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‘Scratch a Russian, and
you will find a Tartar.’

Russian proverb

The Yellow Peril

Image You could smell them coming, it was said, even before you heard the thunder of their hooves. But by then it was too late. Within seconds came the first murderous torrent of arrows, blotting out the sun and turning day into night. Then they were upon you – slaughtering, raping, pillaging and burning. Like molten lava, they destroyed everything in their path. Behind them they left a trail of smoking cities and bleached bones, leading all the way back to their homeland in Central Asia. ‘Soldiers of Antichrist come to reap the last dreadful harvest,’ one thirteenth-century scholar called the Mongol hordes.

The sheer speed of their horse-borne archers, and the brilliance and unfamiliarity of their tactics, caught army after army off balance. Old ruses, long used in tribal warfare, enabled them to rout greatly superior numbers at negligible loss to themselves. Time and again their feigned flight from the battlefield lured seasoned commanders to their doom. Strongholds, considered impregnable, were swiftly overwhelmed by the barbaric practice of herding prisoners – men, women and children – ahead of the storming parties, their corpses then forming a human bridge across ditches and moats. Those who survived were forced to carry the Mongols’ long scaling ladders up to the very walls of the fortress, while others were made to erect their siege engines under heavy fire. Often the defenders recognised their own families and friends among these captives and refused to fire on them.

Masters at black propaganda, the Mongols saw to it that hair-raising tales of their barbarity were carried ahead of them as they advanced across Asia, devastating kingdom after kingdom, towards a quaking Europe. Cannibalism was said to be among their many vices, and the breasts of captured virgins were reputedly kept for the senior Mongol commanders. Only instant surrender held out the slightest hope of mercy. After one engagement the beaten enemy leaders were slowly crushed to death beneath planks upon which the victorious Mongols were feasting and celebrating. Often, if no more prisoners were required, entire populations of captured cities were put to the sword to prevent them from ever becoming a threat again. At other times they would be sold into slaveryen masse.

The dreadful Mongol whirlwind had been unleashed on the world in 1206 by an illiterate military genius named Teumjin, formerly the unknown chief of a minor tribe, whose fame was destined shortly to eclipse even that of Alexander the Great. It was the dream of Genghis Khan, as he was to become known, to conquer the earth, a task which he believed he had been chosen by God to carry out. During the next thirty years, he and his successors almost achieved this. At the height of their power their empire was to stretch from the Pacific coast to the Polish frontier. It embraced the whole of China, Persia, Afghanistan, present-day Central Asia, and parts of northern India and the Caucasus. But more important still, and particularly to our narrative, it included vast tracts of Russia and Siberia.

At this time Russia consisted of a dozen or so principalities, which were frequently at war with one another. Between 1219 and 1240 these fell one by one to the ruthless Mongol war-machine, having failed to unite in resisting this common foe. They were to regret it for a very long time to come. Once the Mongols had conquered a region it was their policy to impose their rule through a system of vassal princes. Provided sufficient tribute was forthcoming, they rarely interfered in the details. They were merciless, however, if it fell short of their demands. The inevitable result was a tyrannical rule by the vassal princes – the shadow of which hangs heavily over Russia to this day – together with lasting impoverishment and backwardness which it is still struggling to overcome.

For well over two centuries the Russians were to stagnate and suffer under the Mongol yoke – or the Golden Horde, as these merchants of death called themselves, after the great tent with golden poles which was the headquarters of their western empire. In addition to the appalling material destruction wrought by the invaders, their predatory rule was to leave the Russian economy in ruins, bring commerce and industry to a halt, and reduce the Russian people to serfdom. The years of Tartar domination, as the Russians term this black chapter in their history, also witnessed the introduction of Asiatic methods of administration and other oriental customs, which were superimposed on the existing Byzantine system. Cut off from the liberalising influence of western Europe, moreover, the people became more and more eastern in outlook and culture. ‘Scratch a Russian,’ it was said, ‘and you will find a Tartar.’

Meanwhile, taking advantage of its reduced circumstances and military weakness, Russia’s European neighbours began to help themselves freely to its territory. The German principalities, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden all joined in. The Mongols, so long as the tribute continued to reach them, were unperturbed by this, being far more concerned about their Asiatic domains. For there lay Samarkand and Bokhara, Herat and Baghdad, cities of incomparable wealth and splendour, which greatly outshone the wooden-built Russian ones. Crushed thus between their European foes to the west and the Mongols to the east, the Russians were to develop a paranoid dread of invasion and encirclement which has bedevilled their foreign relations ever since.

