For a decade the Basmachi frustrated the Soviets, popping up where they were least expected, and preventing them from establishing total control in the region. However, by 1926, the Basmachi were on their last leg. Hiding in northern Afghanistan, they faced a choice of one final assault or fading away into obscurity.

Part 1: Recovering from Enver Pasha: the 1923-1926 Campaign

When we last left the Basmachi, Enver Pasha was being Enver Pasha and led his followers into a disastrous series of frontal assaults that shattered their forces. He was then hunted down and killed by Red Army forces. Three Basmachi commanders survived Enver Pasha: Salim Pasha, Enver’s successor, Junaid Khan in the Kara-Kum Desert in Turkmenistan, and Ibrahim Bek in Tajikistan.

Enver Pasha, Courtesy of Wikicommons

Salim Pasha and Ibrahim continued fighting for the Bukharan Emir, who was now in Afghanistan, and many Basmachi fighters survived by retreating into the mountainous rural terrain, like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, or ride to and fro from Afghanistan. Salim Pasha, in 1922, rode to Afghanistan and received the Emir’s blessing for a large scale attack against Eastern Bukhara. He united several smaller Basmachi units into an army of 5,000 and targeted not only Soviet garrisons but Revkom members and local party workers. However, like Enver Pasha, Salim Pasha thought in a scale larger than his forces could manage and was surprised by the Soviet’s improved tactics and abilities.

His unified force survived from December 1922 to March 1923, when the Soviets shattered his units. He fled to Afghanistan and was later killed far from Central Asia by Kemalist secret police. While Haji Sami and Ibrahim Bek recovered from Enver Pasha’s death, Junaid Khan in Turkmenistan took the city of Khiva.

In October 1923, the Khorezm Soviet Republic made a huge mistake and declared the separation of church and state. They deprived the clergies of their responsibilities, and called for the nationalization of waqf land. The Khivans merchants and cleric begged Junaid Khan to rescue them and defend Islam. He and his Basmachi took control of the city of Khiva for a month. The Soviet’s sent a garrison to retake the city and drove his forces back into the Kara-Kum desert where Junaid Khan would remain until he fled to Iran in 1927.

Part 1A: Soviet Military Response

The Soviets took advantage of their victory by launching their own campaign in March. This campaign was led by Red Army commander and a hero of the Russian Civil War, Pavel Andreevich Pavlov. Pavlov had three objectives which proved devastating to the Basmachi:

  1. Focus all attacks on the Basmachi base of operations instead of chasing them around the region. These three bases were: the mountainous stronghold of Matcha, the Lokai and Gissar Valleys in the south, and mountainous Garm in the east. These three areas would be attacked simultaneously so the Basmachi couldn’t flee into each other’s territories either for safety or to assist each other.
  2. Increase his forces until they are strong enough to meet the task. Moscow granted his request for more support and by 1923 he had 5,832 men with 222 machine-guns and artillery pieces in Eastern Bukhara.
  3. Severe the cord tying the cavalry to the infantry. Normally cavalry was used to protect the infantry and ride forward just enough to find the Basmachi or lead them into an ambush. Pavlov freed the cavalry so they could operate again as an independent force, allowing them greater independence and freedom of movement.

Pavlov’s methods proved successful in March 1923 when they took Matcha, a previously impossible objective for the Soviets. He succeeded because he ensured that all supplies were available when needed. His machine guns and artillery were assigned to pack trains and supplies were stockpiled on the Samarkand-Pendzhikent line in advance, far away enough to be protected, by close enough for supplies to be sent where they were needed. He also utilized local volunteers to serve as scouts, interpreters, and engineer labor.

Garm fell shortly afterwards on July 29th after a twelve-hour battle. Fuzail Maksum, the Basmachi in charge of the forces around Garm, fled to Afghanistan with a slight wound on August 12th.

The Gissar-Lokai valley continued to prove difficult to subdue, but as long as Salim Pasha remained in the region, the Soviets were able to exploit the rivalry between him and Ibrahim Bek, to the detriment of both of their forces.

Part 1B: The Soviet Political, Economic, and Social Response

By 1923, the Soviets realized they couldn’t break the Basmachi with military might alone. They needed to respond on the political, economic, and social front as well. To that end, the Soviets flooded the rural areas with Cheka or OGPU agents to flush out collaborators and convert supporters of the Basmachi to their cause. These conversions or alliances were heavily publicized affairs and often took place in open air demonstrations where Soviets and local actors alike gave big speeches in front of a large gathering, publicly professing their new alliance and friendship with one another. These speeches can’t be taken at face value and even one Soviet claimed:

“Of course, one could not trust the sincerity of the bais who welcomed the Soviet power and land reform. Still, their speeches showed that bais realized their powerlessness.”

