Bolsheviks and Basmachi in the Muslim East



The Civil War that occurred in Russia following the 1917 Revolution is often remember as the “Reds” vs. the “Whites”.  The “Reds”, or the Red Army of the Bolsheviks may have seemed like the unlikely winner, but they would eventually prevail in the Civil War. There are many reasons that the Reds were able to be victorious. One advantage that they had was plain geography. Their control on central provinces was a huge aid in building lines of communication in the days before Twitter and cell phones; it was also useful for transferring supplies. The Bolshevik ideology was also much stronger than that of the White Army because they had a vision that they were passionate about. The latter  was built from many different groups and they had a mix of ideas and goals. A third huge factor in the Bolshevik victory and the central topic of my post for this week is the Bolshevik’s nationality policy.  While many supporters of the White Army were former members of the bourgeois who sought to reestablish the former Russian Empire, the Bolsheviks continuously preached national self-determination. Now, the term self-determination meant subordination to socialism and the proletariat for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but it still meant a lot when it came to subduing those in the Muslim areas of Central Asia who had begun to seek a pan-Islamic future.

Although the ideas of self-determination, or t least the promise of  some type of federalism may have sounded decent to the people living in Muslim areas such as Turkestan, there was already a rebel movement going on that the Bolsheviks had to find a way to put down. Beginning in 1916, violence had broken out in Turkestan over Muslim conscription for World War I. After the overthrow of the tsar, the anti-Russian sentiment among the rebels, specifically the Kazakhs (Turkic people of Kazakhstan in Central Asia), became anti-Soviet. A movement against the Soviets began to spread across the region called the Basmachi Movement. Basmach is a Turkic word meaning a bandit, but the term was used in a negative way by the Red Army forces. The movement had the goals of a pan-Islam land independent of any Russian or Soviet rule because they felt that it was a colonialist force. In 1921, Lenin enlisted the hep of the revolutionary Young Turk and military expert, Enver Pasha. He sent Pasha to Turkestan to try to suppress revolts against the pro-soviet government that had been set up there. Pasha had actually been playing Lenin and he defected to the Basmachi forces upon his arrival and attempted to unite the many reel groups there to fight against the Bolsheviks. He received help from other military commanders and they were able to achieve some real coordination that could rival the Bolshevik presence in Central Asia. Unfortunately, Pasha died in battle, and with him the efforts died down as well.

Enver Pasha

Enver Pasha

With the Pan-Turk and Pan-Islam attempts slightly controlled (there would still be Basmachi rebel presence for years to come), the Soviets began giving some concessions to Muslims in the area that were a strong contrast to the Russian Orthodox Christians. The Bolsheviks had been outwardly supportive to the idea of the Muslim cause since 1917 to get them to side with them in the civil war. In the Appeal to the Moslems of Russia and the East the Council of Peoples’ Commisars states, “your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions, are free and inviolable. Build your national life freely and unhindered. You have a right to do so. Know that your rights, as well as the rights of all peoples of Russia, are protected by the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies”. The Bolsheviks knew that they nede to give concession, or the rebels who called for a type of jihad or forces like the Basmachi would continuously gain more support. By 1923, the Russian Administration for Religious Affairs of Russian Moslems proclaimed, that the Muslims of Russia, “consider the Soviet Government the protector of the oppressed and declare to the four hundred million Moslems of the world the necessity of full support of the Soviet regime“.

Controlling the rebel movements and the White forces of Central Asia was just one of the victories needed by the Red Army to prevail in the civil war, but it was an important one. The area in question was a huge part (geography-wise) of what became Soviet controlled lands. It’s interesting to wonder what would have happened to this area if the White Army had been able to coordinate its efforts better or if Enver Pasha had been given more time to combat the Red Army.

Some background information on the civil war was obtained from pages 296-300 in our text:

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

I also used information and documents from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History site’s “Muslim East”section:

I’ve linked some additional background information in the entry and the images were from the sites in the order in which they appear: