Mission to Turkestan, Being the Memoirs of Count K.K. Pahlen 1908-1909

Count Konstantin Konstantinovich Pahlen (1861-1923) was a Russian Imperial official who travelled through Central Asia in 1908-1909 for an investigation of the local administration. Born into an protestant aristocratic family from present-day Latvia, Pahlen was to become a provincial governor just like his father. In June of 1908, Emperor Nicholas II ordered the Governing Senate to organize an investigation of affairs in Turkestan, then a peripheral realm of Russian rule that had become rife with corruption. Count Pahlen was chosen to lead the mission, and he left for Tashkent with a staff of hand-picked young officials later that month. His memoirs of the time, which describe these travels through Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, and beyond, have been described as “the best single source concerning Turkestan in the pre-First World War period.”

In the Russian protectorate of Bukhara, Pahlen met with the Emir, Said Abdul Akhad Khan, at his palace, which was surrounded by a gate decorated with the skulls of his enemies. He recounts the tale of his retinue’s astounding encounter with the royal falconer:

Again, during the hour preceding the official banquet, when we were supposed to be resting in our rooms, some members of my suite had taken a stroll in the courtyard. There they met the Emir’s falconer, who, it appeared, had lived in Russia and was delighted to air his Russian. They were amazed at his contempt and positive hatred for the Emir, which he made no effort to disguise. ‘Look at this bird to which I am chained,’ he said, pointing to his falcon. ‘It is just like my master, unloving and selfish, and it gorges itself on flesh; I don’t know how many times I have been beaten on this wretched bird’s account, and if it should ail I’ll be thrown into prison, where a man dies like a beast. The Emir is a wicked fellow.’ The man was quite frank, and spoke out openly in the certainty that none of the natives present understood any Russian. (p. 69)

During a visit to Merv, Pahlen’s delegation were treated to a feast and the spectacle of horse races and wrestling matches. His Turkmen hosts insisted on presenting their falconry practice, but alas, Pahlen was to miss it:

I left in the evening, to the sorrow of the elders, who lamented the fact that not all of the members of their tribes had been notified in time. There were so many other things they wanted to show me, they said, particularly hunting with falcons, and a jiran (gazelle) hunt with their swift-footed greyhounds (a very graceful native breed), all of which had been planned in my honour. (p. 154)