Rarely has an experience left such deep and long-lasting scars on a nation’s psyche as this did on the Russians. It goes far towards explaining their historic xenophobia (especially towards eastern peoples), their often aggressive foreign policy, and their stoical acceptance of tyranny at home. The invasions of Napoleon and Hitler, though unsuccessful, merely reinforced these fears. Only now do the Russian people show signs of shaking off this unhappy legacy. Those ferocious little horsemen whom Genghis Khan let loose upon the world have much to answer for, more than four centuries after their power was finally broken and they themselves sank back into the obscurity from which they had come.

The man to whom the Russians owe their freedom from Mongol oppression was Ivan III, known also as Ivan the Great, then Grand Prince of Moscow. At the time of the Mongol conquest Moscow was a small and insignificant provincial town, overshadowed by and subservient to its powerful neighbours. But no vassal princes were more assiduous than those of Moscow in paying tribute and homage to their alien rulers. In return for their allegiance they had gradually been entrusted with more power and freedom by the unsuspecting Mongols. Over the years Moscow, by now the principality of Muscovy, thus grew in strength and size, eventually coming to dominate all its neighbours. Preoccupied with their own internal rifts, the Mongols failed to see, until too late, what a threat Muscovy had become.

The showdown came in 1480. In a fit of rage, it is said, Ivan trampled on a portrait of Ahmed Khan, leader of the Golden Horde, and at the same time put several of his envoys to death. One escaped, however, and bore the news of this undreamed-of act of defiance to his master. Determined to teach this rebellious underling a lesson he would never forget, Ahmed turned his army against Muscovy. To his astonishment he found a large and well-equipped force awaiting him on the far bank of the River Ugra, 150 miles from Moscow. For weeks the two armies glowered at one another across the river, neither side seeming inclined to make the first move to cross it. But soon, with the arrival of winter, it began to freeze. A ferocious battle appeared inevitable.

It was then that something extraordinary happened. Without any warning, both sides suddenly turned and fled, as though simultaneously seized by panic. Despite their own inglorious behaviour, the Russians knew that their centuries-long ordeal was all but over. Their oppressors had clearly lost their stomach for the fight. The Mongol war-machine, once so dreaded, was no longer invincible. Their centralised authority in the West had finally collapsed, leaving three widely separated khanates – at Kazan, Astrakhan and in the Crimea – as the last remnants of the once mighty empire of Genghis Khan and his successors. Although the overall Mongol grip had been broken, these three remaining strongholds still constituted a threat, and would eventually have to be destroyed if anyone was to feel safe.

It fell to one of Ivan’s successors, Ivan the Terrible, to seize the first two of these and incorporate them in Muscovy’s rapidly expanding empire. Thirsting for revenge, his troops stormed the fortress of Kazan on the upper Volga in 1553, slaughtering the defenders just as the Mongols had done when they laid waste Russia’s great cities. Two years later the Khanate of Astrakhan, where the Volga flows into the Caspian, met with a similar fate. Only the Crimea, the last remaining Tartar redoubt, still held out, and then merely because it enjoyed the protection of the Ottoman sultans, who regarded it as a valuable bulwark against the Russians. Thus, save for the occasional raid by the Crimean Tartars, the Mongol threat had been eliminated for ever. It would leave the way open for the greatest colonial enterprise in history – Russia’s expansion eastwards into Asia.

The first phase of this was to carry Muscovy’s explorers, soldiers and traders 4,000 miles across the immensity of Siberia, with its mighty rivers, frozen wastes and impenetrable forests. Comparable in many ways to the early American settlers’ conquest of the West, it was to take more than a century and only end when the Russians had reached the Pacific seaboard and established themselves there permanently. But the conquest of Siberia, which is one of the great epics of human history, lies outside the scope of this narrative. This vast inhospitable region was too far away from anywhere for any other power, least of all the British in India, to feel threatened by it. Its colonisation, however, was only the first stage of a process of expansion which would not cease until Russia had become the largest country on earth, and, in British eyes at least, an ever-increasing threat to India.


