Famed but often misunderstood guerilla fighters, the Basmachi were an Islamic resistance force that targeted both the Bolsheviks and modernizing Islamic forces of Central Asia. This article provides a basic overview of their creation, organizational hierarchy, and talks about some of their most famous leaders.
We’ve spent considerable time exploring how the Russian Revolution affected Central Asia from several different perspectives. So far, we’ve talked about the Russian Settlers, the Alash Orda, the Jadids, and the Bukharan and Khivan Emirs. You may be thinking, that’s plenty of peoples and we’re ready to move onto 1918, but we have one more perspective to add and that’s the Basmachi, a guerrilla movement that reinvented itself numerous times during the 1920s and clashed with the Soviets from 1918 to the 1930s.
Who the Basmachi Were and Were Not
Who were the Basmachi? To answer that question, we must first clarify who the Basmachi were not. Interest in the Basmachi picked up, in the US at least, in the 80s because of the Soviet-Afghan War and then against in 2001 because of the United States’ war in Afghanistan. A lot of analysts positioned the Basmachi as a precursor to the Taliban and wanted to use the Basmachi as an example of Islam’s inherent danger to Soviet Communism, and then later a danger to the United States’ effort in Afghanistan. This stuck and when talking about the Basmachi, the instinct is to think of them as this organized nationalistic-Islamic insurgency that was anti-Soviet and was one of the first examples of Islamic fundamentalism vs a Western ideology. And there seems to be this thinking that if you understand the Basmachi, you’ll understand the current iteration of the Taliban and how to fight in Central Asia.
Of course, the biggest issue with that interpretation is that it rewrites history to explain a modern phenomenon and also conflates a conflict that was focused primarily in modern day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and parts of Turkmenistan with conflict focused primarily in Afghanistan. So, you know, all kinds of wrong.
The Basmachi were not precursors to the Taliban. The Basmachi came out of a number of conditions and factors unique to Central Asia following WWI and the Russian Revolution.
The Basmachi had periods of extreme organization and efficiency, but more times than their scope of operations was village focused. The level of organization depended on the local commanders. There was an effort to create a region wide movement, but we’ll get into that and why it failed later in the series.
The Basmachi relied on the population for supplies, and they could be as much of a pestilence as the Soviets for the population.
They were Muslims and they had a specific vision for the future of Central Asia that was heavily Islamic, but within that vision was a gradient of views and beliefs. While they wanted a recognizably Islamic government, not all could be considered Islamic fundamentalists. They were not nationalistic. Their concept of Central Asia didn’t take into account nationalism or even state building. Their goal was to protect the customary practices of the past, preserve a form of government that was not only recognizable to them, but was also obviously Islamic, and to protect land and food from Soviet requisitions. The Basmachi were not even a pure anti-Soviet movement. They considered the Jadids and other urban modernizers to be as dangerous, if not more so, than the Soviets. Ibrohim-bek, a Basmachi leader, once said:
“I have to make war not just on the Russians, but really against the Jadids.”Adeeb Khalid, pg 88
And Ibrohim even thanked a Red Army commander, who defeated a Jadid led unit at Dushanbe, saying:
“Comrades, we thank you for fighting with the Jadids. I, Ibrohim-bek, praise you for this and shake your hand, as friend and comrade, and open to you the path to all four sides. I am also able to give you forage. We have nothing against you, we will beat the Jadids, who overthrew our power.”Adeeb Khalid, pg 88, Image credit is Wikicommons
For the Basmachi, they were fighting a defensive war against the Soviets, a turf war with the Russian Settlers, and a civil war against the Jadids and other Muslim modernizers.
Basmachi in 1917
The Basmachi were created out of the combined horrors of 1916 and the famine that followed.
While the most famous Central Asia famine of the 20th century may be the Kazakh Famine of the 30s, Central Asia experienced an equally devastating famine from 1915 to 1920. In 1915, Turkestan’s ability to internally produce needed grains was at 90%. By 1917 it dropped down to 48%. This was made worse by the Tsarist’s efforts to recruit Russian Settlers (who planted most of the grain in the Steppe) and Russia’s decision to stop sending grain to Turkestan (who was dependent on Russia for food because of colonial policies and decisions). Then shipments stopped completely when the Whites took Orenburg, cutting Turkestan off from the rest of Russia.
According to scholar, Marco Buttino, between 1917 and 1920, the Russian settlers reduced the acreage of cultivated land by 28% and its livestock by 7%, the sedentary indigenous population cut their acreage of cultivated land by 39% and their livestock by 48%, and the semi-nomadic population by 46% and 63% respectively. According to an estimate conducted by the Turkestan government (which we’ll get into later in the season) by 1919, 970,000 people were suffering from hungry, about 30% of those people were in the Ferghana valley. Between 1917 and 1920, it is estimated that the settler population dropped from 797,000 to 610,000 and the indigenous population dropped from 6,362,000 to 4,727,000, a majority of whom were semi-nomadic. All estimates are from Marco Buttino’s article.
Given those sober statistics, it’s probably no surprised that the Basmachi emerged first from the Ferghana Valley and that the Ferghana would be one of their most stable areas of operations.
The first bands were led by a kurbashi (leader) from the local police force, the old governments of Khiva and Bukhara as they fell into Russian hands, disgruntled Jadids, and former criminals. They were originally based in the Ferghana, but versions of the Basmachi would appear in the rural areas of Khiva and Bukhara after the emirs were defeated by the Soviets in 1920. The Basmachi would also attract former leaders of other states such as Zeki Velidi Togan of the short-lived Bashkir Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and Enver Pasha of Ottoman fame.
