Russia as a Civilizing Force in Asia

THE late Czar of Russia impressed himself on the world as a man sincerely desirous of peace, and it was this alone which caused the genuine and well-nigh universal sorrow at his death. Not that he was destitute of other qualities deserving our esteem. Out of the mystery which always shrouds the occupant of the Russian throne there had been gradually shaping itself , of late, though dimly, in our minds, the conception of him as a painstaking, conscientious ruler, doing faithfully and untiringly his duty as he understood it. But that which we saw most distinctly was a man who, having the power by a word to set Europe in a blaze, had for thirteen years, whatever the provocations from without, and they have been grave, or the pressure from within, how great no one will ever know, steadfastly refused to say that word. The question naturally arises, What was the source of this passion for peace ? — for it must have had a peculiar strength to have so impressed itself on his fellowmen. Was it a mere instinctive horror of war, born of his youthful experience in Bulgaria in 1877, or a shrinking dread of defeat ? Or did it spring from a nobler source ? Was he so interested in the welfare of his subjects that he hated war because of the misery which it would bring upon his people ? It is of course impossible now to answer this question with certainty, but there are facts which indicate that there is much truth in the last supposition. Evidently, he was no adherent of the dangerous and contemptible principle of peace at any price, for one of his chief aims as a ruler was to improve the efficiency of his army and navy; and the military and naval strength of the empire was far greater at the close than at the beginning of his reign.

His interest in the development of the peaceful industries of his people and of the material resources of his dominions was shown in numberless ways. One of these was the part which he bore in the attempted reconstitution of Merv. At the time of the Russian occupation, ten years ago, this oasis was in a deplorable condition. The Bokhariots had destroyed all the habitations, broken down the dams, and converted the arable land into a waste. A few nomads pastured their flocks where formerly stood the oldest and one of the most famous cities of Central Asia. At its siege and capture, in 1221, by the son of Genghis Khan, seven hundred thousand of its inhabitants are said to have perished. The ruin wrought by Mongol and Turcoman was so complete that the Russian engineers reported unfavorably upon the plans for the reëstablishment of the oasis in its former extent, on account of the technical difficulties involved. One engineer alone was convinced of its practicability. He gained access to the Czar, who gave him permission to make the attempt, and furnished him with the necessary funds from his private purse. The irrigation works have been executed under wholly new and interesting conditions, though with only partial success. For a time they were given up, but at last accounts they have been resumed, and, according to the report of a French engineer who has recently examined them, they have solved, apparently, some technical problems of great importance connected with artificial irrigation. The cost to the Czar up to that time had been more than a million rubles.

I have mentioned this incident not merely because it shows the personal interest of Alexander III. in the industrial enterprises which war would render impossible, but also because it is a fair example of Russia’s policy in all her recently acquired territory. Her conquests, first of the Caucasus, and later of Turkestan, may have been dictated, as many believe, by a blind desire to extend the bounds of an already too vast empire, or by the necessity for finding employment for the huge standing army which an ambitious foreign policy holds ever in readiness for an attack on Constantinople. The Russian government, however, defended its aggressive attitude in Central Asia in the famous Circular Note of Prince Gortschakoff to the European courts, dated November 21, 1864. In this it was asserted that as the empire had been “ brought into contact with half-savage nomad peoples possessing no social organization,” it was forced, “ in the interest of the security of its frontier and its commercial relations, to exercise a certain ascendency over these undesirable neighbors.” It was acknowledged that this would involve still further advances, as more distant tribes, threatening the same dangers, were reached. But “such has been the lot of every country placed in similar conditions. The United States in America, France in Algeria, Holland in its colonies, England in India, all have been irresistibly forced, less by ambition than by imperious necessity, to follow this line of progress, in which the principal difficulty is to know where it will end.” After a frank recital of the measures which would be taken to put an end to acts of pillage, and a distinct statement that the conquest would continue till cultivated country was reached, it says that the motive of the Czar in annexing these territories “consists, not in extending beyond all reasonable bounds the regions under his sceptre, but in giving a solid basis to his rule, in guaranteeing their security, and in developing their social organization, their commerce, their well-being, and their civilization.”

