The Emperor of Russia, lord of his people, absolute autocrat over some one hundred and twenty-five millions of the human race, to-day stands master not only of half the soil of Europe but of more than a third of the far greater continent of Asia. To gain some definite idea of the total extent of this vast empire it may suffice to say that it is considerably more than double the size of Europe, and nearly as large as the whole of North America. The tales already given will serve to show how the European empire of Russia gradually spread outward from its early home in the city and state of Novgorod until it covered half the continent. How Russia made its way into Asia has been described in part in the story of the conquest of Siberia. The remainder needs to be told.
It is now more than three hundred years since the Cossack robber Yermak invaded Siberia, and more than two centuries since that vast section of Northern Asia was added to the Russian empire. The great river Amur, flowing far through Eastern Siberia to the Pacific, was discovered in 1643 by a party of Cossack hunters, who launched their boats on this magnificent stream and sailed down it to the sea. It was Chinese soil through which it ran, its waters flowing through the province of Manchuria, the native land of the emperors of China.
But to this the Russian pioneers paid little heed. They invaded Chinese soil, built forts on the Amur, and for forty years war went on. In the end they were driven out, and China came to her own again.
Thus matters stood until the year 1854. Six years before, an officer with four Cossacks had been sent down the river to spy out the land. They never returned, and not a word could be had from China as to their fate. In the year named the Russians explored the river in force. China protested, but did not act, and the whole vast territory north of the stream was proclaimed as Russian soil. Forts were built to make good the claim, and China helplessly yielded to the gigantic steal. Since then Russia has laid hands on an extensive slice of Chinese territory which lies on the Pacific coast far to the south of the Amur, and has forcibly taken possession of the Japanese island of Saghalien. Her avaricious eyes are fixed on the kingdom of Corea, and the whole of Manchuria may yet become Russian soil.
Dowager Czarina of Russia
Siberia is by no means the inhospitable land of ice which the name suggests to our minds. That designation applies well to its northern half, but not to the Siberia of the south. Here are vast fertile plains, prolific in grain, which need only the coming railroad facilities to make this region the granary of the Russian empire. The great rivers and the numerous lakes of the country abound in valuable fish; large forests of useful timber are everywhere found; fur-bearing animals yield a rich harvest in the icy regions of the north; the mineral wealth is immense, including iron, gold, silver, platinum, copper, and lead; precious stones are widely found, among them the diamond, emerald, topaz, and amethyst; and of ornamental stones may be named malachite, jasper, and porphyry, from which magnificent vases, tables, and other articles of ornament are made. The region on the Amur and its tributaries is particularly valuable and rich, and a great population is destined in the future to find an abiding-place in this vast domain.
South of Siberia lies another immense extent of territory, stretching across the continent, and comprising the great upland plain known as the steppes. On this broad expanse rain rarely falls, and its surface is half a desert, unfit for agriculture, but yielding pasturage to vast herds of cattle, horses, and sheep, the property of wandering tribes. Here is the great home of the nomad, and from these broad plains conquering hordes have poured again and again over the civilized world. From here came the Huns, who devastated Europe in Roman days; the Turks, who later overthrew the Eastern Empire; and the Mongols, who, led by Genghis and Tamerlane, committed frightful ravages in Asia and for centuries lorded it over Russia.
To-day the greater part of this vast territory belongs to China. But westward from Chinese Mongolia extends a broad region of the steppes, bordering upon Europe on the west, and traversed by numerous wandering tribes known by the name of the Kirghis hordes. For many years Russia, the great annexer, has been quietly extending her power over the domain of the hordes, until her rule has become supreme in the land of the Kirghis, which in all maps of Europe is now given as part of Siberia.
One by one military posts have been established in this semi-desert realm, the wandering tribes being at first cajoled and in the end defied. The glove of silk has been at first extended to the tribes, but within it the hand of iron has always held fast its grasp. The simple-minded chiefs have easily been brought over to the Russian schemes. Some of them have been won by money and soft words; others by some mark of distinction, such as a medal, a handsome sabre, a cocked bat or a gold-laced coat. Rather than give these up some of them would have sold half the steppes. They have signed papers of which they did not understand a word, and given away rights of whose value they were utterly ignorant.
Thus insidiously has the power of the emperor made its way into the steppes, fort after fort being built, those in the rear being abandoned as the country became subdued and new forts arose in the south. Cities have risen around some of these forts, of which may be mentioned Kopal and Vernoje, which to-day have thousands of inhabitants.