The first of the Tsars to turn his gaze towards India was Peter the Great. Painfully conscious of his country’s extreme backwardness, and of its vulnerability to attack – largely the result of the ‘lost’ Mongol centuries – he determined not only to catch up, economically and socially, with the rest of Europe, but also to make his armed forces a match for those of any other power. But to do this he desperately needed vast sums of money, having emptied the treasury by going to war with Sweden and Turkey simultaneously. By a happy coincidence, at around this time, reports began to reach him from Central Asia that rich deposits of gold were to be found there on the banks of the River Oxus, a remote and hostile region where few Russians or other Europeans had ever set foot. Peter was also aware, from the accounts of Russian travellers, that beyond the deserts and mountains of Central Asia lay India, a land of legendary riches. These, he knew, were already being carried away by sea on a massive scale by his European rivals, and by the British in particular. His fertile brain now conceived a plan for getting his hands on both the gold of Central Asia and his share of India’s treasures.

Some years before, Peter had been approached by the Khan of Khiva, a Muslim potentate whose desert kingdom lay astride the River Oxus, seeking his assistance in suppressing the unruly tribes of the region. In exchange for Russian protection, the Khan had offered to become his vassal. Having little or no interest in Central Asia at that time, and more than enough on his hands at home and in Europe, Peter had forgotten all about the offer. It now occurred to him that possession of Khiva, which lay midway between his own frontiers and those of India, would provide him with the staging point he needed in the region. From here his geologists could search for gold, while it would also serve as a half-way house for the Russian caravans which he soon hoped to see returning from India laden with exotic luxuries for both the domestic and European markets. By exploiting the direct overland route, he could seriously damage the existing sea trade which took anything up to a year to travel between India and home. A friendly Khan, moreover, might even provide armed escorts for the caravans, thus saving him the enormous expense of employing Russian troops.

Peter decided to send a heavily armed expedition to Khiva to take up, somewhat belatedly, the Khan’s offer. In return, the ruler would be provided with a permanent Russian guard for his own protection, while his family would be guaranteed hereditary possession of the throne. Should he prove to have changed his mind, or be short-sighted enough to resist the expedition, then the accompanying artillery could knock sense into him by reducing the medieval mud architecture of Khiva to dust. Once in possession of Khiva, preferably on an amicable basis, then the search for the Oxus gold, and for a caravan route to India, would begin. Chosen to lead this important expedition was a Muslim prince from the Caucasus, a convert to Christianity and now a regular officer in the elite Life Guards regiment, Prince Alexander Bekovich. Because of his background Bekovich was judged by Peter to be the ideal man to deal with a fellow oriental. His party consisted of 4,000 men, including infantry, cavalry, artillery and a number of Russian merchants, and was accompanied by 500 horses and camels.

Apart from hostile Turcoman tribesmen who roamed this desolate region, the principal obstacle facing Bekovich was a dangerous stretch of desert, more than 500 miles wide, lying between the eastern shore of the Caspian and Khiva. Not only would the expedition have to negotiate this, but eventually the heavily laden Russian caravans returning from India would also have to cross it. But here a friendly Turcoman chieftain came to their assistance. He told Peter that many years before, instead of flowing into the Aral Sea, the River Oxus used to discharge into the Caspian, and that it had been diverted by the local tribes to its present course by means of dams. If this was true, Peter reasoned, it would not be difficult for his engineers to destroy the dams and restore the river to its original course. Goods travelling between India and Russia, and vice versa, could then be conveyed for much of the way by boat, thus avoiding the hazardous desert crossing. The prospects for this began to look promising when a Russian reconnaissance party reported finding what appeared to be the old Oxus river bed in the desert not far from the Caspian shore.

After celebrating the Russian Easter, Bekovich and his party set sail from Astrakhan, at the northern end of the Caspian, in April 1717. Conveyed across the great inland sea by a flotilla of nearly a hundred small vessels, they carried with them enough provisions to last a year. But everything took much longer than had been expected, and it was not until mid-June that they entered the desert and headed eastward towards Khiva. Already they were beginning to suffer from the extreme heat and from thirst, and soon they were losing men through heat-stroke and other sickness. At the same time they had to fight off the attacks of marauding tribesmen determined to prevent their advance. But there could be no question of turning back now and risking the fury of the Tsar, and the party struggled stoically on towards distant Khiva. Finally, in the middle of August, after more than two months in the desert, they found themselves within a few days’ march of the capital.

