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Basmachi movement
Part of World War I and the Russian Civil War
LocationRussian Turkestan
Result Soviet victory
 Russian Empire (1916-1917)
Russian Republic (1917)
 Russian SFSR
Flag of Turkestan ASSR 1919-1921.svg Turkestan ASSR

Khorezm SSR
Bukharan PSR

 Soviet Union (from December 30, 1922[1])

Basmachi rebels

Flag of the Emirate of Bukhara.svg Emirate of Bukhara
Bandera de Khiva 1917-1920.svg Khiva
Commanders and leaders
Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Mikhail Frunze
Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Magaza Masanchi
Fayzulla Khodzhayev

Enver Pasha

Irgash Bay
Madamin Bay
Junaid Khan
Flag of the Emirate of Bukhara.svg Mohammed Alim Khan
120,000-160,000[2] Perhaps 30,000 at its height
Casualties and losses
Officially 516 killed and 925 wounded[3] Unknown

The Basmachi movement (Russian: Басмачество, Basmachestvo) or Basmachi Revolt was an uprising against Russian Imperial and Soviet rule by the Muslim, largely Turkic peoples of Central Asia. The movement's roots lay in the 1916 violence that erupted over conscription of Muslims by the Russian Empire for service in World War I.[4] In the months following the October 1917 Revolution, renewed violence developed into a major uprising centered in the Ferghana Valley, soon spreading across all of Soviet Turkestan. Guerrilla and conventional warfare lasted for years in various regions, and the violence was both anti-Soviet and anti-Russian. After major Red Army campaigns and concessions regarding economic and Islamic practices in the mid-1920s, the military fortunes and popular support of the Basmachi declined.[5] Although resistance flared up again in response to collectivization,[6] the Sovietization of Central Asia proceeded apace and the struggle ended.


The pattern for resistance to Russian rule was set by the ethnic violence of the 1916 uprising. After the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and the Russian Civil War began, Turkestani Muslim political movements attempted to cooperate with the Bolshevik Tashkent Soviet, forming the Kokand Autonomous Government in the Ferghana Valley. The Bolsheviks launched an assault on Kokand and carried out a general massacre, sparking an uprising that seized control of Ferghana and much of Turkestan. Basmachi movements also experienced success in Khiva and Bokhara when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Muslim regimes there. The fortunes of the decentralized movement fluctuated throughout the early 1920s, based on whether the Soviets were offering religious and economic concessions or were provoking the populace with harsh policies. A former Turkish general Enver Pasha joined the Basmachi and led the movement at its height. He was killed in battle, however, and extensive campaigns by veteran Red Army units dealt the Basmachi many defeats. A round of more serious religious concessions started to win over the war-weary population and the Basmachi movement eventually withered away.

Character of the movement

The Basmachi movement was a national liberation movement[7] that sought to end foreign rule over the Central Asian territories then known as Turkestan, and also the protectorates of Khiva and Bokhara. "Basmach" is a Turkic word which refers to a bandit or marauder, such as the bands of thieves that preyed on caravans in the region.[8] The term Basmachi was often used in Soviet sources because of its pejorative meaning.[9]

The Soviets portrayed the movement as being composed of brigands motivated by Islamic fundamentalism, waging a counterrevolutionary war with the support of British agents.[10] In reality, the Basmachi were a diverse and multi-faceted that received negligible foreign aid. The Basmachi were not viewed favorably by Western Powers, who saw the Basmachi as potential enemies due to the Pan-Turkist or Pan-Islamist ideologies of some of their leaders. However, some Basmachi groups received support from British and Turkish intelligence services and in order to cut off this outside help, special military detachments of the Red Army masqueraded as Basmachi forces and successfully intercepted supplies. Although many fighters were motivated by calls for jihad,[11] the Basmachi drew support from many ideological camps and major sectors of the population. At some point or another the Basmachi attracted the support of Jadid reformers, pan-Turkic ideologues and leftist Turkestani nationalists.[12] Peasants and nomads, long opposed to Russian colonial rule, reacted with hostility to anti-Islamic policies and Soviet requisitioning of food and livestock. The fact that Bolshevism in Turkestan was dominated by Russian colonists in Tashkent[13] made Tsarist and Soviet rule appear identical. The ranks of the Basmachi were filled with those left jobless by poor economic conditions, and those who felt that they were opposing an attack on their way of life.[14] The first Basmachi fighters were bandits, as their name suggests, and they reverted to brigandage as the movement fizzled later on.[15] Although the Basmachi were relatively united at certain points, the movement suffered from atomization overall. Rivalry between various leaders and more serious ethnic disputes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks or Turkmen posed major problems to the movement.

