Russian Civil War in Central Asia

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It’s October, 1920 and after crushing the forces of the Emir of Bukhara, the Bolsheviks declare the Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic – but the Emir has escaped and local rebels begin to rise again - it’s the Russian Civil War in Central Asia.

By the fall of 1920, the Russian Civil War had unleashed three years of ethnic and internal conflict in Central Asia, and there was no end in sight. In this episode we’ll catch up on the dramatic events of the former Russian imperial lands in Central Asia from the revolution right up to the end of 1920, 100 years ago. Events in the region are very messy, so we’ll concentrate on some of the most impactful ones.

When the Russian empire conquered much of Central Asia in the late 19th century, it divided the region in two: it annexed the Kazakh and Kyrgyz steppes, and called them Turkestan, which was ruled directly by a Russian governor-general. The Khiva and Bukhara emirates were ruled indirectly through local emirs, as so-called protectorates.

Russian control also meant demographic change. Settlers began to move into Turkestan along new railroads, which led to an influx of Russians into a region   had been largely populated by nomadic Muslim herdsmen of several ethnicities: Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, and Turkmen. By 1911, over 40% of the population of the Kazakh Steppes was Russian. (Baumann, 92). As the two worlds clashed, violence between Russian settlers and local nomadic peoples became commonplace.

This meant Russian authorities feared a Muslim uprising, so they adopted a policy of non-interference in Muslim affairs – but this policy collapsed during the Great War. During the war, the Imperial government exempted Central Asian Muslims from conscription, which increased tensions since the Russian settlers were not exempt. But by 1916 the Russian army had suffered heavy casualties and was facing a manpower crisis, so the imperial government began conscription. This led to a massive revolt that ended in catastrophe, as about 270,000 Central Asians were killed, and tens of thousands more died trying to escape to the neighbouring Chinese province of Xinjiang. It is estimated that the Kyrgyz people alone lost 40% of their population. (Sokol, 1) The revolt was followed by a deadly famine that decreased the cultivated land in Turkestan by 50% and the livestock by 75%, and killed thousands more people. (Khalid, 84)


So Central Asia had already been devastated by war and famine when the Russian Revolution and Civil War began in 1917. And for much of the civil war, the region would be mostly cut off from what was happening elsewhere, as Cossack forces loosely Allied with the Whites blocked the main route into Central Asia at Orenburg. This uncertain situation, coupled with the suffering of the population, led to a rebellion by the Basmachi movement.

The Basmachi, which literally means bandits, was a guerilla movement that grew out of the combined horror of the 1916 revolt and the subsequent famine. The movement began in the Ferghana Valley, but eventually spread to other areas as well. The Basmachi were local traditionalists: they wanted to protect their homeland and preserve their customary way of life from both the Russian settlers and Central Asian intellectuals who wanted social reforms.

The Basmachi rank and file was made up of nomads and peasants who had fled their villages, and the local leaders of the decentralized guerilla groups were usually former officials or military commanders. They preferred hit and run tactics, harassing isolated Russian units, and avoiding pitched battles. They mostly fought on horseback with whatever weapons they could get their hands on, usually swords and rifles left over from the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. (Baumann, 95) Like most guerilla movements they relied on an intimate knowledge of the terrain, mobility, and support, whether active or passive, of the local people. One Russian military observer wrote about the difficulties this caused: “Without anything distinguishing [the Basmachi] on the outside, clothed in the same way as the peasant population, they were all around our units, not hesitating to infiltrate, and unrecognizable and elusive, they devoted themselves to espionage that has no equal, whose network extends from the Afghan frontier to Tashkent.” (Baumann, 96).


So the chaos in Central Asia produced the Basmachi guerillas, who were trying to protect local ways. There was another unhappy group in Central Asia, but instead of preserving the old ways, they wanted to reform society along European lines – and this group were the Jadids.


The Jadids were one of several cultural and intellectual movements that wanted to recreate Central Asian society around the concept of a nation and reform society along a more European model. They believed that Islam had been corrupted by old elites and that education was the key to reforming their society. The felt their primary struggle was against local religious leaders, known as the ulama, and the conservative ruling class, rather than against Tsarist officials or Russian settlers. As reformers, they were also opposed to the traditionalist Basmachi.