Far from certain how they would be received, Bekovich sent couriers ahead bearing lavish gifts for the Khan, together with assurances that their mission was strictly a friendly one. Hopes of successfully accomplishing it looked promising when the Khan himself came out to welcome the Tsar’s emissary. After exchanging courtesies, and listening to the mission’s band together, Bekovich and the Khan rode on towards the town, the former’s somewhat depleted force following at a distance. As they approached the city gates, the Khan explained to Bekovich that it would not be possible to accommodate and feed so many men in Khiva. He proposed instead that the Russians should be split up into several groups so that they could be properly housed and entertained in villages just outside the capital.

Anxious not to offend the Khan, Bekovich agreed and told Major Frankenburg, his second-in-command, to divide the men into five parties and to send them to the quarters assigned to them by their hosts. Frankenburg objected, expressing his misgivings over allowing the force to be dispersed in this way. But he was overruled by Bekovich, who insisted that his order be obeyed. When Frankenburg continued to argue with him, Bekovich warned him that he would have him court-martialled when they got back if he did not do as he was told. The troops were then led away in small groups by their hosts. It was just what the Khivans had been waiting for.

Everywhere they fell upon the unsuspecting Russians. Among the first to die was Bekovich himself. He was seized, stripped of his uniform, and while the Khan looked on, brutally hacked to death. Finally his head was severed, stuffed with straw, and displayed, together with those of Frankenburg and the other senior officers, to the jubilant mob. Meanwhile the Russian troops, separated from their officers, were being systematically slaughtered. Forty or so of the Russians managed to escape the bloodbath, but when it was over the Khan ordered them to be lined up in the main square for execution before the entire town. Their lives were saved, however, by the intervention of one man. He was Khiva’s akhund, or spiritual leader, who reminded the Khan that his victory had been won through treachery, and warned him that butchering the prisoners would merely worsen the crime in the eyes of God.

It was the act of a very brave man, but the Khan was impressed. The Russians were spared. Some were sold by their captors into slavery, while the remainder were allowed to make their painful way back across the desert towards the Caspian. Those who survived the journey broke the dreadful tidings to their colleagues manning the two small wooden forts which they had built there before setting out for Khiva. From there the news was carried back to Peter the Great at his newly finished capital of St Petersburg. In Khiva, meanwhile, to boast of his triumph over the Russians, the Khan dispatched the head of Bekovich, the Muslim prince who had sold his soul to the infidel Tsar, to his Central Asian neighbour, the Emir of Bokhara, while keeping the rest of him on display in Khiva. But the gruesome trophy was hastily returned, its nervous recipient declaring that he had no wish to be a party to such perfidy. More likely, one suspects, he feared bringing down the wrath of the Russians on his own head.

The Khan of Khiva was luckier than he probably realised, having little concept of the size and military might of his northern neighbour. For no retribution was to follow. Khiva was too far away, and Peter too busy advancing his frontiers elsewhere, notably in the Caucasus, to send a punitive expedition to avenge Bekovich and his men. That would have to wait until his hands were freer. In fact, many years would pass before the Russians once more attempted to absorb Khiva into their domains. But if the Khan’s treachery went unpunished, it was certainly not forgotten, merely confirming Russian distrust of orientals. It was to ensure that little quarter would be given when they embarked on their subjection of the Muslim tribes of Central Asia and the Caucasus, and in our own times of the mujahedin of Afghanistan (although this was to prove rather less successful).

In the event, Peter was never again to pursue his dream of opening up a golden road to India, along which would flow unimagined wealth. He had already taken on more than one man could hope to achieve in a lifetime, and accomplished much of it. But long after his death in 1725 a strange and persistent story began to circulate through Europe about Peter’s last will and testament. From his death bed, it was said, he had secretly commanded his heirs and successors to pursue what he believed to be Russia’s historical destiny – the domination of the world. Possession of India and Constantinople were the twin keys to this, and he urged them not to rest until both were firmly in Russian hands. No one has ever seen this document, and most historians believe that it never existed. Yet such was the awe and fear surrounding Peter the Great that at times it came to be widely believed, and versions of its supposed text to be published. It was, after all, just the sort of command that this restless and ambitious genius might have given to posterity. Russia’s subsequent drive towards both India and Constantinople seemed, to many, confirmation enough, and until very recently there existed a strong belief in Russia’s long-term aim of world domination.