"Russia is thus surrounding the Kirgheez hordes with civilization," says the traveller Atkinson, "which will ultimately bring about a moral revolution in this country. Agriculture and other branches of industry will be introduced by the Russian peas-ant, than whom no man can better adapt himself to circumstances."
Michie, another traveller, gives in brief the general method of the Russian advance.. It will be seen to be similar to that by which the Indian lands of the western United States were gained. "The Cossacks At Russian stations make raids on their own account on the Kirgheez, and subject them to rough treatment. An outbreak occurs which it requires a military force to subdue. An expedition for this purpose is sent every year to the Kirgheez steppes. The Russian outposts are pushed farther and farther south, more disturbances occur, and so the front is year by year extended, on pretence of keeping peace. This has been the system pursued by the Russian government in all its aggressions in Asia."
But this does not tell the whole story of the Russian advance in Asia. South of the Kirghis steppes lies another great and important territory, known as Central Asia, or Turkestan. Much of this region is absolute desert, wide expanses of sand, waterless and lifeless, on which to halt is to court death. Only swift-moving troops of horsemen, or caravans carrying their own supplies, dare venture upon these arid plains. But within this realm of sand lie a number of oases whose soil is well watered and of the highest fertility. Two mighty rivers traverse these lands, the Amu-Daria—once known as the Oxus—and the Syr-Daria—formerly the Jaxartes,—both of which flow into the Sea of Aral. It is to the waters of these streams that the fertility of the oases is due, they being diverted from their course to irrigate the land.
Three of the oases are of large size. Of these Shiva has the Caspian Sea as its western boundary, Bokhara lies more to the east, while northeast of the latter extends Khokand. The deserts surrounding these oases have long been the lurking-places of the Turkoman nomads, a race of wild and warlike horsemen, to whom plunder is as the breath of life, and who for centuries kept Persia in alarm, carrying off hosts of captives to be sold as slaves.
The religion of Arabia long since made its way into this land, whose people are fanatical Mohammedans. Its leading cities, Khiva, Bokhara, and Samarcand, have for many centuries been centres of bigotry. For ages Turkestan remained a land of mystery. No European was sure for a moment of life if he ventured to cross its borders. Vambery, the traveller, penetrated it disguised as a dervish, after years of study of the language and habits of the Mohammedans, yet be barely escaped with life. It is pleasant to be able to say that this state of affairs has ceased. Russia has curbed the violence of the fanatics and the nomads, and the once silent and mysterious land is now traversed by the iron horse.
The first step of Russian invasion in this quarter was made in 1602. In that year a Russian force captured the city of Khiva, but was not able to hold its prize. In 1703, during the reign of Peter the Great, the Khan of Khiva placed his dominions under Russian rule, and during the century Khiva continued friendly, but after the opening of the nineteenth century it became bitterly hostile.
Meanwhile Russia was making its way towards the Caspian and Aral seas. In 1835 a fort was built on the eastern shore of the Caspian and several armed steamers were placed on its waters. Four years later war broke out with Khiva, and the khan was forced to give up some Russian prisoners he had seized. In 1847 a fort was built on the Sea of Aral, at the mouth of the Syr-Daria, whose waters formed the only safe avenue to the desert-girdled khanate of Khokand. Steamers were brought in sections from Sweden, being carried with great labor across the desert to the inland sea, on whose banks they were put together and launched. Armed with cannon, they quickly made their appearance on the navigable waters of the Syr.
The Amu-Daria is not navigable, so that the Syr at that time formed the only ready channel of approach to Khokand, and from this to the other khanates, none of which could be otherwise reached without a long and dangerous desert march. Russia thus, by planting herself at the mouth of the Syr, had gained the most available position from which to begin a career of conquest in Central Asia.
War necessarily followed these steps of invasion. In 1853 the Russians besieged and captured the fort of Ak Mechet, on the Syr, thought by its holders to be impregnable. Up the river, bordered on each side by a narrow band of vegetation from which a desert spread away, the Russians gradually advanced, finally planting a military post within thirty-two miles of Tashkend, the military key of Central Asia.
