The Muslim East

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The term Central Asia encompasses the five former Soviet and now independent republics of Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang (also known as Eastern Turkestan), and Afghanistan. Beginning with the acceptance of Russian overlordship by the khan of the lesser Kazakh horde in 1730, Russian subjugation of most of Central Asia was complete by 1876, with the khanate of Khiva and the Emirate of Bukhara surviving as Russian protectorates. The vast stretches of steppe, mountains and desert were administered as two Governor-Generalships, one covering most of the Kazakh and Kirghiz territories to the north and east of the Aral Sea, and the other, the Governorship of Turkestan, containing lands to the south. Among the most significant effects of Russian rule prior to the 1917 Revolution were extensive colonization in the Kazakh steppe by ethnic Slavs, and the introduction of cotton as a major cash crop in the Fergana Valley of Turkestan. Small indigenous elites, influenced by developments in the Ottoman empire as well as among fellow Turkic-speaking Tatars and Azerbaijanis within the Russian Empire, initiated reformist movements around the ideals of pan-Islam and pan-Turkism. Jadidism, a secular movement advocating educational and social reform, also emerged among the more radically inclined intelligentsia.

World War I not only disrupted commercial relations with the rest of the empire leading to dire food shortages in much of Turkestan, but also precipitated a major rebellion among Kazakhs who rose in 1916 against the abolition of their exemption from military service. With the overthrow of tsarism, political power in Central Asia briefly passed into the hands of religious conservatives, but after the October Revolution the Tashkent Soviet, dominated by Russian railroad workers and rank-and-file soldiers, claimed authority in the region. The Soviet government for its part appealed to “Muslims of Russia and the East” to throw in their lot with the revolution, promising them the inviolability of their faith and customs and national self-determination. Ex-Jadidist reformers-turned-Bolsheviks sought and for a time won support from the party’s Central Committee as the authentic voice of the indigenous toiling masses. However, their intention to set up a unified state of all Turkic peoples was thwarted by Moscow which instead established an autonomous Turkestan republic within the RSFSR and, after their conquest in 1920, two loosely affiliated “people’s republics” — Bukhara and Khorezm. In September 1920, a Congress of the Toiling Peoples of the East, which met in Baku and was attended by such leading Bolshevik and Comintern officials as Grigorii Zinoviev and Karl Radek (as well as the American Communist John Reed), endorsed the call among Muslim delegates for a jihad against the European colonialist and imperialist powers.

Pacification of Soviet Central Asia was an extended affair. Ranged against Soviet power and the presence of Russians in Central Asia were numerous armed bands that were known collectively as Basmachi (“bandits”). The Red Army’s efforts to subdue the Basmachi were complicated in November 1921 by the defection of Enver Pasha, an erstwhile Young Turk who proclaimed himself commander-in-chief of all the armed forces of Islam. In March 1922, he was joined by the Bukhara Commissar of War, Ali Riza. The insurgents succeeded in capturing Dushanbe, the chief city in eastern Bukhara, but in July 1922 were thrown back by the Red Army. The death of Enver himself during a battle with a Red Army patrol in August effectively marked the end of civil war in Central Asia, although Basmachi guerrilla activity continued in the mountainous and desert regions for many years to come.

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