The Basmachi are facing famine, growing Red Army forces, and an uneasy alliance between the Bolsheviks and modernizing Muslim reformers. It’s time to organize or die.
Leaders of the Basmachi
The Basmachi, who are often thought of as the great bogeyman of Turkestan, spent most of 1918 and 1919 organizing themselves, mostly in the Ferghana, but there were a few units in the Khiva and Bukhara Emirates as well. The Basmachi originated in the aftermath of the 1916 Central Asian Revolt, but don’t really form the concept of the Basmachi until the fall of Kokand in 1918. By the end of 1918, there were 40 plus self-organized Basmachi units with three men emerging as effective enough leaders to unite the different groups: Irgush of Kokand, Madamin Bey whose family originated from Kokand royalty, and Ibrahim Bek who was organizing in Bukhara and was loyal to the Bukharan Emir. For this episode, we’ll focus on Irgush and Madamin in the Ferghana and save Ibrahim’s story for the greater story of the Bukharan Emirate
Irgush, who was the chief of Kokand’s militia, and Madamin both fled to the Ferghana after the fall of the Kokand Autonomy and organized different branches of Basmachi. Irgush led the first attack against the Russians and by the end of 1918, he had raised an estimated 4,000 fighters (Olcott’s article). Madamin Bey enjoyed the support of the ulama, merchants, and moderate members of the Basmachi and the Ferghana Valley. By the end of 1918, both men had built minor fiefdoms for themselves, and it was clear that either they learned how to work together or risked destroying their own movement by fighting with each.
The Situation in Turkestan in 1919
In 1919, the Basmachi were facing three main problems: famine, the Bolshevik forces and the Jadids, and competition amongst each other.
As we’ve talked in our previous episodes, the Russian Civil War disrupted Turkestan’s food supplies, plunging the region into mass starvation while the Russians used armed groups to forcibly requisition food from the poor indigenous and Russian farmers. According to Jeff Sahadeo, an estimate 30% of the Ferghana population died in the famine, which is one of the reasons why it became a Basmachi stronghold. The more the Russians stole from the people, the more they fled into the Basmachi’s ranks. Some of these new recruits included Bashkir, Tatar, and Jadid reformers as well as ulama and conservative merchants. To try and counter this, the Russians switched the focus of their requisition efforts from the indigenous peasants to the Russian peasants while waiting for Red Army reinforcements.
For their part, the Basmachi focused on raiding military supply depots, burning warehouse and ginning factories, as well as attacking mines and oil wells. While the Russians tried to enforce mass arrests, they could never penetrate the Basmachi’s territory in the Ferghana. Instead, their efforts seemed to only help the Basmachi recruitment efforts. Yet, while the Basmachi and Russians were enemies, that didn’t prevent local units from making agreements with each other and it seems like deals were frequently made and broken. During the winter, when food was scarcer than it was already, the Basmachi would reach out to local Russian garrisons to share food and supplies. Once winter was over, the Basmachi would resume attacking Russian units and supplies.
While the Basmachi raided and fought with the Russians, their true enemy were the Jadids and other Muslim reformers. Given the Basmachi’s conservatism and belief in traditional Islam, they thought the Jadids were the greatest enemies of Turkestan. Ibrahim Bek, the leader of the Bukharan Basmachi, once wrote to a Red Army commander “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” Ibrahim’s hatred of the Jadids seems to have matched the Emir’s own views. One of his officials once wrote, “Irgush-Bek of Kokand and Muhammad Amin of Margealn with their courage and fortitude have for some time been…exposing and killing Jadids and Bolsheviks”. It seems he was still sore the Bukharan Jadids used Kerensky’s Provisional Government to curb his power.