This manifesto, though it referred only to the military operations in Central Asia, may have been intended indirectly as a defense of the war in the Caucasus, which had just been brought to a close by the submission of the last of the independent Circassian tribes. The gallant struggle of these mountaineers, under Schamyl, for their liberty had excited the greatest interest in Europe. Englishmen especially, in their admiration of the heroism with which the Russian attempts at subjugation were resisted, forgot that these tribesmen were mere savages, who lived by the plunder of their neighbors, and by the infamous sale of their daughters to Moslem harems.

A sufficient time has passed since the issue of Prince Gortschakoff’s Note to enable us to judge, by comparing the present condition of the Caucasus and Central Asia with their condition in 1864, whether it was a true statement of the Russian policy, or only a specious document, as some asserted, intended to cloak the ambitious designs of the Czar on India. At this time, the region lying between the Black and Caspian seas was a heavy burden upon the empire. A large part of the mountain region, the abode of Circassians and Lesghians mainly, was almost an uninhabited wilderness, the result of centuries of intertribal wars, now happily ended, and the unopposed migration to Turkey of great numbers of these untamable savages. Their constant raids had prevented hitherto the settlement and cultivation of the fertile plains to the north of the mountains. There had been some growth in Georgia, which was annexed at the beginning of the century; but the progress was slow, on account of the neighborhood of hostile tribes, and the want of safe and easy means of communication with the Black Sea. A carriage road, often impassable for days in winter, connected Poti with Tiflis; elsewhere there were only paths crossed by innumerable unbridged mountain torrents. The principal port on the Pontic seaboard, Poti, consisted of a few wooden houses raised on log platforms above the marsh, and some miserable huts scattered at random along the left bank of the Rion. A little river steamer, a few barges and small craft, were more than sufficient for its commerce. Batum, with far greater natural advantages, was an insignificant Turkish fishing village. In the north, Novorossiisk was a heap of uninhabited ruins.

On the Caspian the conditions were not dissimilar, nor did they change rapidly. An English traveler, giving an itinerary of a journey made in 1871 in these regions, says that from March to October inclusive a steamer touched once a week at the various ports, and another made a fortnightly trip from Baku to the opposite shore. This place, which from the remotest times had been regarded as sacred by the fire-worshipers on account of its naphtha deposits, was interesting to chance travelers for this reason only. The Guebers, indeed, had nearly all disappeared, but a temple, with an attendant priest, was still maintained by the Parsis of India. The oil flowed uselessly into the sea, an object only of idle curiosity or of superstitious veneration.

Upon the cessation of hostilities the Russian army began the construction of roads, and especially of a railway from Poti through Tiflis to Baku. This was completed in 1883, and a second, uniting the two seas north of the Caucasus Mountains, begun later, was opened a year ago. Extensive improvements were also made in the harbor of Poti, as well as in that of Batum after this place was acquired from Turkey. Concessions were made to companies to work the oil wells of Baku. For the purpose of introducing the cultivation of tea, cotton, and other useful plants, experimental agricultural stations were established in the south, while the raising of cereals and the planting of vineyards were encouraged in the north. Government schools were founded throughout the province for the instruction of the children, both native and Russian.

What has been the result of these measures ? A recent visitor to Batum gives a description of the place, from which it is difficult to recognize the little fishing village which, in 1878, had but a single house built in European fashion. Looking down from the balcony of the restaurant in the boulevard garden, he says, one can easily count from fifteen to twenty different nationalities on the promenade, — Gurians, especially noticeable for their fine figures and becoming costumes, turbaned, serious Turks, Greeks, dusky Mingrelians, Imeritians, Georgians, Armenians, Abkhasians, typical Englishmen, lively Italians and French. Germans, and Russians from every part of the empire, the ladies often in full evening toilet; a swarm of children and dogs are playing on the beach, and of course there is the inevitable bicycle. Here are massive docks, built of enormous blocks of cement, at which steamers of six thousand tons can load by machinery in less than two days. Near by are the great oil tanks, and the buildings of the various oil companies. There are twenty-four of these, one of which alone employs twenty-five hundred men, and has a plant capable of manufacturing and filling forty thousand oil chests in a day of sixteen hours. Eleven hundred vessels, in 1893, besides other merchandise, took three hundred and a quarter million gallons of oil to the markets of southern Europe, northern Africa, the East Indies, China, and Japan. The whole export trade of Asiatic Russia, including Siberia, in 1862, was not equal to that which this single port now has. Passing through the narrow lanes of the Turkish town, the Russian quarter is reached. Here are broad, straight streets, afine market, and handsome stores with plate-glass windows and doors.

