Review: “Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Kiva, 1865-1924” – Seymour Becker

Seymour Becker’s analysis of Russia’s conquests of the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva is considered the book on the subject. However, I did not find this book lived up to its reputation in Central Asian studies circles.

What is most striking about this book is Becker’s elementary understanding of imperialism and empire. Throughout much of the book Becker seems intent on proving that Russia’s conquest of the khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and to a lesser extent Kokand was not due to imperialism. Firstly, Becker early on in the book rejects an economic explanation for Russian expansion. According to Becker, while the search for raw materials (mostly cotton) and a market for Russian commodities were important factors in Russia’s expansion into Central Asia, they weren’t the only factors, much less the most important ones. “Although Central Asian cotton had acquired a new importance for Russia on the eve of the conquest,” writes Becker, “and considerable sentiment existed for an advance into Central Asia to protect and promote Russian manufacturing and trading interests, the influence these factors had on policy-formation was minimal” (p. 23). Becker instead argues that “Russia was spurred on in Central Asia by a whole complex of motives — the quest for secure frontier, the provocations offered by unstable neighbors, the fear of being excluded from the area by England, and the temptations of diplomatic leverage, economic profit, and military glory” (p. 23).

None of these motives are incompatible with imperialism. Becker seems to think that imperialism occurs only when there are direct economic gains to be made. However, I don’t believe this is an accurate reflection of imperialism. As Parenti wrote in Against Empire, “Some critics have argued that economic factors have not exerted an important influence on U.S. interventionist policy because most interventions are in countries that have no great natural treasures and no large U.S. investments, such as, Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Vietnam. This is like saying that police are not especially concerned about protecting wealth and property because most of their actions take place in poor neighborhoods. Interventionist forces do not go where capital exists as such; they go where capital is threatened” (p. 87). Moreover, “The imperialist state’s first concern is not to protect the direct investments of any particular company, although it sometimes does that, but to protect the global system of private accumulation from competing systems” (p. 42).

Secondly, Becker devotes a considerable number of pages in the first few chapters to contrasting the official noninterventionist policies of the tsar with the unauthorized faits accomplis of Russian military leaders, namely Major General M. G. Cherniaev. His intent seems to be that tsarist Russia’s expansion into Central Asia was accidental, created by rogue military elements, and thus not due to any kind of imperialism. Becker repeatedly attempts to use official tsarist proclamations of noninterventionism in the khanates as evidence of Russia’s non-imperialist motivations. This is despite the fact that Becker’s own descriptions of Russia’s expanding influence in Central Asia could have been written by Lenin as a textbook case of imperialism (or, perhaps more accurately, colonialism)! Becker describes how “in March 1890 Russia’s presence in Bukhara was firmly established. A railroad had been built across the khanate and remained under the control of the Russian Ministry of War. A Russian political agency had been established in the emir’s capital. Russian garrisons had been installed at Chardjui and Kerki, in addition to troops who operated the railroad and guarded the railroad zone, and a Russian flotilla commanded the Amu-Darya as far as Kerki. Private Russian individuals and firms had begun to invade Bukhara in search of commercial profit, had purchased land, and had laid the foundations for three of four settlements that were to arise as Russian enclaves on Bukharan soil” (p. 146). But according to Becker one shouldn’t misconstrue this as colonialism or imperialism. “This revolution did not signify, however, that the imperial government had abandoned the principles of its traditional policy toward Bukhara — noninterference in the khanate’s internal life and maintenance of the emir’s authority[!]. The momentous changes of 1885-1890 were the unplanned result of Russia’s pursuance of policies that only indirectly involved Bukhara: the rivalry with Great Britain, the need for a rail link between Russian Turkestan and European Russia, and the desire to strengthen the line of the Amu-Darya against Afghan and British designs. The pursuit of these aims opened Bukhara incidentally to the penetration of private Russian interests” (p. 146). This theme of an accidental, or incidental, empire reoccurs throughout the book. “With the end of Bukhara’s isolation, brought about by the building of the Central Asian Railroad and the influx of private Russian interests, the khanate’s fate became linked ever more directly to Russia’s. Monetary controls and improved communications became necessities. These important changes, like those already discussed, were not part of a long-range scheme to subvert Bukharan autonomy. They came about rather in response to practical problems and in the context of Russia’s traditional policy of nonintervention” (p. 154); “The formation of Russian settlements and the broadening of extraterritorial jurisdiction were indeed responses on St. Petersburg’s part to the problems raised by the invasion of Bukhara by private Russian interests, but the intention was as much to protect Bukharan autonomy as to promote the business affairs of Russian subjects” (p. 173); etc. If this wasn’t bad enough, Becker similarly describes British support for counterrevolutionary forces in the Soviet Union as ‘accidental’ (“awkward,” to be more precise): “Having chosen to support Askhabad [Transcaspian Government] as the only available bulwark against German and Turkish expansion toward Persia and India, Britain soon found that she had no choice but to help Askhabad defend itself against the Soviet forces to the east” (p. 275). Thus, British Empire found itself “in an awkward position” (p. 276), as if the British were hesitant to support anti-Bolshevik forces!

Becker’s belief that “Nonintervention in the internal affairs of the khanates so long as the latter proved peaceful and compliant was to remain the guiding principle of Russia’s policy down to 1917” (p. 25) is somehow evidence of Russian non-imperialism is strikingly absurd. The nonintervention in the internal affairs of one state so long as it is “peaceful and compliant” with the demands of another state sounds a lot like imperialism to me. In fact, that is something that makes imperialism distinct from colonialism. Imperialism is more efficient and cost effective than imposing foreign rule on hostile territories! I can’t think of any imperialist state that would prefer to expend resources on brutal military occupations if it could achieve the same result without such expenditures.  

Despite these major theoretical and historical shortcomings, Becker does succeed in providing a lot of valuable and interesting information about the khanates. No other book that I have read specifically addresses the origins of the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva and examines them as sovereign and independent states (ex. the regimes in power, the role of religion, internal strife, etc.). Most books either skip these subjects altogether or only examine them insofar as they are relevant to understanding Russia.

Overall this is not my favourite book on Central Asia but not the worst either.  

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