During the nineteenth century, Tsarist Russia gradually engulfed the city-states and tribes of Central Asia. The final act in the struggle between the Russians and their neighbors to the south was a large battle in 1881 that took place at the Battle of Geok-Tepe, in what is now Turkmenistan.
Background to the Battle of Geok-Tepe
Central Asia in the nineteenth century was the scene of the "Great Game," a contest between Russia and Great Britain for influence and control in the region. Tsarist Russia sought to expand its empire and gain access to warm-water sea ports to its south. The United Kingdom was motivated primarily by the desire to create a buffer zone between Russia's holdings and colonial British India, the crown jewel of the British Empire.
The two great powers clashed in the Crimean War, squabbled over Tibet, Persia, and Afghanistan, and sent spies and agents across Central Asia with offers of protection, information, or gold for local rulers.
Russia had another motive for seeking to conquer all of the land between its southern border and Persia. For centuries, the nomadic Turcomen and other Central Asian peoples had been attacking Russian caravans, raiding Russian border settlements, and enslaving any Russians they could capture. The fierce Akhal-Teke Turcomen tribe were an especially galling gad-fly to Imperial Russia. Warlike horsemen, they had defeated both the Khivans and the Persians in battle in recent times.
The Teke sometimes stole young Russian women for brides. Other, less fortunate Russian captives were made slaves. The Moslem Teke had little compunction about abusing Christian slaves; they treated enslaved fellow Moslems much better. Russian slaves who unsuccessfully attempted to escape could expect to have a foot chopped off for their trouble. Any sign of a rescue mission by the Russian military, and the Teke would put all their Christian slaves to the sword.
For their part, the Russians were contemptuous of the proud Turcomen. They considered the Teke a rabble of barbaric herdsmen, and had no doubt that a few good Russian soldiers could mop up the entire tribe with little trouble.
The Turcomen naturally were aware that Russia looked upon them with disfavor. They also knew that Britain was Russia's opponent in the region. The Teke had high hopes that the British would prevail in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, and push on towards Merv (now in eastern Turkmenistan). Should that happen, the Teke fully intended to form an alliance with the British against the Russians.
Thus, even before the events of 1879-1881, there was little love lost between the Teke Turcomen and the Russians.
Russian Defeat at Geok-Tepe, 1879
Between 1871 and 1879, the Russians launched a series of harassing attacks on the Turcomen from their base on the Caspian Sea. The largest, a considerable operation in 1877, might have spelled doom for the Teke if not for the sudden recall of the Russian troops to fight in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The Teke, despite their losses, were encouraged to see the Russians retreat after each skirmish, and came to consider them a cowardly foe. Nonetheless, the Teke people were cleared from the 130-mile long swath of desert between the Caspian and Geok-Tepe, site of their great fortress.
Geok-Tepe, which means "green hill" or "green fortress" in the Turkmen language, was a fortified city of about 30-40,000. Next to the reinforced-mud houses of the town sat a huge fortress made of mud-brick, enclosed in two rings of walls. Several streams ran down from the nearby Kopet Dag Mountains and through the area, a boon on the southern fringe of the scorching Kara Kum (Black Sands) Desert. This was the Teke's great stronghold.
The Russian troops returned to Turcomen lands in 1878, flush with their triumph over the Ottoman Empire. Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania had all been pried loose from the Ottomans, and the Russians felt more than capable of handling the riffraff Teke cavalry.
On September 9, 1879, a force of 4,000 cavalry and infantry under General Lomakin marched across the desert to attack the Teke at Geok-Tepe. The Russians had small stocks of food and water, and not enough horses to carry a lot of artillery or supplies. They were opposed by nearly twice as many Turcoman defenders within the fortress; the Teke, however, had few guns and no artillery. The Russians had brought four light field-pieces, and bombarded the mud-built walls. Eager for victory, though, the Russians called off the artillery-fire too soon, and made a frontal assault with their infantry.
In response, Teke warriors leapt down from the fort and soon routed the Russian troops, who began the long retreat to the sea as fast as their legs could carry them. Armed with captured weapons, the Teke jumped onto their horses and chased the fugitive Russians. A New York Times article from September 24, 1879 states that at least 700 were killed outright. Others were made captive.
The proud Russian Imperial Army had been humiliated by the Teke; it was their most disastrous Central Asian campaign since the crushing defeat at Khiva in 1717. The European media called it "The Lomakin Massacre", and the Russian general soon was recalled to St. Petersburg in disgrace.
The triumphant Turcomen were sure that this stinging defeat would leave the Russians licking their wounds for at least four or five years. According to their calculations, by the time the Tsar's forces were ready for a rematch, Britain would have won the Second Anglo-Afghan War, and Geok-Tepe would be reinforced by British and Merv Turcomen forces.
The Russians themselves had other ideas, however.
A British journalist in the area, Edmond O'Donovan, tried to convince his friends among the Teke that Russia would soon be back, with a much larger force. Though skeptical, the Turcomen did make significant improvements to the walls of Geok-Tepe.