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Russian Rule in Samarkand 1868-1910: A Comparison with British India by Alexander Morrison

This heavily footnoted book is not, and presumably was not meant to be, a light read, but its overview of the Russian occupation of what was then Turkestan and now (largely) Uzbekistan, manages to be both fascinating—especially those sections on what might at first glance seem to be the dry subject of irrigation systems—thought-provoking.

Russian Rule in Samarkand 1868-1910: A Comparison with British India by Alexander Morrison
Russian Rule in Samarkand 1868-1910: A Comparison with British India, Alexander Morrison (Oxford University Press, September 2008)

For one thing, the material is based largely on Russian sources and thus presents an unusual, or at least less common, perspective on the imperial enterprise. At a time when Russia has once again begun flexing its muscles in the territories of its former empire, Alexander Morrison’s discussion of Russian views about the countries and peoples along its periphery and the relations between Orthodox Christianity helps the past illuminate the present.

Russian bureaucrats’ difficulties in administering the provinces under their control—for fifty years, there were complaints no one could even figure out what units the “natives” were using to measure water flow and usage in the extensive, complex and in many cases ancient irrigation systems—sound not very different from similar complaints we hear from American administrators in Iraq, as do problems caused by limited or non-existent language skills.

Morrison seems, however, to have taken his subtitle somewhat lightly: the comparison with British administration in India isn’t pursued very hard. Maybe this is just as well, for they seem to have been engaged in rather different enterprises: for one thing, Russia didn’t treat Turkestan as a colony, at least not in the sense that India was a British colony. Turkestan had for all intents and purposes been annexed and even sent deputies to the Duma (legislature) in the early years of the twentieth-century.

A more interesting comparison might have been with China which treated, and treats, its Central Asian territories in ways that seem similar to the way Russia, and later the Soviet Union, treated theirs. The Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca), as a potential source of undesirable ideas and reinforcer of divided loyalties, causes Chinese authorities the same sort of consternation that it reportedly caused their Tsarist predecessors, who came up with similar solutions, such as “authorized” pilgrimages led by politically reliable guides.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.