Economic and historical background

Russian Turkestan was ruled from Tashkent as a Krai or Governor-Generalship. To the east of Tashkent, the Ferghana Valley was an ethnically diverse, densely-populated region that was divided between settled farmers (often called Sarts) and nomads (mostly Kyrgyz). Under Russian rule, it was converted to a major cotton-growing region.[16] The resulting economic development brought some small-scale industry to the region, but the native shop workers were worse off than their Russian counterparts, and the new wealth from cotton was spread very unevenly. On the whole, living standards did not improve, and many farmers became indebted.[17]

Cotton price fixing during the First World War made matters worse, and a large, landless rural proletariat soon developed. Muslim clergy decried the gambling and alcoholism that became commonplace, and crime rose considerably.[18] Many criminals organized into bands, forming the basis for the early Basmachi movement when it began in the Ferghana Valley.[19]

Origins of the conflict

Major violence in Russian Turkestan broke out in 1916, when the Tsarist government ended its exemption of Muslims from military service. The result was a general revolt, centered in modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which was only put down by martial law. Tensions between Central Asians (especially Kazakhs) and Russian settlers led to large-scale massacres on both sides. Thousands died, and hundreds of thousands more fled, often into neighboring Republic of China.[20] The 1916 rebellion was the first anti-Russian incident on a mass scale in Central Asia, and it set the stage for native resistance after the fall of Tsar Nicholas II in the following year.[21]

The Kokand autonomy and the start of hostilities

In the aftermath of the February Revolution, Muslim political forces began to organize. Members of the All-Russian Muslim council formed the Shura-i Islam (Islamic Council), a Jadidist body that sought a federated, democratic state with autonomy for Muslims.[22] More conservative religious scholars formed the Ulema Jemyeti (Board of Learned Men), more concerned with safeguarding Islamic institutions and Sharia law. Together, these Muslim nationalists formed a coalition, but this fell apart after the October Revolution, when the Jadids lent their support to the Bolsheviks who had seized power. The Tashkent Soviet of Soldiers' and Workers' Deputies, an organization dominated by Russian railway workers and colonial proletarians, rejected Muslim participation in government. Stung by this apparent reaffirmation of colonial rule, the Shura-i Islam reunited with Ulema Jemyeti to form the Kokand Autonomous Government. This was to be the nucleus of an autonomous[23] state in Turkestan, governed by Sharia law.[24]

The Tashkent Soviet initially recognized the authority of Kokand, but restricted its jurisdiction to the Muslim old section of Tashkent, and demanded the final say in regional affairs. After violent riots in Tashkent, relations broke down, and despite the leftist leanings of many of its members, Kokand aligned itself with the Whites.[25] Politically and militarily weak, the Muslim government began looking around for protection. To this end, a band of armed robbers led by Irgash Bay were amnestied and recruited to defend Kokand.[23] This force, however, was unable to resist an attack on Kokand by the forces of the Tashkent Soviet. Red Army soldiers and Armenian Dashnaks thoroughly pillaged Kokand, carrying out what was described as a "pogrom,"[26] in which as many as 14,000 people died.[27] This massacre, along with the execution of many Ferghana peasants who were suspected of hording cotton and food, incensed the Muslim population. Irgash Bay took up arms against the Soviets, declaring himself "Supreme Leader of the Islamic Army," and the Basmachi rebellion started in earnest.[28]

Meanwhile, Soviet troops temporarily deposed Emir Sayeed Alim Khan of Bokhara in favor of the leftist Young Bokharans faction led by Faizullah Khojaev. Russian troops were repulsed by the populace after a period of looting, and the Emir retained his throne for the moment.[29] In the Khanate of Khiva, Basmachi leader Junaid Khan overthrew the Russian puppet and suppressed the modernizing movement of the leftist Young Khivans.[30]

First phase of the revolt in the Ferghana Valley

Irgash's claims to leadership of an army of the faithful won recognition by the clergy of the Ferghana Valley, and he soon controlled a sizable fighting force. Widespread nationalization campaigns carried out from Tashkent had caused economic collapse, and the Ferghana Valley faced famine in absence of grain imports. All these factors drove people to join the Basmachi. The Tashkent Soviet was unable to contain the insurgency, and the end of 1918 decentralized bands of fighters, totaling roughly 20,000, controlled Ferghana and the countryside surrounding Tashkent. Irgash faced rival commanders such as Madamin Bay, who was supported by more moderate Muslim factions, but he secured formal, nominal leadership of the movement at a council in March 1919.[27]