Such was the state of affairs in 1862, when, war arose between the khanates themselves, and the Emir of Bokhara invaded and conquered Khokand. Russia looked on, awaiting its opportunity. It came at length in an appeal from the merchants of Tashkend for protection. The protection came in true Russian style, a Cossack force marching into and occupying the town, which has since then remained in Russian hands. The movement of invasion went on until a large portion of Khokand was seized.
This audacious procedure of the Muscovites, as the Emir of Bokhara regarded it, roused that ruler to a high pitch of fury and fanaticism. He imprisoned Colonel Struve, an eminent Russian astronomer who was on a mission to his capital, and declared a holy war against the invading infidels.
The emir had little fear of his foes, having what he considered two impassable lines of defence. Of these the first was the desert, which enclosed his land as within a wall of sand. The second, and in his view the more impregnable, was the large number of saints that lay buried in Bokharan soil, before whose graves the infidel host would surely be stayed.
He probably soon lost faith in the saints, for the Russians quickly drove his troops out of Khokand and then invaded Bokhara itself, defeating his troops near the venerable and famous city of Samarcand, of which they immediately afterwards took possession. These infidel assaults soon brought the holy war to an end, the emir being forced to cede Sarnarcand and three other places to Russia, the four being so chosen as to give the invaders full military control of the country.
This disaster, which fell upon Bokhara in 1868, was repeated in Khiva in 1873. Bokharan troops aided the Russians, and Bokhara was rewarded with a generous slice of the conquered territory. Khiva was overthrown as quickly as the other oases had been, and the whole of Central Asia became Russian soil. It is true that a shadow of the old government is maintained, the khans of Bokhara and Khiva still occupying their thrones. But they are mere puppets to move as the Czar of Russia pulls the strings. As for Khokand, it has disappeared from the map of Asia, being replaced by the Russian province of Ferghana.
We have thus in few words told a long and vital story, that of the steps by which Russia gained its strong foothold in Asia, and extended its boundaries from the Ural Mountains and Caspian Sea to the Pacific Ocean and the boundaries of China, Persia, and India, all of which may yet become part of the vast Russian empire, if what some consider the secret purpose of Russia be carried out.
Asia has been won by the sword; it is being held by other influences. Schools have been founded among the Kirghis, and a newspaper is printed in their language. Their plundering habits have been suppressed, agriculture is encouraged, and luxuries are being introduced into the steppes, with the result of changing the ideas and habits of the nomads. Thriving Cossack colonies have grown up on the plains, and the wandering barbarians behold with wonder the ways and means of civilization in their midst.
The same may be said of Turkestan, in which violence has been suppressed and industry encouraged, while the Russian population, alike of the steppes and of the oases, is rapidly increasing. A. railroad penetrates the formerly mysterious land, trains roll daily over its soil, carrying great numbers of Asiatic passengers, and an undreamed-of activity of commerce has taken the place of the old-time plundering raids of the half-savage Turkoman horsemen.
The Russian is thoroughly adapted to deal with the Asiatic. Half an Asiatic himself, in spite of his fair complexion, he knows how to bade the arts and overcome the prejudices of his new subjects. The Russian diplomatist has all the softness and suavity of his Asiatic congeners. He conforms to their customs and allows them to delay and prevaricate to their hearts' content. He is an adept in the art of bribery, has emissaries everywhere, and is much too deeply imbued with this Asiatic spirit for the bluntness of European methods. "You must beat about the bush with a Russian," we are told. "You must flatter them and humbug them. You must talk about everything but the thing. If you want to buy a horse you must pretend you want to sell a cow, and so work gradually round to the point in view."
Thus the shrewd Russian has gained point after point from his Oriental neighbors, and has succeeded in annexing a vast territory while keeping on the friendliest of terms with his new subjects. He has respected their prejudices, left their religions untouched, dealt with them in their own ways, and is rapidly planting the Muscovite type of civilization where Asiatic barbarism had for untold ages prevailed.
No man can predict the final result of these movements. Asia has been in all ages the field of great invasions and of the sudden building up of immense empires. But the movements of the Muscovite conquerors have none of the torrent rush of those great invasions of the past. The Russian advances with extreme caution, takes no risks, and makes sure of his game before he shows his hand. He prepares the ground in front before taking a step forward, and all that he leaves in his rear falls into the strong folds of the imperial net. Gold and diplomacy are his weapons equally with the sword, and in the progress of his arms we seem to see Europe marching into Asia with a solid and unyielding front.