Did you ever wonder how the Russian Revolution affected Central Asia? This episode discusses how the various political factions in Central Asia-the Jadids, Alash Orda, the Ulama, and the Russian Settlers-responded to the fall of the Tsar and the rise of the Bolsheviks.

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When we last discussed Central Asia, they were in the midst of the 1916 Revolt, which is now seen as the harbinger of the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil Wars. Today we’ll discuss how the Russian Revolution affected Central Asia.

Russian Revolution in Russia

February Revolution

1917 is an odd year for Russia, because it’s a period were militarily-things were beginning to look up, but socially and politically, things were at their lowest. Even though Russia had seen its greatest military victory in 1916 (one that cost them an estimated 3 million killed, wounded, or taken prisoner) and it was correcting its production issues, it was still facing a massive supply crisis because of an overstrained and broken transport system. This meant shortages of food, fuel, and basic household goods, rapid inflation, and corruption within the government and its military suppliers. Most fatal of all was the complete lack of trust everyone had in the Russian government. Governmental officials were either unacceptably incompetent or German spies and traitors. Even the staunchly monarchist General Aleksei Brusilov admitted that “Russia could not win the war with its present system of government.” (Figes) Everyone agreed that Russia was on the brink of a great catastrophe, but no one could have predicted it would have been at the hands of women tired of queuing for bread.

            Russia had flour, despite what the rumors claimed, but the transport system had broken down, meaning the flour couldn’t get to the cities where it was desperately needed. In Petrograd, women would wait in line all night only to be told the next morning that there was no bread. On February 19th, the Petrograd authorities said that rationing would begin on March 1st, raising the specter of mass starvation.

            On February 23rd, the first warm day after weeks of the coldest winter Russia had experienced for several years, women came out in mass to celebrate International Women’s Day and to protest for equal rights and bread. By mid-afternoon other workers would join them. The police tried to disperse them with Cossack support, but Cossacks were non-committal at best. Their timidity encouraged the workers to return on February 24th, this time drawing in students, bank clerks, cabbies, shopkeepers etc. and again on February 25th, when Petrograd experienced a general strike. The crowd violently clashed with the police but made appeals to the soldiers stationed in the city. There was an increasing divide within public opinion where the police were seen as the Tsar’s and would fight to the end, but the soldiers were seen as the people’s and would support them. Not all of the soldiers supported the uprising, but officials were alarmed at the growing rate of soldiers who refused to disperse the crowds.

Torn down portraits of the Tsars of Russia during the revolution-Wikicommons

            The Russian officials decided to wait out the uprising, trusting that once flour reached the city and bread was made again, the workers would disperse. The Tsar, who was at the front and thus had no real idea of the situation on the ground because no one bothered to tell him the truth about the matter, ordered his officers to use the military to crush the uprising instead. On February 26th, the soldiers and police opened fired on the marchers. A line had been crossed, forcing soldiers to chose between protecting a regime that didn’t seem to know what it was doing or join the protesters. Slowly, regiments led by young, junior officers, turned against the regime, culminating in the mutiny of the Petrograd garrison, which took all military power away from the authorities. The soldiers infused an organized, militant strain into the uprising, turning it into a revolution. They targeted majority infrastructure, spread the mutiny to other military barracks, and turned the violence on their commanding officers, the police, and the prisons.

            On February 27th, the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and others formed the Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet Worker’s Deputies, which on the 28th became the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. They would meet in Catherine Hall and drew the soldiers and protestors to them. Meanwhile the Duma, trapped inside the Tauride Palace, were forced into action after they heard of the creation of the Petrograd Soviet. They created their own governmental body: the “Temporary Committee of Duma Members for the Restoration of Order in the Capital and the Establishment of Relations with Individuals and Institutions”.  

            The goals of the Temporary committee were to protect as many ex-ministers as they could from the crowd and entice the soldiers back to their barracks. The soldiers, fearing they would be punished for mutinying, sided with the Soviets. Even though the Soviets had the backing of the soldiers and the crowd, they did not take power in February. Instead, they created a shared government with the Duma creating the Provisional Government, also known as the Dual Power. In the end this meant that the Soviet had the power without the responsibility and the Provisional government would have the responsibility without the power. On March 2nd, the Tsar abdicated for himself and his son. The reign of the Romanovs was over, replaced by a government put in place by an unexpected revolution that had no grand demand, only the desire for food and a competent government.

Central Asia

But what did all of this mean for Central Asia? The short answer is it’s complicated.