Poti has not grown with the rapidity of its southern rival, though the change in its appearance is quite as marked. The squalid settlement in the marsh has become a town with boulevard and park, paved streets shaded by trees and lined with houses, each in its garden. It has a graded public school, with industrial and horticultural departments, bee-keeping being taught in the latter. An excellent botanical garden, with many foreign trees and plants, is under the entire care of the pupils. The harbor has been greatly improved, and its commerce is constantly increasing. Its single steamer has become a hundred, more than thirty thousand tons of manganese having been exported, the year before last, to this country alone.

The deserted mound which marked the site of Novorossiisk in 1864 has become the terminus of the northern Transcaucasian railway. From its proximity to the wheatfields of the Kuban River and the recently discovered oil deposits of Grozni, together with its cement works, the commerce of the port has increased within the past eight years with extraordinary rapidity. Nearly a thousand vessels entered it in 1892, and it bids fair soon to excel Batum in importance. Though the output of the cement works this same year was more than one hundred tons a day, the demand was far greater than the supply, and additional ovens were being constructed, according to a recent visitor, which would double the amount. This traveler describes the village—an Oriental Pullman—in which the workmen live, in these words : “ All the head men of the works have most comfortable houses, and at some distance from them are the dwellings of the workmen and a schoolhouse for the children. The whole village is provided with waterworks. The houses stand in small, shady gardens, in which many plants and vines grow luxuriantly.”

From those plains on tlie northern slope of the mountains, which till lately the Circassian raiders kept from cultivation, more than a quarter of the whole wheat crop of Russia, besides sixty-one million bushels of other cereals, was harvested in 1892. In the same year, 7705 steamers and 5024 sailing vessels entered the Caspian ports, and Baku, a town with fifteen thousand inhabitants when the railway was opened, had become a city with more than a hundred thousand inhabitants. Beside the oil which it exported by rail, its oil fleet, consisting of three hundred and twenty vessels, carried more than thirty million hundredweight of naphtha products year before last to Asiatic ports. When the capital of the province, Tiflis, came into the possession of the Russians, it was a small town falling into ruins. Now it is a city, largely built in European fashion, with a population of one hundred and fifty thousand, containing schools, colleges, seminaries, museum, learned and scientific societies, hospitals, and fifty-four churches.

The mountainous character of the Pontic seaboard renders the progress of civilization outside the towns very slow, but the once almost unbroken forest is gradually giving place to tea plantations, — cotton fields in the interior plains, — farms, gardens, and vineyards. Midway up the coast is the monastery of New Athos, founded in 1876 by a colony of monks from Mount Athos in Greece. An imposing church stands on the traditional site of the martyrdom of St. Simon the Canaanite, a broad-terraced cliff overhanging the sea. There are cloisters, farm buildings, a tannery, saw, grist, and alabaster mills, all connected by a tramway with an iron pier. Fruit and olive trees have been planted, — the latter are already bearing abundantly, — together with vegetable gardens ; while on the terrace, orange, citron, and palm trees are growing. In the interior, writes an English traveler, in the Alpine Journal, in an account of a journey in 1893, “ law and order now prevail where, in 1868—74, murder was common and robbery invariable.” One of the means by which this has been accomplished is to be seen in the national school which he found in the little village of Mulach, under one of the highest peaks of the Caucasus. It was “ a mixed school of fifty-two boys and one girl. The boys’ ages varied from six to about twenty-two. The head of the school was a young Prince Dadishkilian, a bright, intelligent boy of about fifteen. Their principal lessons were in learning Russian, but they also did some sums on a blackboard, and sang, amongst other things, the Lord’s Prayer, all standing. The best part of the school was outside, where we found what was practically an excellent technical school on a small scale. In the garden were little plots of different vegetables and herbs, — potatoes, peas, artichokes, onions, amongst others, — while in a corner were two beehives, near beds of flowers. In the outbuildings there was a small carpenter’s shop, used for teaching the pupils, and there was also provision for teaching them to make bread, butter, and wine.” We in New England, the home of the common school, might learn something from this distant mountain school. In the whole province, according to the official report for 1891, there were then 3537 schools of various grades, from the primary to the professional schools, lyceums, and gymnasia.

