europe or to the Near East, for its tentacles stretched further still. In contrast to how we now look at the world, in the first half of the nineteenth century Russia’s eastern frontier was not in Asia at all, but somewhere else altogether: in North America. Colonies had first been established across the Barents Sea in what is now Alaska, with communities then founded on the west coast of Canada and beyond, as far south as Fort Ross in Sonoma County, California, in the early 1800s. These were no transient merchants, but permanent settlers who invested in building harbours, storage facilities and even schools. Young local boys of ‘Creole origin’ on the Pacific seaboard of North America were schooled in the Russian language and taught the Russian curriculum, and some were sent to study in St Petersburg, in some cases to enrol in the prestigious Academy of Medicine.15 In a curious coincidence of timing, imperial envoys from the Tsar were arriving in San Francisco Bay to discuss provisioning with the Spanish governor at almost exactly the same time that Sir Gore Ouseley was sounding out the Russians as allies following Napoleon’s invasion of 1812.16

The problem was that, as Russia’s boundaries began to expand at greater pace, so did its confidence. Attitudes to those beyond the frontiers began to harden. Increasingly, the peoples of South and Central Asia came to be seen as barbarous and in need of enlightenment – and were treated accordingly. This had disastrous consequences, most notably in Chechnya, where shocking violence was meted out to the local population in the 1820s by Aleksei Ermolov, a headstrong and bloody-minded general. This not only paved the way for the emergence of a charismatic leader, the Imam Shamil, to lead an effective resistance movement; it also poisoned relations between this region and Russia for generations.17

Stock images of the Caucasus and the steppe world as places of violence and lawlessness caught hold, typified by poems such as The Prisoner of the Caucasus by Alexander Pushkin, and Lullaby by Mikhail Lermontov, which features a bloodthirsty Chechen creeping along a river bank, armed with a dagger, wanting to murder a child.18 Where Russia was bordered in the west by ‘the most sophisticated enlightenment’, one leading political radical told an audience in Kiev, in the east it was faced with profound ignorance. It was a duty, therefore, ‘to share our insight with our semi-barbaric neighbours’.19

Not everybody was so certain. For decades to come, Russian intellectuals argued about which way the empire should look: to the salons and refinement of the west; or to the east, to Siberia and Central Asia. There was a range of answers. For the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev, Russians belonged ‘to none of the great families of mankind; we are neither of the West nor of the East’.20 But to others the virgin territories of the east offered opportunities, a chance for Russia to have its own India.21 The great powers of Europe stopped being viewed as paragons to be emulated and became rivals whose ascendancy should be challenged.

The composer Mikhail Glinka turned to early Rus’ history and the Khazars for inspiration for his opera Ruslan and Ludmila, while Alexander Borodin looked east, writing the symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia, which evokes caravans and long-distance trade across the steppes, and Polovtsian Dances, inspired by the rhythms of the nomadic lifestyle.22 Interest in ‘orientalism’, whether evident in theme, harmony or instrumentation, was a constant feature of Russian classical music of the nineteenth century.23

Dostoevskii put forward with passion his case that Russia ought not only to engage with the east but to embrace it. In a famous essay entitled ‘What is Asia to Us?’, he argued in the late nineteenth century that Russia had to free itself from the shackles of European imperialism. In Europe, he wrote, we are hangers-on and slaves; in Asia, ‘we go as masters’.24

Views like these were born of continuing success abroad. Further gains were made in the Caucasus in the 1820s after a Persian attack went badly wrong. Still smarting from the terms of the Gulistan treaty and emboldened by the animosity of the local populations to General Ermolov, whose hanging of women and children in public squares disgusted onlookers, Shah Fatimage imageAlī ordered a move against Russian positions in 1826.25 The response was devastating: after Ermolov had been sacked from his post, the Tsar’s troops streamed south through the mountain passes of the Caucasus, knocked out the Persian armies and forced a settlement in 1828 that was far worse than that imposed fifteen years earlier: yet more territory was ceded to Russia, along with an enormous cash payment. Such was the humiliation that the weakened Shah had to ask the Tsar formally to agree to support the succession of his heir, Prince imageAbbās Mīrzā, after his death, for fear that he would otherwise not be able to take the throne, let alone hold power.

