The territory of Ile in Xinjiang was occupied by Russian troops in 1871. After ten years, in the year 1881-82, the Ile area was returned to China. For the second time (after Alaska) the Russian Empire refused the almost-conquered territory that was lying at its feet like a ripe melon …
Numerous rivers, the most significant of which are the Tekes and Kunges, run down the Tien Shan ranges and, merging into one, make the Ile River. The main flow of the river crosses the territory of Kazakhstan, but its headwaters arise in the area then called Ile, which formed and still forms the Chinese region of Xinjiang today. China gets the majority of the river water for its needs. The Ile River becomes shallow and Lake Balkhash becomes shallow too. But back in the 19th century it could have been that the entire Ile valley became part of Kazakhstan. Why didn’t that happen?
In the 1760’s, after the seizure of Dzungaria by China coupled with the driving out of the Dzungarians to the deserted upper valley of Ile, Chinese Hans resettled there alongside Dungans from Gansu, Taranchi from Kashgaria, Sibo and Soloni from Manchuria and Mongol-Chahars from Mongolia. The Kalmyks also migrated there from Kalmykia in 1771. Separate nomadic tribes of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz travelled through the mountain gorges. Thus, the population of the Ile area comprised an explosive mixture of various ethnic groups, different economic patterns and various confessions. At this time, the western border of the area was the border between Qing China and Tsarist Russia.
Dissolution of Xinjiang
In the 1860s China, weakened by the “Opium Wars”, was seized by the fires of national riots and rebellions. This started with the peasant war of Tai-pings in the eastern part of the Empire. Then the rebel’ fervor spread to the west. In 1862 the Dungans’ rebellion blazed throughout Shanxi province. Then the fire of riot leaped over to Gansu. In summer of 1864 the riots came to Urumqi. The city was partially destroyed and burned away. The huge warehouses of tea that was designated to be exported to Russia were burned down. In March 1866 Muslim rebels, mostly Dungans, occupied the capital of Xinjiang – Ghulja. The Dungans were supported by their fellow believers, the Taranchi (Uighurs), and also by Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. The riot obviously took on the religious tint of a Muslim fight with infidels. The representatives of Chinese-Manchuria administration, Mongols and Kalmyks that fell into the rebels’ hands were viciously slaughtered. The infidel survivors of the massacre from the eastern parts of the province escaped to China, and those from the western precincts fled to the borders of Russian Altay.
After the final victory of the rebels in 1867 there appeared three independent Muslim states on the territory abandoned by the Chinese Xinjiang: The Taranchi sultanate on the Ile lands, headed by sultan Alakhan Abilogly; the Dungan Khanate in place of the Tarbagatay precinct, headed by Lotay Khan and the Yetyshaar state in Kashgaria, headed by the field commander from neighboring Kokand – Yakubbek. Neither China nor Russia recognized the newly created countries. However, Great Britain and Turkey recognized Yetyshaar. The so-called “Great Game” between Great Britain and Russia was at its peak and the politicians were guided by the “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle.
Russian Turkestan vs Chinese Turkestan
Also in 1867, as a counter to the Muslim countries, Russia created the Turkestan Governor-Generalship headed by General Kostantin von Kaufman.
In the Taranchi sultanate the power of Alakhan sultan was weak and he could not maintain order. During the feuds between Dungans and Taranchi, armed groups plundered from civilians, trespassed over the border with Russia and established connections with Kokand, Khiva and Bukhara while fighting with each other. However the tough and aggressive Yetyshaar ruler, Yakubbek, acted more decisively. He proclaimed himself to be the descendant of Tamerlane and suggested that every Middle Asian nation should unite for jihad against Russia. But besides the propagandist discourse he created a strong state, enabled taxation, summoned a regular army with various service arms, and with the help of the British and the Turkish re-equipped them with firearms. In 1870 his army occupied Urumqi, annexing the Dungan Khanate, and Yakubbek was ready to unite the entire former Xinjiang under his reign.
The Russian generals determined that a risk had developed of creating a huge and hostile neighbouring Muslim state in Chinese Turkestan under the custody of Great Britain and demanded decisive actions. Finally, after long hesitation, the Russian Government came to an agreement with the Generals to occupy the Ile area whilst it was not yet occupied by Yakubbek. That was when the occasion recurred. In May 1871 particularly violent clashes of Muslim troops with the Russian army occurred on the Russia-Taranchi border. This became the pretext for an invasion.