Prince Gortschakoff’s Circular Note, defining the policy of Russia, had especial reference to Central Asia, as it was her advance in this region which excited the greatest apprehensions in England. The physical character of the gradually acquired territory of Turkestan was very different from that of the Caucasus. A considerable part was an almost pathless and waterless desert, and another very large portion consisted of mountains of enormous altitude. The remainder was cultivable soil, but required artificial irrigation, and of this it was believed that about a fifth part could be reclaimed and made fit for cultivation. These cultivable bits were, however, veritable isles dotted here and there in the deserts which had once been the beds of great seas. In historic times dense populations had inhabited these oases, and they had been the seat of the empires of Alp Arslan, “ the great lion,” and of the better known Timour, or Tamerlane, the tradition of whose splendor has come down to this age. Everywhere were to be found the ruins of great cities, and of the irrigation works upon which their life depended. The oases had either shrunk to very small dimensions from the constantly encroaching desert sands, or had entirely disappeared. A half dozen decaying cities alone remained of the former multitude, and a small number of people still cultivated the soil. The inhabitants were chiefly nomads, who lived by the plunder of caravans and raids upon the fields of the wretched peasantry. They were fanatical Moslems of the fiercest type, and at the time of which I am writing held thousands of Christians in slavery. When Vambéry ventured to travel among them in the disguise of a dervish, all Europe rang with the fame of his daring.

The Russians began their civilizing work in the region lying on the borders of the Chinese Empire, which had been conquered earliest. Here the inhabitants were wholly dwellers in tents, and the few oases were used only for pasturage. The Russians, leaving these to the nomads, turned their attention to the caravan route which connects the Siberian province of Semipalatinsk with the city of Tashkend. This runs along the base of the great mountain ranges of the AlaTaou and Alexander, from which many streams fed by the snows and glaciers descend, and are speedily swallowed up in the desert. Here, at every favorable point, the streams have been dammed, canals dug, trees planted, and cultivation begun. The soil, under the vivifying influence of water, showed a wonderful fertility, and the trees grew with astonishing rapidity. I have before me, as I write, a photograph of one of these artificial oases, which twenty-five years ago was a waste of sand, but which is now thickly grown with poplars and willows, the trunks of some of which are six feet in circumference. Under the trees bordering the canals houses were built for the Russian colonists who came in considerable numbers, the new towns now averaging four thousand inhabitants. Each family received, on arriving, one hundred and fifty acres of irrigated land, and the right to occupy without limit the adjoining desert. Their houses are large and well built, mostly of pisé, or pressed clay, with corrugated iron roofs. They are all of one story, on account of the frequent earthquakes, one of which, in 1887, caused great destruction in this region. Since then, the principal houses, as well as all the churches, have been rebuilt of brick. The churches are constructed from plans furnished by the engineers of the army, and, according to a recent French traveler, are “agreeable to the eye, and at the same time are very well designed. They are square, massive, and low. It is a renaissance of the ancient Tartar style, abandoned by direction of Peter the Great, which at the beginning of the fourteenth century, in combination with the Byzantine, had begun to create in Russia a national style of architecture.” In addition, schools are everywhere established, and in many places industrial schools for teaching agriculture and arboriculture. In these some Kirghiz youth have for several years been pupils, in the hope of giving to this pastoral people some knowledge of and taste for a farmer’s life. The colonists are not all Russians, though it is for them only that the government has built villages. There are also settlements of Jews from Little Russia, of German Mennonites. and Chinese, to all of whom land has been given. The latter are refugees from the neighboring province of Kuldja, and have proved themselves to be skillful and industrious husbandmen. Though of different races and speaking different languages, these Chinese colonists are all Moslems. Some idea may be formed of the growth of this region from the fact that sixty thousand Russians came to the oasis of Tashkend alone after the famine of 1890-91.