It was not long before violent riots erupted in Teheran. Crowds targeted the Russian embassy, storming the building in February 1829. The minister in the city, the thirty-six-year-old playwright Alexander Griboyedov, author of the gloriously satirical Woe from Wit, who had taken an uncompromising line in dealing with Persia, was murdered and his body, still in uniform, dragged through the streets of the city by a mob.26 The Shah acted immediately to prevent a full-blooded invasion. He dispatched a favoured grandson to make an apology to the Tsar, together with poets to extol him as the ‘Suleiman of our times’, and more importantly sent one of the world’s greatest gemstones as a gift. The Shah diamond, weighing nearly ninety carats, had once hung above the throne of the emperors of India, surrounded by rubies and emeralds. It was now sent to St Petersburg as the ultimate peace offering. It did the trick: the whole affair, declared Tsar Nicholas I, should now be forgotten.27

Tensions rose in London. At the start of the nineteenth century, a British mission had been sent to Persia in order to counter the threat and megalomania of Napoleon. Now Britain found itself facing a challenge from a different and unexpected rival: it was not France that was the threat any more, but Russia – and what is more, its reach seemed to be extending every day in every direction. Some had seen it coming. British policy meant that ‘Persia was delivered, bound hand and foot, to the Court of St Petersburg,’ noted Sir Harford Jones, who served as ambassador to Teheran. Others were more forthright. As far as policy in Asia is concerned, wrote Lord Ellenborough, a senior figure in the Duke of Wellington’s Cabinet in the 1820s, Britain’s role was simple: ‘to limit the power of Russia’.28

It was worrying indeed, then, that the events that had played out in Persia had strengthened the Tsar’s hand, making him protector of the Shah and his regime. When serious uprisings broke out against Russian rule on the Kazakh steppes in 1836–7, interrupting trade with Central Asia and India, Russia encouraged the new Persian Shah Muimageammad to move on Herat in western Afghanistan in the hope of opening up a new, alternative trade route through to the east. Military and logistical support was also provided to the Persian forces, to help them achieve their objectives.29 The British were caught cold – and panicked.

Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, was alarmed by this turn of events. ‘Russia and Persia are playing tricks in Affghanistan,’ he wrote in the spring of 1838 – although he remained optimistic that things would soon be satisfactorily resolved.30 Within a few weeks, however, he had become genuinely concerned. The jewel in the British Empire’s crown suddenly looked vulnerable. Russia’s actions had brought it ‘a little too near to our door in India’, he wrote to one confidant. A month later, he was warning others that the barrier between Europe and India had been taken away, ‘laying the road open for invasion up to our very gate’.31 The situation looked bleak indeed.

The emergency dispatch of a force to occupy the island of Kharg in the Gulf was enough to deflect the Shah’s attentions and call off the siege of Herat. But the steps taken next were a disaster. Anxious to build up a reliable leader who would help bolster the security of its position in Central Asia, Britain intervened in the messy affairs of Afghanistan. After it had been reported that the country’s ruler, Dost Muimageammad, had received envoys from Russia proposing co-operation, the British took the decision to support his rival, Shah Shuja, with the intention of establishing him in his place. In return, Shuja agreed to the garrisoning of British troops in Kabul and to approve the recent annexation of Peshawar by Britain’s collaborator, the powerful and influential Maharajah of Punjab.

To start with, things went like clockwork, as Quetta, Kandahar, Ghazni and Kabul – the key points controlling access on the east–west and north–south axes – were brought under control with minimum fuss. But not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, outside intervention created a lightning rod for the disparate and normally divided interests within Afghanistan. Tribal, ethnic and linguistic differences were set to one side as local support for Dost Muimageammad snowballed at the expense of the self-serving and unpopular patsy Shah Shuja – especially after directives had been issued that seemed to favour the British at the expense of the local population. Mosques across the country began refusing to read out the ḫuimageba, the acclamation honouring the ruler, in the name of Shuja.32 It was not long before Kabul itself became increasingly unsafe for anyone British or suspected of having pro-British sympathies.

In November 1841, Alexander Burnes, a Scotsman whose extensive travel across this region was well known in Britain thanks to his celebrated publications and his ceaseless self-promotion, was ambushed and assassinated in the capital.33 Not long afterwards, the decision was made to withdraw to India. In January 1842, in one of the most humiliating and notorious episodes in British military history, the evacuating column under the command of Major-General Elphinstone was attacked on its way to Jalalabad through the mountain passes and annihilated in the winter snow. Legend had it that only one man reached the town alive – Dr William Brydon, whose well-placed copy of Blackwood magazine saved his life: he had rolled it up and put it inside his hat in an attempt to keep his head warm; it took most of the blow from a sword that would otherwise surely have killed him.34

Britain’s attempts to forestall Russian progress elsewhere were no more successful. Missions to build bridges with the Emir of Bukhara and gain influence to the north of Afghanistan backfired spectacularly. The quaintly unsophisticated picture painted of this region by Alexander Burnes and others gave a false sense that the British would be welcomed with open arms. Nothing could be further from the case. The fiercely independent Central Asian khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Khokand had no interest whatsoever in becoming involved in what one typically self-regarding would-be British power broker naively referred to as ‘the great game’.35 Two British officers, Captain James Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, who arrived in the early 1840s to offer solutions to the problems of Anglo-Russian relations in Central Asia, were decapitated in front of a large crowd of enthusiastic onlookers.36