With Tashkent in a vulnerable military position, the Bolsheviks left Russian settlers to organize their own defense. This often involved brutal reprisals for Basmachi attacks by Soviet forces and Russian farmers both.[28] The harsh policies of War Communism, however, caused the peasants army to sour on the Tashkent Soviet. In May 1919, Madamin Bay formed an alliance with the settlers, entailing a non-aggression pact and a coalition army. The new allies made plans for establishing a joint Russian-Muslim state, with power sharing arrangements and cultural rights for both groups.[31][32] Disputes over the Islamic orientation of the Basmachi led to the break-up of the alliance, however, and both Madamin and the settlers suffered defeats at the hands of the Muslim Volga Tatar Red Brigade.[33] The inhabitants of the Ferghana Valley were exhausted after the punishing winter of 1919-20, and the Madamin Bay defected to the Soviet side in March.[34] Meanwhile, famine relief reached the region under the more liberal New Economic Policy, while land reform and amnesty placated Ferghana residents. s a result, the Basmachi movement lost control of most populated areas and shrank overall.

The pacification of Ferghana did not last long. During the summer of 1920 the Soviets felt secure enough to requisition food and mobilize Muslim conscripts. The result was a renewed uprising and new Basmachi groups proliferated, fueled by religious slogans.[35] Renewed conflict would see the Basmachi movement spread across Turkestan.

The Basmachi in Khiva and Bukhara

In January 1920, the Red Army captured Khiva and set up a Young Khivan provisional government. Junaid Khan fled into the desert with his followers, and the Basmachi movement in the Khworezm region was born.[36] Before the end of the year, the Soviets deposed the Young Khivans government, and the Muslim nationalists fled to join Junaid, strengthening his forces considerably.[37]

In August of that year, the Emir of Bokhara was finally deposed. From exile in Afghanistan, the Emir directed the Bokhara Basmachi movement, supported by the angry populace and clergy. Fighters operating on behalf of the Emir were under the command of Ibrahim Bay, a tribal leader.[38] Basmachi forces operated with success in both Khiva and Bokhara for an extended period. The insurgency also began spreading to Kazakhstan, as well as the Tajik and Turkmen lands.[37]

Enver Pasha and the height of the Basmachi movement

In November 1921, General İsmail Enver, former Turkish war minister, arrived in Bokhara in order to assist the Soviet war effort. Instead of doing so, he defected and became the single most important Basmachi leader, centralizing and revitalizing the movement.[38] Enver Pasha intended to create a pan-Turkic confederation encompassing all of Central Asia, as well as Anatolia and Chinese lands.[38] His call for jihad attracted much support, and he managed to transform the Basmachi guerillas into a formidable army of 16,000 men. By early 1922, a considerable part of the Bukharan People's Soviet Republic, including Samarkand and Dushanbe, was under Basmachi control. Meanwhile, Dungan Muslim Magaza Masanchi formed the Dungan Cavalry Regiment to fight for the Soviets against the Basmachi.[39]

The defeat of the movement

Now fearing the total loss of Turkestan, the Soviet authorities once again adopted a double strategy to crush the rebellion: political reconciliation and cultural concessions along with overwhelming military power. Religious concessions reinstated Sharia law, while Koran schools and waqf lands were restored.[40] Moscow sought to indigenize the fight with the creation of a volunteer militia composed of Muslim peasants, called the Red Sticks, and it is estimated that 15-25 percent of Soviet troops in this region were Muslim.[2] The Soviets primarily relied on thousands of regular Red Army troops, veterans of the Civil War, now bolstered by air support. The strategy of concessions with airstrikes was successful, and when in May 1922 Enver Pasha rejected a peace offer and issued an ultimatum demanding that all Red Army troops be withdrawn from Turkestan within fifteen days, Moscow was well prepared for a confrontation. In June 1922 Soviet units led by General Kakurin defeated the Basmachi forces in the Battle of Kafrun. The Red Army began to drive the rebels eastwards, retaking considerable territory. Enver himself was killed in a failed last-ditch cavalry charge on August 4, 1922, near Baldzhuan in present-day Tajikistan). His successor, Selim Pasha, continued the struggle but finally fled to Afghanistan in 1923.

