Basmachi Rebellion 1916-1931

[ 1916 - 1931 ]

Because the Turkmen generally were indifferent to the advent of Soviet rule in 1917, little revolutionary activity occurred in the region in the years that followed. However, the years immediately preceding the revolution had been marked by sporadic Turkmen uprisings against Russian rule, most prominently the anti-tsarist revolt of 1916 that swept through the whole of Turkestan. Their armed resistance to Soviet rule was part of the larger Basmachi Rebellion throughout Central Asia from the 1920s into the early 1930s. Although Soviet sources describe this struggle as a minor chapter in the republic's history, it is clear that opposition was fierce and resulted in the death of large numbers of Turkmen.


Turkmens resented losing their grazing land and in 1916 joined a Muslim uprising throughout Russia's Central Asian territory.

After the February Revolution of 1917, several political forces competed for power in Turkmenia. The Turkmens were divided between Islamic traditionalists and the more progressive nationalist intelligentsia. At this time, both Bolshevik and White armies sought the loyalty of Turkmenia's Russian population. A provisional government, established by Turkmen nationalists with support of the White forces and limited British assistance, was able to maintain itself against the Bolsheviks until mid-1919. Thereafter, Turkmen resistance against the Bolsheviks was part of the general Basmachi Rebellion, which reemerged sporadically until 1931. By 1920, however, the Red Army controlled the territory, and in 1924 the Turkmen Republic was established in accordance with the national delimitation process in Central Asia...

In the first years of their rule, Soviet authorities continued the colonization policies of the tsarist regime. The Soviet government mitigated its policy, however, after the Basmachi Rebellion, a popular Turkic nationalist movement that swept former Turkestan from 1918 to 1924 and recurred periodically until 1931. In the mid-1920s, the Soviet government permitted traditional Kirgiz culture to flourish. It also promoted the creation of native leadership and slowed the influx of Slavs into the region. In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, these policies were replaced by Stalin's program of forced denomadization and collectivization and replacement of the Kirgiz intelligentsia and leadership with an ideologically acceptable Stalinist elite. Some Kirgiz protested by slaughtering their herds or driving them into China. Nevertheless, by 1933 about 67 percent of the nomads were collectivized. The Kirgiz intelligentsia was decimated. Many Kirgiz members of the CPSU in the republic were purged. Despite the turmoil, the Kirgiz subsequently achieved some industrialization, a higher standard of living, and substantial achievements in education...

In spite of tsarist toleration of the Muslim religion and customs, Russian conquest of Turkestan had an immediate impact on some of the indigenous culture and society. Early in the twentieth century, economic development came to Turkestan, new towns sprang up, cotton grew where once nomads grazed their herds, and railroads linked Turkestan with markets in Russia. The nomadic Kirgiz, Kazakhs, and Turkmens were especially resentful of the evolving changes. In 1916, when the Russian government ended its exemption of Muslims from military service, much of Russian Central Asia rose in a general revolt against Russian rule.

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks established Soviet power in the city of Tashkent. In April 1918, they proclaimed the Turkestan Autonomous Republic. The great mass of the Muslim population, however, took no part in these events. Only after the Bolsheviks attacked the Muslim religion, intervened directly in native society and culture, and engaged in armed seizure of food did the indigenous population offer fierce resistance in a national and holy war against the Soviet regime, known as the Basmachi Rebellion (see Glossary).

The autonomous soviet republics of Khorzem (formerly Khiva) and Bukhara were established in 1920 and incorporated into the Soviet Union. In 1924 and 1925, the entire Soviet Central Asian territory was reorganized by an act known as the national delimitation process in Central Asia. The Turkestan Autonomous Republic was abolished and divided along ethnic and linguistic lines into the Uzbek and Turkmen union republics, the Tadzhik Autonomous Republic within the Uzbek Republic, and the Kirgiz Autonomous Republic and the Karakalpak Autonomous Oblast within the Russian Republic. At the same time, the Kazakh Autonomous Republic within the Russian Republic was also established. The Tadzhik Autonomous Republic became a union republic in 1929, and the Kirgiz Autonomous Republic became a union republic in 1936. The Karakalpak Autonomous Oblast became an autonomous republic in 1932 and was transferred to the Uzbek Republic in 1936. The same year, the Kazakh Autonomous Republic was transformed into a union republic.


An indigenous resistance movement proved the last barrier to assimilation of Central Asia into the Soviet Union. In the 1920s, more than 20,000 people fought Soviet rule in Central Asia. The Russians applied a derogatory term, Basmachi (which originally meant brigand), to the groups. Although the resistance did not apply that term to itself, it nonetheless entered common usage. The several Basmachi groups had conflicting agendas and seldom coordinated their actions. After arising in the Fergana Valley, the movement became a rallying ground for opponents of Russian or Bolshevik rule from all parts of the region. Peasant unrest already existed in the area because of wartime hardships and the demands of the amir and the soviets. The Red Army's harsh treatment of local inhabitants in 1921 drove more people into the resistance camp. However, the Basmachi movement became more divided and more conservative as it gained numerically. It achieved some unity under the leadership of Enver Pasha, a Turkish adventurer with ambitions to lead the new secular government of Turkey, but Enver was killed in battle in early 1922.

Except for remote pockets of resistance, guerrilla fighting in Tajikistan ended by 1925. The defeat of the Basmachis caused as many as 200,000 people, including noncombatants, to flee eastern Bukhoro in the first half of the 1920s. A few thousand subsequently returned over the next several years.

The communists used a combination of military force and conciliation to defeat the Basmachis. The military approach ultimately favored the communist side, which was much better armed. The Red Army forces included Tatars and Central Asians, who enabled the invading force to appear at least partly indigenous. Conciliatory measures (grants of food, tax relief, the promise of land reform, the reversal of anti-Islamic policies launched during the Civil War, and the promise of an end to agricultural controls) prompted some Basmachis to reconcile themselves to the new order.


Russian BASMACHESTVO, insurrection against Soviet rule in Central Asia, begun in 1917 and largely suppressed by 1926. An amalgam of Muslim traditionalists and common bandits, the Basmachi were soon widespread over most of Turkistan, much of which was under regimes independent of but allied to Soviet Russia.

In the early 1920s the revolt threatened the Soviet government with the permanent loss of much of Turkistan. But the Bolsheviks enjoyed military superiority, greater discipline, and a singleness of purpose. The Basmachi, on the other hand, were nearly as inclined to attack each other as to fight their common foe. By conciliating nationalist sentiment in Central Asia, the Soviet government defused the revolt and paved the way for successful incorporation of the area into the Soviet Union.

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