Russian colonization, however, has not everywhere been successful. In those parts of Turkestan, especially the province of Ferganah, inhabited by the composite race known as the Sart, the conditions were very different from those which prevailed in the region which I have just been considering. As soon as the Russian peasant or merchant came among them, it was apparent that he was far inferior to the Sart in industry, economy, sobriety, patience, and endurance, as well as in agricultural skill or business ability. The government, therefore, sensibly abandoned its attempt to plant colonies among them, and, recognizing a remarkable aptitude in the natives to adapt themselves to European methods, devoted itself to the development of the native industries. These are chiefly the culture of silk, of cotton, and of fruits, as grapes, peaches, pistachio nuts, apples, etc., which are dried and sold throughout the East. Its first effort was to secure the improvement of the native cotton, which had been grown here in limited quantities from time immemorial. With this end in view, a special mission was sent to the United States under the direction of M. Bradovsky, a technical commissioner on the governor-general’s staff, to examine the American varieties of the plant, and the methods of cultivation and preparation for the market. Those varieties which seemed best adapted to Turkestan have been introduced, as well as the most improved machinery. The result has been successful beyond expectation. There are now some four hundred thousand acres under cultivation, with a crop in 1893, in the district of Ferganah alone, of more than two million hundredweight, half of which was American cotton. The crop returns for Samarcand for 1892 show half a million hundredweight of cotton, a million and a quarter hundredweight of raisins, and 8,640,000 quarters of cereals, an increase of two and a half million quarters over the previous year. Second only in importance to cotton is the silk industry, and after this come tobacco and various other plants of commercial value. An attempt similar to that with the native cotton, but not so successful, has been made to improve the native sugarcane, which grows with such luxuriance that it is sometimes planted as a hedge to protect villages from the drifting sands. The difficulty appears to be merely in the mechanical treatment of the cane and the juice, a difficulty which it is hoped will soon be overcome.

That part of Central Asia now known as the Transcaspian province, lying to the east of the Caspian and along the borders of Persia and Afghanistan, was, at the time of the Russian conquest, in a more deplorable state than any other part of the country. The Turcomans devastated the oases and enslaved the inhabitants. They pillaged caravans and paralyzed trade and commerce. Following a similar policy to that pursued in the Caucasus, the army, when hostilities ceased, began to reopen the old ways of communication, and to rebuild the ruined irrigation works. The most important of these enterprises was the construction of a railway from the Caspian into the heart of Central Asia. It is unnecessary for me to dwell upon the formidable difficulties of this undertaking, — the vast stretches of uninhabited desert, without water and with constantly shifting sands, to be crossed, the rivers to be bridged, and the great distance from all supplies of food and material. The work was put under the direction of General Annenkopf. who brought to his task an experience gained during the building of the Transcaucasian railway. It was begun in 1880, and in eight years reached Samarcand, a thousand miles distant, and is now nearly or quite completed to Tashkend, several hundred miles further. Its resources from the start were greatly overtaxed by the extraordinary development of the industries of Turkestan. The nineteen thousand tons of cotton, for instance, transported in 1888 had become nearly fifty thousand tons five years later. Its traffic has been hampered hitherto by the fact that most of its freight was carried to Europe by steamers on the Caspian Sea and the Volga River, which latter is closed to navigation half the year by ice. The completion of the northern Transcaucasian railway, having a direct connection with the European railway system, has opened a new and uninterrupted outlet for the products of Central Asia, which will increase now more rapidly than ever But not satisfied with what has been accomplished, the government is planning still greater enterprises for the welfare of its Asiatic subjects. The most important of these is the stupendous project for irrigating the oasis which surrounds the city of Bokhara. The water on which it depends for its existence is derived from the river Zerafshan, which before it reaches this oasis flows through the district of Samarcand. On account of the growth of population and increase of cultivation in this district, and the creation of new oases along the upper course of the river, there is so little water in the river at Bokhara that this place is literally dying of thirst. In the days of Tamerlane, five centuries ago, the water was equally divided between the two cities, and the ruins of the two enormous dams by which he meted it out are still to be seen in the bed of the stream, a few miles to the north of Samarcand. The new project is to construct a canal from the Amou-daria, or Oxus, nearly two hundred miles distant, to Bokhara. From the latest accounts, the work of excavating appears to have actually been commenced, and will probably be finished within three years. Then all the water of the Zerafshan will be taken by Samarcand and its neighborhood, and the surplus waters of the Oxus, now running to waste, will give a new life and prosperity to Bokhara.

