Bukhara: Empire of Russia

Mohammed Alim Khan, Prokudin-Gorskii, The Emir of Bukhara

Background & Context

The Russian Empire was the largest country on Earth and with it contained many cultures and ethnicities within. In this post, I will be looking at the region known as Bukhara, which is modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Freeze, in chapter 8 Revolutionary Russia: National Minorities, states that “Like Austria-Hungary, Russia was truly a multinational empire…”(Freeze 256). Bukhara was a city-state located in Central Asia and was a predominantly Muslim area and was ruled by a Muslim Emir. This was a sharp contrast to the Russian Orthodoxy that many of the Russian people followed and it was because of the Orthodoxy that the Tsar had absolute power. The Emir of Bukhara ruled with absolute authority, like the Tsar, however his power was limited to the city of Bukhara. In particular, I will be looking at the last Emir of Bukhara, Mohammed Alim Khan, and what his rule did to impact this area in the Russian Empire.

One of the reasons that I chose this photo is because I found it very eye catching because the Emir has a very flamboyant outfit on. Also, the more I looked into it, the more I became interested in figuring out what must have been going on in Russia during this time and how the Emir of Bukhara would fit into all this.

Religion and the Emir in Early 20th Century Russia

As stated previously, the main religion in Russia was Christian Orthodoxy and Islam was a heavily suppressed religion in Russia. Most of the areas that the Russians had conquered in the 19th century had been predominantly Muslim areas with Bukhara being one of them. The Caucasus Mountains also contained a substantial Muslim population, mainly with the Chechen ethnic group. The Russian government during the Empire sought to clear many of Muslim peoples out of their homelands and replace them with ethnically Russian people. Muslim warriors from many of these Islamic nations were recruited into the Russian Empire’s military in order to keep the Muslim people in check. The Russians forced out many Muslims from their homes and either forced them out of Russia entirely or were sent to the far reaches of the Empire. This shows that throughout history the Muslim population of Russia has been oppressed by the central government and shows why in the late 1990s the First Chechen War is fought.

The Emir of Bukhara holds absolute power within the Emirate and is the supreme authority on all matters. Bukhara was an autonomous state in the Russian Empire, having only been conquered in the mid 19th century. The Emir, Alim Khan, was initially seen as a potential reformer for the emirate, however, this was quickly changed by his conservative clergymen who sought to keep the traditions that Bukhara had always had. Thus, the Emir kept his absolute power that allowed him to have palaces and ornate outfits like the one he is wearing in the picture above. Another interesting note about the Emir is that he was the last living descendant of Genghis Khan that still held land, showing how much the Mongol influence in Russia had diminished.

The Emir’s Shir-Budun Palace in a Country Grove, Prokudin-Gorskii

The palace of the Emir, shown above, demonstrates the power that the Emir possessed while also showing the influence that Russian architecture had on this Islamic area with the brightly painted exterior keeps this blend of the two cultures. According to the World Digital Library, the corner towers are the only aspect of the palace that are native to the culture of Bukhara which again shows the influence that Russians wished to exert on their Muslim subjects.

In the Country Palace of the Bukhara Emir, Prokudin-Gorskii

Inside the palace of the Emir, we can see how ornate and wealthy the throne room looks. To look at the throne, it is plated in what looks like solid gold and is elevated above the rest of the room, symbolizing that the Emir’s power is higher than any other authority in Bukhara. The chandeliers are shown to also look rich and the entire room is highly decorated with bright colors and with the pillars and walls all elaborately decorated with stripes or other decorations. The throne room shows the European influence that was had by the Emir was very pervasive and important.

With all of this being said, it is important to note that the Emir was eventually overthrown in 1920 by the Bolsheviks and forced to leave the country. After this, all religion in Russia was suppressed by the Soviet Union continuing a trend of oppression for the Muslim peoples of Russia. It is important to look at all of the history of not only the area of Bukhara but also the whole of Russia itself in order to understand how Muslims were treated and why they felt later after the fall of the Soviet Union that it was time to have their own freedom and finally not be oppressed by the central government.