A third figure to reach Bukhara was a colourful individual named Joseph Wolff. Son of a German rabbi, Wolff converted to Christianity; he was expelled from theological college in Rome, before studying theology at Cambridge University under the direction of an anti-Semite whose views were so provocative that he was pelted with rotten eggs by students in the streets of Cambridge.37 Setting out as a missionary, he initially headed east in search of the lost tribes of Israel. Eventually, he made for Bukhara to find the missing envoys, of whom nothing had been heard. The emir might have guessed that an eccentric was on his way after receiving a letter in advance, announcing that ‘I, Joseph Wolff, am the well-known Darveesh of the Christians.’ Be aware, he went on, that ‘I am about to enter Bokhara’ to investigate reports that Conolly and Stoddart had been put to death, a rumour that ‘I, knowing the hospitality of the inhabitants of Bukhara, did not believe’. He was lucky not to share their fate after being imprisoned and told to await his death. He was eventually released and allowed to go free; but it had been a close-run thing.38

Ironically, Bukhara and Central Asia more generally held little interest for Russia from a strategic point of view. Basic ethnographies published in this period, such as Alexei Levshin’s writing on the Kazakhs, which became popular in St Petersburg, revealed an increasing curiosity about these people who could neither read nor write, but among whom ‘the rudiments of music and poetry’ could be detected, in spite of their apparent ignorance and roughness.39 As Burnes’s writing pointed out, Russia’s aims in the region were decidedly modest: the two priorities were to encourage trade and to stop the sale of Russians into slavery. The problem was that this was not the message that sank in from Burnes’s work; what really hit home back in Britain was his alarmist report that ‘the court of St Petersburg have long cherished designs in this quarter of Asia’.40

This dovetailed with growing British anxiety in other quarters. The consul-general in Baghdad, Henry Rawlinson, lobbied tirelessly, warning all who would listen that unless Russia’s rise was checked the British Empire would be gravely threatened in India. There were two options: Britain should either extend the empire into Mesopotamia to build a proper buffer protecting the approach from the west; or a major force should be sent from India to attack the Russians in the Caucasus.41 Rawlinson took it upon himself to support local anti-Russian insurgencies wherever he could find them: he funnelled arms and money to Imam Shamil, whose power base in Chechnya was a constant thorn in Russia’s side in the mid-nineteenth century.42 The support he provided helped establish a long tradition of Chechen terrorism against Russia.

Inevitably, then, Britain seized the chance to cut Russia down to size as soon as the opportunity presented itself. A series of scuffles about the treatment of Christians in the Ottoman Empire was quickly and deliberately escalated until a substantial British force was dispatched to the Black Sea in 1854, where it was joined by the French who were anxious about protecting their extensive business interests in Constantinople, Aleppo and Damascus. The aim was simple: Russia was to be taught a lesson.43

As Lord Palmerston put it while hostilities were raging, ‘the main and real object of the war was to curb the aggressive ambition of Russia’. The obscure war that was being fought in the Crimea, in the Sea of Azov and with flash outbreaks elsewhere – in the Caucasus and by the Danube, for example – had a prize at stake that was far more significant than it seemed at face value. Indeed, the charismatic and respected British Foreign Secretary himself went so far as to present a formal plan to his colleagues in the government for the dismemberment of Russia: the way to control Russia, and by implication to protect British interests in India, was to hand control of the Crimea and the entire Caucasus region to the Ottomans.44 Although this extravagant scheme did not get off the ground, it is a powerful indication of what a major issue Russia’s expansion had become in the British official mind.

Some were appalled by the Anglo-French invasion. Writing furiously and voluminously about the war as it progressed, Karl Marx found fertile material with which to develop ideas about the ruinous impact of imperialism that he had first set out in The Communist Manifesto a few years earlier. Marx documented increases in military and naval expenditure in detail and provided running commentaries in the New York Tribune in which he fiercely attacked the hypocrisy of those who had dragged the west to war. He could hardly contain his glee when Lord Aberdeen was forced to stand down as Prime Minister in the face of widespread disillusionment at the heavy casualties sustained in Russia. As prices rose in London, sparking protests at home, it seemed obvious to Marx that Britain’s imperialist policies were being dictated by a small elite and came at the expense of the masses. Communism was not born of the Crimean War, but it was certainly sharpened by it.45

So was the unification movement in Italy. After Russia’s nose had been bloodied – at the expense of many French and British troops, including those who took part in the infamous charge of the Light Brigade – settlement terms were finally discussed in Paris. One of those at the negotiating table was Count Cavour, Prime Minister of Sardinia, who owed his place to the decision of Vittorio Emanuele, the island’s king, to send a force of auxiliaries to the Black Sea in support of France. He used his moment in the spotlight shrewdly, calling for a united, independent Italy, a rallying cry that was viewed sympathetically by the allies and helped galvanise supporters back home.46 Five years later, the King of Sardinia had become King of Italy, a new country forged of disparate cities and regions. The imposing Altare della Patria monument that stands in the centre of Rome and which was built three decades later, in the words of Primo Levi, in order to make Rome feel Italian and to make Italy feel Roman, marked the culmination of developments that had been given momentum by the fight over land and influence thousands of miles to the east.47