Better still than this mere material prosperity, and in fact the cause of it, is the security to life and property which Russian rule has brought to these Central Asian peoples. When once they were convinced that they could enjoy the fruits of their industry, that the products of their flocks, fields, orchards, vineyards, and looms would not be snatched from them by Kirghiz and Turcoman raiders or by unscrupulous tax-gatherers, they gave themselves zealously to the cultivation of the ground, and to the other industries for which the Sart race has shown such an aptitude. Even the wild nomads of the steppes and deserts have yielded to the civilizing influences of peace and commerce. And this peace is apparently real, and not occasioned merely by the presence of an overwhelmingmilitary force. The confidence of the people seems to have been gained, so that there is no appearance of hostility between the victors and the vanquished. One of the latest English travelers through this region reports that a Russian colonel, with eight native assistants, now administers a district containing thirty thousand people “ who quite recently were robbers and thieves by profession.” Another officer, Colonel Alikhanoff, himself an Asiatic Moslem, has in a surprisingly short time reduced to order the most turbulent and bloodthirsty of the Turcoman tribes. He has extirpated slavery among them, liberating seven hundred slaves held by a single tribe. The Russian has accomplished in twenty years what the Frenchman has failed to secure in Algeria in sixty years. The conditions are very similar ; there are the same mixed populations of dwellers in houses and in tents, and having a common religion. Yet the Asiatic Moslem lives in content under his Russian ruler, while the African Moslem would rise against his French master to-morrow, if he dared. Even so strong a Russophobist as Mr. Curzon, who has recently visited Turkestan, cannot withhold his praise, though given somewhat grudgingly, for the civilizing influence of Russia in Central Asia.

My sketch of what Russia is doing to develop and civilize her dominions in Asia would not be complete if I did not make a brief reference to her last and greatest undertaking, the construction of the Siberian railway. Though this is commonly referred to as a purely military measure, and only another move on Russia’s part to gain additional territory in the East, other and more important considerations than these have weighed with the promoters of the scheme. The total length of the line, which is to connect Tchelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains and the end of the European system of railways with Vladivostok on the Pacific, is 4715 miles. The estimated cost is three hundred and fifty million rubles, or about one hundred and seventy-five million dollars. It is an interesting, and possibly a hopefully significant fact that the present Czar, Nicholas II., has been personally connected with the enterprise from the beginning. He laid in 1891 the first stone of the work at Vladivostok, and in 1893 was placed by his father at the head of the commission for the construction of the road. The work is being rapidly pushed both from the western terminus and from the Pacific. According to the latest report, five hundred miles of the western section and one hundred of the eastern have been finished and opened to traffic.

The western section is the only part from which any present material advantage to the empire is looked for. In southwestern Siberia, there is a region, as large as France, having the “ black soil ” which has proved so extraordinarily fertile in European Russia. The climate is so mild that cotton and tobacco, as well as cereals, can be grown ; though now its population of barely two million, having no market for their products, raise little more than sufficient for their own needs. The government expects that with the building of the road colonists will come, from the famine districts of Russia especially, to take up the unoccupied land. To promote this colonization the sum of fourteen million rubles was appropriated in 1893.1 Other auxiliary enterprises for which large sums have been appropriated are, to encourage the establishment of ironworks along the railway, and to equip and send out geological expeditions to study the country. These are intended particularly to explore the unknown territory drained by the Amour River, and the gold and silver districts and coal beds in the Altai Mountains. In the light of these facts, it is impossible to doubt that the chief object of the government in carrying out this vast undertaking is, not that it may transport a regiment in a week from the Baltic to the Pacific, but to secure the prosperity of Siberia by the improvement of its economic conditions.

I have already referred to the fact, but I desire to emphasize it in closing, that the chief instrument in the development of both Caucasia and Central Asia has been the army. The officers in command, General Annenkopf in particular, have devised the various schemes, the military engineers have drawn the plans, and the rank and file have done the manual work. To the officers, also, — there are no civil administrators, — belongs the whole credit of the pacification of the countries, and the contentment of the numberless half-savage tribes and races which inhabit them. Of what other European army can it be said that it has won those victories of peace which are “ no less renown’d ” than those of war ?

James Mascarene Hubbard.

  1. U. S. Consular Reports, July, 1894. F. Immanuel, in Petermann’s Mittheilungen for May, 1893, says “ thirty-five million.”