Botakoz Kassymbekova Despite Cultures, pg. 21

 One particularly painful conversion was of Ibrahim Bek’s own people the Lokai in December 1923. To add more salt to the wound, the Soviets also recruited a 60-man cavalry detachment of Lokai people to hunt Ibrahim.

The assimilation of local leaders also extended to the Basmachi leaders themselves. A perfect example of this behavior is Ishniiaz Iunusov. Iunusov fought against the Red Army as a Basmachi leader but was later hired as the head of Soviet Muslim voluntary detachment to fight against the Basmachi. During the Basmachi campaigns he won two Red Banner medals and eventually became a member of the Communist party. He was then named head of the Administration Department and commander of the Voluntary Detachment. A Soviet report about his abilities read:

“His authority was based on his Soviet position and his Soviet distinctions. As the head of the Administration Department and Voluntary Detachment, he thought of himself as the absolute master. He formed his detachment as he wished, from his close people and from 30 members of his detachment; six of them were bais and kulaks… “Not a single arrest of a disenfranchised or bai in the region evaded him. In all cases he took the arrested out on bail and tried to help him. He even participated in illegal searches, arrests, and extrajudicial shootings”

Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures, pg. 31-33

Economically, the Soviets implemented the food for cotton plan, which forbade farmers from planting anything but cotton in exchange for food. This meant that the Basmachi could no longer raid fields and had to extort food from their own supporters. Tajikistan was already experiencing mass starvation and hoarding food was seen as anti-Soviet behavior. Soviets, fearful that if food was being reserved it was for the Basmachi, often confiscated desperately needed food, leaving the locals at the mercy of their neighbors and whatever social programs the Tajik government was able to implement. While people feared the Basmachi, they also blamed the Soviets for the lack of food. One Tajik citizen complained:

“The government knows that Ura-Tiube region is full of Basmachi and that we suffer [first] from their treatment of us; second, we suffer from high prices; third, from expense for the Red Army soldiers who are defending us from Basmachi…People run away to the mountains when they see the Red Army soldiers. If grain costs five rubles on the market, the Red Army pays only 1 ruble 40 kopeks. There are many deficiencies here; if some commissions would come and investigate things thoroughly, they would find a lot of material”

Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures pg. 35

The lack of food not only put a strain on the Basmachi’s relationship with the locals, but also put pressure on Basmachi commanders to prevent their soldiers from deserting because of starvation and dwindling prospects of success. The Soviets took advance of this tension by issuing promises of amnesty.

On March 15th, 1925, the Tajikistan government promised to free all sentenced people who were imprisoned for under two years or had already completed at least half of their sentence. They also promised to shorten current incarceration periods by 1/3. They offer full amnesty and immunity to existing fighters if they surrendered between March 15th and June 15th, 1925. They proclaimed:

“On this great day for Tajikistan…the Revolutionary Committee aims to return to peaceful work those workers and peasants who committed crimes due to their darkness and ignorance, under the influence of emir and tsarist officials. We wish to give them a chance to redeem their guilt before the rule of workers and peasants.”

Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures, pg. 23

Of course, the Basmachi had to surrender their arms, rat out their collaborators, and publicly denounce their crimes. While the Soviets believed that if the state pardoned you, you wouldn’t forget it and would feel beholden to the state, there were more practical reasons to grant mass amnesty. The Soviet state wasn’t strong enough in Tajikistan to hold everyone in prisons. Some prisons were already holding 300% percent over their mass capacity. They didn’t have enough guards or food to feed the prison population.

Despite their promises the first few years of Tajikistan’s existence were filled with more executions of Basmachis than amnesties. Again, this is because of limited state capacity in Tajikistan. The high court didn’t exist outside of a couple of tables, which traveled with the judge, revolutionary committee members, and political police under red army guard.

Because they didn’t have the resources, manpower, or institutional support, many judges realized that the best way to handle the Basmachi was with quick show trials and executions. It also worked as a semi-military strategy in the Soviet’s battle over the territory. One judge wrote:

“Basmachi resistance demanded quick show trials and strict justice…delay of an execution, not to mention the revision of capital punishment, would undermine all our efforts in the fight against the Basmachi…During this month we heard 70 cases, 45 of whose defendants were sentenced to death.” (pg. 25, Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures).

Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures, pg. 25

Not all Basmachi were lucky enough to have a show trial. Many were killed in gunfights or extrajudicial killings. Between 1925 and 1926 the OGPU shot 208 Basmachi supporters. From March 1925 to September 1925, the Red Army killed 48 Basmachi leaders and 1,423 Basmachi soldiers.

