By the late 19th century, when much of Islamic Central Asia was conquered by the Russian Empire, the region was home to tens of thousands of slaves. Most of these slaves were Shiʿa Muslims from northern Iran, though the slave trade also ensnared many Russians, Armenians, Kalmyks, and others. Slave labor was especially commonplace in the Sunni Muslim domains of Khwarazm and Bukhara, where enslaved people constituted a substantial proportion of all agricultural workers, domestic servants, and soldiers. Slaves also labored in many other roles, and an individual slave could be tasked with a variety of jobs. Slaves served, for example, as concubines, craftsmen, miners, herdsmen, entertainers, blacksmiths, calligraphers, and even, in rare instances, as government officials. Before the 16th century, the majority of the slaves in Central Asia—defined here as the region extending from the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea through Xinjiang, China, and from southern Siberia to northern Iran—seem to have been trafficked to the region from India. This changed in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a significant number of Iranian war-captives were brought north and enslaved during the course of numerous armed conflicts between the Central Asian Uzbeks and Iranian Safavids. Many of these slaves evidently labored on the region’s rapidly expanding agricultural estates. In the 18th and 19th centuries, frequent Turkmen raids into northern Iran resulted in tens of thousands of Iranian Shiʿas being captured and funneled into a booming slave trade in Khwarazm and Bukhara. Further north, a much smaller number of Russians were seized and sold into slavery by Kazakh nomads along the steppe frontier. The region’s slave trade declined in the late 19th century and seems to have remained dormant throughout the Soviet period. The post-Soviet period has witnessed a resurgence of human trafficking throughout Central Asia. In recent decades, local governments and international organizations have labored with mixed success to combat a new kind of slave trade, as Central Asian victims are trafficked by criminal cartels to neighboring countries, or to other regions of the world, for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation.
Xinjiang is a 642,800-square-mile area about the size of Iran, comprised of two different ecological zones (northern steppe and southern oases) in the heart of Eurasia. After subjugating the Zunghar Mongols, based in the area, in 1754–1759, the Qing stationed 25,000–45,000 troops there. The empire transferred 850,000–4,000,000 taels of silver from China annually for the financial support of the troops. The Qing also encouraged migration of Han and Muslim Chinese (Tungan) merchants and colonists to develop the underpopulated north, and they relied on oasis Muslim (or “Uyghur”) landlords (beg) to do the same in the south. For the first sixty years, the region witnessed the unprecedented expansion of local economy and the rise of a new regional identity. However, the Qing faced stiff challenges to their authority from the 1820s to the 1860s, as the former ruler of the area of southwestern oases, the Islamic saintly family (khwaja) that lived in exile in Central Asia after the Qing conquest, invaded Kashgar and Yarkand, often supported by the opportunistic ruler of the neighboring Khoqand khanate. The Qing was eventually able to fend off the khwaja challenge. However, the discontinuation of the silver transfer from China during the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) led to the fall of Qing rule in 1864. Tungans and native Muslims rose in revolt in the name of holy war, which culminated in the formation of an independent Islamic state presided over by the Khoqandi general Ya’kūb Beg. After the Qing empire reconquered Xinjiang in 1877, the Qing transformed Xinjiang into a Chinese province (sheng) in 1884, largely in response to the increasing activities of the Russia empire, driven by its commercial and territorial ambition. However, the subsequent opening of numerous “treaty ports” across Xinjiang, where extraterritorial condition prevailed, rendered the Qing government’s territorial control over the region incomplete.
Ethnic groups of the geographical region of Manchuria can be understood in relation to their cultural, demographic, and linguistic differences and similarities; historical formation; and modern status. Manchuria is a macroscopic entity, Greater Manchuria, which comprises areas administered by China (the People’s Republic of China) and Russia (the Russian Federation) as well as, until recently, by Japan. Geographically Manchuria is closely associated with the maritime dimension formed by the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese Islands as well as the island of Sakhalin.
Astrakhan and Orenburg were the Russian Empire’s two “official” entrances from Asia in the early modern era. Russia’s “Asia” was conceived broadly as the expanse of Eurasia from the Ottoman Empire to the shores of the Pacific. Russia’s control of the Volga River, culminating in the conquest of Astrakhan on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the 16th century, was intended to open direct access for Russia’s merchants to reach Asia. Throughout the 17th century, trade with the Middle East and Central Asia increased, followed by an important breakthrough in relations with China culminating in the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. In the 18th century, Russia’s Asian trade increased; Astrakhan’s customs fees collected from Asian trade goods surpassed the revenue generated by Russia’s Baltic ports in the first half of the century. A growing trade with the Central Asian Khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and Khoqand led to the creation of Orenburg as the entry point for overland trade from the steppe in 1753. In theory, the new outpost separated Russia’s “Asia” into separate zones for increased regulation: Astrakhan for goods arriving from the Caspian Sea, imported from Iran and India, and Orenburg for the increasing steppe traffic. This is not to suggest that increased regulation produced better control over Eurasia’s trade networks, but rather to reveal Russia’s significant investment in profiting from Asia’s trade as much as its competitors in Britain or the Netherlands did. While overland Eurasian trade remains plagued by a historiographical assumption of its decline in the 18th century, Astrakhan and Orenburg were vital centers of Eurasian commerce, revealing the robust overland trade that remained outside of West European observation.
