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CENTRAL ASIA under the RUSSIANS, to 1936

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Central Asia under the Russians, to 1936

Mongol invasions in the 13th century changed the demographics of Central Asia. Turkic tribal peoples and their herds moved into the region, driving the people already there farther south into Afghanistan or Iran. And Islam replaced Buddhism and other religions, including Nestorian Christianity.

In the 1800s it was the Russians who entered Central Asia. This included military expeditions in 1863 – around the same time that people in the U.S. of European ancestry were overrunning so-called Indians in the American West. Central Asia was relatively sparse in population. The settlers confiscated grazing lands and aroused the animosity of local people. The Russian army defended Russian settlers from attacks by the local people, who had little more than a few antiquated firearms with which to drive the settlers away. In June 1865 the Russian army captured Tashkent (today's capital of Uzbekistan), and the Russians made it their administrative center in Central Asia.

Map of Central Asia in 2000

Map of Central Asia in the year 2000. Click to enlarge.

The palace of Prince Romanov in Tashkent

The palace of a Russian prince in Tashkent.

Uzbek children

Uzbek children from Hayat Village in the Nuratau Mountains, June 2006.

The Russians left the conquered non-Russians to their customs but began taxing them. The Russians began growing cotton in Central Asia to fill the market for cotton lost during the US Civil War, and they began encouraging local people to settle into agriculture. From Central Asia, Russia received cotton and other raw materials, and it sent into Central Asia manufactured goods, vodka and by accident syphilis. Merchants took control of land and then leased it back to the Central Asians.

Russian migrations into Central Asia were encouraged by the extension of the Trans-Aral Railway to Tashkent in 1906. From 1896 to 1916 almost 1.5 million Russians moved into Central Asia, about two-thirds of them staying. In 1916 the Russians were fighting the Great War for their Eastern Orthodox fatherland, and they tried drafting the Muslims of Central Asia into their military. The Muslims rebelled, and the Russians turned their artillery against Muslim villages, killing tens of thousands. The Turkic Muslims responded by attacking Russian settlers, killing indiscriminately. A Russian military force drove 300,000 into the mountains and into China. In 1917 some of the Russians slaughtered many of the 80,000 or so who returned. Muslims developed a guerrilla force, led by Dzhunaid Khan, and hoped to reclaim their land.

In November 1917 the Bolsheviks rose to power in Russia. Russian settlers in the cities of Kazan (today a part of Russia) and Tashkent joined the revolution by establishing the soviets (councils) in whose name the Bolsheviks had taken power. The Bolsheviks were ideologically opposed to empire, and their leader, Lenin, stuck to his orthodoxy and issued an appeal to "all Muslim workers of Russia and the East." His appeal failed to arouse support from the Muslim populations of Central Asia, and in the civil war that developed between the Bolsheviks and their anti-communist opponents some Muslims joined the anti-communists. There were also Central Asians who fought with the Bolshevik's Red Army against their old tsarist enemy. Then in May 1919, the Red Army issued a directive to sign 35,000 Central Asians into the Red Army. Some allowed themselves to be drafted into the Red Army but soon fled with their weapons to the Muslim guerrilla resistance movement – the so called Basmachi.

By the summer of 1920, the Basmachi gained popular backing in the Fergana Valley, a traditional bastion of conservative Islam. The Basmachi spread as far west as the Caspian Sea, while settled peoples failed to join their cause. In 1920 in what is today Uzbekistan, the Khorezm People's Soviet Republic and the Bukharan People's Republic were declared, both republics independent but allied with Soviet Russia.

In Russia, the Bolsheviks defeated their civil war opponents, and they had some success against the Basmachi, who were weakened by internal discord. Special detachments of the Red Army masqueraded as Basmachi and cut supplies to the Basmachi from the British and Turks. Support for the Basmachi from abroad dwindled from fear of their Pan-Islamist ideology. Everybody lost in the famines of 1921 and '22. The Bolshevik government in Moscow appealed to the hearts and minds of the peoples of Central Asia with grants of food, promises of land reform and tax relief. The Bolsheviks put on a show of respect for Muslim customs. They returned to the Muslims sacred books and objects that Russians had looted during tsarist times. In keeping with Muslim tradition, Friday was recognized as a day of rest. A parallel Islamic court system was allowed to administer sharia law – while stoning and the cutting off of hands were forbidden. Basmachi appeal diminished, and the Red Army with the help of volunteer Muslim peasants drove the Basmachi eastwards. The last of the Basmachi retreated into the Fergana Valley and into Afghanistan in 1923 and '24. A few Basmachi decided to hide in the mountains and resort to terrorist acts, hostage taking and sabotage, and they were looked upon by others as criminals rather than heroes.

Some Central Asians joined the Communist Party and acquired local positions of leadership. In Moscow, Bolshevik leaders divided Central Asia south of Kazakhstan as best that the bureaucracy knew how, but imperfectly, into three republics. The new Central Asian entities were the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), the Kyrgyz SSR and the Uzbek SSR. Each republic was to be part of the Soviet Union, and in theory the different republics and ethnicities that made up the Soviet Union were to have equal representation in the political life of that union.

The Bolsheviks were devoted to economic development, culture for common people and education. The Bolsheviks made education free and available for all, including the peoples of Central Asia, except for their "class enemies." Literacy in the Central Asian republics began a rapid rise. The Arabic alphabet was changed to the Cyrillic script common to the Slavic people. The Bolsheviks had no choice but to leave Central Asians to their herding and nomadic lifestyle. But in 1927 and '28 Josef Stalin was in power and he took a hardline approach for rapid development toward socialism. In a campaign for secularism in Central Asia, mosques, churches and synagogues were closed. There was a move to overrule traditions regarding women – somewhat similar to what was taking place in Turkey. Child marriage, forced marriage and polygamy were banned. A campaign against the veil began, and Soviet authorities pushed for bringing women out of seclusion (purdah) and providing them an opportunity for employment outside the home and participation in politics. Sharia courts were banned. More conflict arose with Stalin's move to collectivization agriculture. Private property was seized. In Central Asia, as well as in Russia, Soviet authorities resorted to brutal punishments against resistance. And as in Russia, in Central Asia there were purges within the Communist Party. In the Central Asian republics Communists were executed along with others in numbers said to be in the thousands.

In 1929 a Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic was split off from the Uzbek SSR, with the predominantly ethnically Tajik cities of Samarkand and Bukhara remaining in the Uzbek SSR. And in 1936 Kazakhstan became a Soviet Socialist Republic. Between 1926 and 1939 the Kazakh population declined by 22 percent due to starvation, violence and emigration. Throughout Central Asia, however, the Soviets remained dominant.


The Modern Uzbeks, from the 14th Century to the Present, by Edward A. Allworth, 1990.

Russians Central Asia, 1867-1917: A Study in Colonial Rule, by Richard A. Pierce, University of California Press, 1960

Copyright © 2007-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.