However, the Soviet’s ability to kill its enemies depended on cooperation from local leaders and this wasn’t always forth coming. Many officials prevented trials or executions by not supplying translators, juries, or public defenders. However, this came at great risk to the people who delayed the trials. Many were executed as well.

The violence alienated people and the amnesties lost their appeal when it became clear that those who surrendered were left hungry, homeless, and destitute. Add clan disputes and personal rivalries and there were many reasons for Basmachi to switch sides. Abdukarim explained why he collaborated with the Soviets and then abandoned them as follows:

“At the beginning I was a Basmachi, and from your side many good words were said, so we surrendered and gave up our guns and sat calmly in our houses. But all your talk turned out to be a lie since we did not know what your rule was about, [your rule] actually made us Basmachi. The reason is that among us there are many bad people and each of us has many enemies, and so these bastards give you information that one or another person has weapons. You arrest these people only on the basis of their words without asking people themselves. This is the only reason we became Basmachi again”

Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures, pg. 34

He complained to a Soviet commander that:

“Mirza Abul Khan worked for your rule so hard, but he did not receive any salary for eleven months. But today, Imam Ali Mukhat, the messenger who is unrighteous – does not accept Shariat—informed us that he has two three-line rifles, two sabers, one Berdan rifle, and one revolver.”

Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures, pg. 34

He wrote:

“If [Soviet rule was just] in reality, it would not intervene in every person’s business for the past two or three years; I mean Basmachi resistance would have ceased to exist in the past two or three years…We have nothing but Allah and the Prophet. We have no guns, no finances, no soldiers to wage war, but because of fear for our lives, we run around without having any relation to your workers nor to your business… I swear by Allah and his Prophet that your rule made us Basmachi.”

Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures, pg. 37

If the Soviets thought it was impossible to find loyal cadre in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Tajikistan made them want to tear their hair out. Il’iutko, a Soviet representative in Tajikistan, wrote:

“The Shurabad Revolutionary Committee was formed from the following people: the chair – Abdul Rashid, a bai from the tribe Isan Hoja; his deputy was Abdul Kaim, a bai from the Badra Ogly tribe; kazis [judges] from Isan Hoja; one representative from the Badra Ogly tribe; and a representative from the Red Army. Abdul Rashid bai was appointed as chair with the following reasoning; the leading organs of East Bukhara thought this appointment would appeal to Abdul Rashid’s self-esteem, as he had fought against Ibrahim Bek for a long time and would encourage him to fight against Basmachi with full energy and responsibility. But our hopes were not borne out; he supported the Basmachi”

Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures, pg. 29

The Soviets ran into issues trying to punish the leaders they were collaborating with. Many times, Tajik citizens would try to defend their local leaders one Soviet commander wrote:

“If a leader was arrested, people went to great lengths to get him out of jail, certifying their work against the Basmachi”

Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures, pg. 31

Yet not all local leaders supported the Basmachi. Many found a way to fit within the Soviet order. Maksum Abdullaev, a Soviet Muslim, wrote:

“When in 1924 Ibragim Bek wrote me that if I joined him he would make me bek of Kuliab, I answered that Soviet rule had already made me a bek. Soviet rule is strong, but you are an outlaw”

Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures, pg 41

Part 1C: Ibrahim Bek’s Counter-Offensive

By September 1923, Ibrahim Bek was the last Basmachi commander standing in Eastern Bukhara, and he retained enough strength to launch a counter-attack. Ibrahim Bek attacked a garrison at Naryn at the moment of Soviet recruitment turnover – assuming this meant that the number of inexperience soldiers would be high. However, the recruits held until reinforcements could arrive and they drove Ibrahim Bek back, Soviets claiming they killed 117 Basmachi commanders and 1565 soldiers.

Ibrahim Bek, Courtesy of Wikicommons

The Soviets sent forces to occupy the land of Urta-Tugai on the Soviet-Afghan border making it harder for the Basmachi to slip to and fro. Pavlov worked hard to rip the roots of support out from underneath the Basmachi, effectively hurting their supplies and support.