Japan defined its northern edge against Russia over the course of the 19th century. In earlier periods, an area and people known as Ezo marked the northern edge of Japanese state and society, but expansion of both the Russian and Japanese polities brought them into direct contact with one another around the Sea of Okhotsk. Perceptions of foreign threat accelerated Japan’s efforts to map and know Ezo, and shifted understandings of Japan’s northern edge outwards. Maritime routes defined this new northern edge of Japan, and their traces on the map tied distant locales to the national body. Maritime space was therefore crucial to this expansion in conceptions of the nation, through which the maritime boundary of Japan came to incorporate much of the Ezo region. The mid-century opening of Japan transformed this maritime boundary, which was shaped in the latter half of the 19th century by Japan’s particular situation, even as global and universal concepts were drawn upon to justify its operation. Japan’s participation within international and inter-imperial society conferred upon it the ability to appeal to such concepts for legitimacy, a participation made possible by the state’s efforts to satisfactorily map and administer the boundaries of Japan’s northern edge.
The medieval state of Kievan Rus’ took shape in the late 10th century when Vladimir (Volodimer), reportedly a descendant of the semi-legendary Ri͡urik, established his exclusive rule over the Slavs, Finns, and Balts dwelling along the river systems stretching from the southern end of Lake Ladoga to Kiev (Kyiv) and adopted Christianity from Byzantium for his realm. His descendants, collectively known as the Riurikid dynasty, oversaw the growth of Kievan Rus’ into a complex federation of principalities, populated mainly by sedentary agriculturalists but also benefiting from urban commerce linked to broad intercontinental trade networks. Riurikid princes repeatedly competed with each other and also contended with nomads of steppe, especially the Pechenegs, Polovt͡sy (Kipchaks, Cumans), and the Mongols who conquered both the nomads of the Pontic steppe and the Rus’ principalities in 1237–1240. Over the next century the western portions Kievan Rus’, located in modern Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, were absorbed by Poland and Lithuania. Its northern principalities continued to be ruled by their Riurikid princes under the hegemony of the khans of the Golden Horde, the portion of the Mongol Empire more accurately known as Juchi’s ulus. As the Golden Horde fragmented in the 15th century, those principalities coalesced to form Muscovy, the precursor of modern Russia. Muscovite rulers expanded their realm by seizing territories from Lithuania and in the mid-16th century by annexing the Tatar khanates of Kazan’ and Astrakhan’, two heirs of the Golden Horde. By the time Riurikid dynastic rule ended in 1598, Muscovy had also subdued the Khanate of Sibir’, launching a new phase of development arising from its exploration and incorporation of Siberia and resulting in its transformation from a regional power into a vast Eurasian empire.
Four-centuries-long encounters between the Ottoman Empire and the Grand Duchy of Muscovy/Russian Empire point to complex relations that have been triggered and defined mostly by territorial, trade disputes, and wars, and maintained by diplomatic rivalry and occasional military alliances. Starting as friendly encounters during Sultan Bayezid II reign at the beginning of the 16th century, these relations, essentially and persistently asymmetrical, reveal an initial and long Ottoman dominance over the Muscovy/Russian side; one that lasted from the early 16th to the late 18th century—whereby the two sides shared no direct borders, traded and did not fight each other until the late 17th century—followed by a late 18th-century and mid-19th-century Russian ascendency. This ascendency was achieved largely thanks to the military reform that Tsar/Emperor Peter the Great undertook, namely, the establishment of a standing and professional army and consequentially due to the many wars that Russia won throughout the 19th century; the decisive ones being those fought during the reign of Empress Catherine the Great. The mid-19th century and the early 20th century—which witnessed the implosion of the Russian Empire due to the Bolshevik Revolution and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France—was a long period that saw few and brief military alliances, contested trade relations and yet continued wars. It was ultimately marred by an Ottoman drive to counterbalance Russia’s dominance, while the latter sought to preserve it, by involving other European powers (British and French)—the most crucial moment being the British, French, and Ottoman armies defeating the Russian one in the Crimean War (1853–1856)—transforming their bilateral interactions into multilateral but unsustainable relations.