After Enver Pasha led the Basmachi to their doom, the Bolsheviks turned their attention towards creating reliably Communist governments in Central Asia who were loyal to the USSR. The local actors, like the Jadids, Alash Orda, Young Bukharans, etc, focused on using Bolshevik capital and military might to create a modern, Islamic government. This episode explores how both the indigenous and Bolshevik actors fought with each other for control over ideology, the government, the region’s resources, and the region’s people.


In our podcast and on this blog, we’ve discussed the Russian Revolution, the fall of the Emirs, the Basmachi insurgency, the destruction of the Kokand Autonomy and the neutering of the Musburo. Unsurprisingly, all of this upheaval was horrible for everyone in the region and made governing almost impossible. Red Army General Mikhail Frunze, who was responsible for a lot of the upheaval, left in fall 1920, and did not see the outcomes of his explosive decisions.

Instead, it was up to the Communist officials and the local actors to create a new Central Asia. Unfortunately, they could not agree on the methods they should use, the ideological foundations of their new creation, or even what that new creation would look like. To make matters worse, they didn’t trust each other. The Bolsheviks believed the local actors weren’t proper Communists and Central Asians were annoyed that the Bolsheviks thought they knew best and purposely ignored all of their proposed solutions. Neither side truly bothered to engage with the population, solidifying a distrustful divide between the Communist and Jadids and every day people of the region.

This meant, as a regular person in Central Asia, you had three choices: side with the Basmachi and risk lost of property, imprisonment and/or death, side with the Jadids and Bolsheviks and support something that seemed incompatible with one’s culture and religion, or try to survive on one’s own and expose oneself to abuse from all different factions and sides.

The core struggle can be best described by this quote from Lenin:

“It is devilishly important to conquer the trust of the natives; to conquer it three or four times to show that we are not imperialists, that we will not tolerate deviations in that direction”

Adeeb Khalid Making Uzbekistan, pg 165

Not sure if Lenin even noticed the stark contradiction between “conquering” someone’s trust and somehow proving you’re not an imperialist or conqueror. Maybe he meant well, but we’re already off to a rocky start.

Communist Paranoia

We’ve talked a lot about the Jadid’s ideology and their goals.

The Jadids in Bukhara and Turkestan wanted to create a modern state built around the principles of nationalism. They wanted to create a state that enjoyed full sovereignty and membership amongst the world of nation-states. They wanted to develop its own economy but maintaining control over their own resources and they wanted to education their citizens to combat “ignorance” and “fanaticism”. They wanted to preserve Islam, but also modernize it by bringing Muslim institutions under control of the government.

Listen to our interview with Dr. Adeeb Khalid about the Jadids

The Communists, however, wanted to create a perfect Communist society which required loyal and ideologically pure cadre. The only way they could do this in Central Asia was to recruit the population into the party. They knew their best demographic were the youth, the women, and the landless and poor peasants.

The children they recruited into their youth group known as Komsomol and the brought the women’s organization, Zhenotdel to Central Asia. They also created the Plowman union for the poor. They would use this union to implement the land and water reform of the 1927, but were disbanded after serving their purpose.

Political Cadre of Turkestan Front. Frunze is seated in second row, two from the left. Image courtesy of wikicommons

Yet, the Communists couldn’t see through their own racism and chauvinism when it came to accepting local actors to the Communist Party. The Communist Party was the key feature of public life. It was the center of all political activity and thus membership was highly coveted. However it required an impossible ideological purity requirement which made many Communists paranoid. Their inability to a pure Communist a hundred percent of the time, or even to define what that meant, made them reliant on frequent purges to ensure the party remained pure.

One Communist official complained that he was dissatisfied after talking to a Turkmen member of the Merv Communist party in 1923. He wrote:

“We started asking [him] why he had entered the party, to which he answered that he himself did not know, and to the question whether he knew if a Communist is a good person or bad, he said that he knew nothing. And to the question of how he got into the party, he answered simply that a little while back a comrade came here who said, “You are a poor man, you need help, and you should join the party; for this will get you clothing and matches and kerosene.”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg 170

While the rank and file were often uneducated, the local leaders tended to be part of the modernizing elite who wanted to use Soviet institutions to bring about reforms, they often came from prosperous urban families, graduates of Russian-native schools, and had been active in Muslim politics in 1917.

Turar Risqulov, image courtesy of Wikicommons

Some leaders had been recruited by Turar Risqulov before he was ousted, had caught the eye of various Russian Communist officials, or even fought against the Basmachi and earned the Soviet’s trust that way. By these leaders were hard to find and so from 1920-1927, the Soviets were forced to rely on “impure” and “nationalistic” local leaders while building a cadre of “pure” communists they would be able to rely on in the future.

