by Sergei Abashin, European University at St. Petersburg

“There Is, After All, Something Erotic About What Is Happening on the Borders of Our Empire:” an Essay[i]

Some expressions, once uttered or written in the past, continue to live and be used outside the context in which they were uttered or written. Vivid formulations are remembered, replicated, turned into winged phrases, aphorisms, symbols. They are reinterpreted and used as proof of some ideas, and at the same time these formulations themselves change: they are cut or supplemented, retold in their own words, and sometimes even reinvented, leaving almost nothing from the original source. In what follows, I will talk about a phrase that has recently become an eloquent expression: it has entered the language of experts, journalists, and historians, and it can be quickly googled in numerous references to various blogs, journalistic essays, and academic papers. It is time to restore the context in which this phrase appeared and to correct the distortions that have arisen in it.


The phrase in question, in today's media space, looks like this:

“A message came today that General Chernyaev has taken Tashkent. No one knows why or why not. There is something erotic after all in what is happening on the borders of our empire,” wrote Alexander Polovtsov, Secretary of State of the Russian Empire and an actual Privy Councillor.

I first heard these words in the mid-2000s. Its pithiness, its aphoristic force and, of course, the mention of “eroticism” made the phrase particularly piquant and memorable. Then, sometimes in a shortened version, it came to my attention more and more often in blogs and journalistic texts devoted to the history of imperial conquests in Central Asia. Finally, in the last two or three years, I have seen this quote posted by pundits, with some pithy hints, either about the machismo of Russian politics or about the inevitable Russian domination of the former imperial borders. The quote has finally turned into a winged expression, the somewhat vague meaning of which is most often interpreted as admiration and delight at the victories of Russian weapons.

The quotation refers to an event that took place in mid-June 1865 in Central Asia[ii]. After the end of the Crimean War, a decision was made in St Petersburg to "turn to Asia" and resume an active offensive policy on the southern and eastern borders of the empire. In the spring of 1865 the two thousandth Russian military detachment headed by General Mikhail Grigorievich Chernyaev approached Tashkent. On the 15th of June (27th according to the Gregorian calendar) the assault began and in two days the city was captured. Success, despite the significant numerical superiority of the enemy in manpower, was achieved quickly and with few losses. Chernyaev wrote to Alexander II: "With the conquest of Tashkent we have acquired a position in Central Asia, commensurate with the benefits of the Empire and the power of the Russian people". In response, the emperor awarded him a golden sabre with diamonds. The Russian society, having learnt about this victory, rejoiced.

Let me return to the quote attributed to Polovtsov. It makes an ambivalent impression. Indeed, what is its author's attitude to the news of Chernyaev's military success? On the one hand, "no one knows why and for what reason" Tashkent was captured, and here one can hear criticism of the rashness of the general's actions. On the other hand, “there is still something erotic in what is happening on the borders of our empire,” and this in modern Russian can be read as something arousing, which has rather a connotation of admiration for the victories of the Russian Empire.[iii] The word “erotic” adorns these discourses, spicing them up and attracting attention (see fig. 1). But what did the author of such a controversial statement mean?

Polovtsov or Valuev?

At first, the question of authorship arises. Alexander Alexandrovich Polovtsov (Polovtsev, 1832-1909) was a well-known and important figure in the Russian Empire. However, the peak of his career was in the 1880s, during the reign of Alexander III, and in 1865, under Alexander II, he was only beginning his political ascent. Having made a study of his published diaries, it is easy to see that Polovtsov was not at all interested in the conquest of Central Asia and the quoted phrase does not appear in the records for 1865.[iv]

The true author was Pyotr Aleksandrovich Valuyev (1814-1890), who served as Minister of the Interior from 1861 to 1868. In 1961, Valuyev's diaries of the 1860s were published under the editorship of Soviet historian P.A. Zayonchkovsky. In the entry dated 20 July (1 August according to the Gregorian calendar) 1865 we find the phrase in question.[v] It looks like this:

“Tashkent has been taken by General Chernyaev. Nobody knows why and for what purpose. In the meantime, a telegraph has been received from General Kryzhanovsky, on the basis of Chernyaev's insistence, demanding that all Bukhara caravans, goods, etc. be arrested. The Finance and Military Ministries are perplexed. There is something erotic in everything that we do on the remote periphery of the empire. Amur, Ussura, now Tashkent.”