“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.”Ibrahim Bek
Despite the Basmachi’s antagonism to all indigenous people who threatened traditionalism and conservatism, Turar Risqulov, the leader of the Musburo, actually reached out to Madamin Bey to negotiate an uneasy peace so they could address the raging famine. Madamin was open to negotiations and in the end, they agreed that Madamin’s forces would keep their arms and organization but would become local units of the Red Army. The local Russians allowed this until Frunze arrived and broke the agreement, killed Madamin, and focused on breaking the Basmachi as an alternative form of government in the Ferghana.
Finally, the Basmachi, who were really modern-day warlords, realized they needed to organize their forces and split up their territories before they ended up fighting with each other.
How Does One Organize a Guerrilla Force
The Basmachi were neither coordinated nor centralized and as more and more groups popped up and more and more people joined their ranks, Irgush and Madamin realized they needed to get properly organized. So, in March 1919, Irgush called a meeting of 40 Basmachi leaders to talk about a unified command. By the end of the meeting, Irgush was nominated as the Supreme Commander with two deputies: Kurshirmat, a well-known ally of Irgush, and Madamin. Each of the 40 leaders present received control over a separate territory to protect and administer with support from the ulama as their religious-political advisors.
This structure lasted until the summer of 1919 when Madamin went his own way. At some point in 1919, Madamin met the Russian commander, Konstantin Monstrov, commander of the (Russian) People’s Army in Turkestan. He was just one of the many armed organizations in the region at the time. They united their forces, Madamin’s guerilla unit transformed into the Muslim People’s Army, and together they created the Ferghana Provisional Government which would outlive both of its founders by a few months.
Madamin and Monstrov created a constituent assembly and drew up an eight-point platform to ensure freedom of speech, press, and education for the people. They called for an elected assembly and a five-member cabinet, although it’s doubtful if they ever held elections. Like the Kokand government, it failed to execute any meaningful policy, but gained political recognition and aid from abroad. This would lead to claims that this government was an evil British plot to take Turkestan away from the Russians, nullifying any independent action on the basis of Madamin and Monstrov. While it seems that the British were aware of Madamin and his work, sent him financial support, and even sent agents to negotiate with him, it’s doubtful they masterminded the creation of the Ferghana Provisional Government. The Soviets would make similar claims about the Turkestan Military Organization, an unit consisting of former Tsarist officials and generals. You can learn more about them and the Soviet’s claim by joining our Patreon and gaining access to our exclusive episode on Osipov’s Uprising.
Monstrov and Madamin knew they would not survive long if they did not defeat the Bolshevik forces in the region. Together, they took the city of Osh in September 1919 and were involved in the siege of Andijan where they encountered Frunze’s Red forces. He pushed them to the modern-day Kyrgyzstan-Xinjiang border. Frunze captured and executed Monstrov in January 1920 and Madamin surrendered his forces and formally joined the Bolsheviks in March 1920. He would die later that summer.
By the end of 1919, the Basmachi of the Ferghana attempted to organize their forces to improve their effectiveness. They recruited 20,000 fighters, organized a Provisional Government with a Russian army also aligned against the Bolsheviks, and were impeding the Bolshevik’s efforts to gather supplies and establish their hold on the Ferghana. Even though Madamin would die in 1920, he left behind an organized guerilla force under the command of men like Irgush, Ibrahim Bek, and others who would prove, not only to be a thorn in the side of Frunze and the Red Army, but also entice a certain former Ottoman general to join their cause and attempt to regain lost glory.
“The Basmachi or Freemen’s Revolt in Turkestan 1918-1924 by Martha B. Olcott
“Revolution in the Borderlands: The Case of Central Asia in a Comparative Perspective” by Marco Buttino
“Some Aspects of the Basmachi Movement and the Role of Enver Pasha in Turkestan” by Mehmet Shahingoz and Amina Akhantaeva
Russian Colonial Society in Tashkent 1865-1923 by Jeff Sahadeo
The “Russian Civil Wars 1916-1926 by Jonathan D. Smele
Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR by Adeeb Khalid
Central Asia: Aspects of Transition by Tom Everett-Heath