What made things worse was that the Soviets didn’t even treat the Central Asian as equals within the Communist framework. When the Bukharan Communist Party tried to join the Comintern, they were accepted as a “sympathetic organization” and then forcefully merged into the Russian Communist Party.

Young Communists

The increased ideological education opportunities and constant demands for ideological purity created the Young Communists. They were a group of men who challenged the supremacy of the Trkestan Communist Party (KPT), accusing them of compromise, patriarchy and careerism. The Young Communists claimed they were the most “Marxistically educated” of the Muslim Communists and demanded the “total emancipation of the party from the past [which] had not yet been accomplished and that KPT be cleansed of all members who were “factional-careerist” and “patriarchal-conservative”. (Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan pg 175). They were equally frustrated by the Russian Communists, claiming:

“Historically speaking, the last conquerors of Turkestan were the Slavs, and Turkestan was liberated from their oppression only after the great social revolution. But this liberation is only formal. Because the proletariat is from the ruling nation, the disease of colonialism has damaged its brain. This fact has had a great impact on the revolution in Turkestan”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg 175

The Soviets were wary of the Young Communists, but would recruit them into the governments of the different Central Asian States after they were created in 1924.

Crafting a Governing Body

In order to make the region more manageable, the Soviets broke the region into several different Soviet republics. The Bukharan Soviet People’s Republic managed the territory that once belonged to the Bukhara Emirate. Similarly, the Kazakh Steppe became the Kirghiz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, the Khivan Emirate became the Khorezm Soviet People’s Republic and Turkestan became the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. These republics were governed by chairmen.

Map of Central Asian Republics in 1922. Couresty of Wikicommons

For the rest of this post, we’re going to discuss the many difficulties and opportunities facing the Bolsheviks and the local, indigenous actors in the Bukhara Soviet People’s Republic and the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. The reason we’re discuss those two republics specifically is because their development is unique while also being representative of the many issues faced by the local actors and Bolsheviks of the region.

Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR)

While the indigenous actors were grabbing real power in Bukhara, the indigenous actors of Turkestan were recovering from the ouster of Risqulov and the dismantling of the Musburo. The Soviets purged the Turkestani Communist Party, transformed the Turkkomissiia into the Central Asian Bureau with an expanded authority over the Bukharan, Turkestan, and Khorezm republics. They also created the Central Asian Economic Council whose responsibility was to merge the economies of the three republics, leaving them open to control from the Central Committee in Russia.

The biggest challenge facing the Turkestani Republic was the tension between the Bolsheviks and the indigenous actors. Like their Bukharan counterparts, the indigenous leaders of the Turkestani Republic learned to speak the Communist language, but their goals were very different.

Before the revolution, Turkestan was a Russian colony, ruled by a Russian governor-general and with a large European settler population. The Turkestani Jadids tried to share power with their European counterparts when they created the Kokand Autonomy and again when they created the Musburo, but the European settlers refused. They even created their Tashkent Soviet and violently overthrew the Kokand Autnomy. The European settlers resisted Bolshevik pressure to work with local actors and violently turned against the Bolsheviks for prioritizing “Central Asian” needs over “European” needs.

While the Bolsheviks were struggling to gain the trust of their European counterparts, the Jadids were either getting revenge against ulama and conservative members of society for resisting their reforms or struggling to win their own people’s trust. The Jadids had never been popular, even before the war, and the people’s distrust grew when they sided with the Bolsheviks.

This would have been challenging enough, but all efforts to create a functioning republic in Turkestan was further undermined by the distrust between the Bolsheviks and the Jadids. This was true in all republics and the biggest difference between Turkestan and Bukhara is that the Bolsheviks had a slight advantage in Turkestan. The dynamics in Bukhara, however, slightly favored the Jadids.

Bukharan Soviet People’s Republic (BNSR)

Flag for the Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic, courtesy of Wikicommons

The Bukharan Soviet People’s Republic was a Muslim republic filled with Jadids who used it to champion their reforms with reluctant support from their Bolshevik counterparts — and, sometimes, without it. Unlike their Turkestan counterparts who never had a chance to gain equal power with their Russian counterparts, the Bukharans had placed themselves in the perfect position to be slotted into power by the Bolsheviks. This meant they actually had more power than indigenous actors in their neighboring republics. Even though this only lasted until 1923, the BNSR attempted a lot during its short lifetime. 