For Russia, the terms imposed at the peace talks of Paris in 1856 were nothing short of disastrous. Britain and France collaborated to tie a noose around their rival’s neck: stripped of hard-won gains in the Caucasus, Russia suffered the ignominy of being deprived of military access to the Black Sea, which was declared neutral and closed to all warships. Likewise, the coastline was to be demilitarised, free from fortifications and stores of armaments.48

The aim was to humiliate Russia and to strangle its ambitions. It had the opposite effect – this was a Versailles moment, where the settlement was counter-productive and had dangerous consequences. Quite apart from the fact that the settlement was so punitive and restrictive that the Russians immediately tried to slip its shackles, it also prompted a period of change and reform. The Crimean War had revealed that the Tsar’s army was no match for allied troops, who were more experienced and better trained. After some hard-hitting reports had been prepared for the Tsar, Alexander I, which set out the shortcomings of the Russian army in merciless detail, a root-and-branch overhaul of the military was carried out.49

Dramatic steps were taken: conscription was reduced from twenty-five years’ service to fifteen, lowering the average age of the army at a stroke, while bulk orders of up-to-date equipment were issued to replace antiquated and inefficient matériel.50 But the most striking change came from far-reaching social reform. Although a severe banking crisis in the late 1850s also played a role, it was defeat in the Crimea and shame at the terms that followed that prompted the Tsar to abolish serfdom, a system under which a significant part of the population was tied to the land and indentured to wealthy landlords. Within five years, serfdom had been swept away, ending centuries of slavery in Russia.51 This was not before time, according to some contemporaries.52 It presaged a surge towards modernisation and economic liberalism that propelled growth at a phenomenal rate in the second half of the nineteenth century: iron production rose five-fold between 1870 and 1890, while the impressive expansion of the railway network served, as one modern scholar has put it, to ‘emancipate Russia from the limitations imposed by her geography’ – in other words, by linking the vast country together.53 Far from bottling Russia up, the British helped let the genie out of the bottle.

The intensification of Russian aspirations could be felt even as the ink was drying on the treaty signed in Paris. One of the Tsar’s delegates at the peace talks, a military attaché named Nikolai Ignat’ev, was so enraged by the treatment of Russia, and by the restrictions of Russian control over its own littoral on the Black Sea in particular, that he made arrangements with Prince Gorchakov, former classmate and confidant of Alexander Pushkin, to lead a mission into Central Asia. The aim was unequivocal: ‘the investigation [of this region] and the promotion of friendly ties will raise Russia’s influence – and lower that of Great Britain’.54

Ignat’ev lobbied intensively for expeditions to be sent to Persia and Afghanistan, and for envoys to visit the khanates of Khiva and Bukhara. The aim, he said bluntly, was to find a route to India via either of the two great rivers that flow from the Aral Sea – the Syr Darya or the Amu Darya. It would be ideal, he argued, if Russia could build an alliance with the peoples bordering India and also work up their hostility to Britain: this was the way to set Russia on the front foot – and not just in Asia.55

The missions led by Ignat’ev and others paid dividends. In the fifteen years that followed the end of the Crimean War, Russia brought hundreds of thousands of square miles under its control without having to resort to force. Well-led expeditions, coupled with shrewdly applied diplomatic pressure on China, allowed ‘immense strides’ to be made in the Far East ‘in the short space of ten years’, as one seasoned observer noted in a report for the Foreign Office in London in 1861.56

Not long afterwards, yet more of the southern steppe fell into Russia’s lap, along with the oasis cities straddling the heart of Asia. By the late 1860s, Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, as well as much of the prosperous Fergana valley, had become ‘protectorates’ or vassals of St Petersburg, a prelude to full annexation and incorporation within the empire. Russia was building its own massive trade and communication network, which now connected Vladivostok in the east to the frontier with Prussia in the west, and the ports of the White Sea in the north to the Caucasus and Central Asia in the south.

The story was not unremittingly positive. Although a much needed programme of modernisation had been embarked on after the debacle of the Crimean War, Russia’s sinews strained as it grew. Generating cash to help fund the empire’s transformation was a constant problem, one that led to the embarrassing decision to divest it of Alaska for geopolitical and financial reasons.57 Nevertheless, as concerns grew about what change in Russia meant for Britain’s empire, thoughts in London turned to devising ways to stem the tide; or failing that, to divert Russia’s attention elsewhere.