by Ulfat Abdurasulov, Vienna, ÖAW

In 1911, just a few months after his accession to the throne, Asfandiyār Khān, the ruler of Khiva, set off to Saint Petersburg, where he was to meet with the Emperor of Russia, Nicholas II. The Khanate of Khiva was a relatively small Islamic principality in the lower reaches of Amu-Darya, which since the Russian takeover in 1873 was regarded as a “semi-subjugated state,” and generally known in subsequent scholarship as a protectorate of the Russian Empire. It was thus little surprise that soon after his accession in 1910, Asfandiyār Khān deemed it politic to pay a ceremonial visit to the Russian Emperor in his new status.  It was a long and arduous trip, and one on which he was accompanied by an extensive retinue and a significant number of gifts. Upon eventually arriving in the imperial metropole, Asfandiyār Khān learned to his surprise that ‘Ālīm Khān, the ruler of the neighbouring principality of Bukhara, also a Russian protectorate, was similarly at the imperial capital.

Relations between two Muslim rulers seem to have been distinctly frosty, as evidenced by the fact that neither of them while in St Petersburg initially had any intention of seeing, or even acknowledging, the other.  The head of the Russian General Staff apparently tried to remedy this state of affairs, communicating to Asfandiyār Khān “His Imperial Majesty the Russian Emperor’s desire” to arrange a meeting between the two Muslim sovereigns. Ḥasan Murād Laffasī, who was at the time serving at the Khivan court as scribe and royal chronicler, provides a rather colourful vignette about the diplomatically fraught meeting that subsequently followed.

Asfandiyār Khān, who could hardly refuse the wish of the Russian sovereign, proceeded to arrange the meeting. To this end, so the story goes, he summoned one of his courtiers, Ḥusayn Muḥammad Bāy Divānbegī, and instructed him to call on the Emir of Bukhara to convey his intentions.

The Khivan ruler furthermore provided Divānbegī with a dizzying array of directives about how to act during the meeting with the Bukharan Emir. Divānbegī was instructed, for instance, to enter the Emir’s premises without waiting to ask permission, and to refrain from kissing the Bukharan sovereign’s hand. In the event that he be asked to sit down, Divānbegī was instructed to seat himself on a chair rather than on the floor; when addressing to the Emir he was to talk in an authoritative manner. Under no circumstances was he to accept gifts from the Bukharan side or to remain there for longer than half an hour. “His [Emir’s] possession may be larger than mine, but his fortune isn’t (ānīng yurtī ūlūgh būlghānī birlān duvlatī ulūgh irmās),” concluded Asfandiyār Khān.

 “Qulluq, taqsīr,” (Of course, my Lord!), were the only words that the statesman said by way of response, before formally taking his leave. A dexterous courtier and skillful diplomat, who had long thrived in the courtly world, Ḥusayn Muḥammad Bāy Divānbegī seemed to understand well the task with which he had been appointed. As it transpired, however, he evidently had his own opinions about how to handle this rather unusual mission.

The next day he arrived at the Bukharan mission. From the very first, however, his conduct barely accorded with the Khivan Khan’s instructions. Rather than brusquely turning up unannounced, he made a courteous entrance to the Bukharan Emir’s chamber. When he was offered a chair, he opted instead to stay afoot, “as a token of his deep respect”. And when asked about the purpose of his visit, he humbly conveyed the Russian sovereign’s request about scheduling the meeting between the two Muslim sovereigns. Emir ‘Ālīm Khānseemed content with the Khivan courtier’s decorum, for he rewarded him with a precious gilded robe with a sash. He furthermore asked Divānbegī to inform his patron that he would pay him a visit at the earliest convenience. Later on, when asked by the Khivan Khan about result of his mission, Ḥusayn Muḥammad Bāy gave a rather evasive reply: “Would that Bukharan Tajik [= the Emir of Bukhara] dare to turn down His Majesty’s [= Asfandiyār Khān’s] proposal?”

As promised, the Emir arrived at the designated time in a room in Asfandiyār’s chambers designed for holding audiences. And it was there where the meeting between the two sovereigns took place. Yet, the proceedings of the meeting were even more bizarre than the preceding negotiations. As Laffasī himself recounted, the rulers of Khiva and Bukhara “did not utter a single word, drank a cup of tea, and walked away, each on his own business.”

Whether or not the meeting unfolded precisely as Laffasī describes, the account nevertheless reminds me of an acclaimed story by the Russian-Ukrainian novelist Nikolai Gogol. The story in question depicts life in the bucolic town of Mirgorod in 19th-century Russia, where two “distinguished gentlemen” and “venerable friends,” all of a sudden find themselves arguing over a rather minor matter. The argument in question starts over an old Turkish rifle belonging to one of protagonists, Ivan Ivanovich, which his friend Ivan Nikiforovich wants to buy and for which he offers a brown pig. The former, however, is not only affronted by such a proposal, but in turn insults the latter by calling him a goose. The situation escalates from there, and soon this initially trifling matter has turned into a full-fledged feud, with the two individuals each filing lawsuits against each other. By the end of the story, the judge, the governor, the chief of police and the other residents of the town have all been drawn into the conflict.

By the time that the events recounted in Laffasī’s anecdote took place, nearly four decades had passed since Russian troops had marched through Khiva and subjugated Bukhara, whereupon the rulers of these Islamic principalities, in the wake of military defeat, were respectively both obliged to sign up rather humiliating peace treaties. After formally admitting themselves to be “the humble servants of His Majesty the Russian Emperor”, both rulers were allowed to retain their thrones, albeit in rather truncated fashion – both in terms of the territory of their realms and the scope of the sovereignty that they enjoyed. With the passage of decades, the sovereignty of these two protectorates gradually eroded even further. The accessions to authority by both Sayyid Asfandiyār and Sayyid ‘Alīm Khān in 1910 were enabled by the assistance of the Russian colonial authorities in Turkestan. Both of the rulers deemed it a high honour to travel to the imperial metropole for an audience with the Russian Tsar, from whose hands they kept readily accepting imperial awards and honorary military ranks. In the meantime, life in the Khanates themselves was … shall we say, not quite so lustrous. Rather than trying to improve the quality of life of their respective subject populations, however, both individuals were preoccupied above all with their own personal dignity. As we see from Laffasī’s story, (illusive) dignity was all-important to both of them.

Let us return to Gogol’s aforementioned story. At the end of the tale, the narrator recounts that after some considerable passage of time he returned to Mirgorod, where he would find the two protagonists – by then decrepit old men – in an ongoing state of near-impotent conflict. In much the same way, the Central Asian rulers in Laffasī’s anecdote come across as crabbed and resentful monomaniacs, unheeding of everything other than their own personal standing and status. Instead of turning their ambitions and resources to something more constructive, the only thing that seemed to matter was the question of who got the first word in edgewise.

It is a boring world, gentlemen!”, says Gogol’ at the end of his novel. Asfandiyār Khān and ‘Ālīm Khān would perhaps have agreed. There seems to have been little in the world that interested them – other than themselves.