The Basmachi Rebellion was a Muslim guerilla movement resistant to Russian and Soviet rule in present-day Turkmenistan. Although a Russian presence had existed in the region since the mid-16th century, Russian policy at the beginning of the 20th century became increasingly intrusive. As the Ottoman Empire declined, the great powers, that is Austria, Britain, and Russia, competed for its lands as part of their sphere of influence. Encroachment into Central Asia was an integral part of Russia’s strategy in this “Great Game” (Paksoy, 1).
The movement was triggered by the tsar’s decree of 1916 ordering the mandatory conscription of Central Asians into the imperial army. The first act of resistance occurred in July 1916 when a mass protest assembled in Tashkent. Russian authorities responded to the protest by shooting into the crowd and killing dozens of supposed conspirators (Paksoy, 1). After the revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks established a government, Sovnarkom [Council of Peoples’ Commissars], in Tashkent. The policies of Sovnarkom effectively excluded Muslims from political life and banned sharia law, which led to the disaffection of Muslim intellectuals (Marshall, 7). The indiscriminate killing of Central Asians and their livestock, as well the loss of traditional grazing lands, during the influx of Russian peasants into the region added to the growing sense of rebellion (Paksoy, 1).
The Basmachi movement attempted to unite many disparate Central Asian groups against Soviet rule, although disparate goals within the movement led to general disorganization. Some factions merely pressed for better conditions for Central Asians, particularly Muslims, as subjects of Soviet rule. Others pushed for explicitly political goals, including the expulsion of Soviet forces from the region. Still other more radical elements of the movement had broader religio-political goals, and advocated open warfare against the infidel invaders (Edgar, 38). Some scholars contend that the Basmachi uprising was essentially a tribal rebellion (Marshall, 8), while others argue that it was the beginning of a nationalist movement in Turkistan (Paksoy, 5).
Though the major cities remained under Soviet military control, the Basmachi rebels had the advantage in the conflict. They used their knowledge of the terrain to execute hit-and-run attacks on Soviet forces, which were ill-prepared and lacked the discipline needed to engage in irregular warfare. Often the Soviet army’s overreaction to attack served to rally support for the rebels’ cause, as in the case of the fall of Kokand, during which the Soviet army killed more than 14,000, raped local women, and looted the city. The arrival of Soviet General Mikhail Vasil’evich Frunze in Tashkent in 1920 marked a turning point for the Soviet army, which began to better employ counterinsurgency strategies (Marshall, 9). Soviet forces were able to quell the rebellion by 1924 through a combination of brutal military measures and political concessions, including tax exemption, food, land reform and the lessening of agricultural restrictions. The Soviet government’s decision to repeal anti-Islamist policies was also important to the cessation of hostilities.
Even after it was repressed, the rebellion had a significant effect on Soviet policy in the region. To avoid sparking continued resistance, Soviet authorities began to discriminate less against natives and incorporate them into administrative structures. The rebellion made it clear that future Soviet policy in Central Asia would necessarily have to be more culturally and religiously informed.
- Adrienne L. Edgar, Tribal Nation: the Making of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
- Alexander Marshall, “Turkfront: Frunze and the Development of Soviet Counterinsurgency in Central Asia,” in Central Asia: Aspects of Transition, ed. Tom Everett-Heath, (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
- H.B. Paksoy, “‘Basmachi’: Turkistan National Liberation Movement 1916-1930s,” Modern Encyclopedia of Religions in Russia and the Soviet Union (Florida: Academic International Press, 1991).