The Jadids were mostly Uzbeks, whose language is part of the Turkic family. Before 1918, they looked towards the Ottoman Empire and, later the Young Turks for inspiration. They believed Uzbeks were the inheritors of a great Turkic cultural tradition. Abdurauf Fitrat, one of the most influential Jadids, created a historical narrative that tied Central Asian Turkism to an Uzbek identity, and claimed that the Uzbeks were the natural successors to the great Central Asian Timurid dynasty of the 15th century. Before the revolution, they used newspapers, schools, and theatre performances to gain support for their message. But their Turkic vision alienated some other ethnicities in the region, who identified with historic connections to Persian culture, rather than Turkic.

Once order broke down, the Jadids and other groups tried to take advantage of the absence of Russian power, and declared several short-lived autonomous states in Central Asia. At first it seemed their dreams were coming true, and Fitrat was ecstatic: “Autonomous Turkestan!...I do not believe there’s a greater, more sacred, more beloved word among the true sons of the mighty Temur, the indigenous Turks of Turkestan! If there be a force that can warm the blood of the Turks of Turkestan and heighten their faith, then it’s only this word: Autonomous Turkestan” (Khalid, 75)


So in addition to the localist Basmachi guerillas, the reformist Jadids were also trying their luck at reshaping Central Asia while it was cut off from the outside world during the Russian Civil War. But in the chaos, none of the fledgling states that had popped up could expect to remain in place for very long.


Now, by the end of 1917, the Jadids in Turkestan declared the region autonomous and created a provisional government in the city of Kokand. They allowed Russians and members of the local Jewish community to participate in the government, but this did not bring unity or peace to Turkestan. Instead, the Jadids’ old enemies, the religious ulama, created their own coalition, and the Russian settlers created the Tashkent Soviet, which excluded Muslims altogether. In February 1918, the Tashkent Soviet attacked Kokand and razed the city to the ground, killing 14,000 people and ending the Jadid government only 78 days after it was created. 

This region was more affected by the fighting between the Whites and Reds during the civil war, and the Alash Orda tried to gain support for their state first from the Reds, and later from the Whites – even though the White leadership was not interested in giving them autonomy. They actually contributed troops to the White army to fight the Bolsheviks, but were unable to stop the Red Army’s march into Kazakh areas. And even the Basmachi declared a new state in the Ferghana Valley, which, as you might guess by now, did not last long.

So much for the chaos in Turkestan – and things were not any clearer in the two protectorates either. The Emirates of Khiva and Bukhara were both ruled by local Emirs who had come to an accommodation with the Tsar. Now that Russian power was crumbling after the revolution, both had become independent but unstable. In 1917, Khiva suffered a military coup that ended in the death of the emir and the exile of their Jadids. The Bukharan Emir, on the other hand, promised reforms to calm the local Jadids, who were supported by the Kerensky Provisional Government in faraway Moscow. Soon after though, he reversed his position and attacked the Jadids. Dozens were arrested, a fatwa was issued against them, and many Bukharan Jadids fled to other parts of Central Asia.

In fact the Jadids in Bukhara were not only hard-pressed by the Emir, they also came under attack by the Basmachi, who opposed outside influence in any form, including the European-inspired ideas of the Jadids. Ibrohim-bek, a Basmachi commander in eastern Bukhara, clearly identified his enemies: “I have to make war not just on the Russians, but really against the Jadids.” (Khalid, 116)

So the Bukharan Jadids were driven out of the Emirate by the Emir and the Basmachi, but they didn’t give up yet. While in exile, they renamed themselves the Young Bukharans and turned to the Tashkent Soviet for help against the Emir. The Tashkent Soviet agreed to invade Bukhara, but the campaign failed. This was embarrassing for the Russians, but almost fatal for the Jadid movement, which now came under extreme pressure from the Emir, as one of his courtiers recalled: “[We] declared war on the internal enemy, the Jadids. They were arrested on the streets, in bazaars, and in their own houses, taken to the Ark and killed without any questions … and their property was confiscated. […] If someone accidently said, ‘I know this man, he is not a Jadid,’ then, even though he spoke on the basis of conduct, deeds, and Muslim customs, he too was killed.” (Khalid, 120)


So by 1918, Central Asia was politically fragmented and plagued by violence with several factions active in different areas: reformist Jadids, traditionalist Basmachis, the Tashkent Soviet, Kazakh and Kyrgiz nomads, and local Emirs all vied for influence. It seemed the Jadids had been totally crushed – until the Bolsheviks arrived in force.