In June 1871, Russian troops under the command of General Kolpakovski crossed the river Borohudzir, which marked the border, and invaded the territory of the Taranchi sultanate. During several battles the disorganized and poorly armed troops of the Dungans and Taranchi suffered a defeat. The war ended with a victorious blitzkrieg. In eight days the Russian army occupied Ghulja and the sultanate was destroyed. The Ile area became the Ghulja region as part of Russian Turkestan. But Russia made a gesture to the international community, promising to China that as soon as the Chinese government found itself able to support its power in the region, the Ghulja region would be returned and the troops would be withdrawn. Sultan Alakhan Abilogly was honourably exiled to Verniy city (Almaty), where he spent the rest of his life, receiving his annual pension of five thousand rubles from the Russian government.
“Doves” vs “Hawks”
And what to do with the Ghulja region next? There were constant disputes about its future between the Turkestan regional administration and the Russian Central Government – between the Hawk-generals and Dove-diplomats. The Turkestan “hawks” – Kaufman and Kolpakovski and the majority of the Russian military were firmly set against the return of the region to China. The generals, having considered the strategic goal of defence, proposed that Russia replace the old, completely open, border that crossed the steppe with a new, almost impassable, natural border at the Tian Shan mountain ridge, retaining the rich and fertile valley of the Upper Ile. In this case, the frontier patrol duties would be reduced to control the strategically important passes of Talki (to Dzungaria) and Muzart (to Kashgaria). At this time the Semipalatinsk governor – General Vladimir Poltoratski – suggested solving the problem even more drastically, by taking advantage of the situation to occupy Urumqi and Kashgaria, thus expanding the Russian state to its “natural limits”.
However, people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) thought otherwise. The MFA’s head, Duke Gorchakov, who was counting money, well remembered his promises and regarded England’s opinion and Europe’s reaction with caution. In order to calm the combative generals, the diplomats assured them that ‘the refusal to return it would have been in complete contradiction to those undertakings that the Russian government repeatedly made to the Chinese government’. In this case, ‘the loss of the advantageous strategic position would be compensated by the recovery of mutually advantageous trade with The Heavenly Empire’. That was the main reason. It was not a secret that Russia was receiving huge profits from the export of their own produce to Ile region and from the import of Chinese tea with its further transit to Europe. As a result of the rebellion the trade routes via Chuguchak and Ghulja were cut off, trade was suffering losses and the treasury was not receiving taxes. Therefore, Russia was interested in the recovery of its former trade routes, the profit from which the Government considered was more important than expensive territorial purchases. Thus, the ‘doves’ won at the Russian court.
Whereas, there were disputes about the Ile region’s destiny at the Chinese court; they also considered costs and here also ‘hawks’ were disputing with ‘doves’. The head ‘hawk’ – General Zuo Zongtang, who had defeated the centres of the Dungan rebellions in Shanxi, set his heart on becoming the liberator of China. The General was keen to advertise the perceived ‘Russian threat’, persuading all that if China did not regain Xinjiang, the Russians would own it, and would move on to Mongolia and further on to Manchuria. His gang of ‘hawks’ appealed to the Empress Dowager Cixi’s patriotism, trying to persuade her that after the defeat in the ‘Opium wars’ China should demonstrate to the Europeans its power in suppressing the anti-Qin riots and that Xinjiang was to be returned at any cost. The ‘doves’ faction, headed by the Beijing governor Li Hongzhang, considered not only the Ile region, but the entire Xinjiang as a self-supporting area that did not belong to any other country. Li Hongzhang as a practical person argued that owning Xinjiang was detrimental, and suggested that they should forget about that ‘wild land’ and recollect that there was a ‘Japanese threat’ from the sea. ‘The hawks’ won at the Chinese court.
In 1875 General Zuo Zongtang headed ‘The Western campaign’ of the Chinese army to Xinjiang. At first he drowned the riot centres in Gansu and Urumqi in Dungan blood and then moved on to Yetishaar. The Muslim troops were heavily defeated. Yakubbek died in unclear circumstances: whether from poison, or from a heart attack. The state was destroyed and the Chinese General flooded Kashgaria with Uighur blood. Then the slaughterman of the Uighur and Dungan people claimed his right to the Ile region.
And thus, in September 1879 the Livadian Agreement was signed in Crimea, based on which Russian troops were withdrawn from the Ile region and then the latter was returned to China. However, according to the claim of the ‘hawks’ from the Military Ministry the agreement stipulated that more than 40% of the region’s territory with the valley of Tekes and the Muzart and Talki passes went to Russia.