            According to historian Marco Buttino, in Russian territories, like Central Asia, “the revolution arrived via telegraph”. With that telegraph came citizenship. See one of the many acts the Provisional Government pass was the abolition of all legal distinctions between citizens on basis of rank, religion, sex, or ethnicity, granted every citizen over the age of twenty the right to vote, and guaranteed freedom of the press. Overnight, this made the indigenous people of Central Asia citizens and dramatically changed the political dynamic between the indigenous peoples and Russian settlers, while stripping the settlers the imperial protection they used to enjoy. This isn’t to say that the Provisional Government was a great governing people who wanted equality for all. But the fall of the Tsar meant that Russia’s hold on its colonies was loosened enough for the indigenous people of Central Asia to exercise political power long denied to them.

            Obviously, for the Russian Settlers this was an existential threat to their way of life and privileged positions in Central Asia. As we discussed in our episode about Russian colonialism, many of these settlers came to Central Asia looking for land and political and economic freedom they couldn’t find in Russia proper. The settlers may have been glad the Tsar was gone, may have even supported the Provisional Government principle, or may have been Bolsheviks. It didn’t matter when it came to how they felt about the indigenous peoples exercising political rights that had long been denied to them.

            But what did the Revolution and citizenship mean for the indigenous peoples? This is where it gets complicated. For the purpose of this episode, we’re going to focus our discussion on the conservative ulama and merchant classes and two reformist groups: the Jadids and the Alash Orda but acknowledge that this only covers a small fraction of the many different groups and reactions to the February Revolution.

The reformists welcomed the Revolution and its promise of equality and liberty because they believed it would bring forth many needed reforms. Neither the Jadids nor the Alash Orda were anti-Islam, but they both believed that something was wrong with their current society and it needed to be fixed. The Jadids focused on spreading their message through the arts and on developing a new teaching method. One that took children out of the ulama dominated madrassas and gave them a “modern” education. The Alash Orda also believed in the new teaching method but were also more focused on land rights and expulsing settlers from former Kazakh and Kyrgyz lands.

If you want to learn more about the Jadids, you should listen to our interview with renown scholar Dr. Adeeb Khalid. You should stay tuned if you want to learn more about the Alash Orda, because we have an upcoming episode dedicated to the Kazakh intelligentsia movement.

            The ulama actually welcomed the February Revolution because they believed it would allow the indigenous peoples to practice Islam without Russian interference. But they were threatened by the Jadids because they feared that the Jadids would corrupt how people practice Islam, undermine their own position of power, and change Turkestan culture for the worse. The true source of the conflict wasn’t one of secular vs Islam, but a conflict over how Islam should be practiced and what being “modern” meant.

Railway annunciation church in Tashkent 1909-1917-wikicommons

Turkestan (Tashkent mostly)

The Jadids were one of the first to react to the February Revolution. In March 1917, the Jadids mobilized the urban population in Turkestan. The center of the mobilization was in Tashkent, where in the first week of March, public gatherings attracted as many as 30,000 people. During one of these meetings, the Tashkent Muslim Council (Toshkand Shuroi Islomiyasi-also known as Shuro) was created to function as the local government and party in Tashkent’s old city. The Tashkent Shuro sent representatives to other cities (who were organizing their own mass gatherings) to help local counterparts recruit new members and raise funds. The first official meeting of the Tashkent Shuro was organized by Munavvar qori Abdurashidxon and Ubaydulla Xo’jayev.

Munavvar came from a family of ulama and, like many Jadids, studied at a madrassa in Bukhara. Renown historian, Adeeb Khalid considers Munavvar to be the most important Jadid figure in Tashkent because of his organizational skills and because he was the driving force behind the formalization of the new-method schools into a network with uniform standards and curricula, providing a model for all other Jadid schools.

Ubaydulla was a lawyer by trade and had attended a Russo-native school as opposed to a madrasa. He would serve in Saratov as a translator and later as a lawyer for several years before returning to Tashkent and began involved with the Jadids. Ubaydulla’s greatest weapon as a statesman during this time period was his command of the Russian language and his familiarity with Russian ways.

The organizing efforts of the Shuro culminated in the First Congress of Muslims of Turkestan, which met in Tashkent on April 16th. This Congress attracted members from the various indigenous factions of Turkestan and was organized around a sixteen-point agenda regarding the region’s future. During the meeting, they voted for Turkestan to be territorially autonomous in a democratic federative Russian Republic. They also elected a twelve-member delegation to attend the All-Russian Muslim Congress organized by the Muslim Fraction of the State Duma that would meet in Moscow as well as established a Turkestan National Central Council. The Congress revealed many fractures amongst the Indigenous population, with the ulama and merchants seceding from the Shuro in May 1917 and creating the Society of the Ulama (Ulamo Jamiyati).