By early 1918, the Bolsheviks realized they needed to regain control over Central Asia to help them secure the revolution. Economically, the region produced valuable cotton, oil, and food. Strategically, they feared the British might attack into Central Asia from India, and they were concerned about Afghanistan’s growing influence. So the Bolsheviks smuggled an envoy, Pyotr KObozev, through the White blockade and into Turkestan to establish some control. He limited the power of the Russian settlers, gave amnesty to everyone involved in the Kokand government, and created the Central Bureau of Muslim Communists, or Musburo, to include locals in decision-making. The Jadids saw the Musburo as a chance for political influence and reforms, so they quickly resurrected themselves and became a dominant force within it. But as we will see, the Jadid-Bolshevik cooperation was not to last.

For the rest of 1918 and into 1919, the Bolsheviks consolidated their power in Tashkent, in part by allowing Central Asians to bear arms and working with the Jadids to force out the religious conservatives. By October 1919, Red Army victories over the Whites in Siberia allowed them to re-establish direct communication with Turkestan. Now, Jadid ideas about national independence clashed with the class-consciousness and central control the Bolsheviks wanted. General Mikhail Frunze, the Red Army commander in the region and member of the governing commission, soon ousted many of the Jadids from the Musburo.


With that score settled in Turkestan, Frunze turned his attention to the ongoing problem of the Basmachi, and the two independent protectorates, Khiva and Bukhara.


Frunze’s first order of business was Khiva, whose leader Junaid Khan had supported a local anti-Bolshevik Cossack revolt. In December 1919, a Red Army force under Giorgy Skalov set out to punish Khiva and bring it into the Red fold.

Skalov had two columns of men at his command. The first column of 430 men, was stationed at Petro-

And it was against the Basmachi in the Ferghana Valley that Frunze next turned his attention. The rocky and difficult terrain made the Ferghana a battlefield practically designed for guerilla warfare. The Red Army estimated that in 1920, there were 12 separate Basmachi bands with a total of 5,650 fighters, whereas the Red Army consisted of between 4,000 and 5000 regular soldiers, who were not used to irregular warfare. (Baumann, 105). In May 1920, Frunze implemented a strategy similar to the one the Red Army used to suppress the Tambov peasant rebellion in European Russia. It focused on cutting the Basmachi off from local support by garrisoning units in regions most likely to serve as Basmachi bases. At the same time, mobile cavalry units were attached to each garrison to be able to pursue and harass local Basmachi. Additionally, militia units were assigned to the winter quarters of nomadic tribes, to further cut off supplies and aircraft were used for reconnaissance and intimidation.

Frunze also pursued a political strategy. He understood that the chaos of the last three years made the people of Central Asia ripe for Basmachi recruitment. To regain the people’s trust, Frunze supported the reopening of Islamic schools and courts, reopened the bazaars, and introduced a New Economic Program which included replacing grain requisitions with a fairer tax system. He also turned to local actors to legitimize the Bolshevik’s position, courting both the remaining Jadids and local communists – though he did force the Jadids to merge with the Communist Party.

Frunze’s methods inflicted several defeats on the Basmachi. Unable to overcome their localism and coordinate across the region, they were driven out of the areas around the larger cities into more remote areas, and prominent leader Madamin Bek was killed in May.

So by August 1920, Frunze and the Reds had established control in Turkestan and Khiva, and were gaining the upper hand on the Basmachi. In fact, the Basmachi might have not survived beyond 1920 if not for Frunze’s decision to now invade the Emirate of Bukhara.


Now after the 1917 revolution, the Emir of Bukhara’s priority was to preserve his power – regardless of whether the Bolsheviks or Whites prevailed. Mohammad Alim Khan wasn’t looking for war against the Bolsheviks, but he did prepare for it. According to likely exaggerated Soviet sources, between 1918 and 1920, Alim Khan raised an army of about 8,000 infantry, 7,000 cavalry, and 27,000 irregulars. (Baumann, 107). He put garrisons in several important cities, and reached out to the British, the Afghans, and the Basmachi for support, although the details are murky – one story has it that the Afghan King sent 6 war elephants. Frunze maintained that Alim Khan had made an alliance with at least one of these powers and threatened the Bolshevik’s hold on Central Asia.