This quote is a bit different from the one that is floating around the pages of blogs and popular texts. In addition to stylistic changes, three whole sentences - the third, fourth and sixth - describing specific historical details have been dropped from the latter. This transformation not only enhances the aphoristic nature of the quotation, but also expands the possibilities of manipulating it.

Before turning to the content of the diary entry, let me remind the reader about the figure of Valuyev himself. He was a rising star under Nicholas I and a prominent figure in the Russian elite under Alexander II. It is believed that Pushkin used him to paint the portrait of Grinev in The Captain's Daughter, and that Leo Tolstoy used him as a model for Karenin in Anna Karenina. After becoming Minister of the Interior, Valuyev was engaged in the implementation of peasant and zemstvo reforms after the abolition of serfdom. He was in favour of tightening censorship and advocated active Russification of Ukrainians and Belarusians. He gained fame as a skilful bureaucrat, phrase-maker and moderate politician. One of Valuyev's main political ideas during the period when he headed the Ministry of Internal Affairs was to reorganise the system of administration. In 1861, he submitted a note to Alexander II, in which he proposed increasing the importance of the Committee of Ministers and strengthening the role of its chairman. Valuyev was concerned about the lack of a unified strategic policy in the empire, when each minister or governor-general pursued his own political interests while using his personal connections with the imperial court. The tsar rejected Valuyev's proposals, who nevertheless continued his criticism of the uncoordinated and sometimes chaotic actions of the government and officials.

Tashkent and Bukhara merchants

Let us return to the winged phrase and try to reconstruct the context in which it was formulated. The words of the second sentence: “No one knows why or for what purpose” - reflect the heated nature of the debate that developed in the early 1860s over the Russian Empire's policy in Central Asia.[vi] Top officials disagreed about the purpose of a military advance into the region. Some considered such a conquest necessary, while others were against it, citing high costs and possible complications in international affairs. The Minister of War, Dmitri Alekseevich Milyutin, secured the government's acceptance and Alexander II's approval of the wording of the decision, although not welcoming military action, but not excluding it if it was “justified by necessity.”[vii] Chernyaev's capture of Tashkent formally violated St Petersburg’s promise not to conduct new seizures, but was in keeping with this general mood of offensive defence.

It is worth paying attention to the third and fourth sentences in Valuev’s original diary entry, which are usually omitted. They speak not so much about the capture of Tashkent as about further events and actions of Chernyaev, who immediately, before the guns cooled down, went to aggravate relations with the Bukhara Emirate.[viii] Chernyaev received a letter from Bukhara demanding that he withdraw his troops from Tashkent and begin negotiations on the border. In response, in late June he ordered the detention of all Bukhara merchants in in the province of Turkestan under his authority, and the same was done in July in the Orenburg governor-general's office, with the result that all trade between the two states was paralysed. Russian merchants complained about the “rashness and recklessness” of the step taken by Chernyaev, Gorchakov called this decision a “wild measure.”[ix]

In this context, Valuev's entire discourse reads not as admiration and delight, but as criticism. And the subject of his criticism was, in addition to Chernyaev's amateurishness, the contradictory, uncoordinated and inconsistent policy of St. Petersburg. Valuyev saw the causes of this problem as laying, on the one hand, in the excessive independence of local officials, on the other - in the inconsistency of the actions of ministers in St. Petersburg, in particular in the harmful, as Valuyev himself put it, actions of the Minister of War Milyutin, who carried out "extreme" political decisions.[x]

Amur and Ussuri

The mentioning of Amur and Ussuri together with Tashkent, made by Valuyev in the final sentence of his diary entry, complements and strengthens the critical pathos: its focus is no longer limited to the personal qualities of individual politicians, but becomes broader. Here we have in mind the story of the empire's expansion in the Far East, which began long before Valuyev's appointment as Minister of the Interior.[xi] The Committee of Ministers decided to explore the mouth of the Amur River and find out whether it could become a navigable route from Siberia to the Far East with access further to sea routes. In order not to aggravate relations with Qing China, the decision was formulated very carefully. The idea was to find a convenient place away from the mouth of the Amur River and to establish a permanent settlement there under the management of the Russian-American Company, not directly of the state. Captain-Lieutenant Gennady Ivanovich Nevelsky with the crew of the ship “Baikal” successfully conducted research and found a passage from the Amur to the sea, but laid in 1850 not one, but two settlements. Moreover, he located the second, Nikolaevsky post, right at the mouth of the river, and the Russian flag was raised here, thus symbolising how this territory now belonged to the Russian Empire. Such unauthorised actions on Nevelsky’s part caused a storm of indignation in St. Petersburg, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Finance and the Minister of War proposed to cancel the unauthorised actions and punish the offender. The Minister of the Sea, who was Nevelsky’s superior, and the East Siberian Governor-General Nikolai Nikolaevich Muravyov spoke out in his favour, Tsar Nicholas I sided with them and then allegedly uttered his famous phrase: “Where once the Russian flag is raised, it should not come down.”