10 replies on “Bukhara: Empire of Russia”

What a lovely examination on the Emir of Bukhara! I think the only question I have is if the Emir’s palace is still in tact? If the Russians wanted to erase as much of the culture in Bukhara, before the Bolshevik revolution, then I wonder how much of the palace was either left alone or stripped and replaced with more features that incorporate the supposed “dominance” of Russian culture at the time.

Thank you for the feedback Alyssa I really appreciate it. I think that’s a great question and the only thing that I found is that the Emir was overthrown by Soviets in 1920 and forced into exile in Afghanistan.

The Soviets actually made two attempts to try and take Bukhara but failed pretty badly the first time. An invasion of Bukhara was not supported by the people of Bukhara so even though the second invasion succeeded I believe that it was definitely not popular. With all of the tradition of Bukhara I don’t think that it was very easily won over by the Soviets.

It is difficult to evaluate the 1910 status and influence of the Bukhara region without realizing that this area has had so many ruling classes over the almost 2,000 year history going back to Ghengis Khan. Each of these groups left their mark with the Muslim influence the last standing one.

That’s a very good point as like you said this area is rich in history and tradition and is home to a very proud group of people.

What a great post — I especially like the discussion in the first paragraph about how the Empire coopted local elites by having them serve in the Imperial officer corps. And of course I’m glad you wrote about the Emir, and you have some great questions here already! I’m wondering if the Emir’s situation (in terms of his relationship with Imperial authorities) wasn’t pretty complicated? On the one hand, he had what you call “unlimited” power, but of course the Tsar had “unlimited” power too – so the Emir was in fact subject to him. I think the Emir shows how complicated the dynamics around confession (religion) and local authority were. The architecture of the palace, for example, might also suggest that the Emir consciously integrated Islamic and Russian elements in order to leverage the prestige of both?
What sources did you use for your analysis?

Thank you so much for your feedback I really appreciate it. For this post I used mostly our textbook Russia: A History by Freeze and other sources included this article about Islam in Russia and also the information from the Prokudin-Gorskii photographs. Again thank you for taking the time to look at my post.

You’re welcome – but it was my pleasure! This is an important and interesting discussion. Thanks for the clarification about the sources. Is the article on Islam cited in the text? Also, check out Chris’s post about the Emir that approaches him from a different perspective:
P.S. Under you settings, please change your display name to your WordPress user name (otherwise you will keep showing up as an anonymous “admin”) Thanks!

Hello there, this is Andrew Grant. I wanted to expand on this trend of “ethnic autonomy” in the Russian Empire. Russia was never homogenous and even today, is an incredibly diverse society, composing hundreds of ethnicities, from the Siberian nomads, to the Chechens, to Chuvash, to the hundreds of varying tribes and nomadic peoples in the interior, it is vast. Russia has always, whether it be in the days of the Empire, the Soviet Union, and even today in the modern Russian Federation has granted degrees of autonomy to these ethnicities (less so in the Soviet Union, but they did have autonomous oblasts for some ethnic groups, like one for Jews in Siberia). When they conquered and expanded into new territories Russia often allowed the locals to retain their laws, noble privileges’, social hierarchy, religion, and customs, as long as they submitted to Russian dominance. Of note, in my Imperial Russia class I did research into the Caucasus and our class discussed their territories acquired in the Napoleonic Wars. Russia after the Congress of Vienna gained territory in Poland and in Finland (from Sweden). Russia interestingly allowed the Poles and the Finns to have a great deal of autonomy (for a time), allowing them a constitution, retaining their own customs, and Finland even had their own currency and a parliament (though one that did not exceed the power of the Tsar). Russia was tolerant towards other Christian denominations and towards Islamic peoples and their customs and beliefs in conquered territories, allowing them to retain their faith and values, Russia was tolerant and relaxed in their attitudes towards most subject peoples, as long as they submitted to the dictates and wills of the Tsar, the notable exception being Jews, but in general Russia adopted this as a method to ensure stability and to cement their control and legitimacy in conquered territories, using the nobles and figures of authority (like in Bukhara) to serve as local rulers and to cement and earn the conquered peoples loyalty.

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