When the Bolsheviks took over Bukhara, they created the Revolutionary Committee (Revkom) that included Russians, Young Bukharans, Communists from Bukhara and Tashkent. The committee assigned Mirzo Abduqodir Muhiddinov as head of state and Fayzulla Xo’jayev as the Chairman of the council. These ministers would send reports and negotiate with their Communist counterparts using Communist language and ideas, but internally they focused on their nationalistic, Islamic, and reformist ways.

One of the first things Revkom did was to create a regularized and centralized form of government. They divided the territory into provinces, then districts, and then towns and appointed a soviet apparatus at each level. They also created several ministries led by several “people’s ministers”. Revkom and later its successor, the Central Executive Committee, would regulate the workings of the Qazi courts, placed the maktabs and madrasas under the oversight of the Minister of Education, and placed mosques and their waqf property under the control of the Waqf Administration.

We know very well that any obstinacy on our part or coercive measures on yours [to force the pace of change in Bukhara] will be fraught with pernicious consequences.

Bukharan Republic Chairman, Fayzulla Xo’jayev to Soviet counterparts

They also created a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and established consular representatives in neighboring countries. The representatives to Kabul and Moscow were ambassadors while the representatives to Petrograd, Tashkent, Baku, and Tbilisi were consuls.

Creating different administrative centers and functions was one thing, but exercising that power was a different task. First, the Young Bukharans had to settle scores with several enemies while also denying them the ability to challenge their right to power. They forced those who sided against them in 1917 to clean toilets and sweep the streets for several days before executing them. They took property from the ulama who resisted their efforts at modernization and restored property to supporters in exile. Those they didn’t kill or exile, they assimilated into their new government.

Internal Divisions

If trying to create a government in a region that had endured a civil war, the ouster of an emir, a famine, and an ongoing battle against an insurgency wasn’t enough, the Young Bukharans had to contend with internal divisions. There was the well-known divide between the ideologically corrupt Young Bukharans and the Bukharan Communists, but there was also a bitter rivalry between Fayzulla Xo’jayev, the chairman of the Bukharan Soviet People’s Republic, and fellow minister, Abduqodir Muhiddinov. Their rivalry had more to do with personal grudges and a long history of economic competition between their families than anything political or ideological.

Fayzulla Xo’jayev courtesy of Wikicommons

In April 1921, the Cheka found out that Muhiddinov’s brother Isomiddin held a secret meeting to plot against Xo’jaev and his supporters including assassinations and the planting of incriminating evidence. In August 1921, a pamphlet with the name of “Committee for Truth and Justice” proclaiming that the Bukharan Republic was being governed by “a company of thieves and traitors” who were addicted to prostitutes and alcohol. This culminated into a putsch that briefly placed members of Xo’jayev’s administration under arrest. Xo’jayev fled to Kagan and the Soviets sent in armored cars to crush the rebellion and the rebels fled to Samarkand.

People loyal to Xo’jayev wanted to oust Muhiddinov from the presidency of the Revkom, but the Soviets convinced them not to. The Soviets found Fayzulla more favorable because of his local support, his businesslike attitude, and he was a Russophile, while Muhiddinov was considered to be politically weak, more difficult to deal with, a nationalist, pan-Islamist, and Russophobe. It seems they kept him around so they could take advantage of the rivalry between Muhiddinov and Xo’jayev.

While Xo’jayev was reliant on the Soviets for power, he consistently tried to maximize his independence and the independence of his government. He argued in 1921 that

“while it is impossible, of course, to deny that the work of our organization has many defects, we should not be judged too harshly for them. Soviet Russia, having far greater forces at its command, is also not in a position to organize everything all at once…We know very well that any obstinacy on our part or coercive measures on yours [to force the pace of change in Bukhara] will be fraught with pernicious consequences.”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg 141

He threatened the revolution in the East and argued that the reason for the weakness of his government was because the people didn’t have their own sovereignty. He argues that

“In order to strengthen a sense among the masses of the independence and the complete liberation of Bukhara it is necessary for the Russian Government to broadly demonstrate its attitude in Bukhara, proclaiming publicly Bukhara’s complete independence and the inviolability of its sovereign rights.”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, Pg 141


All of this social and political change was occurring during economic devastation. The war ruined cotton cultivation, destroyed the irrigation networks, and whole districts were now ghost towns. Russia was also in the midst of its own economic devastation and famine and needed Central Asia’s resources to survive. Starvation and political stability forced Communist ideals of decolonization and anti-imperialism to the back burner in Central Asia.