The Basmachi would spend most of 1917 forming their core group of fighters and establish territorial ownership while fighting both Russian Settlers, Jadids, and anyone else they deemed a threat. The Basmachi may have remained little more than armed thugs if not for the fall of Kokand in 1918 and the pressures of the Russian Civil War who drove a wild collection of skilled men into the ranks of the Basmachi. These men would quickly rise through the ranks and lead the Basmachi, turning them into a persistence and violent headache for the Soviet Union.
Leaders of the Basmachi
Some of the most famous leaders of the Basmachi are Irgush Bey, Madamin Bey, Ibrahim Bek, and Junaid Khan (who we already met. He was the one who organized a coup against the Khivan Emir following the Russian Revolution). To learn more about him, listen to our episode about the Khiva Khanate during the Russian Revolution.
Irgush organized and led the first Basmachi attack of 1918. Irgush had originally been a former cop who was asked by the Kokand Autonomy to be the chief of its militia. When the Kokand Autonomy fell (which we’ll talk about in our next episode), Irgush fled to the Ferghana and organized a band of Basmachi. By the end of 1918, he had over 4,000 fighters under his command. That would blossom to an estimated 20,000 by the end of 1919. Irgush had the support of ulama of the Ferghana and represented the more extreme version of the Basmachi. Being in the Ferghana, Irgush often had to contend with, Madamin-Bey, maybe one of the most famous and effective Basmachi leaders for ultimate control of the region.
Madamin Bey family came from the hereditary military elite of the Kokand Khanate before the Russians dismantled it. He was supported by the more moderate members of the Basmachi and the Ferghana area, making it hard, but not impossible to work with Irgush. Madamin Bey and Irgush would unite the Basmachi of the Ferghana in 1919 and Madamin would even ally with a White Russian General against the Bolsheviks, before switching sides. We’ll get into all of that in a different episode, but Madamin Bey was able to provide much needed organization and vision to the Basmachi movement.
Besides Madamin, Ibrahim may have been the most effective commander the Basmachi ever had. He was born to the Lokai tribe, from which he recruited many of his fighters. He was based in the Bukharan area and fought for the return of the Bukharan Emir after he was deposed by the Red Army. He was vehemently anti-Jadid and one of the longest lasting Basmachi leaders.
Like the IRA during the Irish War of Independence, the Basmachi were reliant on the population for men, supplies, and safety. Unlike the IRA, there wasn’t a universal, region wide plan, goal, or form of leadership or government. At first, the leaders were focused on protecting territory and food supplies from everyone and anyone-including other Basmachi leaders. It is probably best to think of them as gang bosses or warlords at this point. Groups of armed and dangerous fighters who were very protective of their own territory and food supply, while espousing rhetoric of protecting Islamic and communal values.
The Basmachi recruited new fighters from the unemployed rural population of Central Asia. The potential recruits were often approached by the kurbashi themselves and were promised food, arms, and horses. While many recruits brought their own weapons, ultimately each Kurbashi was personally responsible for recruiting and caring for his troops. They often requisition provisions and extracted taxes from the population of their territory. They were better at it than the Soviets. Like in Ireland, it seems that most of the Central Asian population was “willing” to support the Basmachi, although we can also assume that those who resisted did not resist for long.
When the Basmachi could not requisition food from the population, they looked to the Soviets for supplies. Some Basmachi reached agreements with the Soviet forces during winter and when things were tough in order to receive food and supplies before breaking their agreements and returning to the war.
Others were able to receive provisions from the Soviet government itself, since the Soviets were reliant on existing authority figures, many who know the people who made up the Basmachi ranks and so they were willing to help using Soviet supplies.
The Basmachi preferred hit and run tactics, harassing isolated Russian units, and avoiding pitched battles. They fought on horseback, with whatever was at hand, usually swords, grenades, and Berdan rifles of the Russo-Turkish War. Like most guerilla movements they relied on an intimate knowledge of the terrain, mobility, and passive or active support of the populace. As one Russian military observer wrote:
“Without anything distinguishing them [the Basmachi] on the outside, clothed in the same way as the peasant population, they were all around our units, not hesitating to infiltrate, and unrecognizable and elusive, they devoted themselves to espionage that has no equal, whose network extends from the Afghan frontier to Tashkent”Robert F. Baumann, pg 96
The Basmachi were able to fill in a power vacuum within the Ferghana and other rural parts of Central Asia, but they were never able to establish a stable form of government themselves, nor did they seem particularly interested in doing so. Despite this, they would prove to be one of the Soviet’s most consistent and dangerous problem as they tried to consolidate Central Asia under Soviet rule.
Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR by Adeeb Khalid
The “Russian Civil Wars” 1916-1926 by Jonathan Smele, Published by Oxford University Press, 2017
“The Basmachi or Freemen’s Revolt in Turkestan 1918–24” by M. B. Olcott Soviet Studies, no. 3, 1981
Russian-Soviet Unconventional Wars in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Afghanistan by Robert F. Baumann, Combat Studies Institute, 2010.
“The Final Phase in the Liquidation of the Anti-Soviet Resistance in Tadzhikistan: Ibrahim Bek and the Basmachi, 1924-1931” by William S. Ritter, Soviet Studies, no 4, 1985
“Revolution in the Borderlands: the Case of Central Asia in a Comparative Perspective” by Marco Buttino, A Companion to the Russian Revolution, John Wiley & Sons, 2020