In 1926, the Soviets achieved what they thought was the final victory against the Basmachi. In March 1926, Red Army commander Semen Mikhailovich Budenny led an all-out assault against Ibrahim’s remaining forces. Relying on Frunze’s tactics of flying columns and implementation of garrisons in key locations to cut Basmachi forces off from their supports, Budenny planned to beat Ibrahim Bek into submission. Because of Budenny’s tactics, Ibrahim Bek’s forces faced the choice of starving to death in the mountains while being hunted down by the Soviet flying columns or die making a last stand against the Red Army within the Gissar and Lokai valleys. An interesting development was the introduction of heliograph stations and a permanent mobile field staff in the region. Radio wasn’t available in 1926, but by using strategically placed heliograph stations, Soviet forces to warn units of approaching Basmachi, robbing the guerrilla soldiers of the element of surprise.

Ibrahim Bek held on until the Soviets took 1,500 sheep belonging to Ibrahim. Without this desperately needed food source, Ibrahim was forced to flee into Afghanistan, ending the Basmachi threaten in Eastern Bukhara.

Part II: Political Turmoil in Afghanistan and Tajikistan

One of the reasons the Soviets were able to defeat the Basmachi was the ability to win over the support of the local peoples via increased access to food and land, alleviating any fears that Communism would sweep away long held traditions and Islam, and forcing the Basmachi to hurt their own supporters while looking for supplies. However, by 1927, the Soviets had shot themselves in the foot by implementing increasingly unpopular measures such as the hujum, the unveiling and liberation of women, the ending of the Islamic courts, the further reduction of waqf lands, and the increased secularization of education (much of which was facilitated by the creation of nation-states, which we discussed last episode). Worse, maybe, was the forced collectivization and the forced settlement of the nomadic populations. The campaign started in 1929 and inspired a new wave of anti-religious fervor amongst the Soviets. When the Soviets weren’t forcing nomadic people to settle, they were closing mosques and madrasas and arresting clerics. Collectivization nationalized all land and forcefully resettled nomadic and semi-nomadic and rural populations as the Soviets saw fit. It would have tragic consequences in Kazakhstan and in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan it provided the spark for one last hurrah for the Basmachi.

            After pushing the Basmachi into Afghanistan, the Soviets had a hard time keeping them in Afghanistan. In 1927, one OGPU officer wrote:

“The border is not secured; we have no guns or people to guard it; the militia is drunken and amoral. It is impossible to guard the border; it is impossible to stop Basmachi groups [and] to prevent damage to agricultural campaigns”

Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures, pg. 55

It is easy to overstate the threat Bukharan Emir Muhammad Alim Khan presented to the Soviet Union. He had been staying in Afghanistan since his ouster in 1921 and so much had happened in the region since he fled. Even if people wanted him to return at one point, that desire had disappeared a while ago except for the most diehard of emirists. Still, he was able to provide some support to Ibrahim Bek and the Basmachi who fled to Afghanistan. Ibrahim used the time in Afghanistan to extort money from the Bukharan refugees who had settled in Afghanistan and to restructure his command. He centralized his command granting him a better understanding of what his supplies looked like and how many men he actually had. He also improved communications between his men in the field and himself and himself and the emir.

Despite signing a treaty of neutrality and non-aggression in 1921, the Afghan government had always tolerated the Basmachi. This became a problem in 1924 when northern Afghanistan underwent a power struggle. Ibrahim took advantage and made camp in Urta-Tugai island. The Soviets were so freaked out, they invaded Afghan territory in 1925. Now Urta-Tugai had an Afghan garrison that had mostly turned a blind eye to the Basmachi. When the Soviets invaded, they actually disarmed and occupied the Afghan garrison.

            This scared the Afghan government, prompting them to sign another treaty of neutrality and non-aggression. A year later a popular uprising would make the treaty void and end any attempts to push the Basmachi out of northern Afghanistan.

            The Basmachi would take advantage of the political turmoil in Afghanistan and in spring 1929, the Bukharan Emir called together the remaining Basmachi to him. He issued a decree placing leadership of the remaining forces under Ibrahim Bek’s command with the intention of invading Tajikistan and reclaiming it from the Soviets.

Part III: The Resurrection: the 1929 Campaign

In spring 1929, the Basmachi tested the units stationed on the Soviet-Afghan border and in April, Fuzail Maksum of Garm slipped across the border with fifteen men to connect with supporters in Eastern Tajikistan. His purpose was to raise local support and recruit and prepare for the arrival of Ibrahim Bek with the main Basmachi force. Maksum raised two hundred men and led several attacks against Garm, achieving several minor victories.