During the Crimean War Muravyov, feeling the support of the monarch, began to vigorously raft ships down the Amur, establish new posts and move Russian colonists to settle there. The expansion of the Russian presence in the region caused a diplomatic conflict with the Qing Empire, with Beijing demanding that border negotiations be initiated directly with St Petersburg. In response, Russian officials used an arsenal of exhortations and threats, including even the possibility of closing Russian trade with China. The conflict was resolved in 1858 with the Treaty of Aigun, which transferred the entire left bank of the Amur River to the full possession of the Russian Empire. Muravyov, who became “Count Amursky,” continued his policy of seizing the Ussuri region on the right side of the Amur, which became Russian by the Treaty of Peking in 1860.

The two examples of conquest, in the Far East and Central Asia, were separated by both time and space. The Russian agencies and actors operating in these cases were different, the parties opposing Russia did not resemble each other, and military force was not used against them to the same extent. Nevertheless, Valuyev linked the two regions and the two histories and saw in them a common logic in the development of events. In both examples, the Minister of the Interior found a lack of a unified and systematic policy, a failure to observe already accepted rules, and the substitution of the general interests of the state for the decisions of individuals or institutions.

Erotic or perhaps erratic?

Valuyev's entire discourse on “Amur, Ussuri, now Tashkent” is a criticism of Russian policy, not an endorsement of it, as academic historians have already pointed out.[xii] However, the question remains, what did the words "something erotic" in the penultimate sentence mean then? Today, this expression is often understood as “something arousing” and carries a positive rather than negative connotation. Moreover, if the quotation is shortened and the third, fourth and sixth sentences are excluded from it, the critical meaning is reduced and the aphorism is even more often seen as admiration. How can we understand this apparent contradiction in the logic of the statement? What did Valuev mean when he spoke of the “erotic”?

About a dozen years ago, in private conversations, I suggested that “erotic” was here a misreading of the word “erratic.” In French, whence the latter may have been borrowed, the word erratic meant “irregular, disorderly, precarious, flighty, rambling”.[xiii] The meaning of Valuev's phrase would then be as follows: “There is something disorderly/shaky in everything we have going on in the remote periphery of the empire.” With this meaning, the sentence fits perfectly into the general framework of a statement that criticises the way in which the conquest of Central Asia (as well as “Amur, Ussuri”) is being carried out. The term “disorderly” conveys a restrained critical, disapproving tone, not admiration and delight, which are completely superfluous in such a sentence. I made this suggestion to Alexander Morrison, who reported it in his book on the Russian conquest of Central Asia, but inaccurately attributed this hypothesis to the late historian A.V. Remnyov, with whom I discussed it.[xiv]

The assumption, however, remained an assumption. Noticing the growing popularity of the aphorism, I decided to finally find out what the original entry looked like. To do this, I had to turn to Valuev's authentic diaries, which are kept in the State Archive of the Russian Federation[xv] . On the photo you can see the phrase in its original form:

“Tashkent has been taken by General Chernyaev. Nobody knows why and for what purpose. In the meantime, a telegraph has been received from General Kryzhanovsky, on the basis of Chernyaev's insistence, demanding that all Bukhara caravans, goods, etc., be arrested. The Finance and Military Ministries are perplexed. There is something erratic in everything that we do on the remote periphery of the empire. Amur, Ussuri, now Tashkent.”

The word that appears as “erotic” in the edition of Valuev's diaries published in 1961 is actually written with two “r's“ and is clearly read as “erratic.” The substitution of one word for another arose, therefore, as a result of a misreading during the preparation of the edition. The problem of the contradiction in the phrase written by Valuyev can be considered finally solved.


Morrison, Alexander. 2020. The Russian Conquest of Central Asia: A Study in Imperial Expansion, 1814-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, David. 2006. Russian Foreign Policy: 1815-1917. In Cambridge History of Russia. Vol. II, ed. Dominic Lieven. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press: 554-574.

Valuev, Pyotr Alexandrovich. 1919. Diary 1877-1884. Petrograd: Byloe.

