Bolshevik Russia's war against the Basmachis ("bandits" the Central Asian resistance) constituted a complex military, social, and political struggle that in important ways foreshadowed the multidimensional nature of modern conflicts involving developed powers in regions of the Third World. Lasting roughly from 1918 to 1933, the conflict reflected both continuities and significant departures in the history of Russia's Central Asian relations. The roots of the conflict can be traced to Russia's conquest of the region. Between the Russian conquest and the outbreak of World War I, the rapid expansion of cotton cultivation and associated industries, extensive Russian settlement, and repeated episodes of inept or corrupt administration disrupted traditional native living patterns and stirred bitter resentment. Festering social tensions helped ignite the conflict and gave impetus to incipient Pan-Islamic and Pan-Turkic tendencies.
The basmachestvo was the struggle that the Communist Party and the workers of Central Asia waged against basmachi, a "counterrevolutionary and anti-popular movement that was one of the forms in which the general laws of class struggle manifested themselves under specific historical conditions". With the help of the basmachestvo, according to one Soviet writer, "the forces of international and domestic reaction attempted to overthrow Soviet power in Central Asia and to transform it into a colony of foreign imperialism". The Reds believed the Basmachis also received weapons from foreign (especially Britain) sources through Afghanistan, but there is little evidence that such assistance assumed significant proportions.13 Indeed, the motley collection of weapons that the Basmachis actually employed in the field argues to the contrary.
The Basmachis, on their part, generally lacked a coherent organization or clear program. Historian Richard Pipes describes the movement as "essentially a number of unconnected tribal revolts ...." However, by positioning themselves to varying degrees as the defenders of local self-rule, traditional society, Pan-Turkism, and the Islamic faith, they assembled a dangerous, if fragmented, resistance movement. For significant periods between 1918 and 1933, they denied the Red Army control of much of rural Central Asia. Furthermore, they severely tested the ability of Red Army commanders to adapt to irregular warfare in an alien cultural and geographical setting.
The basmachestvo united the tribal aristocracy, feudal leaders, the national bourgeoisie, the reactionary part of the Muslin clergy and criminal elements — all of whom greeted with enmity the victory of October and the establishment^of Soviet power. The ideological leaders of basmachestvo were bourgeois nationalists who presented themselves as "defenders of common national interests" but also protected the "interests of the exploiting classes".
The basmachestvo manifested the general tendencies that were characteristic of the counterrevolutionary forces in the period of establishing and consolidating Soviet power in the country. But at the same time Basmachestvo as a form of counter-revolutionary movement had also its peculiarities determined by the specific conditions in Central Asia. Every gang operated in close cooperation with the White Guards and the British Intelligence Service and pursued a single objective—to overthrow Soviet power. But at the same time it defended the narrowly local interests of the band leaders within the limits of specific localities.
Muslim regimes formed in Bukhara and Khiva. Neither recognized Lenin's revolutionary government, whose influence would scarcely be felt in Central Asia before 1920. Similarly, a short-lived Islamic government formed in Kokand, calling for autonomy within a federated Russia. Red forces crushed the Muslim nationalist government in Kokand in January 1918, but they lacked the resources to overpower the new regimes in Bukhara and Khiva, and partisan warfare soon spread from the Fergana Valley and engulfed the Central Asian countryside.
The first Basmach detachments which were headed by Irgash who had been the head of the district-city militia, appeared at the end of 1917 in Kokand. Here the soviet consisted basically of Mensheviks and SRs (they organized the persecution of the Bolsheviks) and the local bourgeoisie was grouped around a national-Muslim core under the flag of "autonomy for Turkestan."
In Fergana the bodies of Soviet power took actions that defamed Soviet power and drove the working population from it. "Instead ofnationalizing production," wrote M.V. Frunze, "there was outright plunder not only by the bourgeoisie but also the middle layers of the population. Instead of protecting the Muslim poor against the beys, the poor suffered all sorts of indignities. Units of the Red Army troops fighting here in the hands of certain leaders were turned from the defenders of the revolution and theworking people into a weapon of violence over them. On these grounds the movement known as the Basmach was created."
During the night of 12 February 1918, an armed clash occurred between the supporters of the autonomous government of Kokand and the Soviets. With the aid of detachments of the Red Guard which hurried up from Tashkent, the troops of the autonomous government were defeated. Having declared war against the "infidels," Irgash with his detachments retreated into the mountains.
Thus began the Basmach movement which, in engulfing all of Turkestan, was strongest in Fergana, Bukhara and Khorezm. In Fergana Oblast, for example, Irgash proclaimed himself the ruler of Fergana and the commander-in-chief of its armed forces. In acquiring the glory of a fighter for Islam and a protector of the have-nots, he grouped around himself those dissatisfied with Soviet power. Gradually all power in the Kokand district with the exception of the city and the railroad moved into the hands of Irgash. Each kurbashi [superior commander] of his detachment was assigned a certain area in which the gang was fed by the localpopulation.
