Saturday, 15 September 2012

Cossacks to Samarkand

We're accustomed to hearing of Russia, India, Afghanistan and Iran in the news, but in the nineteenth century they were not the only players in Central Asia, one of the most important was the Emirate of Bukhara.

 The Registan in the centre of Samarkand in 1869, Vasily Vereshchagin

What is now on the map as Uzbekistan was then the states of Kokland, Khva and Bukhara, with Afghanistan and Persia to the south and south west, China to the East, and most worryingly, Russia under the karakush, or black eagle of ill omen, to the north. This central position on the trade routes, especially the Silk Road, had made Bukhara rich, and it's two cities were wealthy with ornate architecture, that of the capital Bukhara "rivalled the finest architecture of the Italian Renaissance" whilst Samarkand was of course legendary, though well past it's best. The total population was about 2.5 million.

Army of the Emirate of Bukhara

On paper the army of Bukhara was strong, with 20,000 infantry (sarbaz)  and 200 cannon (topchi) . On paper. It was certainly experienced in raiding its neighbours and an attempt had been made to modernise it under the guidance of Osman, a renegade Cossack, who introduced the Russian drill book, and even Russian music, only to be executed by the Emir in 1868.

Flag of the Emirate of Bukhara

Osman's efforts did not succeed very well, most observers commentating that the infantry hardly knew how to march let alone shoot, and anyway only about 20% had firearms, mostly old flintlocks. Of the 200 field pieces, very few actually worked. It didn't help that most of the infantry were either slaves or impressed peasants who were so poorly paid that many had jobs outside the army to survive. The officers were either Uzbek nobles or favourites of the Emir, with virtually no formal military training. In fact the "army" of Bukhara was mainly an attempt by the Emir to have his own forces, and not rely on powerful nobles. Even so, cavalry was mainly in the form of siphais, feudal militia who owed their allegiance to nobles, not to the Emir. Again, these were useful for raiding, but very little use against formed regular troops.

Envoys from the South and the North

Unfortunately, the Bukharans were not only wealthy but arrogant. Two British agents captured in the 1840s, Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly (who coined the term "the Great Game"), were thrown first into a vermin pit before being beheaded, Khan Nasrullah, correctly assuming that Afghanistan protected him from retaliation from British India. The nearest equivalent to a buffer state ot the north was the Khanate of Kokland, centred on Kokland and Tashlent, which had held the Russians at bay for 20 years, but instead of allying with Kokland the Emirs of Bukhara tried to conquer it, weakening the state with raids and civil wars until it inevitably fell to the Russians under General Chernyayev; in 1867.

 Russian troops in Central Asia, 1871. Vasily Vereshchagin

The Russians then made demands on Bukhara. Quite modest demands concerning trade and the release of a captured Russian delegation, but demands none the less The end result would probably been the same whatever the Bukharan response, but the Emirate leapt into war. The Emirate, but not the Emir, the nobles in Bukhara clamouring to teach the Russians a lesson and the mullahs in Samarkand stirring up the masses for a holy war against the Russian infidel. The Bukarans had defeated a half hearted Russian incursion in 1866, mainly by using cavalry to deny foraging to the enemy, and this encouraged their over confidence.


Eventually, by mid April 1868 the Emir gave in and led the army towards to the Zarafshan River, but there he stayed. Even when  the new Russian commander in the area, Konstantin von Kaufmann attacked Samarkand defeating local forces and storming the citadel. Kauffmann left 700 men as garrison and advanced on Bukhara taking one town at a time until on June 2nd the Emir turned to fight.

 Russian infantry in Central Asia, 1871. Vasily Vereshchagin.

With 14 guns and 6,000 Sarbaz dug in on the Zerbulak Heights and 15,000 Sipahi cavalry, the Bukharans looked strong. Any Russian attack had to wade chest high through a river, and then struggle across paddy fields. Kaufmman had only 3,500 Russians (21 companies of infantry, 20 guns  and 1,000 Cossack cavalry), as well as, reportedly, 280 Afghans under Iskandar Khan. These had been mercenaries for Bukhara, forming the garrison of Nur Ata, but when the local Bey delayed payment the Afghans took two fortress guns as payment and defected to the Russians. Anyway, Kaufmann simply stormed the Bukharan position and drove them off, with the loss of only 2 killed and 38 wounded.

The Russians now detached 6 companies, 200 Cossacks and 4 guns under the command of Colonel Abramov to take Urgut, which they did, defeating the local forces and storming the city. The main prrize of Bukhara had to be deferred however. Kaufmann received word that the garrison at Samarkand was besieged, reportedly by 55,000 men. The 700 strong garrison, partly made up of sick and wounded left behind by the main army, were holed up in the city citadel with two artillery batteries. This citadel was immensely strong, with 12 ft thick walls, only accessible by two gates and the garrison managed out hold out against three assaults until Kaufmann returned on June 8th, although their ammunition was almost gone.

 Contempory Russian newspaper view of the forces besieging Samarkand

On June 18th the the Emir sued for piece, sacrificing Samarkand to the Russian Empire, but this only delayed the inevitable and in 1873 Bukhara became a Russian protectorate.

The Russians moved on, taking the Khanate of Khiva in 1873, and defeating a revolt in Kokland in 1875.  This brought the Russians directly into contact with Afghanistan awakening perennial fears in India of a Russian invasion, or even worse, a joint Russian/ Afghan invasion. This was to set off the Anglo Afghan war of 1878.

Further Reading

Most of the paintings here are by Vasily Vereshchagin, who accompanied General Kaufmann, and travelled widely in the East.

Russian Central Asia, including Kuldja, Bokhara, Khiva and Merv (Volume 1)
Henry Lansdell. 1885

Muslim Reformist Political Thought: Revivalists, Modernists and Free Will
Sarfraz Khan 2003 (google ebook)

Russia's Protectorates In Central Asia: Bukhara and Khiva, 1865-1924
Seymour Becker 2004

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