In the second half of the 19th century, northern Turkmens were the main military and political power in the Khanate of Khiva. According to Paul R. Spickard, “Prior to the Russian conquest, the Turkmen were known and feared for their involvement in the Central Asian slave trade.”
Russian forces began occupying Turkmen territory late in the 19th century. From their Caspian Sea base at Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashy), the Russians eventually overcame the Uzbek khanates. In 1879, the Russian forces were defeated by the Teke Turkmens during the first attempt to conquer the Ahal area of Turkmenistan. However, in 1881, the last significant resistance in Turkmen territory was crushed at the Battle of Geok Tepe, and shortly thereafter Turkmenistan was annexed, together with adjoining Uzbek territory, into the Russian Empire. In 1916, the Russian Empire’s participation in World War I resonated in Turkmenistan, as an anti-conscription revolt swept most of Russian Central Asia. Although the Russian Revolution of 1917 had little direct impact, in the 1920s Turkmen forces joined Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks in the so-called Basmachi Rebellion against the rule of the newly formed Soviet Union. In 1921 the tsarist province of Transcaspia was renamed Turkmen oblast, and in 1924, the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic was formed from it. By the late 1930s, Soviet reorganization of agriculture had destroyed what remained of the nomadic lifestyle in Turkmenistan, and Moscow controlled political life. The Ashgabat earthquake of 1948 killed over 110,000 people, amounting to two-thirds of the city’s population.
During the next half-century, Turkmenistan played its designated economic role within the Soviet Union and remained outside the course of major world events. Even the major liberalization movement that shook Russia in the late 1980s had little impact. However, in 1990, the Supreme Soviet of Turkmenistan declared sovereignty as a nationalist response to perceived exploitation by Moscow. Although Turkmenistan was ill-prepared for independence and then-communist leader Saparmurat Niyazov preferred to preserve the Soviet Union, in October 1991, the fragmentation of that entity forced him to call a national referendum that approved independence. On 26 December 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Niyazov continued as Turkmenistan’s chief of state, replacing communism with a unique brand of independent nationalism reinforced by a pervasive cult of personality. A 1994 referendum and legislation in 1999 abolished further requirements for the president to stand for re-election (although in 1992 he completely dominated the only presidential election in which he ran, as he was the only candidate and no one else was allowed to run for the office), making him effectively president for life. During his tenure, Niyazov conducted frequent purges of public officials and abolished organizations deemed threatening. Throughout the post-Soviet era, Turkmenistan has taken a neutral position on almost all international issues. Niyazov eschewed membership in regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and in the late 1990s he maintained relations with the Taliban and its chief opponent in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance. He offered limited support to the military campaign against the Taliban following the 11 September 2001 attacks. In 2002 an alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov led to a new wave of security restrictions, dismissals of government officials, and restrictions placed on the media. Niyazov accused exiled former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov of having planned the attack.