A Basmachi presence remained in the Ferghana Valley until 1924, and fighters there were led by Kurshirmat, who had renewed the revolt in 1920. British intelligence reported[41] that Kurshirmat possessed forces of 5,000-6,000 men. After years of war, however, popular support for the Basmachi cause was drying up. Peasants wanted to return to work, especially now that Soviet policies had made Turkestan livable again. Kurshirmat's forces shrank to around 2,000, many resorting to banditry,[41] and he soon fled to Afghanistan.[15] Turkestan was at this point exhausted by war. 200,000 people had fled Tajik lands, leaving two-thirds of arable land abandoned. Lesser devastation could be observed in Ferghana.[15]

Intermittent Basmachi operations after the Soviet victory

After the Basmachi movement was destroyed as a political and military force, the fighters that remained hid in mountainous areas and conducted a guerrilla war. The Basmachi uprising had died out in most parts of Central Asia by 1926. However, skirmishes and occasional fighting along the border with Afghanistan continued until the early 1930s. Junaid Khan threatened Khiva in 1926, but was finally exiled in 1928.[15] Two prominent commanders, Faizal Maksum and Ibrahim Bay, continued to operate out of Afghanistan and conducted a number of raids into the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic in 1929. Ibrahim Bay led a brief resurgence of the movement when collectivization fueled resistance and succeeded in delaying the policy until 1931 in Turkmenistan, but he was soon caught and executed. The movement then largely died out.[42][43] In Kyrgyzstan, the last strongholds of the Basmachi were destroyed by 1934.


Indigenous leaders began to cooperate with Soviet authorities and large numbers of Central Asians joined the Soviet Communist Party under Lenin and Stalin's indigenization policy. Many gained high positions in the governments of the Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republics, formed out of the Turkestani Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. During the Sovietization of Central Asia, Islam became the focus of antireligious campaigns. The government closed most mosques, repressing Islamic cleric and targeting symbols of Islamic identity such as the veil. Uzbeks who remained practicing Muslims were deemed nationalist and often targeted for imprisonment or execution. Stalinist collectivization and industrialization proceeded as elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

In popular culture

The rebellion featured in several "Red Westerns", such as White Sun of the Desert, The Seventh Bullet and The Bodyguard.


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  13. Richard Lorenz, Economic Bases of the Basmachi Movement in the Ferghana Valley, 289.
  14. Fazal-Ur-Rahim Khan Marwat, The Basmachi Movement in Soviet Central Asia (A Study in Political Development) (Peshawar, Emjay Books International: 1985), 151.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Michael Rywkin, Moscow's Muslim Challenge, 42.
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  17. Richard Lorenz, Economic Bases of the Basmachi Movement in the Ferghana Valley, 282.
  18. Richard Lorenz, Economic Bases of the Basmachi Movement in the Ferghana Valley, 284.
  19. Richard Lorenz, Economic Bases of the Basmachi Movement in the Ferghana Valley, 285.
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  24. Martha B. Olcott, The Basmachi or Freemen's Revolt in Turkestan, 1918-24, 354.
  25. Michael Rywkin, Moscow's Muslim Challenge, 22.
  26. Richard Lorenz, Economic Bases of the Basmachi Movement in the Ferghana Valley, 291.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Martha B. Olcott, The Basmachi or Freemen's Revolt in Turkestan, 1918-24, 355.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Richard Lorenz, Economic Bases of the Basmachi Movement in the Ferghana Valley, 293.
  29. Richard Lorenz, Economic Bases of the Basmachi Movement in the Ferghana Valley, 32.
  30. Michael Rywkin, Moscow's Muslim Challenge, 24.
  31. Richard Lorenz, Economic Bases of the Basmachi Movement in the Ferghana Valley, 295.
  32. Martha B. Olcott, The Basmachi or Freemen's Revolt in Turkestan, 1918-24, 356.
  33. Michael Rywkin, Moscow's Muslim Challenge, 34.
  34. Richard Lorenz, Economic Bases of the Basmachi Movement in the Ferghana Valley, 296.
  35. Michael Rywkin, Moscow's Muslim Challenge, 35.
  36. Fazal-Ur-Rahim Khan Marwat, The Basmachi Movement in Soviet Central Asia, 160.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Michael Rywkin, Moscow's Muslim Challenge, 36.
  38. 38.0 38.1 38.2 Martha B. Olcott, The Basmachi or Freemen's Revolt in Turkestan, 1918-24, 358.
  39. Joseph L. Wieczynski (1994). The Modern encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet history, Volume 21. Academic International Press. p. 125. ISBN 0-87569-064-5.,+then+fought+against+the+Basmachi.+When+the+Civil+War+ended,+Masanchin+supposedly+held+highly+responsible+positions+for+the+Soviet+secret+police&dq=In+1921+he+attended+the+Third+Congress+of+the+Comintern,+then+fought+against+the+Basmachi.+When+the+Civil+War+ended,+Masanchin+supposedly+held+highly+responsible+positions+for+the+Soviet+secret+police&hl=en&ei=51AiTdGpAcWblgfYwrnjCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAA. Retrieved 2011-01-01. 
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