‘There, where the Russian flag was once hoisted it must never be hoisted down’ – claimed Tsar Nicolay I. And so it was, though not always. But for the unprecedented cases with Alaska and the Ile region, the Russian tanks would have been standing by the threshold of North America, and the full-flowing Ile and maybe Irtysh would have been flowing fully within the territory of Kazakhstan. America was blessed with Alaska, while Kazakhstan failed with the Ile region three times: the ‘doves’ from the MFA won in Russia, Zuo Zongtang’s ‘hawks’ won in China and the Livadian agreement was not fulfilled.
The Ile crisis
The Chinese government considered the Livadian agreement as extortionate and did not ratify it. The Chinese ambassador Chung Hou, who had signed the agreement, was accused of acquiescence and lack of determination, and was “denounced as a Russian spy”. The Empress Dowager Cixi sentenced him to death, precipitating the so-called ‘The Ile crisis”.
The ‘hawks’ suddenly became more active in China. After Yakubbek’s death, Great Britain placed its bets on Zuo Zongtang. The Chinese delegates were purchasing fire arms, cannons and cruisers in Europe with the help of English loans. The aggressive General, while re-equipping his army, threatened to capture not only the Ile region, but all of Central Asia; and playing along with the English, he blustered to reach St. Petersburg. Demonstrating hard-line decisiveness, he moved his headquarters from Central China to Xinjiang, taking a luxurious coffin with him, thereby implying that he would return home ‘with a shield or in a coffin’.
The Russian government also started preparing for war, repositioning troops to the borders of Turkestan. Tsar Alexander sent Admiral Lesovsky’s fleet to the Far East to land troops in Manchuria. The Russian Attaché in London, General Gorlov received a proposal from Irish terrorists to create a volunteer brigade to fight with the British in Central Asia. The ‘hawks”-generals headed by Kaufman were rubbing their hands in anticipation of easy manoeuvres and were planning a ‘crusade to Beijing’.
In 1880 the Ile crisis reached its final phase. Qing China and Tsarist Russia, rattling the sabre were standing “wall-to-wall” against each other. The entire world was watching the confrontation of Russia and China with sinking hearts. Would the Chinese put the ambassador to death or not? Would war break out or not? Behind China one could perceive the shadow of the third empire – Great Britain. And there Queen Victoria made her move towards peace, sending a letter to her colleague – the Chinese Empress pleading with her to grant a pardon to Chung Hou.
While Zuo Zongtang was ‘warmongering’ in Xinjiang, the pragmatism of Cixi and Li Hongzhang was predominating in Beijing. They clearly understood that it was one thing to defeat the isolated and poorly armed rebel forces, but quite another to fight the regular army of the great northern Empire. Therefore, taking into consideration Europe’s opinion, Chung Hou was granted a pardon and Li’s supporter, Duke Zeng Jize then was sent to St. Petersburg to conduct negotiations.
In Russia they also considered that a bad peace was better than a good quarrel. The MFA’s position – to regulate the relations with China and to restore trade overweighed the geopolitical concerns of the Military Ministry. The Generals’ demands on the territory were reduced twice and the funding request in relation to occupational costs was increased.
The resolution of the “Ile crisis” became the new Russian-Chinese St. Petersburg agreement signed on February 12, 1881. Russia withdrew its claim for the Tekes valley and the strategic passes. Of the territory of the Ile region, with a total area of 50 thousand square kilometres, Russia (and later on Kazakhstan) achieved only a consolation prize of 10 thousand square kilometres. The old border along Borohudzir and Charyn was moved east to the river Horgos and these lands were settled by the Muslim-refugees from the Ile region, who assumed Russian citizenship. Today this territory is a part of the Almaty region. Besides this, the Chinese authorities were to pay Russia 9 million rubles to cover the expense of bringing order to the Ile region and to allow amnesty to the local population (remember that Alaska was sold for 11 million rubles).
In China the St. Petersburg agreement was received with delight as a significant success in Qing diplomacy. General Zuo Zongtang became the national hero who returned Xinjiang. Subsequently, an administrative reform was conducted in the province. The Ile region became the Ile-Kazakh Autonomous district and Urumqi became the capital of Xinjiang instead of the frontier Ghulja.
Text by Murat Uali
Translated from Russian by Dana Zheteyeva