Imperial Russian military commanders conquered Transoxiana for a variety of reasons: to increase the prestige of the Russian Empire (especially in competition with the British Empire), to acquire new sources of cotton in the wake of supply disruptions from the American Civil War, to control and punish Turkmen slave traders and, not least, because they could. The logic of imperial expansion in the 19th century suggested that a strong state’s army should stop only when it met insurmountable physical or political barriers. In 1864 Russia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov explained in a general letter to the European powers: “The position of Russia in Central Asia is that of all civilized states which are brought into contact with half-savage nomad populations possessing no fixed social organization. . . The United States of America, France in Algeria, Holland in her Colonies, England in India; all have been forced by imperious necessity into this onward march, where the greatest difficulty is to know where to stop.”
The first Russian Governor-General of Turkestan, Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman, commissioned a survey of the empire's new territories using the new technology of the late 1860s, the camera. The Turkestanskii al'bom contains over 1000 photographs of people, buildings, and landscape. It has been digitized and made publicly available by the Library of Congress.
In 1867 Tsar Alexander II approved organizing the new territory into a province called Turkestan, ruled by a military governor-general who was based in Tashkent. When the Russians defeated Bukhara in 1868 and Khiva in 1873, they also annexed some territory from each khanate to Russian Turkestan, including Bukhara’s second city Samarkand. Three years later (1876) the Russians abolished the Khanate of Kokand and absorbed all of its territory into Turkestan. Simultaneously Russian forces moved south from Khiva into Turkmen territory and established the Transcaspian Province, centered at Ashkhabad, by 1882. This slow annexation was marked by the bloodiest fighting of the entire conquest, as the Turkmen resisted the Russian military far more effectively than did any other Central Asians. In January 1881, however, the Russians massacred approximately 14,000 Teke Turkmen at the fortress of Gok Tepe, which broke serious Turkmen resistance [Pierce, pp. 41–42]. These conquests reconfigured the political status and obligations of the peoples of Transoxiana, and so began the process of reconfiguring identities as well. Russian policy toward Turkestanis (as it is convenient to call them through the 1867–1924 period) was more interventionist than was Qing Dynasty policy toward the Turks of Xinjiang, but, similar to the Qing, the Russians were more interested in economic exploitation than they were in russifying Central Asians.
Russian policy in Turkestan is difficult to discuss coherently because the government never developed a consistent policy. Some officials repeatedly said that they wanted to “civilize” Turkestanis and give them the benefits of Russian society, but the military governors-general tended to believe that interference in local cultures would set off unrest, and the military prized stability above all. Most importantly, the Russian government never had the money or the personnel to implement transformative programs. Various investigative commissions made proposals over the years to fully incorporate Turkestan into the Russian legal system, or to build a broad network of Russian-native primary schools, but the concrete results of these proposals were always much smaller than reformers had hoped.
Tsarist officials also changed their minds about how to deal with Islam in Central Asia. In the 1820s in the Kazakh steppes the Russians had encouraged Tatar Muslims to “civilize” the nomads by establishing schools, which taught basic literacy (in Kazakh and sometimes Russian) and Islam to a small number of students. In Russian Turkestan, however, Governor-general K. P. von Kaufman (r. 1867–1881) banned all Muslim or Christian missionaries. He believed that Muslim teachers would stir up “fanaticism” and Christian teachers would enrage the populace. Von Kaufman further believed that mere exposure to superior Russian culture would cause Turkestani Muslims to abandon their backward ways, and so the Russian government did not need to devote scarce resources to changing local cultures. Von Kaufman’s complacent assumption turned out to be wrong, as the increasing Russian presence strengthened Islamic identity and practice as a counter-weight to Christian rule.
Legally, all Turkestanis had the status of inorodtsy (aliens), which meant that they were barred from military conscription and subject to different taxation rules. Inorodtsy were subjects of the Russian Empire but were treated differently than the core Slavic Christian population [Slocum]. While people in Russia proper were ruled directly by officials appointed from St. Petersburg, Turkestanis were ruled indirectly — they still answered to the same village elders and Islamic judges that they always had. These authorities continued to rule on the basis of Islamic law and/or local customary law, but their jurisdictions were now organized according to Russian administrative rules. Russian officials limited some of the power that traditional authorities exercised, such as the ability to impose harsh physical punishment (cutting off hands, blinding, execution), but everything except for serious criminal cases and civil cases involving large amounts of money was dealt with by traditional means [Brower, 2003, pp. 61–63].
In general, tribal chiefs and settled elites were more directly affected by the Russians than were ordinary farmers or herders. The completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1895 encouraged Slavic settlement of the steppes, and undercut the traditional ways that Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Kara-kalpak tribal leaders had maintained their power. More nomads had to adapt to settled or semi-settled farming, usually in their winter pastures (in modern Uzbek the word for “winter” is qish and for “village” is qishloq). As they had in the steppes north of the Syr Darya River, the Russians divided the land into administrative units that broke up traditional migratory routes, but also made tribal leaders the guardians of access to remaining pasturage. This gave Kyrgyz manaps, for example, unprecedented power in their local areas and changed the balance of power among tribal units. After 1882 Turkmen tribes were divided among those in Khiva (mostly Yomut), Bukhara (Ersari), and the Russian Transcaspian Province (Teke). Each large grouping had a distinct experience, depending on the government they lived under. They did not have to cope with many Slavic settlers in their lands, but their chiefs were forced to obey an external authority for possibly the first time, which was an enormous political change. The Transcaspian Teke learned to live with the Russians: their chiefs acquired basic Russian language and political skills, and most Teke turned to cash crop cotton farming. Turkmen tribes outside Transcaspia retained more autonomy, but they too began to abandon nomadism in response to economic pressure. Some tribes could still move to Persia or Afghanistan if they chose, since neither tsarist authorities nor their Soviet successors were able to completely close the southern borders until the 1930s. [Edgar, pp. 174, 183–184].