The history of the Silk Road networks and other trade connections is closely tied to the rise and fall of Eurasian empires including imperial China, the Mongol Empire of Changez Khan, the Persian Empire, the Mughals and the Ottomans. Well-established empires guaranteed that roads and bridges used for trade would be kept in a good condition, that traders and caravans could proceed in security, reach the markets safely to sell their goods and buy new ones that could be sold at home. Those who ruled the land ensured safe passage while collecting an “octroi,” mostly in the form of goods, if not gold coins. The traders catered for this in their anticipated profits.
Over the centuries, Eurasia was crisscrossed by many trade routes-long and short- but the main direction of trade always remained east-west or west-east. Even before Marco-Polo (and before him, his father) journeyed from Venice to the court of Kublai Khan, these routes had existed. The north-south connection, over a long time, was hampered by the presence of high mountain ranges and the fact that northern territories were not united by large empires. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Northern Europe and Eurasia were gradually characterised by a multitude of smaller and regional kingships that did not last long enough or lacked stability and power. In Europe, the centre of trade and production lay for a long time around the Mediterranean. Things only changed in Eurasia after the birth of the Russian empire in the 18th century.
Emperor Peter I (1682-1725) of Russia fought numerous wars and expanded an already huge empire into a major European power. The Russian conquest of Siberia had taken place in the 16th and 17th centuries, with the Khanate of Sibir already a loose political structure of vassalages undermined by the activities of Russian explorers. Although outnumbered, the Russians pressured various family-based tribes into changing their loyalties and establishing distant forts from which they conducted raids. To subjugate the natives and collect tribute, a series of winter outposts and forts were built at the confluence of major rivers and streams and important portages.
British strategised to secure their prized colonial holdings in the subcontinent, considered the “Jewel of the Crown.”
Peter I founded the Russian empire by consolidating the huge territory into a state; introducing a western-style administrative system. While Russia’s vast lands had a population of 14 million, grain yields trailed behind those in the West despite the entire population being devoted to agriculture, with only a small percentage living in towns.
With Russia not having access to ports and the main maritime trade routes of the time, Peter’s attention turned to the north. Russia lacked a secure northern seaport, except at Archangel on the White Sea, where the harbour was frozen for nine months a year. Access to the Baltic Sea was blocked by Sweden, whose territory enclosed it on three sides. Peter’s ambitions for a “window to the sea” led him, in 1699, to make a secret alliance with Saxony, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Denmark against Sweden. They conducted the Great Northern War, which ended in 1721 when an exhausted Sweden asked for peace with Russia. As a result, Peter acquired four provinces situated south and east of the Gulf of Finland, securing access to the sea. There, he built Russia’s new capital, Saint Petersburg, on the Neva River, to replace Moscow. The new model city was largely built according to Western design. He led a cultural revolution that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political mores with a modern, scientific, Europe-oriented, and rationalist system.
Even though ambitions existed, there was no explicit intention nor strategy that aimed to access the “warm waters,” which, in any case, would have then been the Black Sea. The first Russo-Turkish War (1568-1570) had occurred not on Russian initiative, but when Ottoman Sultan Selim II tried to squeeze the Russians out of the lower Volga by sending a military expedition to Astrakhan in 1569. The Turkish expedition ended in disaster for the Ottoman army, which could not take Astrakhan and almost completely perished in the steppes, while the Ottoman fleet was wrecked in the Sea of Azov. The peace treaty between the two sides cemented Russia’s conquests of the Volga. The Ottoman Empire, through the vassal, the Crimean Khanate, continued its expansion attempts against Russia, but to no avail. The next round came about a hundred years later when the Russian army under Peter I organised Crimean campaigns in 1687 and 1689 and campaigns to take the Asov area in 1695. In the light of Russia’s preparations for the war with Sweden, the Russian government signed the Treaty of Constantinople with the Ottoman Empire in 1700, under which Peter the Great secured the possession of the Azov region. Before Peter expired in 1721, he expanded and consolidated Russia into a much larger empire (which became a major European power) through several successful wars. He also laid the groundwork for the Imperial Russian Navy after capturing ports at Azov and the Baltic Sea.
By the 18th century, Russian trade routes (north to south) went mainly along the river Volga that connected Northern Europe and North-western Russia with the Caspian Sea and Persia. This was the route that Russians used to trade with Muslim countries on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, sometimes penetrating as far as Baghdad. The powerful Volga Bulgars traded through the Volga River with the Vikings of Russia and Scandinavia (Swedes, Danes, Norwegians) and with the southern Byzantine Empire. Furthermore, Volga Bulgaria, traded with Russians and the fur-selling Ugrians. Chess, for instance, was introduced to Russia via the Caspian-Volga trade routes from Persia and Arabic lands.
Russia entered into another war with the Ottoman Empire in 1736, prompted by raids on Ukraine by Crimean Tatars and the military campaign of the Crimean Khan in the Caucasus. In 1783, Russia annexed the Crimean Khanate. It took another hundred years (until in the second half of the 19th century) before Russia conquered Central Asia that became Russian Turkestan and later Soviet Central Asia. But by that time, the “Great Game” had already started that blocked Russian progress towards the South. The “Great Game” was actually a British foreign policy strategy to stop Russian progress towards the South to secure their prized colonial holdings in the subcontinent, which they considered the “Jewel of the Crown” and whose riches made the small British island into a world power. Britain feared that Russia planned to invade India and that this was the goal of Russia’s expansion in Central Asia, while Russia feared the expansion of British interests in Central Asia. As a result, there was a deep atmosphere of distrust and the talk of war between the two major European empires. Afghanistan was designed as a buffer between Russia and British-India. The four British-Afghan wars (the first of which ended in a disaster for the British) were thus fought to establish British over-lordship over Afghan lands without taking the trouble to physically colonize them. The end of British rule in the subcontinent in 1947, the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the armed western presence in Afghanistan has opened a new chapter for the establishment of north-south trade routes in the 21st century.
To be continued