Although Frunze’s army was spread across 2,000 kilometers and was involved in fighting the Basmachi and Kazakh rebels, and propping up the new people’s republic in Khiva, he was still keen to attack Bukhara. He asked Moscow for permission and for reinforcements, and was told there were no reinforcements, and if he wanted to attack he had to get some local support. Since the local Jadids and communists did not care for the emir, this became the local justification for the Red Army invasion of Bukhara in August 1920.

Frunze’s army consisted of 6,000-7,000 Russian infantrymen, 2,300 cavalrymen, 35 light and 5 heavy guns, 8 armoured cars, 5 armored trains, and 11 aircraft. (Baumann, 107) To make up for his lack of men, he conscripted 25,000 locals, in units based on nationality. This was a bit of a double-edged sword though, since conscription also caused another mass revolt and drove 30,000 men into the Basmachi. (Baumann, 99)

Frunze’s plan was to launch surprise and simultaneous strikes conducted by four independent operational groups while the Jadids sparked uprisings within the emirate. First, an uprising was to begin the city of Chardzul. This would trigger the advance of Frunze’s strike groups. One group advanced on Bukhara from Kagan in the north. Their goal was to destroy the emir’s main force and prevent his escape. Another group would approach Bukhara from Chardzul in the southwest. They were to support the uprising and cut the rail lines leading to Bukhara. The third group advanced from Katta-Kurgan in the East, taking several smaller cities along the way. The last group was to advance from Samarkand and secure a main road in the area. These forces were supported by reconnaissance aircraft and a naval flotilla on the nearby Amu river on the border with Afghanistan.

The attack began August 28, 1920, and by the end of the next day, Bolshevik forces had already encircled the city and placed cavalry on the river. The city’s defences consisted of walls that were 10 metres high and 4 metres thick, with 130 towers and 11 gates. For several days, Bolshevik aircraft and heavy artillery bombarded the city, but were unable to breach the walls because of a lack of skills amongst the artillerymen. When an infantry attack also failed, Frunze was discouraged: ““If the operation will be conducted this unskillfully the city will never be taken” (Baumann, 111).

Eventually, Red Army engineers were able to breach the walls, and Red troops stormed into the city. Streetfighting began, and the emir’s soldiers fled. During the chaos the emir, who was actually in his private residence outside the city, escaped with 500 mounted fighters. The Russians gave chase, but he evaded their forces and reached his fortress at Dushanbe, where he and the Basmachi would continue to be a thorn in the Bolshevik’s side until he escaped into Afghanistan in 1921.


So the Bolsheviks had defeated Bukhara, in addition to having gained control of Turkestan and Khiva. But that didn’t mean things would be easy for them.


Once the Bolsheviks won control over Bukhara, they worked with the Jadids to establish a Soviet republic and to repair the damage the war had done to local infrastructure and agriculture. To formally sever all ties with the past, the Jadids and Bolsheviks proclaimed the Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic on October 8th, 1920. Despite working together, the Jadids and Bolsheviks had very different visions, which was revealed by the Jadids’ announcement of the Bukharan Soviet Republic – which contained no references to the revolution or communist ideology: “Brothers! The old regime oppressed you because of your ignorance. Brothers, come, join the Communist Party and become the masters of your own rights. Give your children the benefit of knowledge and education, open schools where such have not been opened, [and] eliminate the immoralities that had taken root under the old government” (Khalid,131)

The Republic was sort of a halfway measure between outright Bolshevik annexation and complete regional autonomy. It allowed the Jadids some local leadership, but overall regional authorities were Bolsheviks. This meant that the Jadids paid lipservice to Communism when they dealt with the higher-ups, but on the ground they followed their nationalist, modernizing policy. This disconnect between Jadid and Bolshevik ideas is made clear in a 1921 Jadid statement during a mission to Turkey. They credited the Turkish victory at Gallipoli with sparking revolution in the East, and emphasized the role of Central Asians over Russians in overthrowing the Emirs: “The enlightened youth of Bukhara, who had worked continuously for 15-20 years, overthrew the cruel and despotic government [of the emir] with the help of Eastern revolutionaries.” (Khalid, 33)


So despite the Bolsheviks’ success in Central Asia, their struggle to control the region was not over in 1920. The relationship with the Jadids would continue to be difficult. The Emir of Bukhara had escaped, and breathed new life into the Basmachi movement as rumours of Afghan or British intervention grew. And the Basmachi continued to deny the Bolsheviks full control over parts of Central Asia – in fact, before the end of 1921 they would be joined by an unlikely new leader, former Ottoman Minister of War Enver Pasha.



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