Ulama vs Jadids

Municipal elections were held in June and the Ulamo defeated the Jadids quite resoundingly. In Tashkent, the Ulamo won 62 of 112 seat, while the Shuro won only 11. The struggle between the ulama and the Jadids would grow worse as the 1917 progressed with the ulama arguing that “the affairs of religion and of this world should not be separated i.e., everything from schools to questions of land and justice should be solved according to the shariat”. (Adeeb, pg 65), which of course they were the only ones who could properly interpret.

During the Second Turkestan Muslim Congress, which met in early September, the Shuro proposed that Turkestan would have its own Duma with authority in all matters except external affairs, defense, posts and telegraphs, and judiciary, all citizens of Russia were equal, and freedoms of assembly, religion, and conversion were to be guaranteed. They agreed that Muslims were to be governed by Shariat, but they also passed a resolution that called for the establishment of a shariat administration in each oblast with administrators elected and educated in contemporary needs. Again, this wasn’t a fight to “secularized’ the region, but an argument over how to implement Islam in a “modern” world. Interestingly not all of the ulama were against this reformist approach. Those who supported the Jadids would create the Society of Jurists (Fuqaho Jamiyati) as a counter to the Ulamo.

Abdurauf Fitrat-Wikicommons

            However, already Islam was taking on an ethnic tint. While the indigenous peoples explored different forms of government and the role of Islam, they were also exploring what it meant to be “Central Asian”. For Jadids such as Abdurauf Fitrat, a giant amongst giants who we will return to many times during this season, being Central Asian meant embracing Turkism, a celebration of all things Turkic (but not Ottoman Turkic, a unique form of Central Asian Turkic centered around Turkestan and epitomized by Timur, also known as Tamerlane). The ethnicization of identity seems to have been sparked by the conflict with the ulama. As the ulama clung to Islam as a form of identity, the Jadids turned to Turkism and nationality as their identity. Of course, this left other peoples such as the Tajiks, increasingly left out in the cold.

Russian Settlers

            We’ve spent a bit of time talking about the indigenous peoples of Turkestan, but what were the Russian settlers and remaining soldiers doing this entire time? They organized on their own, creating committees of public safety and Soviets. They made it clear that the indigenous peoples were not welcome, despite allowing two indigenous peoples to sit on the public safety committees. The Tashkent Soviet of Soldiers’ and Worker’s Deputies placed governor general Kuropatkin (of 1916 Revolt fame) under arrest and appointed nine members to the Turkestan Committee to govern the region. This committee consisted of five Russians and four Muslim, but none of them were from Turkestan. Initially, the settlers were much perturbed by what the indigenous people wanted or would do.

            But then the Jadids and others started organizing, and the settlers grew nervous. They demanded that the old and new cities of Tashkent should have separate dumas with separate budgets. Not only did the settlers fear being politically overpowered by the indigenous citizens, they were also facing starvation. The region was already struggling foodwise because of the 1916 revolt and a brutal winter. Things only grew worse as the White Cossacks under Ataman Alexander Dutov cut the Orenburg-Tashkent railway, ending vital grain imports.

            By September, the Soviets and other revolutionary organs regularly requisitioned food. Even though they claimed they were taking from the bourgeois, settlers often targeted the indigenous peoples of old Tashkent, claiming they were “hoarders”. The worst conflicts over food were seen in Semirech’e which was still recovering from the violence of 1916. By fall 1917, Turkestan was in an ethnic conflict with the settlers owning all the guns. However, the settlers were fighting with each other as much as they were fighting with the indigenous people and on October 27th, several soldiers rebelled against the Turkestan Committee and took power on November 1st.

This new Tashkent Soviet consisted of purely Russians and claimed they now ruled all of Turkestan. The Ulamo organized a congress in Tashkent in the second week of November proclaiming, that since “The Muslims of Turkestan…comprise of 98 percent of the population” it was “impermissible to advocate the assumption of power in Turkestan by a handful of immigrant soldiers, workers, and peasants who are ignorant of the way of life of the Muslims of Turkestan”. (Adeeb, pg 71). Despite this, they tried to form a coalition government with Tashkent Soviet, which the Russians rejected, claiming:

“The inclusion of Muslims in the organ of supreme regional power is unacceptable at the present time in view of both the completely indefinite attitude of the native population towards the power of the Soviets of soldier’s, workers’, and peasant’s deputies, and the fact that there are no proletarian class organizations among the native population whose representation in the organ of supreme regional power the faction would welcome.” (Adeeb, pg. 71)