At the end of 1918, in the western part of Fergana Oblast, the Basmach groups of Madamin Bek appeared. The bands made surprise attacks on the small Red Army garrisons, industrial installations, railroad stations, warehouses and population points. The raids were accompanied by mass murders, fires and destruction. The Basmach dealt particularly harshly with the party and soviet workers as well as the women who had thrown off their veil. By the start of 1920, Madamin Bek became the chief leader of the Basmach movement. His detachments were operating throughout the entire Fergana, with the exception of Kokand District and the Aravan area, where the Irgash and Khal-Khodzhi bands were predominant.
The areas of command (zones of responsibility) were strictly allocated between the tribal leaders and the violating of their frontiers led to fierce clashes between the kurbashi even to the point of employing weapons. The economic, kinship and other ties which linked the Basmach to a certain area, on the one hand, were their mainforce and, on the other, created opportunities for fighting against them.
As a rule, the Basmachis were poorly armed. They carried a variety of mostly outdated side arms, among them many Berdan rifles of Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) vintage. If the quality of Basmachi arms was poor, the tactical coordination among their large groups was worse. As a result, even at the apex of their power, the Basmachis tended to rely on hit-and-run raids against factories or isolated Red garrisons. They generally withdrew in the face of superior force. Tribal politics and a warlord mentality among its chieftains left the Basmachestvo weaker than the sum of its parts. Operating in small groups, they were tough and elusive and exploited three advantages associated with successful guerrilla operations: intimate knowledge of the terrain, superior mobility away from roads and towns, and active or passive support of the populace (which both shielded them and provided recruits).
By the summer of 1921, units of the 3d Turkestan Division, the 9th Cavalry and 8th Rifle Brigades, the 15th, 16th, 17th and 19th Cavalry Regiments and the 26th Air Detachment had arrived in Fergana and begun active combat operations. Subsequently, the fight against the Basmach assumed even greater scope. InOctober 1923, the RVS [Revolutionary Military Council] of the Fergana Front conducted a special operation involving highly maneuverable operational groupswhich cooperated closely among themselves and relied on base, heavily fortified military garrisons located in the administrative centers.
In Eastern Bukhara, the most dangerous Basmach leader was the former military minister of the Ottoman Empire Enver Pasha, who arrived in Bukhara in October 1921. Under the slogan of uniting all the peoples who professed Islam into a single Central Asian Muslim State, he succeeded in creating an army (with around 16,000 men) from the scattered Basmach bands. In February 1922, the Basmach captured Dushanbe and assumed control over a significant portion of the Bukhara People's Soviet Republic. In considering the developing situation, the Soviet Command established a special Bukhara Troop Group consisting of the 1st and 2d Separate Turkestan Cavalry Brigades, the 3d Turkestan Rifle Division and two squadrons of cavalry command forces [cadets]. Later this group was filled out with troops arriving from the Moscow and Belorussian Military Districts.
By late 1922, the Red Army in Turkestan numbered from 100,000 to 150,000 men, including a mixture of regular and irregular forces. No longer forced to concentrate manpower in other theaters, the Bolsheviks turned the military tide irreversibly in their favor. On 4 August 1922, the surrounded Inver Pasha band was destroyed and its leader killed. Approximately 12,000 out of the 13,000 previously fighting Basmach returned to their villages. The remnants of the Basmach headed by Ibragim Bek fled to the mountains.
Fighting would continue sporadically in many localities in the decade to come, but Bukhara and the Fergana Valley would constitute the most enduring pockets of resistance. In defiance of the apparent logic of the battlefield, Basmachi uprisings erupted in the rear of Red Army units, sometimes in response to alleged Red outrages against the populace.
By 1927, the main Basmach forces had been defeated, however individual groups continued to operate. Soviet social policy re-ignited the resistance in 1928. In the spring and summer of 1931 their actions were particularly active. Stalin's decision to collectivize agriculture stirred peasant resistance and precipitated famine in many parts of the Soviet Union, including Central Asia, in 1930-31.
But to the very end Soviet writers insisted that the Basmach movement was constantly supported, armed and directed by the special services of several foreign states. The Basmach were said to be closely tied to the English and Turkish secret services, to the Russian White Guards as well as the Pan-turkic and Pan-islamic organizations.
The Red Army campaigns against the Basmachestvo have not been widely studied in the West. Although the political contours of the struggle are generally known, the exploits of the Red Army have received comparatively little scholarly examination. While Soviet scholars have produced many monographs on the upheavals in Central Asia, they have dealt only obliquely with the sharp cultural and religious cleavages between the Russian and Central Asian peoples that engendered political antagonism and resistance.
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