It was not for another forty years, however, until the reign of Catherine the Great, that Russia once again began to show signs of interest in India, where the British East India Company had been steadily gaining ground, principally at the expense of the French. In fact one of Catherine’s predecessors, the pleasure-loving Anne, had returned all Peter’s hard-won gains in the Caucasus to the Shah of Persia (hardly in keeping with Peter’s supposed will) on the grounds that they were draining her treasury. But Catherine, like Peter, was an expansionist. It was no secret that she dreamed of expelling the Turks from Constantinople and restoring Byzantine rule there, albeit under her firm control. This would give her fleet access to the Mediterranean, then very much a British lake, from the Black Sea, still very much a Turkish one.

In 1791, towards the end of her reign, Catherine is known to have carefully considered a plan to wrest India from Britain’s ever-tightening grip. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this idea was the brain-child of a Frenchman, a somewhat mysterious individual named Monsieur de St Genie. He proposed to Catherine that her troops should march overland via Bokhara and Kabul, announcing as they advanced that they had come to restore Muslim rule under the Moguls to its former glory. This would attract to Catherine’s standard, he argued, the armies of the Muslim khanates along the invasion route, and foment mass uprisings against the British within India as word of their coming spread. Although the plan got no further than that (she was dissuaded from it by her chief minister and former lover, the one-eyed Count Potemkin), this was the first of a long succession of such schemes for the invasion of India which Russian rulers were to toy with during the next century or so.

If Catherine failed to add either India or Constantinople to her domains, she nonetheless took a number of steps in that direction. Not only did she win back from the Persians the Caucasian territories which Anne had restored to them, but she also took possession of the Crimea, that last surviving stronghold of the Mongol empire. For three centuries it had enjoyed the protection of the Turks, who saw it as a valuable shield against the increasingly aggressive colossus to the north. But by the end of the eighteenth century, the once warlike Crimean Tartars had ceased to be a force to be reckoned with. Taking advantage of territorial gains she had made at the expense of the Turks on the northern coast of the Black Sea, and of internal strife among the Tartars, Catherine was able to add the Crimean khanate to her empire without a shot being fired. She achieved this, in her own words, simply by ‘placing posters in important locations to announce to the Crimeans our receiving them as our subjects’. Blaming their troubles on the Turks, the descendants of Genghis Khan meekly accepted their fate.

The Black Sea now ceased to be a Turkish lake, for not only were the Russians to build a giant new naval arsenal and base at Sebastopol, but also their warships were within two days’ sailing of Constantinople. Fortunately for the Turks, however, a freak storm not long afterwards sent the entire Russian Black Sea fleet to the bottom, temporarily removing the threat. But although the great city astride the Bosporus which she had dreamed of liberating from Muslim rule was still firmly in Turkish hands when Catherine died, the road leading to it was now appreciably shorter. For the first time Russia’s increasing presence in the Near East and the Caucasus began to give cause for concern among senior officials of the East India Company. Among the earliest to sense this was Henry Dundas, President of the Company’s new Board of Control, who warned of the danger of allowing the Russians to supplant the Turks and the Persians in these regions, and the long-term threat this might pose to British interests in India if the cordial relations then existing between London and St Petersburg were ever to deteriorate or collapse altogether.

However, in the light of what happened next, such fears were momentarily forgotten. A new spectre had suddenly arisen, representing a far more immediate threat to Britain’s position in India. Still only in his twenties, and burning to avenge French defeats at the hands of the British there, Napoleon Bonaparte had turned his predatory gaze eastwards. Fresh from his triumphs in Europe, he now vowed to humble the arrogant British by cutting them off from India, the source of their power and riches, and eventually driving them from this greatest of all imperial prizes. A strategic foothold in the Near East, he believed, was the first step towards this. ‘To conquer India we must first make ourselves masters of Egypt,’ he declared.

Napoleon wasted no time in setting about this, borrowing every book on the region which he could discover, and marking heavily those passages which interested him. ‘I was full of dreams,’ he explained long afterwards. ‘I saw myself founding a new religion, marching into Asia riding an elephant, a turban on my head and in my hands the new Koran I would have written to suit my needs.’ By the spring of 1798 all was ready, and on May 19 an armada carrying French troops sailed secretly from the ports of Toulon and Marseilles.

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