Memories. 2003. Memoirs of Field Marshal General Count Dmitry Alekseevich Milyutin. 1863-1864. Moscow: ROSSPAN.

Diary. 1891. Diary of Count Pyotr Alexandrovich Valuyev, 1847-1860. Russkaya Starina 9: 547-562.

Diary. 1961. Diary of P.A. Valuyev Minister of the Interior: In 2 vols. Volume I-II. Moscow: Publishing House of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

Dubrovsky, Alexander. 25.04.2022. The jokes are over, time to activate the West's self-preservation instinct. Last accessed 17 January 2024.

Zayonchkovsky, Pyotr Andreyevich. 1966. A.A. Polovtsov. Biographical sketch. Polovtsov A.A. Diary of the State Secretary: In 2 vols. Volume I. Moscow: Nauka: 7-20.

Zayonchkovsky, Peter Andreyevich. 2008. Towards the Conquest of Central Asia. Pyotr Andreyevich Zayonchkovsky. Collection of articles and memoirs for the centenary of the historian. Moscow: ROSSPAN: 36-95.

Kalishevsky, Mikhail. 23.06.2010. General Chernyaev's initiative. To the 145th Anniversary of the "Taking of Tashkent". Last accessed 23 February 2024.

Polovtsov, Alexander Alexandrovich. 2022. Diary. 1859-1882: In 2 vols. Vol. 1. Moscow: Fund "Svyazja Epokhakh".

Remnyov, Anatoly Viktorovich. 2004. Russia of the Far East. Imperial geography of power of XIX - early XX centuries. Omsk: Omsk State University Publishing House.

Simonyan, Margarita. 09.02.2020. @M_Simonyan. Last accessed 17 January 2024.

Terentyev, Mikhail Afrikanovich. 1906. History of the Conquest of Central Asia. Volume 1. St. Petersburg: Tipografiya V.V. Komarov.

[i] This is an abridged version of an article which will be published in Russian the Journal of Central Asian History Vol. 3 No 1 (2024).

[ii] M.A. Terentyev, History of the Conquest of Central Asia. Vol. 1 (St. Petersburg: Tipografiya V.V. Komarov, 1906): 260-321.

[iii] See, for example: M. Kalishevsky, "General Chernyaev's Initiative. To the 145th anniversary of the "Taking of Tashkent", 23.06.2010. Last accessed 23 February 2024; M. Simonyan, 09.02.2020, 09.02.2020. @M_Simonyan. Last accessed 17 January 2024; A. Dubrovsky, "The jokes are over, time to activate the West's self-preservation instinct", 25.04.2022. Last accessed 17 January 2024.

[iv] A.A. Polovtsov, Diary. 1859-1882: In 2 vols. Vol. 1 (Moscow: Fund "Svyazniye Epokhakh", 2022).

[v] Diary of P.A. Valuyev Minister of Internal Affairs: In 2 vols. Vol. II (Moscow: Publishing House of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1961): 60-61.

[vi] P.A. Zayonchkovsky, "To the Question of the Conquest of Central Asia" in Peter Andreyevich Zayonchkovsky. Collection of articles and memoirs for the centenary of the historian (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2008): 36-95.

[vii] Memoirs of Field Marshal General Count Dmitry Alekseevich Milyutin. 1863-1864 [hereinafter - Vospominaniya Milyutin] (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2003): 520.

[viii] Terentieff. History of the Conquest: 322-324.

[ix] Terentyev, History of the Conquest: 323.

[x] Ibid.: 322 (Note 18).

[xi] P. Schumacher, "Towards a History of the Acquisition of the Amur River. Relations with China from 1848 to 1860." Russian Archive 9 (1878): 257-342; A.V. Remnyov, Russia of the Far East. Imperial Geography of Power of the XIX - Early XX Centuries (Omsk: Omsk State University Publishing House, 2004): 175-183.

[xii] Morrison, Alexander. 2020. The Russian Conquest of Central Asia: A Study in Imperial Expansion, 1814-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. P. 20b 216; D. Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, "Russian Foreign Policy. 1815-1917" in Cambridge History of Russia. Vol. II. Ed. D. Lieven (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2006): 563-564.

[xiii] Makarov, Complete French-Russian Dictionary: 405; Littré, Dictionnaire: 1481.

[xiv] Morrison, The Russian Conquest: 216 (Note 3).

[xv] State Archive of the Russian Federation. Ф. 728. Op. 1. D. 2587 (Diary of P.A. Valuev). Book IV. L. 58. I am grateful to Ivan Barantsev for his help in finding this text.