Autonomous Turkestan

The Shuro, which is the indigenous political body, responded to the settler’s actions by organizing another congress of Muslims on November 27th. This time, however, they met in Kokand, a vibrant commercial center that was safe from the Russian settlers. The conference included all major figures of indigenous politics except for the Ulamo. The Congress passed the following resolution:

“The Fourth Extraordinary All-Muslim Regional Congress, expressing the will of the peoples inhabiting Turkestan to self-determination on the principles proclaimed by the Great Russian revolution, proclaims Turkestan territorially autonomous within a Federated Democratic Russian Republic. It offers the right to establishment of the form of autonomy to the Turkestan constituent assembly, which should convene as soon as possible, and solemnly declares that the rights of national minorities inhabiting Turkestan will be protected by all means.”

Adeeb Khalid, pg 71

            They created an 8 men government of Autonomous Turkestan which was responsible to a fifty-four-member council. 32 of the members were elected at the conference with eighteen reserved for non-Muslim parties, and four seats were reserved for representatives of municipal dumas. Muhammedjan Tinishbayev was elected prime minister and minister of internal affairs, Mustafa Cho’qoy was named minister of external affairs, Ubaydulla Xo’jayev oversaw creating a people’s militia, and Obidjon Mahmudov became minister of food supply. The reaction to an autonomous Turkestan was euphoric. Fitrat wrote:

“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 is a force that can warm the blood of the Turks of Turkestan and heighten their faith, then it’s only this word: Autonomous Turkestan.”

Adeeb Khalid, pg 75

            Yet, despite this joy, the Kokand government quickly learned that it was easier to talk about governing, then actually governing a region beset by ethnic conflict and famine and they had no governmental experience, no army, and no consistent stream of income. Nor were their actions welcomed by the Tashkent Soviet, who viewed an autonomous Turkestan as an existential threat.

Bukhara Emirate

We’re going to pause there and shift our focus from the Jadids in Turkestan to the Jadids in the Bukhara Emirate, who were facing very different challenges from their Tashkent counterparts.

After the February Revolution, the Jadids secretly met at Fayzulla Xo’jayev’s house to discuss next steps. Fayzulla was born to one of the wealthiest families in Bukhara and was sent to Moscow for his education, instead of a madrasa, giving him an edge since he was comfortable with the Russian language.

The Jadids decided to send two members to Samarkand to send a telegram to the Provisional Government in Petrograd, saying:

“Great Russia, through its devoted sons, has irretrievably overthrown the old despotic regime, and founded in its place a free, democratic government. We humbly ask that the new Russian government in the near future instruct our government to change the manner of its governance to the bases of freedom and equality, so that we may [also] take pride in the fact that we are under the protection of Great Free Russia”

Adeeb Khalid, pg 62

Knowing they could not defeat the emir alone, they also reached out to the Shuro in Samarkand and to other pan-Russian Muslim organizations.

            The provisional government was receptive but torn over how to proceed. Some thought they should forcefully intervene and dictate terms to Emir Sayyid Mir Muhammad Alim Khan. Others feared that this would anger the ulama, who would incite a region wide conflict, potentially inviting intervention from Afghanistan. Instead, they decided to send A. Ia. Miller as a representative to Bukhara to pressure the emir to issue reforms himself. Together, the Emir and Miller wrote a draft of a political manifesto which the Emir proclaimed on April 7th. This new proclamation promised the end of unjust taxes, established a state exchequer and budget, created an elected council in Bukhara to oversee public health and sanitation, established Bukhara’s first printing press, and removed several conservative ulama and replaced them with reformists.

            The next day, the Jadids organized a march to thank the emir while exerting the rise of reformism and were met by a counter-protest organized by the ulama. The ulama feared what these reforms would mean for the traditions they held dear as well as their own positions of power, going so far as claiming that “We do not want our Islamic lands to be liberated and we do not want indifference to the religion of the Prophet” (Adeeb). The fact that the Jadids’ thank you march included members of the city’s Shia and Jewish, confirmed the ulama’s worst fears. The march turned bloody with many Jadids being accosted. The emir knew better than to take on the conservative elements of Bukhara and used their outrage to undo all the reforms he promised (this had the added benefit of distancing himself from Russian control as well).

