Published online by Cambridge University Press: 19 November 2020
The final phase of Russian expansion in Central Asia occurred in some of the most remote and inhospitable territory on the planet – the high Pamir plateau and the valleys of Shughnan, Roshan and Wakhan, inhabited by sparse populations of Kyrgyz and Pamiri Tajiks. The latter were considered by the Russians to be the last remnants of the autochthonous ‘Aryan’ population of Central Asia, and became an object of ethnographic fascination for this and their Isma’ili religion. Faced with the threat of domination by Sunni Muslim lowlanders – whether in Afghanistan or Bukhara – for many Pamiris Russian rule was a more attractive option. This was perhaps the one phase of the conquest where the old Soviet trope of ‘voluntary uniting’ contains a grain of truth – the Pamiris actively lobbied for a Russian presence on their territory, and proved adept at manipulating it to their advantage. The Pamirs were also the site of some of the most mythologised episodes of the ‘Great Game’, but, while the British were concerned by Russian activities, in 1895 they came to an amicable agreement on the drawing of a new frontier along the river Panj. The problems with Bukharan rule over Shughnan, Roshan and Wakhan proved much more intractable, and led to the imposition of direct Russian rule in 1905.