chapter  1
18 Pages

/The Setting

Central Asia Before the Russian Conquest If nature, in the phrase of the nineteenth-century historian Soloviev, was a stepmother to Russia, she was hardly more generous to Central Asia. Extending eastward from the Caspian Sea, the Central Asian plain is a forbidding desert relieved only by fertile but scattered oases along rivers fed by the melting snows of the lofty mountains to the southeast and east.1 And yet, despite nature’s niggardliness, Central Asia has in centuries past possessed one tremendous advantage-its location. Situated at the northeastern limit of that part of the Old World where man first invented the techniques of agriculture, animal domestication, and metal-working, and subsequently created the first urban and literate societies, Central Asia was an early participant in these revolutionary developments. After the diffusion of civilization westward and eastward, the most convenient overland routes linking the Mediterranean world, India, and China led through Central Asia. As long as these routes remained the principal arteries of trade and communication among the three main centers of civilized life, Central Asia was assured a leading role in world history. From the second century B.C. to the fifteenth century A.D. the oasis-dwellers of Central Asia profited from their location at the crossroads of Eurasia and twice rose to a position of cultural preeminence-in the tenth and again in the fifteenth centuries. Even the region’s location, however, was a mixed blessing: placed between the Iranian Plateau on the southwest, seat of civilized societies since the seventh century P.C., and the Eurasian Steppe on the north, home of fierce nomads until the first half of the nineteenth century, Central Asia was long contested by civilization and nomadism, serving alternately as the northeastern march of the one and the ravaged prize of the other.2