The overall Soviet Commander in Central Asia, General P. E. Dybenko, issued several emergency measures to address the growing threat. He ordered the raising of local self-defense units in Eastern Tajikistan and increased the local political work. He even tried to manipulate the local antagonisms within the population to defeat the movement, believing that the many cattle-breeders of the region would hate the Basmachi for their requisitioning efforts. Despite these efforts to engage with the local actors, the main Soviet strategy was still military in nature. The Russians countered Basmachi hit-and-run tactics by establishing militarized zones and used artillery and air raids to destroy villages suspected of collaborating with the Basmachi. The Cheka arrested and deported 270,000 Turkestanis suspected of collaborating with the Basmachi. During the Red Army’s occupation, they burnt Dushanbe, Andijan, and Namangan to the ground and damaged several other villages. In total 1200 villages were burnt to the ground.

Fuzail Maksum’s force of now 800 men led an attack against the city of Garm and then the neighboring airfield. The Soviets defended the airfield with 16 men waiting for reinforcements that would arrive by air and a seventy-five men cavalry regiment. Five airplanes arrived at 6:00 am on April 23rd, 1929, unloading 40 men, carrying machine-guns and ammunition. Fuzail Maksum’s forces fled, abandoning Garm. On May 3rd, badly wounded Maksum returned to Afghanistan.

Part 3A Afghanistan’s Problem

The Soviet’s retaliated against the Garm region hard and fast. They set up special OGPU campaigns to ferret out the people who supported Maksum, holding special tribunals and several people were executed. Despite these setbacks, Ibrahim Bek’s forces were able to cross the Afghan-Soviet border with ease.

The Soviets grew so concerned over these incursions that they seriously considered an invasion of Afghanistan to place a puppet government on the throne. They even sent a force of 800-1200 Red Army soldiers dressed as Afghans in support of one of the Afghans vying for leadership, but had to retreat when they were stopped by the Afghan army and their candidate abdicated. The situation in Afghanistan stabilized and the new government under Nadir Khan left the Basmachi alone. However, the Soviets gave up on diplomacy and started to chase the Basmachi across Afghanistan’s border, sometimes crossing 40 miles into the country before withdrawing. Nadir Khan was forced to act, and he dispatched Sardar Shah Mahmud the Afghan army’s commander-in-chief to deal with the Basmachi problem. He also started negotiations with the Soviets to renew the 1926 treaty of neutrality and non-aggression.

General Mahmud demanded the Basmachi disband, and Ibrahim Bek replied by saying he was going to unite with the Uzbeks and Tajiks in northern Afghanistan and create a nationalistic Uzbek-Tajik government independent of Afghan Control. In December 1930, Mahmud entered the northern territory. Through the spring of 1931, he led a large-scale campaign against Ibrahim Bek and reclaimed several major cities but could never capture Ibrahim Bek himself. Instead, on March 1931, they offered Ibrahim Bek to incorporate his forces into the Afghan army. He refused and in April 1931, he led 800 men into Tajikistan for a final invasion. In total, he had a command of 2000 men.

He swept into Tajikistan armed with reliable intelligence and the momentum of a sudden invasion. He executed pro-Soviet officials and locals, blew up several warehouses, state farms, and railway lines. The people of Tajikistan initially supported his uprising but grew disenchanted with his discounted political and ideological ideas. Trying to rally people around an Emir that had been deposed for about a decade and the return of feudalism held little appeal to most people. Too much had changed to go back to the old ways and Ibrahim Bek had been too disconnected from his people to fully understand what they wanted.

Anyone who tried to join him from Afghanistan ran into Soviet patrols and suffered severe losses. The Soviets created a special unit of OGPU, local volunteers, and Komsomol members to hunt Ibrahim Bek down. In May, the Red Army offered amnesty to any Basmachi members who surrendered causing 12 leaders and 653 men to abandon the Basmachi ranks. Ibrahim Bek was left with only fifteen men in the foothills of Baba-Tag avoiding assassination attempts and betrayals. On June 23, 1931, while attempting to cross the Kafirnigan river, he was betrayed by locals, and captured by Soviet forces. He was sent to Tashkent and executed, officially ending the Basmachi guerilla movement.


Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode. You can listen to my full catalogue on Spotify, iTunes, and my website Please join my Patreon at to keep up to date on all my projects. Until next time wear a mask, organize with your community, and stay safe.


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

Despite Cultures: Early Soviet Rule in Tajikistan by Botakoz Kassymbekova

“Frunze and the development of Soviet counter-insurgency in Central Asia” by Alexander Marshall in Central Asia: Aspects of Transition by Tom Everett-Heath

“The Final Phase of Liquidation of the Anti-Soviet Resistance in Tadzhikistan: Ibrahim Bek and the Basmachi, 1924-1931” by William S. Ritter

“The Basmachi or Freeman’s Revolt in Turkestan 1918-1924” by Martha B. Olcott

Russian-Soviet Unconventional Wars in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Afghanistan by Robert F. Baumann


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