Emir Sayyid Mir Muhammad Alim Khan -Wikicommons

He arrested 30 Jadids, including Sadriddin Ayni, the famous Tajik poet. It is said Ayni was lashed 75 times while in prison. Many Jadids ran to Kagan, the Russian settlement outside of Bukhara. They asked the emir for amnesty for themselves and to stop persecuting their comrades. The Emir agreed to meet with them on April 14th, but the emir left halfway through the meeting, leaving the Jadids to the mercy of the angry crowd the ulama gathered outside the palace. Cossacks and Russian troops from Kagan had to intercede to rescue the Jadids. The relocated to Kagan and created their own Shuro, but knew they were powerless against the Emir without outside help. For his part, the Emir doubled down on placating the conservatives and issued a fatwa against all the Jadids, making Bukhara the center of anti-Jadid sentiment.


Alash Orda in the Steppe

We’re going to shift focus again, this time leaving the Jadids and focusing on the Alash Orda, the Kazakh modernizing movement. The Alash Orda, like the Jadids, wanted to reform their culture and society, but their main concern was the redistribution of land and establishing firm land rights for Kazakh and Kyrgyz peoples. The Alash Order were involved in many of the Muslim Congresses put together by their Tashkent counterparts, but as separate entities who were facing different dilemmas and needs.

In April 1917, they would form their own All-Kazakh Congress in Orenburg where they passed a resolution calling for the return of Steppe land to Kazakh peoples, control over local schools, and the expulsion of all new settlers in Kazakh-Kyrgyz territories. It should be noted that they were still willing to exist in a federated Russia, but they wanted to be treated as citizens with their rights respected. It wasn’t until three months later, when the idea of territorial autonomy was first discussed.

 Initially, they attempted to work with the Provisional Government, but as that government lost power following the October Revolution, they, like their counterparts in Turkestan, realized their future lay beyond Russia. It is interesting to think given the fact that Kazakhs were more likely to attend Russian schools then madrassas, their constant interactions with Russian settlers as they colonized the Steppe, and the fact that that geographically they were closer to Siberia then the other peoples of Central Asia, they may have been the first indigenous group to feel the full impact of developments in Russia proper and, were in some ways, more prepared to deal with the influx of White and Red soldiers that would enter the region in 1918 and 1919.  Another thing to keep in mind is that the Steppe was hit hard by the famine of 1917 and while they were forming congresses and committees, many nomads of the Steppes were still fighting the battle of 1916 with Russian settlers. We shouldn’t think that just because the Russian Revolution overthrew the Tsarist system, that the wounds of Russian colonialism and the causes and trauma of the 1916 revolt went away. The same sort of ethnic violence and food requisition we discussed early when talking about Tashkent, occurred in the Steppe as well.

On December 13th, 1917, under the leadership of Alikhan Bokeikhanov, a former scientist before turning into a statesman and Akhmet Baitursynov, a linguist who reformed the Kazakh alphabet and contributed to the development of Kazakh grammar they created the Alash Autonomy, a state that included the land that makes modern day Kazakhstan. The state was ruled by the Provisional people’s Council of Alash Orda which contained twenty-five members, ten positions reserved for non-Kazakhs. Alikhan Bokeikhanov was elected its president.


So, in short, 1917 was an explosive, but partially hopeful moment for Central Asia. In Turkestan, the Jadids and Alash Orda are able to create autonomous states, but the Jadids in Tashkent were threatened by the ulama and the Russian Settlers while the Alash Orda were threatened by the looming White and Red armies, massive famine, and continued combat with Russian settlers. And the Jadids in Bukhara were chased out and had a fatwa hanging over their heads. So, while the indigenous peoples were able to accomplish a stunning amount, they didn’t have the political, military, or economic power to preserve what they created.

            The October Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks were able to overthrow the Kerensky led Provisional Government, had little impact on Central Asia, at first. But that would not last for long, as the Red and Whites brought their war into Siberia and then the Steppes. The Alash Orda would be placed in a position of picking sides and dealing with the carnage that followed while the Jadids would have to deal first with the Russians settlers and then manage relations with the Red Army observers who made their way to Turkestan. If 1917 was a year of hope, 1918 would be a year of dashed hopes and recalibration of goals and allies. 


Russian Colonial Society in Tashkent 1865-1923 by Jeff Sahadeo

Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR by Adeeb Khalid

Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Coexistence by Shoshana Keller Published by University of Toronto Press, 2019

Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Khiva, 1865-1924 by Seymour Becker, Published by RoutledgeCurzon, 2004

The “Russian Civil Wars” 1916-1926 by Jonathan Smele, Published by Oxford University Press, 2017

A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes, Published by Penguin Books, 1996

The Other First World War by Douglas Boyd, Published by The History Press, 2014

Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914-1921 by Laura Engelstein, Published by Oxford University Press, 2017

Imperial Apocalypse: the Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire by Joshua A. Sanborn, Published by Oxford University Press, 2014

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