BNSR Economic Interests

Economically, the Bukharan Soviet People’s Republic focused on the importance of collecting taxes properly and effectively. They argued that:

“The incorrect policies of the emir had left our state among the most backward in the world in terms of science and technology, industry, agriculture, or commerce. As a result, today two percent of our people can read and write, and the remaining 98 percent cannot, and as a result are completely ignorant of the world. Because our commerce was based on old principles, there is no real commerce in our state. Instead, our merchants have become middlemen between Russian merchants and our peasants, i.e., our commerce sells the wealth of the peasant to other countries…[and] all the profits from the commerce go to other countries…It is well known that a state that is unable to find the proper path of commerce cannot have industry either.”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg. 130

The Young Bukharans were not interested in class warfare or redistributing wealth from the rich. The most they did was expropriate the property of the emir and those who went into exile with him and grab control over the waqf property, but that was all.

In 1923, the Sredazburo tried to harmonize the economies and currencies of the three republics, Xo’jaev resisted. He believed that the unification of the economies of the three republics would rob the republics of their own sovereignty. He wrote

“We are against one principle ­­­— that of the unification of the Central Asian republics. If you take that off the table we will go along with your proposition” .

(Adeeb Khalid Making Uzbekistan pg. 142)

He fought hard for Bukhara to retain its own currency and complained when Soviet officials who managed Bukhara’s border with Afghanistan arrested one of Bukhara’s customs officials. None of his efforts achieve much, but that didn’t stop him from trying to assert Bukhara’s independence.

Cotton Is King

One of the Soviets goals was to reinvigorate the cotton industry. As of 1920, the cotton industry had collapsed on itself because of war, famine, ruined irrigation, the disappearance of buyers, and the Tashkent Soviet’s decision to nationalize cotton. The Soviets used a labor tax to repair the irrigation system, replaced requisitioning with a cash tax, and implemented Lenin’s New Economic Plan in Central Asia.

In 1921, the Soviets created the Main Cotton Committee which was charged with buying up the entire cotton harvest in the USSR, supply it to textile mills (which were mostly in Russia), organize credits for growers, and maintain the irrigation system. It also got involved in the grain industry, since grain is how they paid the farmers to grow cotton.

The Main Cotton Committee’s myopic focus on cotton angered many of the local leaders and even caused tension with the Central Asian Bureau who were trying to implement a policy of Korenizatsiia — proving that Soviet rule was different from Tsarist rule by incorporating the people into the Communist system. However this was an expensive policy as it requiring educating the local population not only in Communist thought, but teaching them the basic skills they would need to work in different administrative capacities as well as teaching Non-Central Asian communists the local languages in order to communicate with their Central Asian counterparts.

Additionally there was already a skilled Russian minority living in Central Asia who felt they should be given these opportunities instead of the locals. In 1927, a group of unemployed Russians shouted at the Korenizatsiia commission

“Russians fought and won freedom for you devils, and now you say Uzbeks are the masters in Uzbekistan. There will come a time when we will show you. We’ll beat the hell out of all of you.”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg. 187

In 1925, the Central Asian Bureau was forced to create an economic plan that accounted for shipping grain into Central Asia so the people of Central Asia could focus on producing cotton. The Main Cotton Committee indexed the price of cotton to the price of grain so that one pood of cotton bought 2.5 poods of grain, but Risqulov argued that it barely covered the costs of production. Instead, the Soviets should pay Central Asia world prices for its cotton – which the Soviet refused to do.

Local leaders, like Fayzulla Xo’jayev, wanted to bring industry to the region. In 1925, he announced that

“our current policy…is we will establish new factories only in places that produce raw material for the industry i.e. we want to avoid the economic awkwardness of sending cotton thousands of miles away at great expense to have it processed in Moscow, and then to have the finished product brought back here”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan pg. 160

This went against Soviet interests who wanted each region to have their specialties that could by brought together by the center and so Central Asia remained an agricultural focused economy, one the Soviets could exploit as they wished.

In the end, economic considerations and the ability to “trust” fellow Europeans versus Central Asians would always come first, exasperating existing tensions between the non-Central Asian Communists and the Local leaders. This led to great disenchantment with many Central Asian communists and local leaders.


Secret Society Milliy Ittihod

Between the destruction of the city of Bukhara and Xo’jayev’s failed attempts to win some autonomy from the Soviets, several Young Bukharans began to search for another way to govern beyond the Soviet’s control. This discontentment with the overall situation turned into an explosive situation when Bashkir nationalist, Zeki Togan Velidi arrived in Bukhara and created his own secret society.

Bashkir Nationalist: Zeki Togan Velidi

Zeki spent most of his young academic life in Kazan and Ufa and during the revolution he became the president of the former Bashkir Republic. He sided first with the Whites and then switched sides but grew fed up with the Bolsheviks because of their controlling nature. He even sent a letter to Stalin and Lenin complaining about their “colonial” policy to the East and demanded that they stop persecuting national intellectuals, consider locals as candidates for Soviet positions, and allow greater local involvement in the organization of Soviet power and party in the Bukharan republic. Stalin and Lenin ignore the letter and Velidi broke from the Bolsheviks.

He traveled to Bukhara and, in April 1921, he and several members of the Bukharan government created the Union of National Popular Muslim Organizations of Central Asia also known as Milliy Ittihod. This secret society’s goal was to secure the “independence” of Turkestan (which consisted of Turkestan, Bukhara, Khiva, the Kazakh Republic, and areas of Bashkir) and place its destiny in the hand of “Turkestanis” with freedom of religion and the separation of state and religion. They wanted Turkestan to have its own economy and army and direct access to European education without going through Russia.

There seems to have been another version of the goal crafted by the members who still believed in Communism, but still wanted greater autonomy. Their demands were similar, but the main difference was that they wanted full autonomy of the Eastern soviet republics united as a federation while remaining within the Communist framework. They wanted broad national rights, the withdrawal of all Russian troops except for the borders of the federation, their own national army, and a new government led by Milliy Ittihod.

This differences between goals illustrate that some people wanted to maximize their independence from Soviet control while others wanted to create a pan-Central Asian platform.

Milliy Ittihod was led by a Central Committee and held period congresses to tackle big questions. The Soviets feared this secret society and would later used its existence to send many Central Asians to their death during Stalin’s purge.

In terms of what Milliy Ittihod actually achieved, it doesn’t seem to be much. However, the Cheka were able to intercept several letters to other governments asking for money and support against the Russians. But since the secret society wasn’t able to infiltrate the army and their reach into government was stifled, their usefulness was limited. They existed more as a nightmare in the imaginations of the Cheka then any real threat.

The Usmon-xo’ja Route

Fayzulla’s cousin, Usmon-xo’ja took a completely different approach.

He was elected head of the Central Executive Committee of the republic in September 1921, but he defected three months later and joined an assault on the Soviet garrison at Dushanbe. During the assault, several high-level Soviet commanders were taken hostage. He called for a general war against Russia and recruited people for his army. The Soviets broke the siege, but Usmon-xo’ja escaped, fought with Enver Pasha, and after Enver died, he fled to Afghanistan before permanently immigrating to Turkey and becoming center of the Central Asian émigré community.

Economic Resistance

When physical resistance was impossible or undesirable, people resisted through the marketplaces. Many Bukharan and Turkestan markets refused Russian currency and preferred trading with Afghanistan and India. The Soviets tried to disrupt these markets because they wanted access to Central Asian goods without having to pay world market prices or compete with other buyers.

The Soviet proposed Central Asia send grain and cotton to Russia either in payment for all the money the USSR was already funneling into Central Asia or through a barter system. This was potentially life or death for Russia, because in 1921, they were in the death grip of famine, and they desperately needed the food from Central Asia. Nevermind that Central Asia was also in the middle of a famine and the Soviets didn’t seem to care.

For some fucking reason, the Soviets thought the republics would gladly subordinate its economic policies to the interest of the Soviet federation. Instead, Bukhara refused to put all of its supplies up for barter with the Soviets. A Soviet official wrote:

“During my stay in Bukhara I found a completely unexpected situation. I had expected that they will speak to me in a Communist manner, from the commonality of the interests of the two republics, but that there is not much in common is clear from the fact that the Bukharan republic has “declared private property sacred’”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg. 152

Another Soviet official complained

“As before, [Bukharan leaders] continue to sabotage us with bread and to beg for money. The more one finds out about the political lines of the various ‘Communist’ groups here, the worse it gets. They try to outdo each other in their Russophobia. They make a very good use of their own position and godlessly swindle us both politically and economically.”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg. 152

By 1923, the Basmachi were neutralized as a threat, the Soviets had been in Central Asian long enough to get a better sense of its needs and how to speak to its people, and they were seeing the sprouts of a loyal Communist cadre. They were feeling powerful enough to teach the region, especially troublesome Bukhara, it’s place.

In 1923, the Soviets forced Fayzulla to purge his own government of four ministers, including the tireless Abdurauf Fitrat. Once they were ousted, other Central Asians realized the best way to earn Soviet favors and prove they could be trusted running their own government was to attack these “disgraced” ministers and soon expanded their attacks to include Fayzulla Xo’jayev for being a nationalist. The Soviets weren’t ready to get rid of Xo’jayev or the other “nationalist” chairmen of the republics, but the purge threw ice water on the Bukharan desire for independence and taught the rest of the region the limits of their power as Communist republics.

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